Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category.

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’ »

16 Years of Project Safe Flight Data

Research Assistant Kaitlyn Parkins reports on the poster she created and presented at this November’s New York Birders Conference:


Common Yellowthroat © Steve Nanz

Common Yellowthroats Are Among the Most Frequent Collision Victims. Photo © Steve Nanz

Last month, NYC Audubon presented a poster at the New York Birders Conference, summarizing 16 years’ worth of Project Safe Flight bird collision data. In total, between 1997 and the spring of 2013, volunteers collected over 6,000 birds of 126 different species. The top two species, the white-throated sparrow and common yellowthroat, make up 23% of all collisions. The ten species with the highest number of collisions were consistent across the years, and migratory birds made up the vast majority of collisions. As expected, the fall migration had a higher average number of collisions than spring, most likely due to the addition of “young of the year” birds to the population. We also examined the location of the majority of bird collisions and presented successful mitigation projects such as the retrofit of the Morgan Processing and Distribution Center and the Javits Center.


Also described in the poster are the results of a persistence study that investigated the likelihood of a collision victim being found by a Project Safe Flight monitor. Because birds may be picked up by scavengers or cleaned up by maintenance staff and street sweepers, it is important to have an estimate of how many collision victims are never even recorded. We discovered that two-thirds of birds are never found, meaning that we may have severely underestimated the number of birds killed by collisions each year. The results of these analyses provided insights into bird collisions that will guide Project Safe Flight monitoring and other projects into the future.


To view the entire poster in PDF form, click here.


- Kaitlyn Parkins


Piping Plover: Potential Beneficiaries of Sandy’s Wrath

Piping Plovers © Francois Portmann

Piping Plovers © Francois Portmann

Amid all the destruction and havoc caused by Hurricane Sandy last October, there is potentially good news for the federally threatened piping plover and other shorebirds that area beaches. The National Park Service (NPS) has found a nearly twofold increase in suitable shorebird nesting habitat at NPS’s Rockaway Beaches since Sandy impacted the area.


On that October night, Sandy wiped out and pushed back beach grass and other vegetation at the Rockaway beaches. The result: increased areas of dry, sandy beach habitat that shorebirds such as the piping plover need for productive nesting, according to NPS biologist Hanem Abouelezz. Looking at aerial satellite images of the area before and after the storm, Hanem found a 94.7% increase in potentially suitable shorebird nesting habitat within NPS-maintained beach areas such as Fort Tilden, Breezy Point, and Jacob Riis Park.


Breezy Point Tip Pre Sandy © National Park Service

Breezy Point Tip Pre Sandy © National Park Service

For years, intruding vegetation at Rockaway beaches forced piping plovers and other shorebirds to nest closer to the shore, leading to eggs being lost due to tidal flooding. New data collected by Hanem and her team suggests piping plover nesting may already be benefitting from the post-Sandy habitat changes. Whereas last year 54% of piping plover eggs monitored were lost due to tidal flooding, this year none were lost. The bird is even finding success nesting in formerly inhospitable areas. Piping plovers successful fledged at Fort Tilden this year for the first time since NPS started monitoring the area.


Breezy Point Tip, Post Sandy © National Park Service

Breezy Point Tip, Post Sandy © National Park Service

In addition to aiding the piping plover, post-Sandy habitat could also benefit nesting populations of least terns, common terns, American oystercatchers, and other shorebirds that similarly prefer flat, sandy beaches for nesting. However exciting the news is, it is too early to tell whether the change in habitat alone will lead to increased shorebird breeding productivity in the area. A variety of factors are involved in shorebird breeding success, including predation, interspecific competition, weather patterns, and human interference.

Special Analysis, Tribute in Light: 11-12 September 2013


This past Wednesday night, 9/11/13, NYC Audubon staff and volunteers once again monitored the Tribute in Light to ensure that migrating birds were not harmed. Working with the event’s producers, the lights were dimmed four times to allow congregations of birds to disperse on their southbound migration. Here’s an excellent analysis of the migration event that occurred, contrary to expectations, courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Andrew Farnsworth:


With forecast conditions looking rather gloomy for observers watching at the Tribute in Light but rosy for avoiding any potential for hazardous conditions for migrating birds, [Cornell Lab of Ornithology's] Team BirdCast predicted local, light movements and perhaps tens of birds in the beams of light during the memorial during the night of 11-12 September 2013. The first migrating bird appeared in the beam at 8:11pm EDT, with a scattering of birds thereafter for the first two hours after sunset. Then something changed, and what seemed like a reasonably good prediction playing itself out started to look as if it missed the mark slightly before missing the board completely! Between 10:30-11 pm EDT numbers of birds in the beam began to grow, and suddenly the forecast for tens of birds in the beams was off by two orders of magnitude!



Team BirdCast likes to be the first to point out its forecasting missteps, so here is some interpretation of where things went wrong in the forecast! A substantial line of thunderstorms from central southern Pennsylvania to central and eastern New York and western New England slowly was drifting North and East across the region, winds were primarily southerly and southwesterly, and the warm and moist air mass presiding over the region felt more like summer than fall. What we did not consider was the presence of a gust front, visible in the movie above in the first few frames; watch for a thin gray line stretching from eastern Pennsylvania North and East into eastern Massachusetts and slowly moving Southeast toward the coast. As this gust front moves Southeast, a noticeable change in targets aloft occurs, particularly along the Connecticut coast. These targets are birds taking flight, reaching moderate levels along the immediate coast, and quickly eclipsing the forecast densities! It seems that as the gust front passed, conditions changed sufficiently to cue birds to fly, albeit a couple of hours after typical post-sunset exodus. Gust fronts are also known as outflow boundaries, separating cool air flowing out of thunderstorms from the surrounding air mass. In this case the gust front had some effects similar to those of a passing cold front, with a slight wind shift and presumably a slight dip in temperature and increase in pressure. Numbers of birds, appearing as light to moderate movements along a corridor from New Jersey North and East to eastern Massachusetts in the movie, clearly interpreted these changes as signifying the time to take flight. While numbers of birds increased in these areas in the hours after the passage of the gust front, most of the remainder of the region, particularly to the West of the line of storms, saw whatever light and scattered movements diminish.


After the initial scattering of birds in the early hours of the evening, the arrival of hundreds and then thousands of migrants in the beams that had taken off with the passage of the gust front was a surprise to say the least. Here is a short clip of the nocturnal migrant activity in the beam at approximately 2 AM EDT 12 September 2013. Almost all of the white “snowflake”-like objects in this video are warblers, flying around the beams from 100-1,500 m above the ground.



Special thanks to the Municipal Arts Society for allowing NYC Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to monitor at the Tribute in Light. Moreover, Team BirdCast would also like to acknowledge that, as in past years when numerous birds were attracted to the beams, the organizers of the Tribute turned off the beams on four separate occasions during the night to avoid potentially hazardous situations for birds attracted to the lights!


Central Park BioBlitz

Glenn Phillips leads a group of students during the Central Park BioBlitz. Photo © Kaitlyn Parkins

Intern Kaitlyn Parkins, a graduate student in urban ecology at Fordham University specializing in bat ecology, reports:


More than 500 students and expert scientists from around the world descended on Central Park last Monday, August 26. Their goal: to identify as many living things as possible in 24 hours, to gauge the diversity of the Park’s plants and wildlife. The first such study of the Park in a decade, this year’s Central Park Bioblitz was coordinated by Macaulay Honors College at CUNY and the Central Park Conservancy with the help of experts from all over the globe. Students and researchers broke into teams and fanned out over the Park’s 843 acres to identify arthropods, lichens, plants, reptiles, fish, birds, bats, and more.


NYC Audubon supplied the bird buffs, including Executive Director Glenn Phillips, Board President Harry Maas, and interns Darren Klein and myself (although I got to help with the bats, too). We also had the gracious help of volunteers Bruce Yolton, James Buckler, Richard Lieberman, and Phil Cusimano. Between all of us, we took over 40 students out to survey birds, focusing on the North Woods and the Ramble for highest diversity.


The forecasted major thunderstorms held off, and despite the drizzly weather, we saw a great array of species. The students were excitedly documenting the plants, chipmunks, and butterflies they saw while on the lookout for birds. One group that went out Monday afternoon spotted a Wilson’s warbler among the blue jays and starlings, and the Tuesday morning groups listed a blue-gray gnatcatcher and a black-and-white warbler among their findings. Even the bat team got to document a bird species when we accidentally caught a northern waterthrush in our mist net. Of course, he was safely removed and sent on his way.


Along with the census, experts took the opportunity to engage the students in discussions about bird biology, conservation, and the importance of the biodiversity that can be found right in our own backyards. It was an opportunity for college students of all majors and interests to get some hands- on experience in biology, and not the kind that happens in a lab. One highlight: Students who at first could only recognize pigeons were able to point out American redstarts by the end of their session. That just can’t be taught in a classroom.


But the students aren’t the only winners here; the Park will benefit, too. Once all the data from the BioBlitz are compiled, it will be compared to the first Central Park BioBlitz, held in 2003. The Central Park Conservancy plans to analyze how Park wildlife has fared this last decade, and use their findings to inform management practices. Keep a lookout for the final tally and species list, expected this fall.


- Kaitlyn Parkins