This was my second sighting of Turkey Vultures in the last month, once over the north end of Central Park and most recent over south end of Morningside Park.  Before this, the last time I saw Turkey Vultures in Manhattan was over Central Park South, two summers ago.  Central Park definitely attracts them, but they are not touching down there, so it makes me wonder what their home base is...the Bronx, or Westchester?  Either way, they are scavengers whose function is to return dead animals back into the food chain by eating them.  Sort of like some people I know. 
 
 
Another Update!  On February 26th, Bruce Yolton of UrbanHawks.blogs.com captured some wonderful new video of the Rufous Humingbird.  See it here. 
Update! On February 10th, Ben Cacace reported on birdingonthe.net that he saw the Rufous hummingbird at the museum. 
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I was at the museum on Wednesday, 1/25/12, and she was still there, feeding on the same flowers and looking good.  
She made it through some patches of rough January weather--the snow, the downpour, and the high winds.   Okay, lesson I'm learning is that a tiny bird from the West can deal with NYC winter, given that she has access to food. 

Original Post: 
This past fall, birders of New York City discovered a rare visitor to our part of the world: a female Rufous Hummingbird.  What happened to make this tiny 3 gram bird deviate from the normal fall migratory patterns of her species, which should have brought her from the summer grounds of Alaska, Canada, Washington or Oregon down the West Coast as far south as Mexico?  This will remain her secret adventure. Meanwhile, all of us who are getting to know her are rooting that she survives her winter adventure in New York City.  
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Click on picture for large view.
 So far the weather has been on her side.  She's been spared the kind of heavy snow storms we had last year which would cover up her food sources of nectar and insects.  She has found a healthy and large shrub called Mahonia japonica that just happens to be an evergreen shrub that flowers in the winter and whose fragrant flowers make nectar!  This should help her keep up with her voracious appetite.  Hummingbirds eat 2-3 times their weight in nectar and insects every day.  It takes a lot of energy to hover like a hummingbird!
At night this presents a problem because it is unable to gather food to feed its high metabolism. But there is a solution: Hummingbirds have evolved a biological mechanism called torpor, during which the body almost shuts down completely.  In fact if you came across a hummingbird in torpor, you would mistake it for dead. Click here for a great article that describes torpor in more detail, and why torpor helps hummingbirds survive during cold nights as well as periods of time when there is not enough food.

I'd like to thank Rena Schilsky for a wonderful conversation while we were bird watching, and for her  donation to NYC Nature.  We both hope our friend from the West does well on her own, and will use the bird feeder provided to her at AMNH if and when nectar from the Mahonia flowers runs out.  I will provide updates on this adventurous lady from the West as the winter progresses, so please come back again!


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Update: If you're watching the video, take a look at around the 00:56 mark for a quick flash of red on the bird's throat, which identifies it as the female of the species. Also, If you pay careful attention to it as it is perching in the 2nd half of the video, you'll see it stick out its long tongue. Hummingbird tongues are bifurcated and covered with hair-like fibers that trap the nectar within the tongue. For amazing close up videos of hummingbird tongues while slurping nectar, see this website: http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-05-hummingbird-tongue-video.html

Update:  City Room Blog of the NYTimes reported that this morning, Thursday, 1/5/12, our visitor is doing well and still feeding on the Mahonia!

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/05/a-little-visitor-stays-awhile-longer/
Update:  As of January 10, the rufus hummingbird was still feeding at the Museum of Natural History and also across the street in Central Park.  Please visit Phil Jeffreys website for more details,   http://www.philjeffrey.net/Hummingbirds.html#AMNH11 as well as DNAinfo: http://www.dnainfo.com/20120111/upper-west-side/uws-plucky-hummingbird-is-tougher-than-she-looks-experts-say 
 
 
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Over the weekend, I stopped by to visit with the Urban Park Rangers at Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan.  If you ever have a question about wildlife sightings or anything of note happening at a local park,  you can start looking for answers by stopping in at one of the several Nature and Visitor Centers in the 5 boroughs.  

On Saturday the Rangers told me there was a Great Horned Owl visiting the park, and they told me the general area where to find it, and after some searching I found her!  Isn't she gorgeous? 

As you can see, she blends in very well with the brown and gray colors of a tree in winter.  Camouflage is a very important for birds, because they are either being hunted or hunting each other or other animals, and in either case, it pays to not stick out like a sore thumb!


 
 
Last week I stopped to watch a cardinal eat something in the North Woods at Central Park, and spent some time trying to get a good picture and video of it.  Being used to people, it allowed me to hang around and watch it, but was mostly giving me the cold shoulder.  It's something I've observed a lot of native birds do.  (Starlings, pigeons and sparrows---all non-native invasive species, don't show that behavior.)  They sense you're looking at them, and they'll just turn their back at you, not quite allowing you a good view of their face. As if they're playing hard to get.  

Yes, this is what birds normally do.  Sometimes though, birds do things out of the ordinary.  They acknowledge your existence, and even interact with you in ways that are exciting, wondrous, and mystifying.  And this was one of those times!   The cardinal that was my initial object of attention soon had more company. Several white-throated sparrows, a titmouse and a female downy woodpecker arrived on scene.  And for reasons unknown to me, both the titmouse and the woodpecker took a real quick liking to me.  At least I think they liked something about me.  

Watch this video to see how first the titmouse gets closer and closer and then begins swooping over my head.  Next you'll see the woodpecker do the same. If you turn the volume up you'll hear their wings flapping near my head as they're hovering.  Not sure why I was mobbed.  Birds mob other birds when they consider them a threat to their eggs or chicks, but this being winter, eggs and chicks are a few months away.  My only thoughts are that either I reminded them of someone who comes to that same spot and feeds them and they were asking for food, or that they wanted to eat my hat.  My hat has a flower on it and from the middle of the flower are hanging several short, thin strips of  light brown leather that dangle and could look wormy.  And worms are a very attractive food option in the middle of the winter when there isn't much food to be found.
 
 
 
The European Starling is a bird species that has many similarities to human beings.   It is aggressive, omnivorous, reproduces prolifically, is very social and very destructive to human interests. For example,  in a single day, a cloud of starlings numbering in the hundreds of thousands can gobble up 20 tons of potatoes.   

Their story in this country began in 1890 when a Shakespeare fan wanted to introduce to America all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare, so he proceeded to release 100 starlings in Central Park. Today it is estimated that there are over 200 million starlings throughout the country, including Alaska.  Click here for a great NY Times article about the story of starlings vs. humans in the United States. 

My outstanding memories of starlings in the city involve seeing one in Forest Park fight a woodpecker over a nest hole; hearing their cacophony coming from the trees and building eaves on the campus of Columbia University; watching them eating chicken wings from a garbage bag left on the curb; watching a large flock of about 500 descend on a lawn in Fort Greene Park during a rain shower to use their beaks to poke through the grass for grubs.  Unlike most birds, their beak muscles are able to apply pressure as they are opening up, instead of when they close down.  You can see this behavior in the video above. The name starling means little star, and the name alludes to the white dots on their feathers which are very visible in the winter. 

Intellectually, I am troubled by the problem of starlings and I wonder what if anything will ever bring their population under control and how many bird species will disappear because of them.  I  often find myself asking the same questions about people.  I am troubled by all species that seem extra aggressive, extra selfish, extra successful in propagating their own at the expense of others, but despite that, or because of this parallel I perceive between starlings and us, I like and respect them.  I am amused by their chutzpah, their vigorous approach to living, their enthusiasm for singing, eating, flying, fighting, and just in general taking up space in this world.  
 
 
Yesterday, Bryant Park at 42nd Street was occupied by a large ice skating rink, a carousel, empty holiday shops, several ping pong tables, a huge tent and a plethora of tables and chairs.  Along the sides of the skating rink a smattering of birders were poking around the shrubs and trees searching for a smattering of unusual birds:  The kind of birds that one doesn't expect to see in New York City in the winter, and the kind of birds that if in the city, one would expect to see in a bigger park, like Central Park. 

Yet defying our expectation and common sense, there they were as observed by myself and others yesterday, and over the last several weeks: a gray catbird, an ovenbird, and the most colorful of them, the yellow-breasted chat.  

They are at Bryant Park in the middle of the city because they have found a suitable habitat there: shelter and protection from predators in the form of evergreen shrubs and trees where they can retreat from view; enough seeds and insects on and around plants and in the soil to satisfy their high metabolism.  And very important, there is a constant source of water from the main large, beautiful water fountain at one end of the park, and rain water collected in the fountains at the research library on 5th Avenue. 

Random decisions made over the years about creating a park that is pleasing to us people seems to have resulted in a random congregation of unusual winter birds this year at Bryant Park.  What is one to make of this?  Explanations aren't needed in order to enjoy the beauty of diversity these birds offer us this year.  However I want to share an observation I have made over the years that applies to our birds at Bryant Park:  If you built it, they will come.  In other words, life in some form or other will occupy a habitat that offers all the things needed to sustain life: food, water, space, shelter.  And this year, the yellow-breasted chat, the oven bird, the gray catbird, alongside the usual contingent of house sparrows and white throated sparrows have found what they needed to occupy habitat Bryant Park.

Here are some fun facts about the birds:
Yellow-breasted Chat
It has its own particular song, but it also mimics the songs of other birds:  Go to this youtube video to hear it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l9MrG0YEMs 
The female develops a brood patch that looks like a bald spot on its belly in order to incubate the eggs.  See a picture of a brood patch at this website: http://www.wbu.com/chipperwoods/photos/yelbr_chat.htm 

Ovenbird
The Ovenbird gets its name from its covered nest. The dome and side entrance make it resemble a Dutch oven. 
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Gray Catbird
This bird is common in New York City during the warm seasons.  They tend to spend most of their time hidden in shrubs and foraging low to the ground, so sometimes they're a little hard to spot. But if you hear something that sounds like a kitten, you may be hearing the catbird.

 
 
Squirrel from the Greek "skiouros",  means "she who sits in the shadow of her tail".

This squirrel is enjoying seeds from the sweetgum tree, also a favorite food of the American gold finch.  In the past, Native Americans would apply the sap of the sweetgum tree to achy teeth as it has an analgesic effect. 

Other food sources for city squirrels are acorns, tree buds, young bark, osage oranges and of course treats from tourists.

You may know that in the fall squirrels bury acorns in the ground for later consumption during the winter when other food sources run out.  How do you think that after burying hundred of acorns they remember where to find them?  A great memory or a great sense of smell?   It's the nose.  They can smell up to two inches under ground and snow.  Squirreling food away is a community effort.  Everyone participates in food storing and later everyone benefits.  Okay, it's a little more complicated than that because squirrels do defend territory.  However if a squirrel breaches the territory of another, it will have no trouble smelling acorns hidden under ground.

Did you ever wonder what happens when a squirrel eats fermented fruit?  Why, the same thing that happens when people drink fermented fruit juice:  Everyone gets drunk; and the squirrel loses its fear of hawks.  A couple of years ago, I witnessed a squirrel stumbling around near Strawberry Fields in Central Park after s/he finished eating a fermented osage orange.  (You may have seen this strange fruit before--it looks like a grapefruit sized green brain.)  S/he struggled to make her way up a tree to a branch directly beneath its mortal enemy, the red-tailed hawk!  Luckily, this time the hawk was not interested--perhaps it had just had a pigeon meal.  Evidently, alcohol impairs sensible decision making across species, in case you were wondering.

Sensible decision making is sometimes learned after insensible decision making. After my first close encounter with a squirrel I ended up in the hospital--an illustration of "biting the hand that feeds you".  I was an 11 year old on a family day out in Central Park. That day I participated in the time honored tradition of feeding junk food to the animals: I offered a squirrel part of my Snickers bar.  It was a kind gesture--one life form reaching out to another offering the universally accepted and appreciated gift of food.  It was received better than I had hoped for.  The squirrel mistook my chocolate covered finger for an extension of the small chunk of peanut candy bar and it wouldn't let go.  The squirrel was literally hanging in the air by my finger as I was trying to shake it off.   That was the only time I have ever had an animal hang from my finger by its teeth.  When she finally disengaged, there was no blood and it didn't hurt much.  As a precaution my mother took me to the hospital.  The precaution hurt a lot worse.  I was surprised and remembered the pain of that tetanus shot for a long time after. The doctors didn't vaccinate me for rabies even though that was our primary concern: They knew that squirrels and rodents in general do not get rabies. 

Park rules say don't feed the wild life, but if you cannot contain this kind urge to share please offer them food similar to their natural diet, and refrain from hand feeding.



This video was filmed at Riverside Park on Friday, December 2, at ~4pm
 
 
Happy New Year, New York City! Welcome to the NYC Nature blog. For this first day of the year 2012, I begin exploring a year's worth of nature in the city by observing a group of one of the most accessible, common and more interesting cohabitants of our city:  the House Sparrows.   These tiny creatures naturally evolved in Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia, and are now the most widely distributed wild bird in the world.  They are never found far away from human populations.   These social, chatty, gregarious, argumentative, and sometimes aggressive birds are full of action, surprises and energy.  Next time you have a few minutes to watch a flock of sparrows, do it! I see in them courage, patience, curiosity, and playfulness.  What do you see?