May is a busy time of year. The end of the school year is approaching quickly, which impacts the moods of students and teachers alike. As a student and a teacher, I feel double the anticipation and tension. Excitement in the natural world is also peaking this month, which provides ample opportunity for distraction and relaxation when I manage to carve out free time. Spring migration is one of the biggest seasonal events of the year, and no nature-lover wants to miss out just because they’re swamped at work.
I make it my mission to get outside and catalog wildlife every chance I get during May, and the second week of the month was a pretty successful stretch. Every day that I had an opening in my schedule, I swung by Central Park on my way home to scope out the scene. Many of my visits were brief, lasting only about an hour at a time, but the year birds kept trickling in. A 70-minute, east-to-west blitz across the whole park one evening turned up 13 warbler species, with the Turtle Pond featuring Bay-breasted, Cape May, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Wilson’s, Prairie, Parula, and Redstart along a 100-foot stretch of shoreline. Over the course of the week, my trips to the Ramble found a several new spring arrivals. I heard singing Red-eyed Vireo and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, compared the plumage differences of Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s Thrushes, and got reacquainted with Canada Warbler and Olive-sided Flycatcher. Other critter encounters included turtles, frogs, raccoons, and my first-ever Silver-haired Bat foraging over the Upper Lobe. There were plenty of responsibilities to keep me busy at the school, but the work week outings helped maintain my sanity and highlighted how impressive NYC’s natural crown jewel can be.
One of the most important days this week was Saturday, May 14th: the Cornell Lab’s Global Big Day. This worldwide event is a 24-hour citizen science effort to tally as many bird species as possible, a sort of international extension of New Jersey’s World Series of Birding. I had grad class taking a significant chunk out of my day, but I still submitted a few checklist from the spots I visited between school and my plans for the night. I heard a singing Blackpoll Warbler from my front steps when I set out in the morning, which was a great new yard bird! Madison Square Park before work and Central Park after both featured a few migrants of note, and I pulled a few more during a twilight walk at Hempstead Lake. Even though I didn’t have the time for a full outing, I was still happy to make some contributions to Cornell’s cause.
Sunday was beautifully bright, but the wind was gusting strongly with an unseasonable chill. I loaded up the car and set off on the Belt Parkway towards Jamaica Bay. My primary target here was the Barn Owl nest box, and I knew that the forecast hadn’t been favorable for an influx of new migrants. Upon arriving at the refuge, I found that the weather had worked out in my favor. A number of birds reported from the region in the previous days had apparently lingered a little longer, and the bushes and branches along the trails were alive with fluttering forms. I noticed that most of the action was concentrated in the vicinity of Big John’s Pond, so I set up shop at the observation blind and explored the surrounding area. I kept a close eye on the nest box, where a few white feathers were stuck to the wood around the entrance hole, but there was no sign of movement within. Fortunately, the migrants kept me plenty entertained while I waited for the owls to appear.
The stars of the show were the 16 warbler species I located: Bay-breasted, Cape May, Nashville, Prairie, Magnolia, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Black-and-white, Chestnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, Yellow, Yellowthroat, Parula, Northern Waterthrush, and Redstart. The birds were feeding in low foliage right around the blind throughout the day, which offered killer views and some great photo opps. There were large numbers of caterpillar tents adorning trees, a favored food source for Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which I encountered several times that morning. A hummingbird briefly visited the pond, and distinctive calls alerted me to my first of year Willow Flycatchers and Cedar Waxwings. Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers, a pair of male Wood Ducks, and a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak rounded out my sightings for the day, but my main quarry failed to show. I took my leave of the Bay to spend some quality time with the family, but I was in an owl mood and had every intention of returning.
After a tasty dinner, I drove westward once again for a second stakeout at Big John’s Pond. With the day drawing to a close, I hoped that the Barn Owls would become active for the night even though the wind and cold had kept them huddled out of sight during my previous watch. I settled in at the blind and got comfortable for the wait. Many warblers were still moving through the leafage, and there were blackbirds and wading birds picking the water’s edge for food. A roiling at the surface revealed two Snapping Turtles, aggressively squaring off for either a mating attempt or a territorial dispute. The primeval beasts crashed together and flashed their powerful jaws before parting, a trail of bubbles slinking away from the individual who remained on location.
It’s quite interesting to watch as nature changes shifts at the end of the day. Songbirds switched from active feeding to singing evening songs, joined by the calls of Spring Peepers. A wide array of species continuously passed overhead on their way to roost. I watched as a sleepy little Solitary Sandpiper began to nod off, blinking as it cozied up on the shoreline. An Osprey swooped over the pond several times, scanning for a last-minute bite before heading to its nest platform. The sun finally set, and I hung around for a while longer as the last bit of light faded. At the end of a very long, desperate vigil, I was finally able to get a glimpse of some activity when one of the Barn Owls flapped its wings inside the nest hole. Success. I packed up my gear and started down the trail in the gathering darkness. As a parting gift, the refuge graced me with one more fun moment: an American Woodcock who flushed from the trail ahead of me and took off like a twittering grapefruit. I made it back to the parking lot with a smile on my face, thankful for a fruitful day of awesome observations. Jamaica Bay, with all its wonders, is almost always a worthwhile place to visit, even when it means fighting the Belt Parkway to get there.
Note: One of these days I’ll actually get pictures of the resident owls or their young, but it’s always a pleasure to see one of these ghostly predators even fleetingly. Hopefully next time I can get a day with better weather for them to come out and play for a while.
Year List Update, May 15 – 313 Species (+ Red-eyed Vireo, Bay-breasted Warbler, Canada Warbler, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Swainson’s Thrush, Willow Flycatcher, Cedar Waxwing)