Learning to See

And just like that, they’re everywhere.

What? Oh, no warblers just yet for me, so don’t get excited. I’m talking about crows—fish crows, to be exact.

On the very first birding trip that I took, I remember the leader telling us about fish crows. They are common on Long Island but are visually almost identical to the American crow; the only way that they can be positively distinguished is by their call. “They look like an American crow and sound like they have a cold,” was the phrase used. “Well, that’s one bird I’ll never be able to identify myself,” I thought.

Looking at my records, my first fish crow was sighted almost 2 years ago to the day, although I honestly can’t remember it. I’m sure I saw it (it was on an Audubon walk, with experienced leaders), but I probably wrote it down without the ID fully sinking in. So in my mind, my lifer fish crow happened on Monday, April 14, while I was waiting for my train to pull in at the station. A pair of crows were calling to each other above the tracks, and I immediately knew something about them was different. There was a certain rounded but clipped, nasal quality to the calls. “Caa-uh. Caa-uh. Caa-uh.” I excitedly wrote down “Look up fish crow call!” on a scrap of paper in my purse and then went trawling the web for soundclips as soon as I got home. I was right! That was no American crow.

And now, I hear them everywhere. At the railroad station. Outside my office as I’m walking back with my cup of tea. It’s wonderful—my world is expanding, one species at a time.

One of the most gratifying things about birding for me is how it opens up your eyes and ears to the world around you. It’s why I first decided to pick up a pair of binoculars four years ago. I knew my basic backyard birds, but I wanted to put names to them all: the little brown jobs, those mysterious flashes of yellow in the spring, the ducks wintering out on the lake, the shorebirds chasing the tides.

Humans have been giving names to the natural world for millennia, for good or for ill; it’s our way of making sense of things beyond our ken and control. In some cases, this can get out of hand (particularly when tied up in imperialist and colonial narratives, ahem), but there is a deep satisfaction in being able to accurately read one’s landscape. In being able to look at something and say, “I know you. I know what you are called, and why you are here, and from whence you came. I know your cousins, and I know your call. You are not alien to me.”

Coot Foot

I’ve never gotten the hang of March. My weekends last month were spent mainlining tea, pulling near all-nighters for work, tending to a sick and worried girlfriend…and just hoping, hoping that spring would come. I watched with envy as reports came in about the red-necked grebe in Central Park, but my binoculars stayed in the closet. Even though I did have windows of free time, it was hard to go tromping in search of early migrants when my favorite birding companion was confined to the couch.

But now, finally, it seems that spring has arrived for good—and with it, a dose of better health for Elizabeth. Saturday was bubble tea and a ramble through the Ramble, followed by dinner at the World’s Worst Indian Restaurant™. And on Sunday, I decided to take a day for myself. I haven’t had one of those in a long, long time. Elizabeth had to go in to work, so I threw common sense to the winds of April (what taxes?) and headed to Central Park, binoculars in hand.

My first stop was the reservoir, with the vain hopes that I might catch sight of that grebe. The last sighting was on April 2, so it was no surprise that I came out empty-handed in that regard. Still, that didn’t prevent me from trying to turn a sleeping ruddy duck into a lifer red-necked grebe. Wishful thinking much? I saw the black cap, white cheeks, and red neck and must have stayed there for a good 10 minutes waiting for it to lift its head…studiously ignoring the telltale tail sticking up at a jaunty angle. Oops.

Northern Shoveler pair
Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata)

The reservoir had a good number of northern shovelers doing their shovel-y thing, and I was happy to see around 15 double-crested cormorants in breeding plumage. When I first started birding, I was mystified by their name. What crests? They just looked like skeletal black dinosaur birds to me. It took me a while before I finally saw that field mark for myself, but when it did—of course! It’s always satisfying when a name finally clicks for you, isn’t it?

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Also seen were a pair of American black ducks, mallards, four feeding buffleheads, a lone hooded merganser backlit against the afternoon sun, and COOTS. Two highly entertaining American coots. I don’t think I will ever tire of watching those fellows. For a long time, I admit that coots creeped me out. Specifically their feet. So fleshy. So…lobular. So deathly pale and, quite frankly, rather undead. Now I love them and find them quite charming—yes, even those those weird fleshy lobed feet that trail behind them as they swim. These fellows were swimming along the shoreline, feeding on weeds and diving every so often. Reader, my heart melted a bit. I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but my heart may have been stolen by an old coot in Central Park!

American Coot
American Coot (Fulica americana)

Once I finished my circuit around the reservoir, I headed south towards the Ramble. The woods were crawling with people, some with binoculars, but most without. I ended up splitting my time between the feeders, where I spotted my first chipping sparrow of the year (they are such dapper fellows) and Tupelo Meadow, where I saw some more signs of migration. Several eastern phoebes were singing in the brush—although I couldn’t get a visual—and I got a nice look at my FOY hermit thrush. It’ll only be time before I hear their song ringing through the woods once again…