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.

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.

Spring and All

Weathered Oriole Nest
Weathered oriole nest

Elizabeth and I came across this abandoned oriole nest at Croton Point Park this weekend while on the hunt for bald eagles (we saw six). It was dangling over the road by the park office, just barely hanging on to its branch—or so it seemed at first, because what a feat of engineering! How hardy it must be to have survived this winter! To have weathered the unrelenting ice and snow that have been battering the Northeast for the past two months. Birds, man. Birds.

Now that it is officially March, I find myself itching for migrants. I managed to go birding somewhat regularly this winter with weekend trips to Central Park and lunchtime walks to the harbor, but then February’s deep freeze set in. It’s hard to look for waterfowl on your lunch hour when the harbor is iced over. So I welcome with open arms this week’s tropical temperatures (and by that I mean it’s in the 40s and 50s).

Spring cannot come soon enough. Away, ice! Away, snow! Give me mud and petrichor.

Superb Owl Sunday at Floyd Bennett Field

“Elizabeth, do you want to go on a bird walk in the dead of winter to an abandoned airfield? Please, please, please?”

It should come as no surprise to you that she said yes.

Floyd Bennett Field, the decommissioned airport on the southern edge of Brooklyn, has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s one of the many places in the outer boroughs that I’ve been wanting to visit, but somehow the prospect of spending 4+ hours on public transit just to get there and back has always dissuaded me. And despite my love of barren landscapes, I didn’t necessarily want to roam the runways alone. But that Cassin’s kingbird…those owls… Alas. So, when I saw that there was a NYC Audubon field trip to Floyd Bennett Field on “Superb Owl Sunday,” to be led by urban naturalist Gabriel Willow, I jumped at the chance.

Horned Larks
Horned larks (Eremophila alpestris)

The target birds for this trip were the so-called “snow birds,” avian visitors from the far north who can sometimes be found in the flat, tundra-like habitat of Long Island’s south shore and barrier islands: snowy owl, snow bunting, horned lark, Lapland longspur, rough-legged hawk.

After a bumpy but surprisingly short drive on the Belt Parkway, we arrived at our destination. We began in a small parking lot by the ranger station, scouring a stand of pitch pines for birds and hoping that we’d be lucky enough to spot one of the northern saw-whet Owls that have been found roosting in the area. However, the diminutive owl was nowhere to be seen, and with the exception of one downy woodpecker and one black-capped chickadee, we came up empty.

We continued on in the van, driving slowly down the iced-over runways and scanning the fields for any sign of movement. Having searched for snowy owls before (with varying degrees of success), I was very familiar with how difficult it is to distinguish owl from white plastic bag, and let me tell you that it’s even more frustrating when said bags are adorned with yellow smiley faces. The elusive snowy plastic bag, taunting us with well wishes (“Have a Nice Day!!!”). Needless to say, we did not see any owls.

What we did spot, in great numbers, were northern flickers. They were everywhere, their yellow-shafted feathers flashing in the winter light as they flew about. In all, I must have counted at least 15 individuals along the runways, many probing for insects in the frozen ground.

(At this point, I should note that although birding by car is definitely not my favorite mode of birding, it was very nice not to have to traverse the 2-3 miles of runway on foot in February!)

Birders at Fort Tilden
Winter birders

Once we got our fill of flickers (and resigned ourselves to the reality that this would be Superb Owl Sunday in name only), we headed to the boat ramp overlooking Jamaica Bay. I was glad to leave the confines of the van and gladder still to spend some quality time with my favorite ducks. I find myself growing increasingly fond of waterfowl and am beginning to think it’s only time before I start researching spotting scopes.

This area did not disappoint. To the north of the boat ramp, Gabriel zeroed in on a raft of upwards of 50 horned grebe. Being so small, they were difficult to see without the aid of a scope, but once I got a look at them I began seeing their bright white cheeks everywhere. Also seen in this area were several red-breasted mergansers, some distant red-throated loons, a flyby great cormorant, bufflehead, and a pair of American wigeon. Looking south along the shore, we spied some female common goldeneyes and greater scaup (a taste of things to come).

At Mill Basin Inlet, we got some amazing looks at at least six red-throated loons swimming close to shore. These loons are more elegant than their “common” cousins, with dainty bills that point up in the air (as opposed to the common loon’s heavier bill that is usually held parallel to the water). A little hoity-toity, but lovely! My eagle-eyed girlfriend then spotted a dark raptor perched in a birch tree on the far shore, which turned out to be an immature red-shouldered Hawk, a lifer for me—and my 200th species! As I privately celebrated, a harbor seal popped its head out of the waves and splashed around, as if echoing my delight.

Before heading to lunch, we did one last sweep for horned larks by the Aviator Center—success! There were around 45 or 50 feeding in the grass—but no Lapland longspurs—and we watched them from the van, careful not to spook them.

Greater Scaup
Greater scaup (Aythya marila)

Once we finished warming up in the cafeteria, we crossed the Gil Hodges Bridge to see what Rockaway Inlet had in store for us. Upon our arrival we immediately noticed a huge raft of at greater scaup bobbing in the waves. (I have to say that I’m proud of myself for nailing all my scaup IDs recently.) As Gabriel combed through the flock of looking for lesser scaup, he came across a surprising find: a white-winged scoter! I would have loved to have seen it, but it kept dipping out of view whenever the scope was passed to me. That was okay, though, as there were other exciting species close by.

The inlet was filled with red-throated loons, red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, clownish long-tailed ducks, horned grebes, and…wait, what’s that by the second pylon? Sitting low in the water, only it’s bigger than a horned grebe and smaller than a loon…and the the bill is heavy and yellow…with a very faint rusty wash on the neck. Holy shit, a red-necked grebe! Last year they were seen all over the New York area (except by this girl) but in general they’re pretty rare here. I got some great looks at it as it preened in front of us, as well as one truly terrible photograph. Without a doubt the highlight of my day (the bird, not the picture).

Blurry Red-necked Grebe
Preening red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena). Great bird, terrible picture.

Fort Tilden was our final stop and our best bet at finding the other two scoter species or maybe a purple sandpiper. But the beach was pretty quiet, and all we saw were some common loons and some very (very) distant black scoters halfway across the horizon. It was getting cold by this point, so we packed up into the van and headed back to Manhattan, stopping briefly at the playing fields to watch one last flock of horned larks whirl about in the air.

All in all, a very satisfying day thanks to a stellar guide and a great group of fellow birders. We may not have seen any Superb Owls or Seahawks (no, those buteos don’t count), but that red-necked grebe! Wonderful.

Central Park Christmas Bird Count

Birding, for many of us, involves a lot of counting. Counting canvasbacks on the pond or white-throated sparrows hopping about in the underbrush. Counting down the days to a much-anticipated trip. Picking through hundreds of ring-billed gulls and herring gulls, hoping to find something—anything—that will make that hour you spent in the cold worthwhile. (But it’s always worthwhile, right? Well, I haven’t yet caught the gull bug, so maybe not that last one…)

Although I’ve been birding—and counting!—for a good 5 years now, I’d never before participated in a Christmas Bird Count. There are a number of CBCs in the New York metro area, but something always got in the way that prevented me from signing up. When I was just starting out, I was worried about slowing down more experienced or competitive birders, and when I moved to the city a couple of years ago, transportation and scheduling became more of an issue. This past year, however, I resolved to put a stop to this silliness—Christmas shopping be damned.

The 115th Annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count took place on Sunday, December 14. It was cloudy and cold, but there was no snow on the ground and no rain or snow in the forecast, so there was nothing stopping us from heading out of the apartment that morning. (I later heard that this was the best weather they’d had in years.) But despite our best efforts, E and I ended up running 15 minutes late; by the time reached the park, the 80 or so birders already congregated at the South Pump Station had already split up into groups

The park covers 843 acres, but it’s divided into seven sectors during the count: the Ramble, the Reservoir, the Great Lawn, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, and Northeast. My birding excursions are usually confined to the Ramble, with its twisting paths and “dense” (ahem, by NYC standards) woods, and the Reservoir just to the north, so I wanted to try somewhere new. After hemming and hawing, and a bit of confusion, E and I threw up our hands and went with the group with the friendliest faces: Southwest it was.

There were nine people in our group, all women (score!) and many of them staff members at NYC Audubon. It’s a good thing that they were such a welcoming group, as the Southwest sector is known for being, well, pretty damn dead. It has no real wooded areas or bodies of water that might attract a greater variety of birds and mostly follows West Drive down to Columbus Circle, then back up along the ballfields and Sheep Meadow. Useful knowledge to have for next year, but I don’t regret our choice; good company made up for the lack of birds.

As we headed south along the bridle path towards 72nd Street, we came across one of the more interesting sightings of the morning: a baby opossum! The poor dear was cowering in a sapling as dogs and their humans ran by. After passing under the Riftstone Arch, we began our count. Tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches were in abundance this year, in stark contrast to 2013, when only one of each were counted in the entire park. At Tavern on the Green, we came across our first red-tailed hawk, perched in a tree above the take-out window—which prompted a few in our party to purchase hot chocolate to warm their hands. A smart move. A ruby-crowned kinglet and hermit thrush added some more interest, but for the most part it was…pigeons. Lots of pigeons. And European starlings. And house sparrows.

After almost 4 hours of birding, we headed over to the Arsenal on the east side of the park to warm up, share results, and fill our bellies with soup. Groups argued over hawks—who saw what where? “Reservoir, your hawk was flying from the southeast at what time? Then it was probably the same bird that the Great Lawn reported at X hour.” Et cetera, et cetera. And I am proud to say that although our sector reported nothing out of the ordinary, we did have the high count for rock pigeons, so that has to count for something! (Pure desperation, you mean? Oh…)

The final tally for the Southwest sector (based on my records, so consider this unofficial):

Canada goose 7
Red-tailed hawk 2
Rock pigeon 130
Mourning dove 1
Red-bellied woodpecker 3
Yellow-bellied sapsucker 1
Northern flicker 1
Blue jay 24
Black-capped chickadee 2
Tufted titmouse 17
White-breasted nuthatch 8
Ruby-crowned kinglet 1
Hermit thrush 1
Northern mockingbird 1
European starling 115
White-throated sparrow 69
Northern cardinal 4
Common grackle 50
American goldfinch 1
House sparrow 129
Total Birds: 567
Total Species: 20

All in all, a fine way to end the morning. Until next year!

Bobolinks at Bart’s Cobble

(I haven’t been able to do much birding these past two months—life got in the way, unfortunately—so here is a post that I meant to publish back in July! One last taste of summer before autumn sets in for good.)

Bartholomew’s Cobble lies at the foot of the Berkshire Hills in southwestern Massachusetts, just east of the Taconics. Being just a 10-minute drive from Falls Village, it’s a place that I visited countless times over the course of my childhood—but rarely as an adult, and never as a birder. A couple of summers ago my girlfriend interned at the historic house on the reservation, and whenever I picked her up in the evenings, I would always see at least one person with binoculars scanning the field or craning their necks up to the top of the trees. But I never got around to birding the Cobble myself. That finally changed this summer.

When I drove up to Sheffield one Saturday morning in early July, I had one thing on my mind: bobolinks. I had never seen one before, and while not rare, these distinctive grassland singers are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, and their numbers have been declining across the United States over the last couple of decades. Just my luck, then, that the hayfields on top of Hurlburt’s Hill and between the Ashley House and Weatogue Road are home to Massachusetts’ largest nesting population!

Hurlburt's Hill
Hurlburt’s Hill

Protecting this grassland habitat is an important part of the management plan put forth by the Trustees of Reservations. At Bart’s Cobble, as is the case with other known nesting habitats, mowing is timed to occur at the end of the breeding season, generally by early August. Although it may seem innocuous to some, the timing and frequency of haying has been identified as one of the primary causes of the decline in bobolink numbers. But it is a fine line to walk: hay too early or frequently and you risk destroying the nests and unfledged young of grassland birds (not just bobolinks, but eastern meadowlarks and savannah sparrows, as well); hay too late or infrequently and local farmers are jeopardizing their harvests—and their livelihoods.

Before heading out from the visitor center, we asked the ranger on duty about the current numbers. He told us that he tallied at least 50 that morning just walking through the field to do a preliminary count. Good. So we set out for the fields, hats blowing off in the wind, ears and eyes open and searching.

Bobolinks
Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorous)

Casting my eyes over the hayfield, I quickly spotted a male in fine form, perched atop the swaying grass. And then another…and another…and another. With their straw-colored napes and striking black-and-white plumage, they reminded me of punk rockers in tuxedos. The Billy Idols of the bird world. Much like their red-winged blackbird cousins, female bobolinks more resemble sparrows than your typical icterid, but they are no less lovely. Their heads and breasts are washed in a pale gold, and they blend in easily with the grass. I think they make a fine match.

Virginia Ctenucha (Ctenucha virginica)
Virginia ctenucha (Ctenucha virginica)

We counted approximately 30 bobolinks total (generally well balanced between male and female), all the while listening to a heady mix of the birds’ electronic burbling song and the buzz of insects. Above us, a particularly pugnacious red-winged blackbird chased a common raven across the sky, and turkey vultures circled a decidedly…fragrant…carcass in the woods close by. The rest of our walk was populated by the usual summer residents, including indigo bunting, ovenbird, eastern bluebird, eastern wood-pewee, scarlet tanager, tree swallow, and one lovely Virginia ctenucha specimen. But none of them, not even the bunting, matched the bobolink in my book. Rock on.

The Family Moldstead

On summer weekends, it is not the beach that calls to me, but the woods—lovely, dark, deep, and far from the noise and congestion of Long Island. And so, earlier this month, I went as I often do to the woods of Northwestern Connecticut, where my family has a summer house. The house is part of what was once a bustling Methodist camp meeting ground in the 1800s; eventually tents gave way to about 60 small cottages in the Victorian painted lady style arranged in a double circle around a grove of towering cathedral pines. Fervent believers were replaced by summerfolk escaping the city, but there is still a chapel in the center of the grove, and the bells still ring at 11 o’clock every Sunday.

My father’s family started spending summers here in the 1950s, first in a cottage in the inner circle of the grove, and later on a sometimes forgotten spur heading deeper into the woods. That’s our cottage, the Needle Edge. Perched precariously on top of a rocky foundation, it has no insulation and only an ancient propane heater to heat its century-old bones; it is rustic in all senses of the world.  Even in high summer, when the air is heavy with mosquitoes and approaching storms, it is a good 10 degrees colder (and damper) inside than out. The sharp smell of mildew (care of a pine tree that fell through the roof during a storm some 20 years ago) hits you as soon as you walk into the kitchen from the back porch, and then the chill starts to seep into your bones. We call it the family moldstead, and still I love it.

When not out exploring the back roads and cobbles of the Berkshires, I sit on the porch, sometimes with a book and sometimes without. I note the singers in our summer chorus: veery, hermit, and wood thrush; eastern phoebe and wood-pewee; an insistent ovenbird; the drum of a red-bellied woodpecker and the whir of a thirsty ruby-throated hummingbird.

I like to watch the hummingbirds do battle over the sugar water we put out for them. We’ve never managed to attract hummers at my parents’ house, but here they never fail to come within 5 minutes of filling the feeders. For a while I found this perplexing; here we are in the deep woods, with nary a blossom to be seen, and yet the minute we put the feeders out we hear the familiar burry buzz of wings! But of course they wouldn’t subsist solely on flower nectar; the woods around us readily provide a smorgasbord of tree sap and mosquitoes. They do just fine without us.

At night in bed, I hear the descending, trilling whinny of eastern screech owls and the who-cooks-for-yoooou from a barred owl. And the neverending chorus of frogs. Years ago there were coyotes, but we haven’t heard them since I was a kid—and no, I don’t mind that at all. It’s pitch black outside, and there are no streetlights by our cottage. A coyote would not be on the list of things that I’d want to encounter while walking my dog at night.

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.