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.