From Vestiges of Winter to Harbingers of Spring: Great Backyard Bird Count 2012
On Saturday, February 18, 2012, while the first Eastern Bluebirds of the season were being counted at the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach, a Snowy Owl was observed on the barrier island in the Fire Island Wilderness, and more than 5,000 Brant were counted at the Fire Island Lighthouse. Concurrent 2- or 3-hour birdwatching programs were conducted by Fire Island National Seashore as part of a larger nation-wide citizen science program, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) weekend, celebrated Friday through Monday, February 17-20, 2012.
Early in the ranger-guided walk at the William Floyd Estate, naturalist MaryLaura Lamont noted how quiet it was in the woods around the 613-acre tract of land that once belonged to one of New York's four signers of the Declaration of Independence. How rare to be able to experience the sounds of silence on Long Island in this century! Lamont, who has worked at the William Floyd Estate for many years, locates and identifies bird species by sound as well as sight. One of the first birds observed was a Tufted Titmouse. "While this bird used to rarely be seen here," said Lamont, "they are now common winter residents at the Estate. We've seen a noticeable change in bird populations over the years, most likely in response to climate change and the use of backyard bird feeders during the winter." Within 20 minutes, the group had tallied more than a half dozen woodland bird species. One keen-eyed observer even spotted a left-over bird nest, identified by Lamont as one belonging to a summer species, the Red-eyed Vireo. Moving from the forest to the field, Lamont advised the group to watch for Eastern Bluebirds among the flocks of American Robins, and sure enough, three bluebirds made a grand appearance as on cue. By the time they got to the salt marsh and returned along Home Creek, the group was able to round out their GBBC checklist with the addition of a few Herring Gulls, American Black Ducks and Mallards, Red-tailed Hawk, and even a Belted Kingfisher.
The citizen scientists group at the Fire Island Lighthouse, led by volunteer birdwatcher Jack Finkenberg, counted more than a dozen species on their 2-hour watch. "It looks like there's nothing here," said Finkenberg as they strolled down the beach, "but in 10 minutes we've counted a half-dozen species." Aided by a spotting scope, they were able to count a raft of 24 Red-breasted Mergansers and more than 5,000 Brant.
On the other end of the island at the Fire Island Wilderness, a group led by seasonal ranger Dave Raymond was able to watch the Snowy Owl. While marveling at the opportunity to see this large bird, they were treated to an even more memorable observation. "When the young owl flew from its perch," said Raymond, "it was harassed by a Northern Harrier over the salt marsh, then mobbed by a couple of gulls." Seven species were recorded during this 2-hour program.
Citizen-science observations reported during this annual program are helpful in tracking the abundance and distribution of birds across the country. Public lands like those preserved along the Atlantic flyway within Fire Island National Seashore provide very good habitat for observing wildlife.
Additional reports for bird observations at Fire Island National Seashore were also reported over the GBBC weekend. You can find the combined results at the GBBC web site (See "Explore the Results" and search under "A Particular Place" for Fire Island National Seashore (under the National Park Lands menu). For the William Floyd Estate tallies, see Mastic Beach, NY (under the Town menu).