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    Governors Island

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Birding on Governors Island with Annie Barry, May 2010

May 11, 2010
9:00 am-1:00 pm

50-55 degrees, partly cloudy, windy

Spring migration is underway but off to a slow start, as weather conditions have prevented large movements of birds. But some migrants are passing through, and some were stopping over on Governors Island today, including these warbler species:

American redstart

5

Common yellowthroat

3 (1 female, 2 male)

Yellow warblers

3 (1 f, 2 m)

Magnolia warbler

1 (m)

Blackpoll warbler

1 (m)

Black-throated blue warbler

1 (f)

Blackburnian warbler

1 (f)

Yellow-rumped warbler

1 (m)

Other migrating birds included a wood thrush, a female scarlet tanager, catbirds, a Baltimore oriole, and one I've never spotted on the island before, a male rose-breasted grosbeak.* He was foraging among the leaves of a tree in Nolan Park. These birds might spend the summer right here in New York City, but more likely in a park in one of the boroughs rather than on Governors Island, where the trees are too sparse. I have great hope, however, that the park to be developed on the south end of the island will provide a more permanent habitat for these and other birds in the near future.

Summer residents were on Governors Island in force. I spotted at least 34 barn swallows over the Parade Ground, Nolan Park and Colonels Row. So far, though, there were no chimney swifts, though they are sure to turn up before long. Common terns are setting up their colony on the Yankee Pier, though I did not see evidence of nesting yet. There were at least 42 terns today, though it is difficult to get a good view of the pier, and this may well be a low count. Two warbling vireos sang away, one near the entrance to Ft. Jay, the other behind Liggett Hall. I'm not sure if these little birds breed on the island, but I will look out for their tiny basket nests over the summer.

Permanent residents spotted today included crows, starlings, grackles, robins, mockingbirds, a red-bellied woodpecker, a song sparrow, cardinals, mourning doves, and house sparrows. Great black-backed gulls, laughing gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls, double-crested cormorants, and an American black duck were on island structures or in the surrounding waters. And many, many geese. Canada geese were all over the island, and I stayed clear of them. Many were sitting on nests, and a nesting goose is an aggressive goose, so I kept my distance.

Finally, though winter is over, some winter residents remained. A single white throated sparrow foraged in shrubbery in Colonels' Row. Brants still plied the waters around the island in good numbers. Both will be gone before long, but today they reminded me of the overlapping of seasons for birds during migration.

*I am not the first to record birds on Governors Island. Ann Buttenweiser, in Governors Island: the Jewel of New York Harbor, (Syracuse University Press, 2009, p. 44) records that for Joseph Russell, post surgeon in the 1830s and 1840s, monitoring of the passage of migrating birds was one of his many duties.

May 17, 2010
9:00 am-5:00 pm

65-70 degrees, overcast with some spots of sun, breezy

Governors Island was teeming with migrating warblers this morning. Nolan Park was especially alive with the songs of these tiny birds as they flitted their way through the trees. I spotted 36 individual birds from 11 warbler species. There were probably many more, but I was handicapped by the noise of wood chippers as a tree care crew tended to dangerous branches on the east side of the Park. I spotted the vast majority of the warblers before 12:00. By about 1:00, most had already left the island as they resumed their journey northward. Migrating birds will stop at a good location for foraging and fatten up before moving on. When a wind comes along that is favorable to their flight northward, they will take advantage of it en masse. That seems to have happened today on Governors Island. First there were many warblers, and then there were just few. The warblers I spotted today were:

Yellow warbler

5 (2 female, 3 male)

Magnolia warbler

7 (1 f, 6 m)

Black-throated blue warbler

5 (2 f, 3 m)

Black-throated green warbler

1 (f)

Yellow-rumped warbler

4 (1 f, 3 m)

Blackpoll warbler

3 (m)

Northern parula

1 (immature)

Common yellowthroat

3 (1 f, 2 m)

American redstart

4 (f)

Ovenbird

1

Canada warbler

2 (1 f, 1 m)

Other migrants included 4 wood thrushes and a hermit thrush. I especially enjoy the wood thrush, which is a bird which favors deep forests. It has a complicated syrinx, or song box, which allows it to sing two notes at the same time. It can also harmonize with its own voice**. A favorite sound of mine is the haunting song of a wood thrush in the forest of Inwood Hill Park near my home in Upper Manhattan on a summer evening. But alas, these wood thrushes were just visiting Governors Island, where the trees are too sparse for them to settle for long.

Other birds with interesting singing voices on the island today were catbirds and mockingbirds. When not mewing like a cat, a catbird will string together sounds, often in imitation of other birds. But the best mimic on the island is the mockingbird. A catbird imitation of another bird is often slurred, and it is usually obvious that it is a catbird. The mockingbird, on the other hand, can really fool you as it expertly mimics the birds in its surroundings in a long string of sounds. And it constantly learns new songs and calls as it comes into contact with new birds. A mockingbird on a light stanchion in Ft. Jay sang all day today, with hardly a break, and it fooled me into thinking it was a blue jay or a killdeer on more than one occasion.

There was also an actual blue jay in the Historic District. These birds continue to visit the island in relatively small numbers, except when acorns are abundant. Other birds spotted or heard within the district were cardinals, a Baltimore oriole, house finches, a red-bellied woodpecker, starlings, grackles, house sparrows, a female brown-headed cowbird, a warbling vireo, mourning doves, an adult red-tailed hawk and a black-crowned night heron. A house wren seems to be taking up residence in Fort Jay. We'll see if it mates and breeds in the fort, like last year. Chimney swifts and barn swallows soared over head and have been joined by northern rough-winged swallows. Missing was a killdeer. It appears that none of these birds will nest within the Historic District this year.

On the water were double-crested cormorants, laughing gulls, herring gulls, mallards, Canada geese and brants. I expect the brants to have left for their breeding grounds in the tundra by my next visit on June 5. Common terns, on the other hand, have established their breeding colony on the Yankee Pier. There were many nests lining the edges of the pier, and many of the birds were engaged in mating activity.

**These and other bird facts from All About Birds.

Did You Know?

1st INF

The 1st Infantry Division is the oldest, continually active division in the modern U.S. Army. The First Expeditionary Division, later designated the 1st Infantry Division, was organized on June 8 1917, at Fort Jay, on Governors Island.