July 2011 Bird Census with Annie
Birding Governors Island
July 1, 2011
There has been a baby boom on the piers of Buttermilk Channel. Brown and fuzzy common tern young have arrived in large numbers and, with many adults still sitting on their scrape nests, there may be more before long. Yankee Pier seems to be prime common tern real estate as it has the most adult birds, the most nests, and the most juvenile terns. Tango Pier has a good number as well, but seems to be less crowded. Lima Pier, as a favorite hangout for herring and great black-backed gulls, which are known to feed on eggs and even young birds, would seem to be the worst place to raise tern young. But I actually found a tern nestling there. Apparently a common tern pair has chosen to raise its young in a dangerous neighborhood. I watched as one devoted parent was constantly fending off potential predators while the other hunted for fish for the young. It must be an exhausting place to raise a family!
On land, the island played host to a flock of cedar waxwings today. I haven't seen waxwings on the island for a while, but today there were at least 15, perhaps more, foraging on the ground on the glacis and in the moat on the west side of Ft. Jay. I don't often see these birds on the ground as they prefer to feed on berries in trees, but they do also enjoy dining on insects. And there are plenty of insects in the grass of around Ft. Jay!
Otherwise, today's sightings were the usual summer fare. My observations for the day:
Double crested cormorants 7 (4 adult, 3 immature)
Black-crowned night heron 1
Laughing gull 5 (4 adult, 1 immature)
Herring gull 97 (93 adult, 4 immature)
Great black-backed gull 3
Common tern 77 (49 adult, 28 juvenile)
Rock dove (feral pigeon) 3
Mourning dove 2
Chimney swift 1
Blue jay 2
Barn swallow 23 (6 female, 2 male, 15 unknown)
Robin 26 (22 adult, 3 immature, 1 juvenile)
Mockingbird 4 males
Cedar waxwing 15
European starling 55 (51 adult, 4 immature)
Chipping sparrow 3
Song sparrow 1
Red-winged blackbird 1 male
House sparrow 36
Birding Governors Island
July 9, 2011
The common tern colony of Buttermilk Channel is going strong. I counted thirty young terns on Yankee and Tango Piers (I saw no sign of the juvenile on Lima Pier-I hope it has survived). But terns were not the only young I saw today on Governors Island. I also spotted young herring gulls, robins, grackles, and starlings, as well as an immature mockingbird and a juvenile red-winged blackbird. I was unsure if the male red-wings had been able to mate as I have never seen females on the island, which does not have the marshy habitat red-wings prefer for breeding. But today I found a male feeding a juvenile red-wing in tall weeds in the lot in front of the high rises on the west side of the island. It is amazing to see how adaptable birds can be.
The red-wings also got me thinking about water. Governors Island is of course surrounded by water, but it is salty harbor water. Gulls, terns, ducks and geese are able to drink the harbor water because of glands in their bills which secrete the salt. But other birds must find fresh water where they can. Today there were many puddles on the island after heavy rains earlier in the week, providing plenty of fresh water for the birds. But where do they get water when it's dry? Well, birds are ever resourceful, and I suspect they know of many secret places on the island where they find fresh water. One such place isn't so secret anymore. A large outdoor air conditioning unit on the east side of Pershing Hall creates enough condensation that it creates a small watering hole in the grass below it. It also happens to be surrounded by shrubs, so it provides both water and security. It is a good place to find birds gathered around, or in, the water, drinking or taking baths. And it's another way birds have adapted, in this case taking advantage of water unintentionally provided by human machinery.
My observations for the day:
Double crested cormorants 8
Black-crowned night heron 4
Mallard 1 male
Laughing gull 9 (7 adults, 2 immature)
Herring gull 75 (73 adults, 2 juveniles)
Great black-backed gull 8
Common tern 81 (51 adults, 30 juveniles)
Mourning dove 1
Chimney swift 1
Barn swallow 29 (8 females, 6 males, 15 unknown)
Northern rough-winged swallow 2
White-breasted nuthatch 1 unknown
Robin 34 (24 adults, 10 immature)
Mockingbird 7 (5 males, 1 immature, 1 unknown)
Cedar waxwing 6
European starling 38 (34 adults, 4 immature)
Northern cardinal 2 males
Chipping sparrow 1
Red-winged blackbird 3 (2 males, 1 juvenile)
Common Grackle 16 (15 adults, 1 immature)
House sparrow 37
House finch 2 males
Birding Governors Island
July 23, 2011
Humans and nature can be tough on birds and other wildlife. This week was especially hard in New York City as broiling hot weather combined with a massive spill from a sewage plant on the Hudson River to make life very, very trying. Hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage poured into the river after a huge fire knocked out engines at the plant on Wednesday, July 20. By today the plant was operating again and the spill stopped, but, given the tidal nature of the Hudson and other waterways, the spilled waste was carried into the Harlem and East Rivers and New York Harbor. I occasionally caught the odor of sewage as I walked around the edge of the island. This is the water that the terns, gulls, ducks and cormorants of Governors Island depend on for a living. I saw no immediate effects on them from the spill, but it cannot be good to swim in water or eat fish and crustaceans contaminated by human sewage.
The spill was tough….and the weather was brutal. Heat and very high humidity have made New York a steam bath these last few days, and the birds of Governors Island suffered for it. Many of the birds I saw today were resting in the shade and had their bills open in an effort to cool down. Luckily most of the juvenile common terns on Yankee and Tango Piers are a bit older and stronger and thus better able to endure extreme temperatures, though I did see one adult tern crouched in the shade at the edge of Yankee Pier with a very young bird (probably just days old) tucked under each of its wings. It may seem a heartwarming sight, but in fact both parent and juvenile birds were likely under great stress from the heat.
Some of the juvenile common terns are mature enough to begin flying. I saw one young bird, still with brown plumage, floating in the water after attempting flight. It didn't get more than 20 feet away from Yankee Pier. It floated there for a while then finally spread its wings and flew up and away, the failed test flight seemingly forgotten. I found another young tern huddling on the ground under a tree in front of the barracks along the Buttermilk Channel. I noticed the bird because a little girl was poking it with a stick. After politely shooing away the child, I picked up the bird and found its feathers drenched. It must have been in the water as well, and seemed exhausted from the experience. I took the bird to Yankee Pier so it could recover away from humans. To thank me the bird bit my finger (no harm done) and pooped on my clothes. Not one to hold a grudge, I checked on the bird about 15 minutes later and found it fluffing out its wings and drying its feathers in peace.
Earlier in the day I saw a juvenile herring gull on the seawall near Lima Pier catch the attention of a young woman with a camera. Looking for a nice nature shot, the woman moved in very close to the bird, which let out a squeaky distress call. Before the woman knew it an angry adult herring gull was dive bombing her head in an effort to protect its young. And it worked….the woman moved away from the juvenile rather quickly. This and the tern-poking child reminded me that bird on Governors Island comes into frequent contact with people, a contact not always to the benefit of the birds.
I saw many more common terns today than I have in previous weeks. While numbers had hovered around 70 before, today I saw 132. This doesn't mean there was a sudden spike in the number of terns but rather that more birds were more active on the Tango Pier. Whereas before I could not see many of the birds nesting on that pier because I don't have a clear view of the pier's surface, today more birds were flying about the pier and foraging in the harbor, giving me a chance to include them in my census.
I have one bit of happy news to report: I spotted a female American kestrel hunting on the ball fields of south island. Though I suspected kestrels were still around, I haven't seen any in a while. It's good to know the at least one of the species still makes its home on Governors Island.
My observations for today:
Double crested cormorants 7 (6 adult, 1 immature)
Black-crowned night heron 7 (6 adult, 1 immature)
Canada goose 12
Mallard 3 (2 female, 1 male)
American kestrel 1 female
Laughing gull 3
Herring gull 176 (146 adult, 19 immature, 11 juvenile)
Great black-backed gull 4 (3 adult, 1 immature)
Ring-billed gull 6
Common tern 132 (107 adult, 25 juvenile)
Mourning dove 12
Rock pigeon 4
Chimney swift 1
Barn swallow 9 (1 female, 8 unknown)
Northern rough-winged swallow 1
Robin 54 (34 adult, 20 immature)
Mockingbird 7 (4 male, 3 unknown)
European starling 20 (17 adult, 3 immature)
Northern cardinal 2 male
Song sparrow 1
Red-winged blackbird 15 (3 female, 12 male)
Common Grackle 9
House sparrow 45
Did You Know?
West Point graduates William Sherman and William P. Jones started their military careers on Governors Island in 1840. Sherman would fight and survive the Seminole, Mexican and Civil Wars. Jones was posted to Fort McHenry in Baltimore killed when thrown from a horse in 1841. Sherman died in 1891.