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



A Quick Look at Spring Migration Bird Collision Figures

Summer intern Kaitlyn Parkins presents data on spring migration bird collisions collected by Project Safe Flight volunteers


Every year, more than 100 species of migratory birds pass through New York City on their way between South and Central America and their northern breeding grounds   along the Atlantic Flyway. The trek through the City can be perilous for these birds because of the maze of tall buildings, bright lights, and reflective glass.


Since 1997, NYC Audubon has sponsored Project Safe Flight (PSF), an endeavor to study and mitigate urban bird collisions. Working with a devoted group of volunteers who patrol high-risk locations during migrations, Project Safe Flight counts and collects birds that have been injured or died in building collisions. To date, over 6,000 birds of 126 different species have been found and documented in PSF’s database.


PSF spring migration bird collisions chart

A breakdown of spring migration bird collisions by species. Click to enlarge

This spring, eight sites were monitored, and a total of 39 dead and five injured birds were found by volunteers. Of those, 29 were identified to the species. Just like previous years, common yellowthroats and ovenbirds were found more frequently than any other species; they were followed by white-throated sparrows, American woodcocks, and black-and-white warblers. The majority of collisions occurred at Bryant Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


We will include this year’s data with our records from 1997–2012 and analyze it to help us better understand why bird collisions occur, and what can be done to reduce their frequency. Soon, volunteers will be gearing up for the fall migration. If you’re interested in volunteering for this important project please contact our outreach manager at apalmer@nycaudubon.org.


-Kaitlyn Parkins



Field Notes: Horseshoe Crab Monitoring at Plumb Beach

Summer intern Debra Kriensky reports on a recent field expedition


Molted shells from young horseshoe crabs (approximately two-to-three years old). Photo © Susan Elbin

Molted shells from young horseshoe crabs (approximately two-to-three years old). Photo © Susan Elbin

On July 23, NYC Audubon staff and interns went out to Plumb Beach in Brooklyn to help horseshoe crab researcher Mark Botton search for baby crabs. Though we couldn’t help but stop to look at the birds—we saw several oystercatchers, plenty of gulls and terns, and a flock of juvenile barn swallows—the tiny, newly hatched horseshoe crabs stole the show.


Though the horseshoe crab hatchlings we were looking for were in the same shape as the adult crabs we count and tag during the spawning season, they were considerably more difficult to find. Smaller than a ladybug and the same color as the sand, the crab larvae were practically invisible in the shallow waters of the low tide. Fortunately, we were able to find a few of the baby crabs, which were promptly measured and released. During our search, we also stumbled upon the molted shells of several older horseshoe crabs that likely hatched two or three years ago.


In addition to searching for hatchlings, Botton’s team was also there to measure

A newly hatched horseshoe crab © Debra Kriensky

A newly hatched horseshoe crab found in the shallows being held in a shell until it could be measured. Photo © Debra Kriensky

the density of eggs at different depths of sand at several points along the shoreline. Using five-cm and 20-cm cores, the group collected a total of 120 samples of sand to analyze back at the lab. This data can be used to determine where crabs are laying their eggs on the beach, among other things. For example, since birds can only reach eggs close to the surface of the sand, looking at the egg densities in the five-cm core sample can help clarify just how much of this important food resource is available for shorebirds on Plumb Beach.


-Debra Kriensky

Natural Strength: Thoughts on the Mayor’s plan to increase the resiliency of New York City’s coastline

Summer intern Darren Klein reports.


In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg released PlaNYC, a broad initiative intended to strengthen the economy of New York City, address climate change, prepare for increasing population size, and generally enhance quality of life for New Yorkers. After Hurricane Sandy battered the City last year, PlaNYC was updated to include an outline for improving the resilience of the City as it faces a future in which powerful storms and other extreme weather events are likely to occur with greater frequency. A major component of the latest version of PlaNYC is called the Comprehensive Coastal Protection Plan, which has been designed to strengthen the coastline of the City and prevent the kind of storm surge and flood damage that crippled the City after Sandy.


The Comprehensive Coastal Protection Plan calls for the combined use of “hard” and “natural” infrastructural elements. NYC Audubon is strongly supportive of the planned use of natural elements including wetlands, oyster reefs, living shorelines (a combination of reefs, maritime forests, and tidal wetlands), sand dunes, and beach nourishment. In addition to making effective contributions to wave and floodwater attenuation and to shoreline stability, the use of these elements will also provide valuable ecosystem services and create new habitat for the birds and other wildlife of New York City.


There are situations, however, where the use of “hard” elements such as sea walls, tide gates, groins, and offshore breakwaters may be more appropriate than natural solutions. It is the view of NYC Audubon that these tools should only be used in coastal areas that are already highly developed. In less-developed areas, hardened elements contribute to the more rapid erosion of sand; as waves strike these relatively smooth, hard surfaces, their energy is reflected back out to sea, pulling sand away from the shore. This can lead to the destabilization of coastal areas, and puts inland areas at greater risk from storm surge and flooding. The Comprehensive Coastal Protection Plan states that solutions will be tailored to match existing patterns of geomorphology and land use, and so it seems that the inappropriate application of hard infrastructure is unlikely.


In the coming weeks, NYC Audubon, in collaboration with Audubon New York, will be sending a statement to Mayor Bloomberg, thanking him and expressing support for the incorporation of natural infrastructure in this vision for the future of New York City.


You can read more about PlaNYC here.


- Darren Klein


Field Reports: Yankee, Lima, and Tango

A common tern chick being banded. Photo © Annie Barry

A common tern chick being banded. Photo © Annie Barry

Director of Conservation and Science Susan Elbin reports on exciting work on Governor’s Island:


Yankee, Lima, and Tango: Regular visitors to Governor’s Island may know that these are names of three piers on the southern shore of Governor’s Island, each named for the letter that represents their shape: Y, L, and T.  Regular visitors may notknow, however, that these piers are now the sites of three nesting areas (colonies) for common terns!


This just hatched common tern chick is well camouflaged in its nest of shells, rocks, wood, and bones. Photo © Annie Barry

This just hatched common tern chick is well camouflaged in its nest of shells, rocks, wood, and bones. Photo © Annie Barry

The nesting population has been growing for the past several years, and this year our team from NYC Audubon, the National Park Service, the Trust for Governors Island, Earth Matter, the Harbor School, and the LiRo/Turner group counted 152 nests at the end of June: 80 on Yankee, 62 on Tango, and 10 on Lima. To help the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and NYC Audubon learn more about the terns, which are listed as a threatened species in New York State, we banded 100 chicks and 10 adults.  We look forward to continued work monitoring this new colony.


Treading Lightly to Protect Horseshoe Crabs on Plumb Beach

Hatching horseshoe crab larvae are just a fraction of the size of this tiny shell, most likely from a crab about one year old. Photo © braindamaged217*

Summer intern Debra Kriensky reports on current efforts to protect developing horseshoe crabs on Plumb Beach:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is set to start Phase II of their work on Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach, and NYC Audubon is advising the Corps on how to tread lightly around something they might not even be able to see: baby horseshoe crabs!


Right before Hurricane Sandy hit, the Army Corps completed Phase I of the project, during which they added new sand to the eroding beach in an effort to protect the adjacent Belt Parkway. Phase II, set to begin in July once the majority of horseshoe crab spawning is complete, will involve building permanent stone groins and a breakwater to mitigate future beach erosion. New vegetation being planted on the dunes and a fence will also help protect the Belt Parkway and a popular bike path from drifting sand.


While the Army Corps has been preparing for Phase II, the parking lot to the beach has been closed to the public. However, NYC Audubon had been granted access to the beach throughout May and June to monitor the horseshoe crabs that come to Plumb Beach in large numbers during the full and new moon to spawn.


And though they arrived a bit behind schedule, horseshoe crabs have indeed returned to Plumb Beach in strong numbers this year, despite the changes made by Sandy and the Army Corps (close to 1,800 crabs counted over 12 nights, compared to around 1,300 in 2012). While numbers of spawning crabs are winding down at this point, heavy machinery and construction on the beach could mean bad news for the hatching larvae. NYC Audubon and partners at Fordham University and the National Park Service are working with the Corps of Engineers to minimize disturbance to hatchlings while respecting the deadlines that have been contracted for the work.
-Debra Kriensky


Field Notes: Cormorant Banding on Swinburne Island

Cormorant Chicks © Don Riepe

Summer intern Darren Klein reports on a recent field expedition:


On June 20th, a team of NYC Audubon staff, interns, and volunteers traveled to Swinburne Island to band young double-crested cormorants. This long-abandoned island, at various times home to a quarantine hospital and a Merchant Marine training station, has in recent decades become a popular nesting site for a variety of sea birds, including the double-crested cormorant. Once an imperiled species, the double-crested cormorant has made a tremendously successful comeback in recent years. In order to gain a better understanding of this recovery, NYC Audubon has been banding cormorants on Swinburne Island since 2006.


After arriving on the island, the team scouted the various cormorant nesting sites–the birds had built a large cluster of nests on the ground, but many more were up in the island’s few remaining trees, and all were full of young birds. The largest chicks were removed from the nests and brought to a holding pen in a nearby clearing, where they waited their turn to be banded. The birds were carefully wrapped in towels and held while each of their legs received a different identification band. The numbers on the bands were recorded, and then each bird was returned to their nest. In total, the team was able to band 85 birds during their three-hour visit.


-Darren Klein


Field Notes: 2013 Harbor Herons Nesting Survey

Great Egret © Bill Majoros

Great egret nestlings like this little fellow depend on the safe, undisturbed habitat of our Harbor Heron Islands. Photo © Bill Majoros

Elizabeth Craig, coordinator of NYC Audubon’s nesting survey of waterbirds in New York Harbor, reports on this springs’s just completed survey:


Hurricane Sandy had a remarkable effect on the structure and vegetation of many of the Harbor Herons nesting islands, particularly Hoffman and Swinburne Islands in the Lower New York Bay. Despite the destruction of considerable nesting habitat, the Harbor Herons are back in large numbers throughout New York Harbor this year; in comparable, and in some cases greater numbers of nesting pairs than observed before the storm in 2012! Islands including Hoffman, South Brother, Mill Rock, and Subway continue to support vibrant communities of herons. Unfortunately, other islands, including Canarsie Pol and Goose Island, have experienced drastic declines.


Canarsie Pol, once one of the largest and most diverse nesting colonies in the harbor, has now been completely abandoned by all colonial waterbirds. Goose Island, which exhibited active heron nests earlier this spring, has also been recently abandoned. In both cases, evidence points towards mounting disturbance, both from humans and from predators such as raccoons, rats, and other birds including owls and crows. The situation on Goose Island this past week can only be described as a massacre, with eggshells and dead adult herons and egrets strewn about the forest floor. Human disturbance causes adult birds to leave their nests, likely aggravated the effects of predation by making eggs and chicks more vulnerable to predators. Goose Island illuminates the true cost of human disturbance in nesting colonies during the breeding season, and the importance of predator-free nesting habitat to the perpetuation of colonial waterbird populations in New York Harbor.


Creating young Citizen Scientists!

One of the young data collectors with the final tally. © NYC Audubon

Kids of all ages were counting birds around the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on March 30th as part of their Celebrate Earth week. We were excited to partner with the museum to introduce kids to citizen science by having them survey the birds in the area and then report back to us – adding their observations to our tally for the day. At the end of the day we shared the totals with all participants via text so they could see how their data fit into the bigger picture. We hope the kids will continue to observe the birds they encounter in their daily lives!

- John Rowden

Wintering on the Equator

Searching for birds in elfin forest in the Andes © NYC Audubon

Walking to work today with a wind chill of -2°F certainly made me miss Ecuador, from which I returned on Monday. I spent ten days there with eight intrepid NYC birders who joined me as part of NYC Audubon’s international travel program. We visited both sides of the Andes, went as low as 500 meters above sea level and reached as high as 4,300 meters (over 14,000 feet) in altitude while visiting a variety of habitats from cloud forest to paramo tundra. We saw 221 species during our trip, including the majestic Andean Condor, the gorgeous Crested Quetzal, and the raucous Inca Jay. In addition, we saw a number of Neotropical migratory species such as the Blackburnian Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush and Spotted Sandpiper, a reminder of the incredible distances “our” birds travel during migration and a joyful promise that we’ll all be seeing them again in a few short months.

- John Rowden