• Visitors tour Castle Williams.

    Governors Island

    National Monument New York

Birding on Governors Island with Annie Barry, January 2010

January 8, 2010
10:15am-3:30pm

27 degrees, breezy, overcast with occasional snow showers in the morning. Some bursts of sun in the afternoon, and much windier.

I came to Governors Island today to conduct a winter bird census. This was my first opportunity to find out who the island's residents are in the dead of winter. Despite cold temperatures and occasional snow showers, I had a wonderful day for birding. With only year-round personnel and construction staff on the island, I had a nice quiet day to spend scouring the Historic District. And what I found was….not much.

The Historic District was not teeming with birds today. This did not surprise me much, given the relatively open landscape. Trees and shrubbery are scattered here and there but not enough to sustain and shelter a large winter bird population. So the large flocks of robins, sparrows, juncos and other birds that I am accustomed to seeing in other New York City parks are just not present on Governors Island. At least not in the Historic District, though I suspect that the southern end of the island, with its much more open landscape and lack of habitat, is even more sparsely populated during the winter. I can only guess however, since I did not have access to that area today.

There were birds in the Historic District, just not many. A flock of about thirty juncos moved around the District throughout the day, but they were largely unaccompanied by white-throated sparrows, their customary winter flocking partners. In fact, I saw just one white-throated sparrow all day. I also spotted five cardinals, two mockingbirds, a single blue jay, three song sparrows, six crows, a female hairy woodpecker and a male downy woodpecker. Around the seawall, I counted four great black-backed gulls, a ring-billed gull and a herring gull, (reminder: I only count gulls that are not on the wing) and a double crested cormorant. And that's it. There weren't even house sparrows around Soissons Dock.

That's it…unless you count the geese, ducks and birds of prey. Winter is a great time to see all three in New York City, and today Governors Island and the surrounding New York Harbor did not disappoint. If you like Canada geese, this is the place to be in the winter. I counted at least 237 of them, but I suspect there were many more as the birds kept coming and going in large noisy flocks, and they were very difficult to count. Much quieter were the brants I spotted foraging amid the Canada geese on the western side of the glacis. I saw only nine, but there were likely more hidden among their larger cousins and floating in the waters around the island. These small geese are spending the winter in New York Harbor, thousands of miles from their breeding grounds in the high Artic tundra.*

I actually walked to the seawall expecting to find more brants on the water. Instead I found lesser scaups. Three small flocks of these diving ducks were floating off the north end of the island between Castle Williams and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel ventilation tower. At least I think they were lesser scaups, which are very hard to distinguish from the very similar greater scaup. Their size and appearance lead me to think they were lesser scaups, which, though they prefer fresh water, will spend the winter in brackish or salt water. They migrate to the northern plain states and western Canada for the breeding season, but they winter along both the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, in the southern US, and as far south as Central America.

Also off the northern shore of the island were a single male bufflehead and six gadwalls. The bufflehead is a small diving duck. The male is black and white overall with a distinctive white patch on the side of the head and a short bluish-gray bill. This little duck breeds in lakes and ponds in Canada, but winters in much of the US. Gadwalls are medium sized dabbling ducks. The female looks a lot like a female mallard, but the male is a gray bird with beautiful white, silver and cinnamon colored markings on its feathers, a black rear end, and a dark bill. Both the male and female have a distinctive white patch at the end of their wings. This group of four males and two females was dabbling for aquatic plants near the ventilation tower, not far from a flock of the scaups.

Back on land, several birds of prey were in the Historic District. I have seen a red-tailed hawk in the district on many occasions, though it has usually been an immature bird. Today I saw an adult. Perhaps it is the same bird, now sporting its adult red tail feathers. A juvenile sharp-shinned hawk perched in a tree behind Colonels Row, watching over the Parade Ground for a meal. I've never seen a sharp-shin on the island before, so this bird was a welcome sight. Even if it does tend to eat small birds…! But my most exciting sighting of all came later in the day, in Nolan Park.

Toward the end of my birding day I was walking in Nolan Park when I heard a bunch of angry crows, and figured there must be some hawk or falcon upsetting them . I followed the sound to Barry Road, behind the yellow houses on the east side of Nolan Park. There is a tall pine tree behind the two family house marked 7A and 7B, just across from the Jewish Chapel. There I found the crows, six of them, angrily harassing the sharp-shin and the red-tail, which I was thrilled to see together in one place. Neither hawk lasted long under the onslaught. Both soon flew off to the west in defeat. But the crows kept at it, cawing and diving into the branches of the tree. A closer look revealed why. There, high in the tree, seemingly unruffled by the attacking birds, sat a great horned owl.

Now this was an exciting bird to see. Great horned owls are common, being found throughout North America and in some parts of Central and South America. Great horned owls are residents of the New York area. This bird may well be a year-round resident of Governors Island. But seeing owls at all is a treat because they are nocturnal birds. Great horns, like most owls, are more often heard than seen, with their classic hooting song echoing through the night in many places. But I was seeing this bird at 3:00 in the afternoon. Perhaps it had already begun to stir awake as the short winter day was coming to a close. But the bird was very high in the tree and sitting very still, so they were hard to see through the pine boughs. I may never have seen the owl at all if it had not been for those crows. That was a good lesson, because I almost didn't go to check out what the ruckus was about! It reminded me that a birder should use all the tools at hand, even the sound of angry crows.

As a final note, I'd like to mention that the spruce trees on the north side of the glacis and the pine trees and yew trees on the west side have been removed by the National Park Service. This was done for aesthetic reasons. I make note of it because I often found a large number of birds in those trees, particularly in the yews, which provided both a habitat for residential birds and berries and a safe resting place for migrating birds. I will miss them, and so will the birds.

*This and other information about bird migration and breeding habits from All About Birds.

Did You Know?

Author Janet Lambert and books she wrote while living on Governors Island.

Janet Lambert (1893-1973) was a military wife for over 30 years, and an actress and author of 54 books of young adult fiction for girls in the 1940s and 50s. She wrote about the lives and the coming of age choices between career or family by daughters of U.S. Army families during World War II and the Korean War-era. She wrote many of her books while living on Governors Island.