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What’s in Flight

February & March, 2021

Birding in Carl Schurz Park just got a whole lot easier. No more need for binoculars. Just park yourself near the five new bird feeders dotted around the entrance to the Catbird Playground and you can view nearly two dozen species of bird in close up. It’s the favorite spot for our growing group of junior birders such as 8-year-old Alexia, who excitedly reported seeing our super rare Western Tanager on the seed log.

1 Western Tanager Gig Palileo.jpeg

Western Tanager

Gig Palileo

2 Tufted Titmouse Gig Palileo.jpeg

Tufted Titmouse

Gig Palileo

The Western Tanager, featured in our last What’s In Flight, is spotted almost daily on the netted bird feeder that contains meal worms, cranberries, raisins, peanuts, sunflower hearts and tree nuts -  some of her favorite foods according to Paul Sweet, Collection Manager of the Ornithology Department at the American Museum of Natural History. ‘Songbirds have to keep eating to stay alive and there aren’t many sources of food around now, especially not for a bird like the Western Tanager who should be in Coastal Southern California, Mexico or further south this time of year.’

3  Western Tanager Jay Zemann.jpeg

Western Tanager

Jay Zemann

4 Carolina Wren Gig Palileo.jpeg

Carolina Wren

Gig Palileo

Regulars at the feeders also include small flocks of Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, House Finches, and Tufted Titmice, also a Hermit Thrush, a Red-winged Blackbird, a Mockingbird, a Carolina Wren and American Robins.

5 Red-winged Blackbird Gig Palileo.jpeg

Red-winged Blackbird

Gig Palileo

7 Red-bellied Woodpecker Jay Zemann.JPG

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Jay Zemann

6 Black-capped Chickadee Jay Zemann.jpeg

Black-capped Chickadee

Jay Zemann

9 Hermit Thrush Lucie Young.jpg

Hermit Thrush

Lucie Young

8 Northern Mockingbird Gig Palileo.jpeg

Northern Mockingbird

Gig Palileo

‘This is a great year for Chickadees and Titmice,’ says Paul Sweet. ‘It could be due to a failure of their usual food source. Pines and birch trees may not be producing much seed.’  Tufted-Titmice with their large black eyes and grey quiff (in ornithological terms a crest) are one of the most charming birds to watch. They are fairly acrobatic as they flit through the trees and can hang upside down. Black-capped Chickadees, a close relative of the Titmice, travel in gangs of up to ten birds and have phenomenal memories. David Allen Sibley in his book What It’s Like To Be A Bird says Chickadees can: ‘Store up to a thousand seeds in a day. The part of the brain involved in spatial memory grows larger in the fall, to accommodate multiple storage locations, and then shrinks again in the spring.’ Other birds, including migrants like our Western Tanager, often join Chickadee gangs to benefit from their local knowledge about food and water, and for safety.

10 White-breasted Nuthatch Gig

White-breasted Nuthatch

Gig Palilo

11 American Robin Jay Zemann.jpeg

American Robin

Jay Zemann

Perched on the side of the Siberian Elm to the right of the Catbird Playground, there is a bird feeder disguised as a piece of wood. It contains suet for longer-billed birds. A Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker are regulars here. Smaller birds like the Carolina Wren will also try to nibble out suet from the sides.

12 House Finch Jay Zemann.jpeg

House Finch

Jay Zemann

Carl Schurz Park is one of the best places in the city to watch Red-tailed Hawks at close range. They are seen almost daily perched in the trees and soaring overhead.  February through early March is the mating season for Red-tailed Hawks, who have some of the most spectacular courtship rituals. A mating pair of adult birds was spotted in mid-February circling and chasing each other around the Catbird playground and 86th Street entrance. ‘This is typical courtship behavior,’ says Katie Leung a Field Technician with the NYC Parks’ Wildlife Unit.  ‘Along with aerial displays where they will dive together, sometimes they lock talons together for a short time.’

13 Red-tailed Hawk Jay Zemann.JPG

Red-tailed Hawk

Jay Zemann

Katie Leung thinks it’s only a matter of time before a pair of Red-tailed Hawks nest here in Carl Schurz Park. And on February 22, local birder Jay Zemann spotted a pair mating on the uppermost balcony of 170 East End Avenue, just across the street from the park. ‘I heard the familiar cries, saw the male circling with its landing gear [its legs] down and it landed on top of the female just for a matter of seconds. Afterwards they sat side by side.’

14 Red-tailed Hawk Gig Palileo.jpeg

Red-tailed Hawk

Gig Palileo

15 Red-tailed Hawk Gig Palileo.jpeg

Red-tailed Hawk

Gig Palileo

‘Red-tailed Hawks often build three to six ceremonial nests together as part of their courtship, then the female chooses which one to lay her eggs in,’ says Katie Leung.  It’s a bonding exercise. Nests are usually high up in tree crotches, or on building facades. Balconies, fire-escapes and decorative cornices have all served as nest structures in the past.’

16 American Kestrel Gig Palileo.jpeg

American Kestrel

Gig Palileo

17 American Kestrels Jay Zemann.jpg

American Kestrels

Jay Zemann

Other birds of prey that visit the park this time of year include Cooper’s Hawks, American Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons. Peregrine Falcons, nicknamed by some ‘the Lamborghinis of the bird world’, are the fastest animals in the world. They can dive at speeds up to 242 mph and make turns that generate a gravitational-force of 27 gs (humans can lose consciousness at 9 gs).  

18 Peregrine Falcons Jay Zemann.JPG

Peregrine Falcons

Jay Zemann

High buildings in the neighborhood are favorite perches for these birds of prey.  According to Jay Zemann, both Peregrine Falcons and Kestrels make daily appearances on the upper parts of buildings on York Avenue and 1st Avenue in the low 80s.

19 Orange-crowned Warbler feeding on sap

Orange-crowned Warbler feeding on sap

Gig Palileo

Another rare bird, an Orange-crowned Warbler (which should be in the Southern US states, Mexico, Guatemala or Belize this time of year) was seen flitting in and out of the bushes and trees near Gracie Mansion in January and early February. Before the recent snow storms, both the Orange-crowned Warbler and the Western Tanager were seen following a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (a type of woodpecker) so they could lap up the sap after it drilled sap wells in the trees. But now the trees are dormant, and the sap is not flowing, the hope is that the new bird feeders (provided by the Carl Schurz Park Conservancy) will keep our precious avian residents and visitors alive and well through the toughest months.

20 Orange-crowned Warbler Gig

Orange-crowned Warbler

Gig Palileo

Words: Lucie Young

Images:   Gig Palileo, Jay Zemann, Lucie Young

Link: American Natural History Museum Ornithology Department

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