The reservoir's historic structures & ecosystems are an opportunity to create a unique environmental education center for our children & their future.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Final Breeding Bird Survey

Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota)

07/14, Ridgewood Reservoir

Saturday was our final day of the 2007 breeding bird survey at the reservoir. I wondered aloud if there would be something for us to come back to next year.

Our volunteer list for the day was John Criscitiello, Rusty Harold, Steve Nanz, Suzanne Ortiz, Janet Schumacher, Heidi Steiner and myself. We could not have asked for better weather. It was mild, dry and a slight breeze was blowing in from the west.

After we slathered on sunblock and bug spray in the parking lot, we started the day as we had each of the previous 6 surveys; dodging cars to cross the busy roadway then walking up a short, dirt rise to the running and biking trail that rings the basins. Despite the reservoir's relative isolation, we always encountered many people running, walking or cycling the 1 mile loop.

A narrow border of trees across from the parking lot, has held several auspicious "good-way-to-start-the-day" birds. Among the species on the list are Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Wood Thrush and Great Crested Flycatcher. We've also seen Indigo Bunting along that stretch. On our last morning of the survey, Steve spotted a single, hyperactive Blue-gray Gnatcatcher foraging near the treetops. It is difficult for me to grasp the minuteness of an animal that can subsist on a days worth of gnats.

As we turned the corner of basin #1, I spotted a male goldfinch still sporting his brilliant yellow breeding plumage. He flew from inside the reservoir and into a cherry tree filled with ripe fruit. Farther up the path, Steve located an American Redstart. It is possible that there are some late breeders around, but for the most part, the nesting season for NYC birds has ended.

A grass buffer between the road and the running track was dotted with thousands of flowering red and white clover. Like a Lilliputian airport, the air space between the earth and flower heads was seething with activity. Butterflies, bees, dragonflies, damselflies and hover flies avoided mid-air collisions while competing for nectar-laden blossoms.

Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus)

Also present was one of my favorite insects - the Cicada Killer. I have been observing a colony of these unnervingly large wasps in Prospect Park for several years. Saturday was the first time that I ever saw one feeding on nectar. I never considered the adults diet. I have only seen them hunting cicadas, which they paralyze, carry to their burrows and use as a live host on which their larvae eventually feed. I would not have guessed that an insect with such a sinister survival strategy was a vegetarian.

We passed beneath a House Wren singing from a perch within a large, vine-draped tree. He is always in that vicinity, but we have never been able to locate his nest. At a spot tangled with multiflora rose, porcelein berry vines and bindweed we noted the presence of White-eye Vireos twice, but like the wren, we never found a nest. Fortunately, on our final day of the breeding survey, Steve spotted a juvenile foraging in the trees above the edge of basin #1.

Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

Near the first central maintenance path, we split into two groups. Steve, Janet and I covered the interior of one of the basins while the others surveyed the outside perimeter.

Our climb down the steep, granite block lined berm took a little longer than usual. A "safety" line that somebody had attached to a tree was gone. Once inside I noticed that the "bog" has dried out a little since my last visit. There were still plenty of areas carpeted with a mix of emerald green mosses. In addition, the ground below several stretches of yellow birch forest had the appearance and spongy quality of peat bog.

As the three of us made our way into the forested sections of this basin, I decided to take a different route through a more dense section. I planned to meet Steve and Janet at the opposite side.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)

Some sections I encountered were impassable and I spent a lot of time climbing over downed saplings or detouring around stands of sapling that were just inches apart. I should have brought my compass. Twenty minutes into the basin, I took a rest at an opening beneath a tangle of chokecherry and other shrubs. There were six chatty young catbirds feeding on berries when they suddenly became curious about me. I made a mewing sound, which brought them closer. Catbirds tend to be tame, but I wondered if these young birds had ever seen a human? When I started hiking back towards Steve and Janet a few of the catbirds trailed along, watching from a safe distance.

I caught up with Steve and Janet at a grassy opening near the center of the birch forest. There were dozens of dragonflies flying around or perching on the tips of bare, dead sapling. The majority appeared to be large Carolina Saddlebags. We had not seen many birds to that point, but the singsong whistle of Warbling Vireos seemed to be nearly everywhere.

Carolina Saddlebag (Tramea carolina)

We relocated the Black-capped Chickadee's nest but the cavity in the birch stump was vacant. I heard a distant "dee dee dee" earlier in the morning, but never saw any of these tiny, black and white birds.

We exited the basin and walked the asphalt trail to meet the others. From there, we would descend into basin #3. Along the way I heard, then found, a fledgling redstart. She was trailing along behind her father chirping and fluttering her wings for food. There was no way to tell if this was the same young bird Steve and Heidi found a couple of weeks ago.

Basin #3 is the smallest of the three impoundments. It has a slight downhill grade towards one corner where it forms a small swamp. Once inside the basin, Janet and I went in the opposite direction from the rest of the group. I was curious if the swamp still existed (as if the mosquitoes hadn't already drained enough of my blood).

Most of the water and mud holes have transformed into small grass meadows tucked away between stands of young, narrow trees. There was no sign of the swamp that had previously attracted a diverse mix of songbirds. This lower section of basin #3 is most likely just an area of vernal pools.

As we continued walking, I noticed an active nest in a tall, thin locust tree. We had to move to another location to get a clear view of the birds and ended up wading through several yards of chest-deep mugwort. We were in a windbreak and it felt like 90 degrees in the sun. Four chicks in the locust tree stood at separate edges of nest with their mouths agape. It was their only relief from the heat. We circled around the locust tree, as we still could not identify the birds in the nest. Finally, with the sun at my back, I could see three young birds with prominent dark masks across their faces. Moments later an adult Cedar Waxwing arrived at the nest with their lunch.

As we were pushing our way back through the maze of mugwort Janet noticed a House Wren. It was a few feet above the ground, near the locust tree. I heard the rattling chitter call of another one in front of us. He had the yellow gape of a young bird. As he flew to our left, another emerged from the mugwort near the locust. Then, another bird answered his rattle. Eventually, a family of House Wrens - 2 adult and 3 fledglings, surrounded us. They did not seem the least bit concerned by our presence and even answered back when I imitated their call. They clung to the sides of trees, flew to dead snags to check us out, played hide-and-seek in the mugwort; we were thoroughly amused by the young wrens for several minutes. Finally, the adults rounded up their brood and they all vanished into the basin's dense understory.

I would like to believe that the department of parks will listen to the surrounding communities desire to keep the reservoir as a nature preserve. Perhaps the administrators for the reservoir site need a reminder of the mayor's edict for better education, more green spaces and a greater respect for the environment. That mission alone should sway the parks commissioner to use the tools of learning at Ridgewood Reservoir, not chainsaws and bulldozers.

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