Garret Mountain

or, in which we almost see a Swainson’s warbler

Almost. If we had been there a day earlier. And had been really lucky. (One day, one day.)

Neither my girlfriend nor I are extremely confident drivers. I put off learning to drive for years out of fear of the maze of interchanges and highways that make up the New York metro area, and E is more used to driving in rural, sparsely populated areas. However, in preparation for our Midwestern road trip (now come and gone), we decided to make an effort to put more miles under our belt in May. Our first task: 1) Leave New York City; 2) Do it without dying; 3) Explore a new natural area. If we’re going to deal with the traffic on George Washington Bridge, we might as well do some birding in the process, right?

After researching the heavily birded areas that lie along I-80, our planned route, we eventually settled on Garret Mountain Reservation on the outskirts of Paterson, New Jersey. Forty minute drive from Queens (check), popular migrant stopover (check), and the opportunity to reenact my favorite Richard Shindell song? Check.

Although we got off to a later start than anticipated, the drive out of the city was uneventful. (Take that, Shindell.) From the highway, Garret Mountain seems less a mountain than a hill, and I was momentarily worried that this wouldn’t provide the escape from civilization that we were hoped for. Well, it was no wilderness, but it turned out to be the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

After parking at a terraced parking lot near the entrance, we made our way down to Barbour’s Pond, following in the footsteps of another binocular-toting couple. Above us, gray catbirds were meowing, red-winged blackbirds were angrily chucking away, and warbling vireos were singing their little hearts out. I will always love warbling vireos; they may be drab little birds, but their song more than makes up for it. (And they were the first vireos that I was able to identify by song alone!)

As we walked along the shoreline, we ran into another birder who asked if we were there looking for the Swainson’s warbler that was reported the day before. Swainson’s warbler, you say? Since when do they come to New Jersey?! Swainson’s warblers breed in the Southeast and their range barely extends to Virginia. I would never dream of seeing one in these parts…or ever.

American Redstart
Definitely not a Swainson’s.

It was just as well that I’d neglected to check the eBird reports before driving out, as the bird had apparently moved on by the time we arrived. But oh, how wonderful would it have been to have gone to this mountain on a whim—as driving practice!—only to see such a rarity? Instead of being disappointed at missing out, I was thrilled that we had come so close to seeing one without even knowing it.

While watching a spotted sandpiper feeding along a sandbar, I suddenly noticed that a group of birders and photographers had started to gather by a stand of trees that we’d previously overlooked. What was it? A hooded warbler! I A very kind birder pointed him out to use and we got some very good looks (but no pictures). That was a lifer for me, and one that I had been hoping to see this year. He flitted around the underbrush and at one point perching very considerately on a branch right in the open.

After we had gotten our fill, our new acquaintance offered to take us to a spot where a least bittern had been seen over the past couple of days. We struck out on the bittern, but I was touched that this more experienced birder took the time out of his day to introduce us to the various hotspots and nesting locations on Garret Mountain.

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus)

Later that afternoon, we wended our way up some trails to get away from the sun and perhaps catch a few more warblers and thrushes. A short way up the hill, we found ourselves a nice resting place on a rocky ridge. And there we sat, listening to a surreal mix of veeries, hermit thrushes, red-eyed vireos, and hip-hop from a far-off barbecue. Our high vantage point allowed us peeks up into the canopy that we otherwise would have missed, and we got some great looks at a male Canada warbler, my first of the year.