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A Bird’s Eye View: October 5, 2012

Watching Warblers At A Hawk Watch

One morning last October I’m driving to the hawk watch at Fire Island, where migrating raptors are counted and recorded during the fall migration season. Just before starting over a bridge leading to Fire Island, two great egrets, which are large white birds, are rising into the air. Driving over a second bridge, a vast clouded sky hangs on the horizon like a curtain on a theatrical stage. What will be revealed when the clouds part? On Fire Island, going around the traffic circle, there are four deer feeding on the grass. The scene is bucolic.

At the two-tiered hawk watch platform, the sky is overcast with a pale salmon color. With a west wind at 5-7 mph, today promises to be slow. Someone calls out that there’s a “sharpie” or sharp-shinned hawk coming through. I get my binoculars on a fast flying bird that flaps, flaps, flaps, then glides and repeats this movement. It’s no sharpie. The bird shows yellow on its underwings. However it isn’t a hawk but rather a flicker, a woodpecker that migrating raptors sometimes take as prey. A lone, lazy flapping dark osprey flies over the bay, scanning the still-as-glass, dark blue water below for a fish. Hooked talons, large toes and rough areas on its feet allow the “fish-hawk” to firmly grip a fish after diving into the water. However, this one sees nothing and flies on.

There’s a big break in the clouds and thin streams of light coming through make a gull flying toward the ocean look luminescent. On the bay side another gull carrying a shell in its bill flies low over the road. After the shell is dropped, there’s a sound. The gull lands and picks up the shell. Did it break? The gull goes over the swale toward the bay followed by another gull. Two for breakfast?

On slow days like this, when few raptors come through, other birds can be seen sometimes in abundance. The bushes adjacent to a 1/3-mile boardwalk are alive with yellow-rumped warblers. As their name suggests, these mercurial 5.5-inch birds have bright yellow on their rumps. These birds, whose diet consists of insects and berries, are sometimes called Myrtle warblers. They migrate later in the fall than other warblers, which helps to account for their numbers here.

I’m unable to get a good view of the warblers because they silently lilt away and disappear after diving expertly into bare brush. Although frustrated, I soon realize that I’m getting to know their behavior. They weave their way left and right, flying short distances to bushes showing only their bright yellow rump spot. Then the warblers sometimes offer only a partial view, perhaps showing their heads and short, thin bills and their light eye-ring. Then they may turn and show only their tails. Often they are in shadow and very difficult to spot. One flies onto the lower railing of the walkway and proceeds to walk sideward in a blur. One is on a bush branch and twists, quickly showing the yellow on the side of its breast then the yellow rump. On another, the yellow spot on the rump up close looks uneven but is bright as “dayglo” paint.

Glancing over the landscape I cannot but admire the smooth white sand yet untracked by beach goers. There are two barren, perhaps dead, pinecone bushes in the sand, deserted and abandoned. Two lookout posts in the desert. This landscape spare and bare is the essence of beauty. My reverie however is brief as I look into the bushes and see a perching yellow-rump.

Back at the platform’s base, another yellow-rump is on a railing. The upper half of the bird’s back is a rich medium brown while the lower half of its back is black as is the tail and both have streaking. Another yellow-rump’s back is a lightish brown, almost golden with dark streaks. The brown color covers its head, neck and goes halfway down the bird’s back. It is like a cape thrown on as much for color as for warmth. On yet another bird, the brown “cape” extends to the base of the bird’s tail. I’m hooked on this detail, which may represent a gradual morphing into fall plumage. On a day when migrating raptors have been scarce, the little warblers have been a nice consolation prize.

The afternoon begins to wind down as thirty cormorants come by on the bay side in a ragged formation characteristic of them. A fast flying brown form with a rounded head, a merlin, flies past the platform. Nicknamed “the pigeon hawk” or “blue lightning” because of its blue gray back, the merlin takes birds and insects  such as dragonflies in midair. It is the most frequent raptor we normally see and why I think of this place as “merlin country.“

A harrier with a dark back flies across the swale in front of the lighthouse.  These long-winged, slim-bodied birds fly low to the ground and have facial discs that help locate the sounds of hidden rodents. The bird turns a bit showing its bright butterscotch belly and the striking white spot on its rump. The sight of this harrier reminds me of why I come here.

With the day over, while driving to the bridge I see a dark form on the grass that has thin legs and a rack of antlers tilted toward the ground. Is this the same male deer that I saw near here this morning? Going over the bridge, a gull on the structure sounds a familiar mournful cry. That same cry in the morning brings the hope of a big day and this afternoon it signals the end of a rich day of birding, although not one that I could have anticipated. Wait until my wife hears I spent the day watching warblers.