Sunday, April 17, 2011


A pair of gadwall ducks, Anas strepera, near Brooklyn Bridge Park on the East River.

Gadwalls are delicate little ducks, streamlined and only about 20 inches long. The male's black butt and the female's white wing patch are noticeable from a distance.  Close up, the male is quite fancy with a black bill, plumy back feathers, and a pretty patch of chestnut brown on the "shoulder."

A resting male gadwall shows off patches of color. 

The Brooklyn gadwalls rarely come close to shore and they swim out even further when I approach. They are usually busy nibbling at the pilings. Their favorite meal is plants, but they also eat aquatic insects and the occasional small fish.

The male gadwall, left, and the female, right, swim among pilings where they nibble aquatic plants. 

It seems fitting that a swim in the East River should have a special urban twist. Broken reflections of city skyscrapers often cast weird patterns on the water surface where the ducks swim unconcernedly. Click on the picture below to enlarge it and you will see what I mean. Psychedelic!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Dark-eyed Junco

Junco hymenalis, the dark-eyed junco

On Saturday morning I walked through the garden of the River Cafe -- that's on the Brooklyn side of the East River under the looming towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. A pair of dark-eyed juncos was foraging there under a bare tree.

As I watched, the birds hopped, pecked, and scratched, finding small things to eat in the grass and dirt. Their diet includes seeds, nuts, grains, berries, and insects. The juncos meticulously avoided stepping into the sunlight while they foraged, deliberately working inside the lines of shadow cast by the leafless tree branches. Perhaps they feel comfortably camouflaged in shade. I waited a long time for them to step into the sun for these photos.

Dark-eyed juncos are common but unobtrusive so you may not notice them. They are found throughout North America. They look somewhat different across their broad range, and quite a few subspecies are recognized. The one that is at home in New York is called slate colored. Males and females are about 6 inches long with pink legs and pale pink bills. Males are slate gray above with white bellies and white tail edges that show in flight. Females share that pattern, but they are paler and have a bit of brown in their plumage.

Juncos are present year-round in some areas, like from the Rock Mountains to parts of the Pacific coast, and in parts of the Northeast and the Appalachians. But most of them migrate to Canada to breed and then head to southern states for winter, where their arrival signals the beginning of the season and they  are known as "snow birds."

The garden under the Brooklyn Bridge is noisy with traffic sounds. Oh, and construction, helicopters, fire sirens, police boats, and jets. But I could still hear the junco's musical trill above it all; their simple song sounds like an old-fashioned telephone ringing. It reminded me of something Charles Lindburgh said when he was interviewed shortly before his death in 1974: "...if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Brooklyn's Monk Parakeets

A pair of monk parakeets, Myiopsitta monachus

Brooklyn’s famous Green-Wood cemetery invites one to take a meditative stroll. Lanes and cobbled paths lace Green-Wood's hills, leading past gothic mausoleums, ancient beeches, civil war monuments, statues of draped urns, obelisks, cherubs, stone angels in  poses of grief, weeping trees, and bronze dogs in sad attitudes on tomb steps.  The cemetery is famous for its pastoral beauty; it was landscaped to inspire reverie and to promote communion with nature. Green-Wood opened in 1838 and is still a working cemetery. 
Green-Wood cemetery is a quiet spot in Brooklyn. 
The gates at the main entrance to Green-Wood cemetery.

But there is an unexpected cacophony near the towering gothic revival gates at the front entrance. Quak! Quaki! Quak-Wi! Quarr! Kurr! Chape-Yee! Skveet! Quak Quaki Quaki-wi Quarr! And the source is really surprising, given that we are in the heart of Brooklyn. It's parakeets! Big green and blue parakeets!

A closer look at the ornate spires of the cemetery gate reveals extensive nests of sticks tucked into the crevices. And the chattering birds are always adding to and improving the communal nest.
A pair of parakeets watches from a high perch. The growing stick nest is tucked into cracks and crevices on the ledges below them.

The monk parakeet is about a foot long. It is green overall with yellow-green on the belly and lower back. Its forehead, cheeks, throat, and breast are gray. Its bill is pale pink.  There are bright blue feathers in the wings and tail.

So what are they doing here? Like lots of other Brooklynites, they immigrated. They are native to South America (from Boliva and southern Brazil south to central Argentina). Many were imported to North America as pets. Some escaped and others were deliberately released. The rest was up to them. Because they are from parts of South America with cold temperatures, they are able to survive New York winters. They have also established colonies in other American cities, and in Puerto Rico, Bermuda, the Bahamas, and even in Europe, Israel, and Japan.

A few of Green-Wood's birds have started nesting at the power station across the street from the cemetery -- at the corner of 24th street and 5th avenue.
Stick nests around the bases of insulators at the power station.
Home sweet insulator. 
Monk parakeets are also called Gray-headed parakeets, Gray-breasted parakeets, Quaker parakeets, and Quaker Conures. By any name, they are established in New York and likely to stay.