Like many New Yorkers, I love the magnolias and cherry blossoms that drape the city in spring. But for me, the parks’ yellow sprays of spicebush, rubbery red skunk cabbage, and the conquerees of red-winged blackbirds are my favorite harbingers of the season.
Last Saturday, Sarah and I went to Alley Pond Park for the start of spring migration. We found the woodlands waking to the calls of spring peepers, and spied a few early migrants, including an eastern phoebe and two pine warblers—one with bright breeding plumage.
When living in the age of eBird, where rare birds are charted in digital wilds, we can easily forget to allow nature to be our guide. Neither of us expected to see a life bird that afternoon, so we were very fortunate when we stopped to take a second look at the birds foraging in the shallows of Decadon Pond. They were black, but with brown brindling and startling yellow eyes. They had buffy eyebrows and the voices of droids. They were rusty blackbirds.
I know that rusties are not uncommon in New York City’s parks, but had never seen one, myself. They are seasonal visitors—some overwintering, others stopping over on their way from Southern swamps to their breeding grounds in the Canadian muskeg. They are also among the most rapidly declining bird species in America. Using the Audubon Christmas Bird count and Breeding Bird surveys as a reference, scientists estimate that their numbers have declined by staggering 85% (or more) since the mid-1900s.
The reasons for their plunging population are poorly understood, but habitat loss is suspected as a primary cause. Other North American blackbirds have adapted to diverse breeding habitats and even flourish near human settlement, where they feast on waste grain in fields and pastures. In contrast, the rusty blackbird is reliant on secluded forest wetlands. In the southeastern US, wetlands sheltering overwintering birds have been fragmented by logging and agricultural development, while breeding habitat in Canada has been degraded by oil sand mining.
Of additional danger is the blackbird’s breeding diet, which consists almost entirely of aquatic snails and insect larva. Not only are these species vulnerable to pollution, but they also accumulate toxic methyl-mercury, which threatens developing young.
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?
Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?
We quickly took our photos, marveling all the while, and then our exit.
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.
Here it is again, in a more cautious pose, its red rump and powerful back toes exposed to the camera.
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.
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.
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.
Three brant swimming from jetty to jetty. Two common loons stretching their wings further out to sea. Three scoters, two black and one surf.
One, two, three…fourteen long-tailed ducks diving just off the beach.
One Bonaparte’s gull, buoyed by the waves.
Four purple sandpipers skittering over the rocks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!)
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.
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).
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.
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!