Little Bit of Blue

It is good to find one’s place. In New York City, for this bird, it was hard to find. Sometimes I found it while walking around the Central Park Reservoir in February, glasses fogged and fingers numb, scanning the water for anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes I found it in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under Diana’s watchful gaze. Sometimes at Jamaica Bay, where glossy ibis mingled with jet liners in the air. But I usually had to leave the city to find it.

Last week, I found that all I need to do now is drive 9 minutes—to this.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
Fitzgerald Lake

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area is a 560-acre swath of wooded wetlands, lake, meadows, and forested uplands in Northampton. The conservation area is managed by the Broad Brook Coalition, a local organization dedicated to the preservation of open space and the promotion of affordable housing in the city—two goals that are often thought to be at odds with one another. I’m glad to see that is not the case here.

The lake itself is manmade, created when Broad Brook was dammed in anticipation of a housing development in 1965. Conservation restrictions eventually led this project to be abandoned, and the landowner, Harold Fitzgerald, sold the lake and surrounding land to the city 12 years later.

There are a couple of entrances, the closest being just beyond a shopping center that we frequent for pet supplies, but I decided to explore that route another day. Instead, I took the entrance on North Farms Road, which featured an accessible paved trail winding through the woodlands and—most appealing to me—close proximity to a boardwalk. As I made my way through the woods, American goldfinch (probably fledglings begging to be fed, judging by the cacophony), eastern wood-pewee, and a couple of rather insistent mosquitoes provided a fitting late-summer soundtrack.

Elizabeth makes fun of me all the time for my love of boardwalks (bonus points if they go through wetlands), but there is just something about hearing my hollow footsteps over the water that puts my mind at ease. And, what’s more, they provide excellent vantage points for birding, which leads me the reason for my visit: a little blue heron.

Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)

These small waders are not uncommon in my hometown on Long Island during the summer months, but I had not seen one yet this year due to our move. I was actually surprised to learn how rare they are in Western Massachusetts; according to eBird, this is the first one sighted west of Boston all year. Adult little blue herons are quite striking creatures, with light blue beaks, purple or even maroon heads, and deep slate-blue bodies. The Fitzgerald Lake bird, however, is a juvenile and blue in name only.

Little Blue Heron and Mallard
Size comparison with a mallard

Although they have similar plumage, juvenile little blue herons can be distinguished from snowy egrets by their greenish-yellow legs (versus the snowy’s black-with-yellow-socks), pale beaks tipped with black, and their more sedentary style of fishing. Compared to snowy egrets, whom you might see dashing about in the shallow water as they chase fish, little blue herons take a watch-and-wait approach and only strike when necessary. As a similarly methodical creature, I admire and appreciate their patience.

Little Blue Heron
Seeing double

After getting my fill, I continued my walk along the shoreline, following the white- and blue-blazed trails until I reached a point marked “The Narrows” on my map. The lake was perfectly still, save for some wood ducks paddling on the opposite shore and a stray swallow swooping after insects. And even though I could still hear the fairgrounds in the distance, when I looked across the lake it felt like I was the only human around for miles. Yes, I think this is the place.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
The Narrows
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Nesting Seabirds at Nickerson Beach

Growing up on Long Island, with the Sound almost at our doorstep and the Atlantic Ocean just a 30-minute drive away, you would think that I would be better at shorebirds and seabirds than I am. Unfortunately, my propensity to wilt in the face of heat and humidity, coupled with my general aversion to the beach when it’s not cold enough to require long underwear, has made the opposite true. Now that I’m landlocked, though, I find myself longing for the ocean and the birds make their homes upon its shores.

Common Tern
Adult common tern (Sterna hirundo)

Common terns are listed as threatened in New York State, after having been almost extirpated in the late 19th century by a lethal combination of the millinery trade—their feathers were quite stylish on ladies’ hats—and, later, habitat loss and degradation. They have made a comeback thanks to protections afforded by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other conservation regulations, but they and other shore-nesting birds still inhabit a precarious place on our beaches.

Common Tern
Possible nest…with bonus tampon applicator

These “sea swallows” are abundant on Long Island during the summer and can be found nesting all along the south shore. One colony that seems to be a magnet for bird photographers is located on Nickerson Beach, a popular county beach on the Long Beach barrier island. I was visiting my family this weekend, and it didn’t take much convincing to get my sister to join me on my first visit to the famed tern colony.

Early morning at Nickerson
Morning at Nickerson Beach

We arrived early at 7:30 am in order to bypass the steep parking fees—$35!—that the county charges non–Leisure Pass holders. As we made our way down to the beach, we crossed paths with a phalanx of photographers on their way back to the parking lot, well sated from a morning spent snapping baby birds in the dawn light. The sand was surprisingly cool, the sun bright but not oppressive, and the air was filled with the kips and kee-arrrrs of terns. And when the wind changed direction, it smelled exactly like you might expect a tern colony to smell.

Terns typically lay their eggs from late May through June, with incubation taking around 3-4 weeks and first fledge happening about 28 days after hatching. The colony was filled with fledglings begging for food from their parents, their red mouths gaping and ready for some sweet, delicious sandlance.

Common Tern
“MOOOOM, FEED ME.”
Common Terns
Strutting around with its breakfast
Common Tern fledgling
Scarfing down some delicious sandlance

Although most of the terns that we saw were annoying fish-grubbing teenagers (I say this with love), we were delighted to catch glimpses of some hatchlings as well. Even if the temperatures weren’t already heating up at this point, I think one look at these tiny fuzzballs would be enough to melt even the stoniest person’s heart.

Common Tern
Awwwww.

Terns are semi-precocial, meaning that even though they are mobile, covered in down, and able to see as soon as they hatch, they remain close to their nests and dependent on their parents for food until fledging. Their down was sandy brown and speckled with black, perfect for camouflaging themselves in the sand as they hide from predators, and their bellies were creamy white. Their little pink beaks were tipped with black. They were…ridiculously adorable.

Common Tern
This little fuzz hid behind vegetation until its parent came back with food in beak…
Common Terns
…at which point it was safe enough to trundle forward

In addition to hosting this most photogenic tern colony, the beach is also home to innumerable American oystercatcher families with their adorably gawky young, protected piping plovers (which we did not see, sadly), and one of the largest colonies of black skimmers in New York State.

Baby American Oystercatchers
Oodles and oodles of American oystercatcher noodles—er, legs
Black Skimmer
Black skimmer (Rynchops niger) with its distinctive underbite

According to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the Nickerson colony averages around 150 to 200 mating pairs of skimmers every year. No young appear to have hatched when we visited, but those little fuzzballs should be begging for food by the end of July or beginning of August. Nevertheless, I was just as happy to see the adult birds loafing on the beach, resting flat on their bellies farther back in the dunes among the vegetation, and skimming for fish in the surf.

Black Skimmer Colony
Skimmers tend to choose nesting ground with more protective vegetation than do terns

We capped off the morning by watching a young oystercatcher explore the receding waves with its parent. As they gingerly made their way down the shore, the adult oystercatcher patiently nudged food toward its offspring’s little beak—and my heart melted again. Awwwwww, indeed.

American Oystercatchers
Banded American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) and chick

Housekeeping

January saw us stalking rare geese on Long Island and making grand resolutions to bird more, write more, and generally make better use of this blog. But seven months have passed, with nary a peep.

Peep!
Peep!

Perhaps this was not surprising, but what happened? Well, instead of spending my spring brushing up on sparrows, memorizing songs and chip notes, and chasing warblers, I was instead consumed by planning our own migration from New York City to Western Massachusetts. It involved far more boxes than birds. (And I could have bought a very nice scope with what we ended up spending on the move.) New jobs are good things, but missing out on spring migration made it bittersweet.

Now that we are mostly settled in our new home in the Pioneer Valley, we are beginning to get a better sense of our natural surroundings. One definite benefit of living here—and, indeed, one of reasons we moved—is that it is so much easier to get out in nature. Not that the city didn’t have good birding or opportunities for urban naturalists, because they were actually plentiful; it just required a lot more effort and planning on our part to take advantage of it. Weekend birding trips no longer involve a 2-hour round-trip subway ride or just as long spent idling in traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway; instead, breeding cerulean and worm-eating warblers are just a 10-minute drive—and one mountain—away. (Not that I’ve seen a cerulean…yet.) We’ve exchanged skyscrapers, pocket parks, barrier islands, and salt marshes for undisturbed woodlands, rolling farmland, mountains and ridges with sweeping vistas, and peat bogs filled with wild orchids.

There so much to explore. Sometimes, I don’t even know where to start—but start we must.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

Woodcocks!

Although it is now officially spring, Mother Nature appears to have missed the memo. The vernal equinox brought with it a good 3+ inches of snow, and we awoke last Saturday to yet another winter wonderland. Wet snow clung to the branches and covered the cars lining our street. Really? More of this? It would have been beautiful were it not such a familiar (god, so familiar) sight. Thankfully, though, by the time we arrived in Central Park in search of the morning’s quarry, the temperatures had risen and the snow was well on its way to melting.

American Woodcock
American woodcock (Scolopax minor)

When you are active in certain (all?) corners the internet, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across a woodcock parody video. It’s no surprise—they’re funny little birds! All fleshy, probing beak and giant eyes positioned at the tip-top of their heads…and then, of course, there are those moves. Woodcocks strutting to “Tequila”. Woodcocks jamming to Collective Soul. Woodcocks getting down to Daft Punk. Every time I think I’ve seen them all, a new iteration pops up…but until last weekend, I’d never actually seen one of the birds in the flesh.

Here in the Northeast, the American woodcock—known colloquially as the timberdoodle, mudbat, and bogsucker—is one of the first spring migrants that start passing through in March. It’s a sandpiper and a close relative of the snipe, but you won’t find it foraging along the seashore with the other members of the Scolopacidae family. As their various names imply, woodcocks like woods (and mud). During the day, they favor young, dense forests near streams or ponds; look carefully and you might find them strutting slowly through the underbrush, probing the moist soil for earthworms, their favorite prey. And in the crepuscular hours, if you find yourself in a grassy clearing, you might just be lucky enough to witness their elaborate aerial courtship displays.

While scoping out the feeders in the Ramble, we overheard a conversation between a photographer and young African American boy, maybe around middle-school age. Have they seen something interesting? We’re looking for woodcocks, we told the man. He replied that he didn’t know about those, but there was apparently an “American woodpecker” close by—“Very rare, you should go!” (Very rare indeed, as it doesn’t exist.) Nevertheless, we headed southwest to where the boy had gone. And there, sitting silently in a stream bed and well camouflaged by the leaf litter, was our woodcock.

American Woodcock
Ol’ mudbat

Earlier that day, I had been convinced that we would come away empty handed, as has been the case time and time again with the common redpoll that frequented the feeders all winter. But here it was, and so close to the path! It was smaller than expected, maybe the size of a dove or robin, but so round. I fell in love with the mottled feather pattern on its back and its giant, white-ringed almond eye.

“It’s a woodcock!” the boy whispered (he knows what he’s seeing), and we nodded excitedly. It was a first for all of us, and a welcome sign of spring.