Sunday, April 26, 2015

Birds of Rocky Point Salt Marsh, Part Two: October, 2012 to December, 2013.

We are continuing with a survey of birds that I have photographed at the marsh since late 2011. In this installment we begin in October of 2012 and wind up at the end of December, 2013. It must be appreciated that these sightings are by no means a complete record of bird species that have visited the marsh. Certainly others have made observations that include species not seen here; I am also certain that I have had fleeting glimpses of species that I have not been able to identify. Finally, a common species, such as the European Starling has been seen in the area in question with some regularity, but as yet, I simply have not photographed one!

For the purpose of these blog segments, I have very loosely defined Rocky Point Marsh as everything lying within borders defined by Rockaway Park Boulevard and Beach 201st Street, to the south and west, respectively (note that all compass points are “approximate”). The far-east border is delineated by the jetty at that end of the cove; the jetty then runs back into Rockaway Park Blvd. at Beach 193rd Street. The marsh’s northern side is fronted by Jamaica Bay.

For references consulted, please see part one of this series.

10-06-2012, Common Yellow-throat, (Geothlypis trichas). The male of this species, with its black face-mask, is one of the most distinct of the warblers; this example is most probably a female. In addition, this species is the only warbler that prefers to nest in marshlands.

10-06-2012, Swamp Sparrow, (Melospiza georgiana). As its name might imply, this species favors swamps and marshes, where it will nest. Because its preferred habitat is often developed for human use, this species has become vulnerable to a decline in numbers.

10-06-2012, Mallard, (Anas platyrhynchos). Mallards are an extremely common dabbling duck and can be seen anywhere there is water in the New York/metropolitan area. This individual, a male, was photographed in the marsh pond.

10-06-2012, Double-crested Cormorant, (Phalacrocorax auritus). Photographed a few yards off-shore from the marsh, this individual is beginning its take-off run from the water’s surface. Dozens of these birds can be seen off-shore during certain times of the year, hunting for prey or perched out of the water with their wings spread out to dry.

10-06-2012, Eastern Phoebe, (Sayornis phoebe). A flycatcher, this species feeds mostly on insects, but will adapt its diet to the climate by eating fruits and berries in cooler months. It will nest on human-made structures and is rather common in the New York/metropolitan area.

10-13-2012, Brown Creeper, (Certhia americana). This secretive little guy was spotted in the woods on the western edge of the marsh, which were fairly easily accessible prior to the advent of Super-storm Sandy (which came a couple of weeks after this image was made). This species has been observed several times since then, again in the same general area.

10-13-2012, Chipping Sparrow, (Spizella passerina). Originally not averse to nesting near human population centers, this species has in many cases been displaced by the introduced House Sparrow. An insect eater in warm weather, it will eat seeds when its favorite prey is suppressed in cold weather. In this image, the wind has caused the head of this individual to appear as if it has a crest.

10-13-2012, Golden-crowned Kinglet, (Regulus satrapa). On the day these two individuals were photographed, they were part of an amorphous group of about eight or ten. Their distinct black, white and yellow heads are unmistakable and the reason for their name.

10-13-2012, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). Probably one of the oddest named birds, this species will eat insects, fruit and berries. It will also feed on tree-sap.

11-11-2012, Brant Goose, (Branta bernicla). A stout, relatively small goose, the Brant is very common in the New York /Metropolitan area. This species is sometimes seen in great numbers near the marsh, throughout Jamaica Bay, and in the NY harbor area.

03-23-2013, Piping Plover, (Charadrius melodus). Census data tells us that there are somewhere around 6,000 Piping Plovers on the entire planet, a woefully low number. Although they have not nested at the marsh, they are occasional visitors as they forage.

05-04-2013, House Sparrow, (Passer domesticus). An example of the remarkable vision birds are said to possess was presented by this common House Sparrow. From out of nowhere, this male caught my eye as he landed on the beach in front of the marsh, immediately plucked a feather from the sand, and almost as quickly departed with his prize, probably for his nest.

06-01-2013, American Black Duck, (Anas rubripes). Numerous and familiar, this species can easily be mistaken for the very similar female Mallard.

06-09-2013, Common Loon, (Gavial immer). On several occasions, I have encountered molting Common Loons on the shore outside the marsh’s entrance; in this state they are essentially flightless. However, this individual was photographed in full adult plumage, and could presumably have easily taken flight; yet he did not, despite my relatively close proximity.

07-06-2013, Long-tailed Duck (Oldsquaw), (Clangula hyemalis). Often seen hundreds of yards off-shore in Jamaica Bay, this individual was first seen lounging on the beach in front of the marsh. As I approached, it took to the water but still remained close to shore.

07-13-2013, Red-winged Blackbird, male, (Agelaius phoeniceus). Often associated with wetlands, this male is seen perched on a branch at the western edge of the marsh. A relatively aggressive bird, I have witnessed this species do mass aerial battle with American Crows in defense of its nesting territory.

08-31-2013, Northern Waterthrush, (Seiurus noveboracensis). This species favors wetlands and has a diet that includes crustaceans and small fish. It is known to hunt on the ground and even in shallow water.

09-14-2013, Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted), (Colaptes auratus). Although part of the woodpecker family, this species often hunts on the ground for its favored prey, ants. It also prefers open, wooded areas; the particular topography of Rocky Point suits it quite well.

12-22-2013, Sanderling, (Calidris alba). A common shore bird, the Sanderling is very often seen foraging on the shore outside the marsh. It normally breeds in the far north, where it eats a varied diet that includes insects, algae and seeds.

All text and photographs by Frank V. De Sisto.

Rocky Point Marsh needs your help. To volunteer for service contact National Park Services Ranger Tony Luscombe at:

For more photos of Rocky Point as well as other locations within the Gateway NRA complex, visit:

Friday, April 3, 2015

Birds of Rocky Point Salt Marsh, Part One: September 2011 to September, 2012.

Although I am familiar with the Breezy Point segment of Gateway since the late 1960s, I began visiting Rocky Point Marsh only in 2011, shortly after I became an NPS Volunteer. My original focus on photographing birds is what drew me to the marsh. As I came to understand the function of a tidal salt marsh, I also began to pay attention to the landscape, the tides, local weather events, flora, fauna and insects. Birds are not the only thing of interest in such a fascinating, multi-faceted environment!

Yet, my interest in birds is still my overriding reason for visiting Rocky Point. What follows is the first in a multi-part series of photo essays, each with the goal of presenting an image of every bird species I’ve encountered in, above, and around the marsh. As of February 2014, the number of species I have encountered and photographed stands at 75, nearly half of the species presently on my modest Life List.

For the purpose of these blog segments, I have very loosely defined Rocky Point Marsh as everything lying within borders defined by Rockaway Park Boulevard and Beach 201st Street, to the south and west, respectively (note that all compass points are “approximate”). The far-east border is delineated by the jetty at that end of the cove; the jetty then runs back into Rockaway Park Blvd. at Beach 193rd Street. The marsh’s northern side is fronted by Jamaica Bay.

Of necessity, some images may not be of a presentable quality; they are included here to complete the historic record. The images will be presented in chronological order, rather than in a species-by-species fashion. Anyone with a field guide will know the proper order of the presentation of species and their accounts. In this instance, it is hoped that a chronological order will better inform the viewer as to what species may be encountered at a particular time period, here at Rocky Point.

What follows is part one.
09-17-2011, Red-breasted Merganser, (Mergus serrator). This bird dives beneath the water’s surface for its food. Its legs are set relatively far back on the body which enhances its diving ability in its preferred environment. On land, however, this fellow is rather clumsy.
09-17-2011, Belted Kingfisher, (Ceryle alcyon). An extremely skittish bird, the Belted Kingfisher is very difficult to approach. Their nervous flight antics had prompted me to name one repeatedly-observed individual, “Frantic the Kooky Kingfisher”. I have observed this species several times over the years, in widespread intervals, at Rocky Point.
11-05-2011, American Crow, (Corvus brachyrhynchos). An extremely common sight throughout the NY City area, this species is a daily, year-round denizen of Rocky Point. This species is an omnivore, which aside from its acknowledged intelligence (it is known to use “tools”), is a major reason for its ability to flourish alongside humans.
05-05-2012, Black-billed Cukoo, (Coccyzus erythropthalmus). This is quite probably the most unique species identified here at Rocky Point. The marsh is well within the established range of this species, which is attracted to the woods encompassing the marsh. I must apologize for the quality of this photograph; this bird was far beyond the limits of my lens/camera combination’s ability to adequately resolve a detailed image. It’s included here for the historic record.
05-12-2012, American Redstart (male), (Setophaga ruticilla). This handsome and very active bird is easy to spot as it opens and closes its wings and tail feathers. This species favors an insect diet when available and will switch to seeds, like so many others, when the seasons change.

05-12-2012, Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). From this odd angle, the field marks that identify this species are the white patches on the wings and the white belly, turning rusty on the flanks and towards the tail. A ground forager, this species is also known to eat small reptiles.
05-12-2012, Black-throated Green Warbler, (Dendroica virens). Caught in the act of feeding, this was one of several warbler species spotted during a single amazing day. This species favors caterpillars, but will eat other insects as well as waxy berries.
05-12-2012, Yellow Warbler, (Dendroica petechia). In full adult plumage, this handsome fellow casts a curious glance at the photographer. Although insects make up most of its diet, it will also berries out of necessity.
05-12-2012, Common Tern, (Sterna hirundo). This species nests in the Rockaways and is often seen outside the marsh, bathing or feeding in the surf. Very aggressive during nesting season, here a trio quietly rests while perched atop pilings in Jamaica Bay.
05-12-2012, Magnolia Warbler, (Dendroica magnolia). Seen in breeding plumage, this was one of several new species observed at the marsh on this particular day. One characteristic foraging method is the feeding on insects gleaned from the undersides of leaves.
05-26-2012, Grey Catbird, (Dumetella carolinensis). At certain times of the year, this species will be observed in relatively large numbers at Rocky Point. The fact that this individual is seen in the shade, accounts for its decidedly blueish tone; this is a trick of the light.
05-26-2012, Great Crested Flycatcher, (Myiarchus crinitus). A salt marsh, with its thriving insect population, provides flycatchers with ample food, particularly in the spring. In other seasons, it will eat fruit, berries and sometimes small reptiles.
06-30-2012, Laughing Gull, (Larus atricilla). This species is one of four gull types routinely seen in the NY City/metropolitan area. This group was spotted taking a break along the shore.
08-05-2012, Ruddy Turnstone, (Arenaria interpres). This pair was spotted foraging along the shore, just in front of the marsh. A very distinctly-plumaged shore-bird, I am always reminded of a pudgy human (perhaps a banker?) wearing a black vest!
08-24-2012, Green Heron, (Butorides virescens). Observed on several occasions (including pairs), this species is also rather skittish and difficult to approach. The wooden platform it is climbing was taken away by Super-storm Sandy and deposited in the woods on the western edge of the marsh pond, a journey of nearly 100 yards.
08-24-2012, Herring Gull, (Larus argentatus). Yet another common species in the NY/metro area, here we see a pair of adults perched on the stone jetty at the western edge of the marsh. An omnivore, like many other gulls, this species thrives in human-altered environments.
09-15-2012, Least Sandpiper, Calidris minutilla. This individual was photographed in the warm light of early morning, somewhat distorting the true color of its plumage. Preferring a diet of crustaceans, snails and insects, it is foraging within the marsh pond, a familiar haunt of this species.
09-15-2012, House Finch, (Carpodacus mexicanus). A relative of the sparrow, finches have heavier bills optimized for eating larger seeds. This specimen is beginning to turn red, a characteristic of this species.
09-15-2012, Eastern Kingbird, (Tyrannus tyrannus). Seen along the edge of the dune line, this individual is foraging for its dinner. This species is common in the Rockaways and is also often seen at the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Credit where it’s due: For invaluable help in identifying some of the sparrows, I’d like to send special thanks to Paul Sweet, and to Tony for bringing Paul on board.

Publications referred to for this series of blogs include, but are not restricted to, the following:

 “Lives of North American Birds”, by K. Kaufman. 1996, Houghton-Mifflin, ISBN0618159886. This book picks up where the typical field guide leaves off, concentrating on how and where birds live. It is illustrated with color photographs and range maps. Taking each North American species in turn it details such things as habitat, diet, behavior, migration, and conservation status, all in layman’s terms. It is the primary behavioral data source for this series of blog postings.

“Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th Edition”, edited by J. Dunn & J. Alderfer. 2006, National Geographic, ISBN 0792253140. This book is based on full-color paintings, as are many other such titles. What sets this apart and which I find most useful, is that in many cases plumage, age and sex variations are shown, sometimes resulting in a single species described by eight or more illustrations.

“The Shorebird Guide”, by M. O’Brien, R. Crossley & K. Karlson. 2006, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 9780618432943. This book covers shore birds seen in North America, but does not include Gulls, Terns, Skimmers or pelagic species. All species illustrations are photographic, starting with a general image, followed by as many plumage, age and sex variations as possible. Also included are range maps and silhouettes by Kenn Kaufman and Michael O’Brien, respectively, while a separate section at the rear of the book contains detailed species accounts.

“Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America”, by T. Floyd, P. Hess & G. Scott. 2008, Harper Collins, ISBN 9780061120404. This is a photography-based guide, which includes range maps, brief species accounts and extensive photo captions. Each section has a separate general intro, while there is an included CD with nearly 600 bird sounds from over 130 species.

“The Warbler Guide”, by T. Stephenson & S. Whittle. 2013, Princeton University Press, ISBN9780691154824. A relatively new title, this book should prove to be indispensable to students of the subject. It provides detailed descriptions, schematic artwork, a guide to interpreting songs and a vast amount of excellent photographs.

All text and photographs by Frank V. De Sisto.

Rocky Point Marsh needs your help. To volunteer for service contact National Park Services Ranger Tony Luscombe at:
For more photos of Rocky Point as well as other locations within the Gateway NRA complex, visit: