Pink Feet and Red Heads

The pink-footed goose is a compact goose with grey-brown plumage, a short pink beak, and as the name might imply, pink feet. Their breeding territory is far to the north in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, and they generally winter in northwestern Europe—Ireland, the UK, Denmark. Sometimes, though, they get a little discombobulated on their way south and end up in the Long Island suburbs. Such has been the case with Valley Stream’s seemingly resident pinkfoot, who has been quite happy to paddle Hendrickson Park’s man-made pond for the past two months.

By the time December rolled in, it seemed like every birder in the New York metropolitan area has seen it…except for me, of course. So over the holiday break I decided to drag my family out on a wild goose chase.

“Where are we going?” they asked.

“To Valley Stream! To a town park! It’s gonna be great!” I said excitedly.

“What. Why?” They were dubious. The North Shore/South Shore divide is alive and well on Long Island.

“There’s a goose! It has pink feet! It’s very lost, and I swear it will be worth it!”

So kudos to my mom, girlfriend, and sister for hearing the above and gamely piling into the car to drive 40 minutes to a tiny Canada goose–encrusted town park. We parked in a municipal lot, trekked through the residential neighborhood dotted with plastic nativity scenes and inflatable Santas, and immediately started scanning the lake for anything out of the ordinary in the flocks of Canada geese.

And there were a lot of Canadas. A conservative count brought me to at least 500, at which point I gave up trying to do a complete tally. Scattered among the geese were a good number of mallards, a couple of hooded mergansers, one stalking great blue heron, and then…something smaller. Something with a brown head, grayish coverts, and a pair of pink feet looming just below the surface of the water.

Pink-footed Goose
Which of these things is not like the other?

We waited around for it to raise its head and flash its beak, all the while being careful not to get too close. Eventually a public safety officer accomplished that for us, zooming by and flushing the flock to the other side of the lake—but not before I snapped a shot. What a perturbed little face and stubby little bill! That’s one cute goose. Thanks, officer.

Pink-footed Goose
Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Satisfied with our photos, we made one more stop to the north of the lake, as I’d heard there had been a red-headed woodpecker in that area. Red-headed woodpecker populations have been in decline over the past few decades, primarily due to habitat loss and competition with invasives like the European starling, and they are considered species of Special Concern in New York State. Although a handful of individuals turn up each year on Long Island and in the city, I’d never been lucky enough to see one. Would we continue our winning streak today?

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

After a couple of minutes craning our necks, my sister spied a medium-sized woodpecker industriously caching its acorns in a snag above us. There it was. The red-headed woodpecker actually is one of the few woodpeckers in the world known to hoard its food, and I was excited to see this charismatic bird engaged in one of its characteristic behaviors.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Chomp, chomp, crunch.

The late-afternoon sun was working against us, but you can see the bright red feathers just starting to come in on its head. Hopefully it sticks around long enough for us to see it transition into full adult plumage!

New Year, New Birds

My first bird of the new year was a blue jay, hunkered down on a fence post in my parents’ backyard. Common, but every bird is a new bird on January 1! And this was a particularly cheering dab of color to spy out my bedroom window. Later that day, we made a winter waterfowl pilgrimage around the neighborhood: canvasbacks and redheads at Centerport Pond, bald-headed American wigeons at Mill Pond, then laughing long-tailed ducks and scurrying sanderlings along Eatons Neck as the sun set. I can’t not start the year with birds.

Shadow play
Shadow play on Hobart Beach

This past year was a hard one, and I hope that 2017 brings some more color to my life. If it comes in the form of warblers and woodpeckers, I’ll take it.

I saw 167 species in 2016 (down 3 from the previous year), 37 of which were new to me. I am not one for making New Year’s resolutions, but I thought I would try some birding ones this year. Here’s a spoiler: It all boils down to bird more. So in no particular order…

Bird more regularly throughout the year. My birding tends to follow a rather predictable and unfortunate trajectory: regular outings in the winter; a frenzied peak during spring migration; a fallow period in the summer where I wilt and whine in the heat and sunlight; an autumn spent wishing I had more free weekends to spend both hiking and staring at brownish yellow warblers; and then finally slow uptick come November, with regular birding once again over the holidays. Fix this.

Bird more with other people. Not just with Elizabeth and my family, but also other members of the birding community. I’m a shy, pretty solitary person by nature, but I’d like to get to know more birders in my area. This is hard, but the internet helps! Just this past November I went on a walk with the Feminist Bird Club, a fledgling group in my city that aims to get more women outdoors and spark a broader conversation about women’s rights. It was such a nice change to go bird with women my own age, and I want to do more of that. Part of this will probably boil down to simply being more friendly and open in the field. (Eep!)

…But also: Bird more by myself. And don’t let other people’s lack of interest determine whether or not I go out in the morning. Some of my most productive, satisfying mornings have been spent by myself in the woods, binoculars in hand.

Get my year list closer to 200. Thirty-seven lifers is nice, but the majority of those were thanks to a trip to England and some lunchtime birding while at a conference in Phoenix. There are so many regular species in my area that I failed to see this past year, and there’s no reason for that! I’m not a competitive lister by any means (uh, obviously…also, I work full time), but I find that simply trying to build my year list encourages me to go out and explore more varied habitats, leading to more satisfying birding overall.

Make headway in my ornithology course. As a Christmas gift, my parents paid for my enrolling in the Cornell Lab’s ornithology home study course, which I’ve been wanting to take for years. I’m excited to develop a deeper understanding of the biology of these creatures I obsessively watch. (And to close some gaps in my education. As an English major, I spent my college years up to my neck in literature and took not one biology or environmental science course. Oy.)

See a cerulean warbler. Please.

New Years Sunset
Sunset on New Years Day

Let’s get started.

Bayberrying

Winter is Sarah’s favorite time for walks on the beach. From November to March, she is a faithful pilgrim to Long Island’s shores. While she gazes at the sea, undaunted by the bitter winter wind, I (an inland creature), often scout out a nice sheltered rock or dune. This is how, on Black Friday, I found myself wandering the dunes, busy with the unlikely and decidedly uncommercial task of gathering bayberries for candlewax.

Bayberries

Also known as candleberries and wax myrtle, northern bayberries grow on the dry hillsides, dunes, and abandoned farms of the northeastern coastland. The grey-blue berries ripen in September, but cling to the bushes throughout harsh northern winters. They are rimed in a waxy coating that was used in colonial times to make candles. While refining bayberry wax was an arduous process, the resulting tapers were more economical than beeswax and finer than smoky, smelly tallow. They were traditionally burned on Christmas or New Year’s Eve for luck, as in the rhyme “a bayberry candle burned down to the socket will bring joy to the heart and gold to the pocket.”

With help, I gathered a scant pound of berries, leaving fruit for other foragers. Today the principal foragers of bayberries are yellow-rumped warblers, whose unusual ability to digest lipids in the berries’ coating allows them to overwinter where others of their genus cannot. Indeed, the eastern subspecies of the yellow-rumped warbler is known as the myrtle warbler, after its reliance on the fruit.

bayberry
Northern bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)

Of fruits & labor

As described by capable DIY bloggers, the process of refining the wax seemed simple. First, the berries are boiled in a few inches of water, until the waxy coating has melted and risen to the surface. Then, cooling wax is skimmed off the top. Once hardened, the wax can be re-melted and strained to remove impurities.

Spurred by romantic notions of perfuming my kitchen with their balmy fragrance, I eagerly boiled my berries.

After 15 minutes, the resulting brew was the color of bog water and smelled of briny oregano. The wax burst from tiny bubbles, then bloomed on the surface of the water like algae.

Bayberry brew
Bayberry brew

I was able to remove a brittle saucer of wax, littered with seeds and stems and mottled with purple berry juice from a too-long steep.

Unfiltered bayberry wax
Unfiltered bayberry wax

After re-boiling, re-melting, and straining through cheesecloth, I produced a far more attractive wax and then, finally, three misty green tea lights.

Bayberry votives
Far Left: pure bayberry, poured after partially cooling; Top: bayberry & paraffin, inexpertly blended; Far Right: nailed it!

After working hours for my small candles, it is easy to understand why this practice has been all but abandoned. But my yield was greater than a few ounces of wax. Now I know the bright scent of fresh-picked berries on my hands, their deep herbal tang when boiled, and the woodsy aroma of their smoke.

We plan to burn one down to the socket this Christmas.

Fledglings

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to help lead a bird walk in Central Park with Elizabeth. Our charges: ten high school students participating in an environmental science mentorship program run by her work. These were 15 year olds from the Bronx, for the most part, and all but one had never been birding before. And we were asking them to get up early on a Saturday. Gulp.

This was my first time on the “other side” of a bird walk, and the prospect of doing so with teenagers was slightly daunting. Luckily, my responsibility was mainly to point out the birds while Elizabeth focused on the teenager wrangling and flexed her environmental education muscles.

We chose late April for our walk with the hopes that the birds would be easier to spot before the trees had fully leafed out, but I neglected to take into account the inevitable warbler-thirst that I would be feeling at that point. On the eve of May, the first big push of migrants had yet to arrive, and I had to do everything in my power to conceal my frustration over all the migrants we just weren’t seeing. A rare Swainson’s warbler (!!!) had drawn throngs to the park only two days prior, but after three hours spent combing the Ramble, we were only able to pick up a small handful of warblers: yellow, black-and-white, chestnut-sided, yellow-rumped, and ovenbird. Or, as our charges viewed them: tiny, fast-moving blobs of color obscured by foliage. It’s hard to be impressed by that.

But that was OK, because these urban teens were instead entranced by blue jays and in awe of the fearlessness of robins. They admired the flashy epaulets of a singing red-winged blackbird and quickly learned to recognize northern cardinals by their sci-fi blaster calls. And one girl seemed to fall in love with grackles, reminding me that, as a kid, I too once marveled at their iridescent, oil-slick plumage. (I should remember to do that more often.)

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

It’s easy to ignore the common birds when you’re looking for that singing Blackburnian warbler high in the canopy, but why should that be the case? What better birds to get a kid interested in nature than the ones that they could feasibly see in their neighborhood park—not just during the month of May, but year round?

By the end of the walk, I found myself with a newfound admiration for trip leaders. To be able to tailor your walks to diverse audiences, manage expectations (yours included), stoke curiosity, and find the damn birds is no mean feat for a single person—and there were two of us!

Birding is hard and requires sometimes preternatural patience, observation, and focus, but our students did an admirable job; in fact, I think they demonstrated a whole lot more patience than I did. I have no idea if any of them will pick up binoculars again, and I’m not going to pretend that we christened a new generation of young birders. (But…maybe one or two? I hope so.)

Rusty Birding

Like many New Yorkers, I love the magnolias and cherry blossoms that drape the city in spring. But for me, the parks’ yellow sprays of spicebush, rubbery red skunk cabbage, and the conquerees of red-winged blackbirds are my favorite harbingers of the season.

Last Saturday, Sarah and I went to Alley Pond Park for the start of spring migration. We found the woodlands waking to the calls of spring peepers, and spied a few early migrants, including an eastern phoebe and two pine warblers—one with bright breeding plumage.

Pine Warbler
Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

When living in the age of eBird, where rare birds are charted in digital wilds, we can easily forget to allow nature to be our guide. Neither of us expected to see a life bird that afternoon, so we were very fortunate when we stopped to take a second look at the birds foraging in the shallows of Decadon Pond. They were black, but with brown brindling and startling yellow eyes. They had buffy eyebrows and the voices of droids. They were rusty blackbirds.

Rusty Blackbird
Rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

I know that rusties are not uncommon in New York City’s parks, but had never seen one, myself. They are seasonal visitors—some overwintering, others stopping over on their way from Southern swamps to their breeding grounds in the Canadian muskeg. They are also among the most rapidly declining bird species in America. Using the Audubon Christmas Bird count and Breeding Bird surveys as a reference, scientists estimate that their numbers have declined by staggering 85% (or more) since the mid-1900s.

The reasons for their plunging population are poorly understood, but habitat loss is suspected as a primary cause. Other North American blackbirds have adapted to diverse breeding habitats and even flourish near human settlement, where they feast on waste grain in fields and pastures. In contrast, the rusty blackbird is reliant on secluded forest wetlands. In the southeastern US, wetlands sheltering overwintering birds have been fragmented by logging and agricultural development, while breeding habitat in Canada has been degraded by oil sand mining.

Of additional danger is the blackbird’s breeding diet, which consists almost entirely of aquatic snails and insect larva. Not only are these species vulnerable to pollution, but they also accumulate toxic methyl-mercury, which threatens developing young.

The small flock in Alley Pond Park were lively, giving bubbly calls and eagerly flipping wet leaves and rooting in the mossy bank of the kettle pond. We submitted the sighting via eBird to the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz, an initiative of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group. I am crossing my fingers that we will see them again next year.

Who Cooks for You?

For most of my life I have known Pelham Bay Park as an exit on I-95 and not much more. I gave little thought to what could lie beyond the green sign and weekend traffic, instead whizzing by on my way to places north. However, as I became more serious about birding in my mid-20s, Pelham Bay began to pop up on my radar with increasing frequency—particularly as a hotspot for wintering owls.

Birders and nonbirders alike love owls, almost to a fault. If there is one topic that can transform a normally civil list serve or Facebook group into a scorched hellscape, it’s these solitary yet charismatic members of the order Strigiformes. (That and feral cats. And mute swans.) Overzealous owl-ers frequently flout common sense and birding ethics trying to get the perfect shot, which can seriously stress out the birds. As a result, birders are encouraged not to publicize the location of roosting and nesting owls. But I am not immune to the lure of their call (barking, whinnying, trilling), so I decided to make my first visit to Pelham this weekend for what was advertised as an “owl prowl.”

The scheduled walk around the Bartow-Pell Woods was, in all honesty, a bit of a bust for us. I like guided walks, but they need to be of a manageable size for me actually get something out of them. And when the promise of owls is dangled forth on balmy, late-February day in New York City, the birding and nonbirding public come out in droves. In this case, approximately 60 of them. It’s hard to actually bird when you are shuffling single-file through the woods with 30 other people. The woods were quiet save for the crunch of our footsteps, one fox sparrow, a handful of downy woodpeckers, and the pew-pew-pew of northern cardinals. Even the lagoon was relatively still, with seemingly more sculls than birds.

Elizabeth and I struck out on our own as soon as we could, heading toward Hunter Island. A pair of great horned owls has been nesting there since January, and we had also seen reports of barred and long-eared owls. Northern saw-whet owls, once fairly regular visitors to Pelham Bay, have grown scarce in recent years due to the changing habitat and thinning understory; we knew not to get our hopes up for them, at least.

Soon after starting our search we teamed up with a friendly older couple from Queens, and I was reminded for the umpteenth time of how genuinely helpful birders are—especially when faced with “young blood”! They quickly gave us a rundown of the area, directions to a vagrant Townsend’s Solitaire in Connecticut, as well as their phone numbers in case we wanted an introduction to the lesser-known Queens parks. Never underestimate the kindness of birders.

We looped around Hunter Island, scanning the forest for the dead tree where we knew the great horned owls had been nesting. Then, up on the hillside, I saw movement. The heavy, silent flap of wings. (There’s one.) The snag stood empty just ahead, but the female was still close by; her shadowy form was scrutinizing us from high in a neighboring tree, ear tufts barely visible amid the tangle of vines. (There’s the other.)

Once we had gotten our fill, we headed south in search of one last owl. Earlier that morning, our birding companions had spied a barred owl in on Rodman’s Neck, a semi-private peninsula jutting out into the Sound, and they had promised to share the wealth. When we arrived, the narrow road was jammed with cars, and we were barely able to find a parking spot on the shoulder. Cheers and blaring horns from the ball fields filled the air, and our pine grove prowl was punctuated by both blue jay squawks and pulsing Latin rhythms.

And when we looked up, who should be silently watching us but this lone sentry of the white pines?

Barred Owl
Barred owl (Strix varia)

Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?

We quickly took our photos, marveling all the while, and then our exit.

Feeder Watching at Forest Park

After three years of living in a neighborhood without a publicly accessible patch of grass, it’s a delight to be able to trek ten minutes to 413 acres of trees. Sarah and I have been taking weekend walks to “The Water Hole” in Forest Park’s east end, a popular haunt of Queens’s avian set. There peckish passerines can find seed and suet feeders under the cover of mature oaks. We’ve seen a lot of activity, including overwintering pine warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets.

One of my favorite sightings was a particularly waggish white-breasted nuthatch. I snapped a picture of it suspended from a single foot, its hallux sunk into bark like a climbing axe.

White-breasted nuthatch
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Here it is again, in a more cautious pose, its red rump and powerful back toes exposed to the camera.

White-breasted nuthatch
Lunchtime

I was hoping to bird again this weekend, but with forecasted temperatures hovering above zero, I think I will be content to sit inside, snug with my cat, watching whatever alights on the wires outside the window.

Juniper watching the snow
Juniper (Felis catis stupendous) demonstrating my preferred cold weather birding technique

Warm Winter Birding at Point Lookout

How strange it is to be wandering the beach in January without hat or gloves and not feel one ounce of regret.

Birding in winter is one of my favorite activities, although I recognize that it may seem to skeptics an exercise in futility and masochism. There is some truth to that, certainly. Winter birding is long underwear and two layers of gloves, a scarf wrapped thrice around your face and glasses fogging up the minute you lift your binoculars to your eyes. It is walking what feels like miles on the beach in the bitter wind and sleet, feeling your fingers stiffen as you attempt in vain to distinguish plastic bag from snowy owl…and then pure joy as you spy a flock of snow buntings whirling like flurries over the dunes. It is invigorating, but sometimes miserable. In short, it is not what we experienced last weekend.

Jetty
Point Lookout

When we got out of the car at Point Lookout on Sunday, we were met with 50-degree temperatures, a pleasant breeze, and rapidly melting snow. Point Lookout is located on the easternmost tip of Long Beach Barrier Island, just a stone’s throw across the inlet separating it from the more popular Jones Beach. The parking fees are steep in the summer, as are most town beaches to nonresidents, but in the winter the crowds dissipate and the sea ducks—and birders—arrive.

Sunday’s target bird: the harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). Named for their striking and somewhat gaudy plumage, harlequin ducks winter along the rocky Atlantic and Pacific shorelines and breed in cold, fast-moving streams in the northern U.S. and Canada. Their breeding range actually extends as far south as Wyoming, and we had hoped to see them in Yellowstone over the summer. But alas, we came up empty; plenty of bison, but no harlequins. So when I learned that they are fairly regular winter visitors at Jones Inlet, a mere 28 miles from our apartment, I knew where I wanted to go.

Three breakwater jetties jutting out from the shore form the centerpiece of Point Lookout, and it was there that I focused most of my attention. These jetties serve as both navigational guides for incoming ships and invaluable defenses against beach erosion. They also attract a wide variety of birds. Elizabeth found herself a rock to sit on, and while she sketched, I walked. And counted.

Brant
Brant (Branta bernicla)

Three brant swimming from jetty to jetty. Two common loons stretching their wings further out to sea. Three scoters, two black and one surf.

Long-tailed Duck
Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis)

One, two, three…fourteen long-tailed ducks diving just off the beach.

Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

One Bonaparte’s gull, buoyed by the waves.

Purple Sandpiper
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

Four purple sandpipers skittering over the rocks.

O Christmas Tree
O Tanenbaum

And one abandoned Christmas tree, destined for the bottom of the sea.

Then, as I scanned the roiling surf, I noticed a small duck bobbing in and out of the waves, backlit against the afternoon sun. Not as large as a long-tailed duck, it was just as distinctive with its slate blue breast, chestnut sides, and daubs of white “paint” on its head. A harlequin drake! But despite what its scientific name might imply, this bird was clearly only hungry for dinner, not attention; as I fumbled for my camera, it dove beneath the waves and disappeared. A brief look, but a worthwhile one.

Escalloped

I grew up in a sea of corn and soy, some 800 miles from the ocean. Like many Midwesterners, my acquaintance with marine life was limited to the pale, flash-frozen creatures unfortunate enough to end up on my plate.

This was a surprisingly frequent occurrence. My mom worked in the seafood department of a local grocery store. She was an expert lobster-bander and fish-filleter, and often came home smelling of brine. One of my favorite childhood dinners were her scallops, breaded and fried in butter.

It’s easy to forget in a place like Queens, but now I live on an island in the sea. Today Sarah and I drove east to Point Lookout. I saw a harlequin duck diving in the surf of a jetty. I saw a long-tailed duck, its plumage swept in a cat-eye curl. But my favorite discovery were the shells. A clear winter’s day as the tide is going out may be the perfect time to spy them.

I took a picture of my favorites. They were deep slate and heavily ribbed. And they were—as I later discovered—bay scallops. Or, more properly, the exoskeletons of bay scallops, whose sturdy little adductor muscles I so enjoyed drenched in butter.

scallops
Bay scallop (Argopecten irradians)

To my surprise, the bay scallop is a fascinating animal. Their shells are variably colored, ranging from grey to red, yellow, and purple. Their bodies are ringed in dozens of bright blue eyes, their visage something like a nautical Wheel of Galgallin. They see movement and shadow, and unlike most mollusks, can swim in quick bursts to escape predators. To swim, a scallop rhythmically contracts its adductor muscle, opening its shell and expelling a jet of water to propel itself forward.  (This activity accounts for the fact that their muscles are meatier than that of oysters and clams.)

Because a frightened scallop is capable of jetting ten feet away, prime scalloping season is in the active mollusk’s period of winter dormancy. Indeed, for over 100 years scalloping was the main economic activity of many Long Island towns during the winter off-season.

Since 1985, the rise of brown tides has caused a sharp declination in the bay scallop population. These algal blooms destroy the eelgrass meadows that shelter developing scallops from tides and predation. From 1986 to 2008, the average yearly landing of scallops has dropped from an average of 62,400 bushels to only 3,500. The CCE Eelgrass Program is working now to restore eelgrass habitat to Long Island and to protect related species like the scallop. Here’s what you can do.

It’s funny to think there’s so much history resting on one little half-shell.

A Footnote

Welcome to Field and Footnotes.1 We are Sarah and Elizabeth, two birders and lovers of natural history living in the most densely populated city in the United States (also known as New York).

Elizabeth is an educator and omnivorous researcher with a streak of wanderlust.  I…well, I’m an editor who thinks visiting bogs and counting ducks for hours in the cold—and then writing about it—are the ingredients for a romantic weekend.

This blog is a record of our attempts to witness and catalog the natural wonders around us, both large and small.

1The archived posts found prior to 2016 were imported from the sporadically updated and now dormant Sparrowsign. And flights of snow geese sing thee to thy rest, etc.