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2014 International Coastal Cleanup Day Report

Volunteers Picking Up Trash at Jamaica Bay's North Channel Beach © Adriana Palmer

Volunteers at Work at Jamaica Bay's North Channel © Adriana Palmer

On September 20, NYC Audubon took to the shores of New York City for this year’s International Coastal Cleanup Day. The annual event is a global volunteer effort uniting hundreds of thousands of volunteers from across the globe to help clean up our shorelines and oceans. For this year’s Cleanup Day, we organized not one but two different cleanups of City beaches that are vital for migrating and nesting shorebirds: Jamaica Bay’s North Channel Bridge Beach (with American Littoral Society and National Park Service) and Pelham Bay Park’s Orchard Beach (with New York City Parks and Recreation).


Volunteers came out in record numbers for this year’s New York City cleanups: 111 volunteers worked long hours diligently picking up trash from the beaches. The Boy Scouts of America, Girls Scouts Troop 4623-4587, Hunter High School Environmental Club, the Mitsubishi Corporation, and Volunteer for Wildlife were among the groups lending a hand at Jamaica Bay, while CubScout Pack 304 based in PS304 Bronx was instrumental in our cleanup of Orchard Beach.


Between the two cleanups, this year we were able to remove 1,726 pounds of trash. That’s almost a ton! At our North Channel cleanup alone, we picked up 321 plastic grocery bags, 454 plastic and glass bottles, 730 cigarette butts, 2,302 glass pieces…and one teddy bear!


Thanks again to everyone who made this year’s International Coast Cleanup Day our most successful ever. New York City shorelines provide valuable habitat to wildlife, including migratory and beach nesting birds. The dedication and hard work of all those who volunteered this year will improve City shorelines for birds, and people too.

International Coastal Cleanup Day Group Photo © Adriana Palmer

International Coastal Cleanup Day North Channel Group Photo © Adriana Palmer


Finally, these cleanups could not have happened without the hard work of Adriana Palmer and Terra Weiland, our beach captains for the North Channel and Orchard Beach cleanups, respectively. Thanks to both of them for organizing these two very successful events.


-Andrew Maas

Tribute in Light 2014: A Problem-Free Night for Bird Migration

Tribute in Light Beams © Debra Kriensky

Tribute in Light Beams © Debra Kriensky

On September 11, 2014, NYC Audubon staff members were joined by 19 dedicated volunteers for the annual monitoring of the Tribute in Light memorial. Every year from 8pm to 6am the next morning, our monitors watch the light beams carefully to make sure migrating birds are getting through safely. On heavy migration nights, it’s possible for hundreds or even thousands of birds to be seen circling the lights at a time, disoriented and likely to exhaust themselves or suffer injury. When such high numbers of birds are seen ‘caught’ in the lights, the Municipal Arts Society of New York, which founded the Tribute, cooperates with us and turns off the light beams for a brief period to allow the birds to pass through and continue their migration safely. Thankfully, this year we only counted a handful of birds at any one time throughout the night, and the lights were kept on the whole time.


Even with all the modern technology available today, it’s still difficult to accurately forecast the weather, not to mention bird migration! For days and even hours leading up to the Tribute in Light monitoring, we were not sure what to expect that night. Weather reports earlier in the week had called for rain all night on September 11th, which though less than ideal for the volunteers is actually a good thing for the birds. Heavy rain overnight would likely mean that migrating birds would stick around another day to wait for better weather to continue their journey south. By Thursday morning, however, the forecast had changed and aside from a chance of rain early on in the night, it was beginning to look like we would see clear skies instead. At the same time, migration forecasts were predicting moderate to heavy migration activity in the Northeast, including in New York City.


TowerObservers © Beryl Goldberg

Observers Monitoring the Light Beams for Bird Activity © Beryl Goldberg

Everyone on the ground was prepared for a situation like those seen in years past, when we have had to request that the lights be shut down several times due to thousands of birds circling in the light beams. As typically happens though, conditions can change at a moment’s notice. While it did end up being a clear night, only a few birds—and bats—passed through the lights. In fact, the highest number of birds counted in the lights at any one time was only 18. It was a great relief to hear mid-monitoring that while it was still a heavy migration night, the birds had flown just west of New York City, missing the lights almost entirely.


-Debra Kriensky



Greenpoint’s McGolrick Park Transformed into an Urban Oasis

NYC Audubon Intern Melanie del Rosario reports on the planting of a quarter-acre native plant garden in McGolrick park, and how the garden will benefit birds, wildlife, and the Greenpoint community:

A group of NYC Audubon staff and a team of dedicated volunteers got their hands dirty in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on June 28 and 29, planting a quarter-acre native plant garden in McGolrick Park. After much planning and hard work by NYC Audubon Research Assistant Kaitlyn Parkins, the previously sparse, grass-covered southwest corner of the park has been transformed into an urban oasis designed to attract a variety of wildlife species and promote biodiversity within the park. The new garden, funded by the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, is an ongoing project that will engage the local community in caring for the park and increase quality of life for both people and wildlife in Greenpoint.

 © Chris Kreussling,

© Chris Kreussling,

About 40 volunteers from the Greenpoint area came out for the weekend planting event, and put over 4,000 plants into the ground! We planted native wildflowers such as New York asters and black-eyed susans, along with shrubs such as lowbush blueberries, ferns, and grasses (including the broomsedge pictured on the right).

© Chris Kreussling,

© Chris Kreussling,

We carefully selected plants native to the New York City area that will provide food and habitat for birds as well as beneficial insects, pollinators, and bats. Many migrating songbirds are experiencing population declines due to poor quality stopover habitat. Some of these birds travel over 1,000 miles without stopping, so providing them with sufficient food and water is crucial for their nesting success when they reach their breeding grounds. The McGolrick Park garden will provide high-quality habitat and food sources for both permanent residents and migrating birds throughout the year.

Wilson's Warbler © Linda Tanner,

Wilson's Warbler © Linda Tanner,

In addition to benefiting wildlife, the garden will also enhance the Greenpoint community for anyone who enjoys getting in touch with nature. We hope that everyone who passes through McGolrick Park will enjoy the natural beauty of the garden while learning about the importance of native plants and wildlife.

Although native plants are relatively maintenance-free once they are established, our new plants could use extra help to ensure they survive their first year. If you are interested in helping care for the garden, email to learn more.

Terns on Governor’s Island: a Habitat Enhancement Success

NYC Audubon Director of Conservation and Science Susan Elbin and Elizabeth Craig, PhD Candidate, Cornell University, share how their recent habitat enhancement work for common terns nesting on Governor’s Island has already paid dividends


Common terns are colonial nesting seabirds: white with a black cap, gray back and wings, and a black-tipped red bill. In New York City, they nest in Jamaica Bay. But for about the last seven years they have also been nesting on the decommissioned piers at Governor’s Island, Manhattan. Since 2013 NYC Audubon has been monitoring that colony. In New York State they are classified as a threatened species. Conservation threats include habitat loss, disturbance, and flooding.


Lima Pier Before © NYC Audubon

Lima Pier Before © NYC Audubon

In 2013 we discussed doing some enhancement of the nesting sites on the piers to provide better support and protection for the eggs. This year we made our first site visit of the season to Governor’s Island on May 22. If we wanted to do any habitat enhancement work, it had to be done immediately: the terns were returning and starting to build nests!


We are currently only permitted on Lima Pier because the other two piers are not safe for human access, so the habitat work was to be done there. A group effort made the habitat enhancement work possible. The Harbor School generously donated oyster shell, and shell crunching was done by heavy machines under Jim Reed’s direction at Governor’s Island.


Lima Pier After © NYC Audubon

Lima Pier After © NYC Audubon

We spread the shells to about a 3” depth between the edge of the pier and the barriers—enough to provide a buffer between the eggs and the hard concrete. By the time we were done moving the shells and admiring the newly created habitat, the birds had already returned! A few days later, National Park Service volunteer Annie Barry spread some hay (thank you Marisa Dedominicis and Earth Matter!) on the shells for the birds to use in their nest building.


Banded Least Tern © Elizabeth Craig

Banded Least Tern © Elizabeth Craig

On June 22, we returned to Lima Pier to work with the terns. NYC Audubon Finance Director Barbara Lysenko and NY State DEC biologist Barbara Saunders joined our bird banding team for that day. What we found was awesome: 32 common tern nests – three times the number of nests observed at this time in 2013 before habitat enhancement! A true measure of success.


Our team banded four chicks with federal and field-readable color leg bands. We also banded 14 adults. Common terns have high fidelity to their nest site. We found two (out of four) birds we had banded on Lima in 2013 had returned to the pier.


A third previously-banded adult was not one of ours: this bird had been banded in Argentina! We are in the process of contacting the bander so we can learn when and where that bird was tagged.


Keep your eyes open for common terns sporting black leg bands with white digits — they could be the terns from Governor’s Island.



Meet New York City’s Harbor Herons!

Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron Chicks © Kenneth Cole Schneider (Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License)

Harbor Herons Nesting Survey Coordinator Tod Winston reports on one of the more unusual wading bird colonies in New York City:



“Momma don’t play,” said Viola, resident of Far Rockaway’s Redfern Houses, west of JFK airport. “Momma” being a yellow-crowned night-heron, nesting just outside Viola’s fifth-story window. Apparently another yellow-crowned night-heron, not Momma’s mate, had momentarily landed on Momma’s nest. Momma hadn’t liked it one bit, and had quickly sent the intruder packing. I spoke to Viola last Friday morning, as Kaitlyn Parkins and I surveyed the nesting colony of several dozen yellow-crowns that in recent years have unexpectedly made the willow oaks and honey locusts of the Redfern Houses’ wind-sheltered courtyards their home. Viola described how every year she watched the parent birds feed each other during courtship and bring nesting material, and then regurgitate crabs and crustaceans for their chicks. Viola clearly is very fond of her birds. Her only complaint? The night-herons puff up and threaten her if she opens the window closest to their nest. Viola laughed as she told how she instructed anyone in the home to open another window if they wanted to cool off. (Truth be told, another Red Fern resident complained that the night-herons can “really stink” on a hot summer day: “I’m always happy to see them come… and happy to see them go,” he good naturedly proclaimed.)


We were happy to find a total of 41 yellow-crown nests in the Redfern colony this year, one more nest than our 2013 count—and pleased to see that Redfern residents seem to appreciate “their birds.” Red Fern’s nesting colony is just one of eleven wading and waterbird nesting colonies that NYC Audubon has been surveying these last two weeks of May, adding to more than 30 years of survey data on New York City’s colonies of herons, egrets, ibis, and other waterbirds. Unlike Redfern’s unusual and very urban colony, the rest of our nesting colonies are located on wild island preserves in New York Harbor: South Brother Island, Huckleberry Island, U-Thant Island, and Mill Rock on the East River and Long Island Sound; Hoffman and Swinburne Islands of off Staten Island; and various island in Jamaica Bay. Teams of surveyors have been doing careful nest counts of these island colonies of great and snowy egrets, black- and yellow-crowned night-herons, little blue and tricolored herons, and glossy ibis, along with double-crested cormorants, gulls, and other waterbirds. This year’s survey data is not yet complete and has yet to be analyzed, and will be reported later this year. To read more about the Harbor Herons nesting surveys, please click here.


Though our surveying teams must access the harbor heron islands with special permits and survey the colonies under challenging conditions (imagine wading through poison ivy with angry cormorants vomiting fish onto your head!), you have the opportunity to see the island colonies firsthand and in complete comfort on NYC Audubon’s Sunset Ecocruises to the Harbor Heron Islands. Departing from Pier 16 at South Street Seaport selected Sundays from June 1 through August 17, the tours explore three different routes: Sail up the East River to the fascinating Brother Islands, down under the Verrazano Bridge and past the Statue of Liberty to the large egret and cormorant rookeries of Hoffman and Swinburne Islands—or visit the vast, wild expanses of Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Click here to register.




New Parent Red-Tails Come to Tompkins Square Park!

Two eggs are visible in Chris and Dora's nest. Photo © Sandrine Lee

Two eggs are visible in Chris and Dora's nest. Photo © Sandrine Lee

The morning of Monday, March 31 started off slowly, but took a quick turn for the exciting when we received a call about the pair of red-tailed hawks nesting next to Tompkins Square Park. After a few years of hosting juvenile red-tails, Tompkins Square Park is finally home to two nesting adults! Karen Waltuch and Leni Stern reported that they have been excitedly watching the hawks from inside the Christodora Building, where the hawks have taken up residence on a 7th-floor air conditioning unit. This young pair is very active—they’ve been flying about the park and putting on quite a show for onlookers in the East Village.


Monday’s call from Karen came, however, due to concern that building management and the tenant of the apartment where the hawks have chosen to nest might want to remove the nest. Many people are unaware that hawks, along with their nests and eggs, are federally protected, and that removing them is illegal. In response, NYC Audubon communicated with the building manager to ensure that this nest remains undisturbed, and we have since gotten word that the tenant is in fact delighted to have the hawks nesting right outside the window.


The Tompkins Square hawks (we’ve heard that they’re being call “Chris” and “Dora” in honor of their chosen building’s name) are already famous. They’ve been the subject of several blog posts and news articles since they started nest-building in February. Bruce Yolton, who runs the website, had been observing the birds closely along with other City hawk watchers, wondering when the female would finally start laying eggs and brooding, as she is several weeks behind some of the more established nests in the City. Well, yesterday morning we received a lovely photo from Karen and Leni looking down on the nest—and two eggs are clearly visible! We wish Chris and Dora a successful nesting season.


Click here to read more about red-tailed hawks in New York City, and learn what you can do to help protect them.


– Kaitlyn Parkins


Harbor Seals: A Report on the Winter 2014 Ecocruise Season

Harbor Seals © Mike Baird (Flickr Creative Commons License)

Harbor Seals © Mike Baird (Flickr Creative Commons License)


Psychologists and seal behavior researchers Dr. Kristy Biolsi and Dr. Kevin Woo have been observing seals and collecting scientific data on this winter’s Winter Seals and Waterbirds of NY Harbor Ecocruises. With just two cruises to go, they report here on their work over the past few months:



As we wind down for another season on the water with the NYC Audubon and New York Water Taxi, we’re happy to report a number of harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) sightings in the lower Hudson. We have seen seals either in the water near Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, or hauled out on Swinburne Island in particular. On February 9th, we observed the most seals ever recorded during our two winters of observations: 15 seals hauled out on Swinburne Island and 16 seals in the water.


As we’ve counted seals during the last two seasons with the NYC Audubon Ecocruises, it has helped us to develop better observation protocols for future excursions. One of our main goals is to identify individuals that may use specific haul-out sights in New York City, both during the season as well as annually. We will use our photos to help identify individuals and their relative locations, and hope to match this trend year after year. To do so, we will apply a matrix to look at the recognition of particular features on each seal, such as their face and coat. This process is similar to facial recognition technology used by the United States TSA, as well as social science researchers interested in human emotion and attraction (see work by Burke & Sulikowski, 2010, ‘A new viewpoint on the evolution of sexually dimorphic human faces’ in Evolutionary Psychology). If we find that specific individuals are using preferred haul-out locations, and are returning to New York City every year, this will provide us with a promising trend in demographic numbers. Moreover, as we previously considered, this trend may have something to do with a larger ecological picture, and hence healthy seal numbers in New York City may be a bioindicator of marine ecosystem health.


There are only two more cruises left, on March 2nd, and March 9th, and we’ll be back on the boat to conduct the last of our field surveys for the season. We hope to see you onboard, and next winter, too!


There are only two cruises left, on Sundays, March 2 and 9! Click here to register for one of our remaining Winter Seals and Waterbirds of NY Harbor Ecocruises.




Christmas Count Results Are In!

Varied Thrush © Anders Peltomaa (Flickr Creative Commons License)

Kaitlyn Parkins reports on New York City’s 2013-2014 Christmas Bird Count:

The final tallies for the 114th Christmas Bird Count are being submitted from across the nation, including our very own New York City, which is covered by five different count circles. Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island each have their own count, while Manhattan is covered by the New Jersey Lower Hudson circle, and the Bronx is counted along with Westchester. More than 200 expert and novice birders took part in the five counts, resulting in hundreds of hours in the field. We’ve compiled the preliminary data form all five count circles (including only the New York City part of the New Jersey Lower Hudson and Bronx-Westchester circles) to take a look at what’s going on across the five boroughs. All CBC numbers are yet to be reviewed by regional editors, so the numbers included here are subject to revision.


The Staten Island and Brooklyn CBCs took place on a cold, snowy Saturday December 15th, resulting in Brooklyn’s lowest count since 1981. The weather cleared up for the Manhattan and Queens counts on the 16th, and the Bronx CBC didn’t take place until the 22nd. Still, a total of 152,181 individual birds were counted from 148 different species. Here are a few highlights:


  • Brooklyn had a cackling goose for the first time in the count as well as an all-time high count of 10 for the wood duck.
  • Rare species for Brooklyn also included one each of Wilson’s snipe and semipalmated plover.
  • Canvasbacks had an all-time low count of two in Brooklyn and was only a “count-week bird” in the Bronx-Westchester; nine were seen is Queens, o
  • ne in Manhattan, and 12 in Staten Island.
  • The only bird to make a count-week-only showing across the board was the lesser yellowlegs in the Bronx.
  • The Bronx was also the only borough that didn’t miss red-breasted nuthatch, and it had five common ravens (one was also counted in Queens).
  • Queens highlights included king eider, Nashville warbler (which also showed up in Brooklyn and Staten Island), and two glaucous gulls.
  • Staten Island recorded a single harlequin duck, but it had an all-time low of only 12 American crows.
  • The star of the Manhattan show was the varied thrush found by Louise Fraza and Pearl Broder in Stuyvesant Town, an adult male so famous in his appearance that our regional compiler didn’t require us to submit photo proof—he had already seen pictures of the bird online!
  • As expected given the phenomenal snowy owl irruption we’re experiencing this winter, numbers for this visitor from the north were way up, with 22 counted between Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and a count-week showing in the Bronx, blowing previous CBC records out of the water.

Want to know more? You can download the results as they come in as well as get historical data all the way back to the first CBC here ( You can also check out the reports for these circles on their webpages:











Moving Snowy Owls to Safer Hunting Grounds

A Banded Snowy Owl Is Released on January 28, 2014. Photo © NYC Audubon

NYC Audubon’s Director of Conservation and Science Susan Elbin relates a recent, rare encounter at John F. Kennedy Airport: 


I can’t begin to describe the excitement I felt last Tuesday as I was driving to JFK airport. I was not going to JFK to catch a plane bound for some tropical island. No—this was so much better than that. I was going to help my colleagues band and release a snowy owl that had been trapped Monday night as part of a new relocation program at our local airports.


This past December, the Port Authority of NY and NJ changed its policy on dealing with snowy owls on runways at JFK, La Guardia, and Newark airports. The old policy was to either chase the birds away, or if they didn’t fly off, shoot them. After several snowy owl shootings at JFK airport were reported in the local press in early December, huge public outcry and pressure from New York City Audubon and Audubon New York ensued—and the policy was changed. Now the owls are being given a second chance—or as many chances as it takes—to leave the airports and continue on their way. This change in policy couldn’t have come at a better time. This winter we are experiencing an unprecedented number of snowy owls in our area—an irruption or shift in typical wintering grounds. Typically wintering in the northern US and southern Canada, some snowy owls have even been seen in Washington, DC, Florida, and Bermuda this year.


Several governmental agencies and NYC Audubon are working together to trap, band, and relocate the birds away from our local airports. Last Tuesday’s bird, a hatching year male, was the first one caught at JFK.

Continue reading ‘Moving Snowy Owls to Safer Hunting Grounds’ »

NYC Audubon Helps Researchers Answer Questions about Local Harbor Seal Populations

Psychologists and seal behavior researchers Dr. Kevin Woo and Dr. Kristy Biolsi and their students will be attending our Winter Seals and Waterbirds tours, starting on January 12, as part of their research on wintering harbor seals in the New York City area:



Harbor Seals © Mike Baird (Flickr Creative Commons License)

Harbor Seals © Mike Baird (Flickr Creative Commons License)

Since the European colonization of New York City, the habitat of the five boroughs has been transformed into a rather unique ecological niche. Urbanization has created local challenges to our wildlife, and some of our species have managed to adapt to these artificial changes. One species, the harbor seal (Phoca vitulina), was once seen easily along the foreshores of the northeast, which included New York City. However, populations disappeared for nearly a century before returning to the area a couple of decades ago. The shift in demographics prompts a singularly important question: Why are they back?

Three years ago, we decided to tackle this complex question. Our goals are to: 1) better understand why seals are coming back to New York City, 2) identify the ecological conditions that enable the success of returning populations, 3) discover how they are able to cope with man-made changes, and 4) consider the impacts of the urban environment on behavioral interactions, such as communication. Along with our undergraduate research students, we have watched harbor seals along the waterfront in New York City over the last three field seasons using non-invasive naturalistic observations. As harbor seals are typically found here from mid-October to early-April, we focused our efforts on select land-based locations in Brooklyn and the Bronx, while fielding reports of sightings in Jamaica Bay, and the Rockaways in Queens. Initially, we aim to capture demographic and atmospheric data to monitor relative populations at each location. Once we have a fairly decent picture of the local seal population, we will then start more comprehensive behavioral observations, such as responses to environmental noise–both visual and auditory.



Indeed, a bigger part of our research is to consider a conservation and education perspective. Marine mammal populations all over the world were affected historically by commercial hunting. Continue reading ‘NYC Audubon Helps Researchers Answer Questions about Local Harbor Seal Populations’ »