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.)

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.

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!

‘Here I am. Where are you?’

This was not the start to the day that I had imagined. In an ideal world, I am a morning person. In an ideal world, I arrive half an hour early to birding trips, giving me ample time to scope out the area on my own and maybe even track down that yellow-throated warbler I’ve been hearing about. In an ideal world, the 7 train runs on time and is not jam-packed with cyclists early on a Sunday morning. I do not live in an ideal world.

It was 8:05 in the morning, and I was running late for a much-anticipated Central Park excursion with my hometown Audubon group, cursing under my breath at the Five Boro Bike Tour that had delayed my train. Despite the chill in the air, I had already managed to work up a sweat from running three city blocks laden down with binoculars, camera, field guide, and water bottle. My anxious inner monologue was just beginning to get going after I jaywalked across Madison when I heard it. Not halfway across the block to 5th Avenue, and I could already hear the chorus of birdsong ringing off the ornate facades of the embassy buildings that abut the park.

…old sam peabody, peabody, peabody…

Come in, come in, come in, the sparrows—and they were my sparrows, the white-throats seemed to say. It’s cold out now, but it will be a good morning.

So I did, and it was. I may not be a morning person, but I think if I spend enough years doing this I just might become one.

After weeks of waiting, the trees have finally begun to leaf out (though not so much as to obscure the birds), and the woods were lush with spring ephemerals: mayapple, trillium, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells. I honestly don’t mind that Central Park is a bit of a zoo this time of year; I can go other places if I want a solitary communion with nature. When a mad rush of migrants descends on the only green space for miles around, the resulting crowds are almost as much of a spectacle as the birds themselves. I’d take this over Times Square any day of the week.

We spent almost 4 hours birding the Ramble, and I think I could have stayed longer had it not been for my aching feet. It was an overcast morning, which at times made it nearly impossible to distinguish colors against the bright white backdrop of sky, but the warblers were there; oh, they were there.

Black-and-white warblers were everywhere, creeping along tree trunks right at eye level, and common yellowthroats skulked behind their black masks in the underbrush. An ovenbird strolled along the perimeter of a chain-link fence. Along the water’s edge, a northern waterthrush wagged its tail as it criss-crossed a stream, and later I saw the same bob-bobbing action from a handsome palm warbler with his natty rufous cap. But the main action, of course, came from on high: American redstart and northern parula, Nashville and magnolia, yellow and yellow-rumped, black-throated blue and black-throated green, prairie, and finally—a fitting denouement—the lovely chestnut-sided warbler.

That darn blackburnian warbler continued to elude me, and I never did get a decent good look at the Canada, but I didn’t mind; fifteen species of warbler is a not a bad way at all to start the day! We also got very nice views of two scarlet tanagers, a rose-breasted grosbeak just hangin’ out in the grass, warbling and red-eyed vireos, Baltimore orioles, hermit thrush, and a whole host more. Here is hoping that the rest of the month is just as productive as this morning was.

And if you hear a red-eyed vireo singing his song (“Here I am. Where are you? I’m up here. In the tree!”), you can tell him that I’m in the park, looking up.

Coot Foot

I’ve never gotten the hang of March. My weekends last month were spent mainlining tea, pulling near all-nighters for work, tending to a sick and worried girlfriend…and just hoping, hoping that spring would come. I watched with envy as reports came in about the red-necked grebe in Central Park, but my binoculars stayed in the closet. Even though I did have windows of free time, it was hard to go tromping in search of early migrants when my favorite birding companion was confined to the couch.

But now, finally, it seems that spring has arrived for good—and with it, a dose of better health for Elizabeth. Saturday was bubble tea and a ramble through the Ramble, followed by dinner at the World’s Worst Indian Restaurant™. And on Sunday, I decided to take a day for myself. I haven’t had one of those in a long, long time. Elizabeth had to go in to work, so I threw common sense to the winds of April (what taxes?) and headed to Central Park, binoculars in hand.

My first stop was the reservoir, with the vain hopes that I might catch sight of that grebe. The last sighting was on April 2, so it was no surprise that I came out empty-handed in that regard. Still, that didn’t prevent me from trying to turn a sleeping ruddy duck into a lifer red-necked grebe. Wishful thinking much? I saw the black cap, white cheeks, and red neck and must have stayed there for a good 10 minutes waiting for it to lift its head…studiously ignoring the telltale tail sticking up at a jaunty angle. Oops.

Northern Shoveler pair
Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata)

The reservoir had a good number of northern shovelers doing their shovel-y thing, and I was happy to see around 15 double-crested cormorants in breeding plumage. When I first started birding, I was mystified by their name. What crests? They just looked like skeletal black dinosaur birds to me. It took me a while before I finally saw that field mark for myself, but when it did—of course! It’s always satisfying when a name finally clicks for you, isn’t it?

Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Also seen were a pair of American black ducks, mallards, four feeding buffleheads, a lone hooded merganser backlit against the afternoon sun, and COOTS. Two highly entertaining American coots. I don’t think I will ever tire of watching those fellows. For a long time, I admit that coots creeped me out. Specifically their feet. So fleshy. So…lobular. So deathly pale and, quite frankly, rather undead. Now I love them and find them quite charming—yes, even those those weird fleshy lobed feet that trail behind them as they swim. These fellows were swimming along the shoreline, feeding on weeds and diving every so often. Reader, my heart melted a bit. I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but my heart may have been stolen by an old coot in Central Park!

American Coot
American Coot (Fulica americana)

Once I finished my circuit around the reservoir, I headed south towards the Ramble. The woods were crawling with people, some with binoculars, but most without. I ended up splitting my time between the feeders, where I spotted my first chipping sparrow of the year (they are such dapper fellows) and Tupelo Meadow, where I saw some more signs of migration. Several eastern phoebes were singing in the brush—although I couldn’t get a visual—and I got a nice look at my FOY hermit thrush. It’ll only be time before I hear their song ringing through the woods once again…

Winter Birding

Although my year got off to a nice start, with my second snowy owl of the season and a flock of particularly vocal long-tailed ducks off Hobart Beach on New Year’s Day, the polar vortex did me in soon after. It’s just unpleasant to go out when the highs are in the single-digits (and the windchill is in the subzero range)—so I didn’t.

Snowy Owl
Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Sure, I saw house sparrows and and European starlings every morning on my walk to the subway, then more pigeons and the usual assortment of gulls wheeling over the platform as I waited for my train, but for the most part I, like many in the Northeast, stayed hunkered down under blankets and copious amounts of tea. My blood cooled. I entered a period of stagnation. Hibernation. It was not a completely bird-free two months, though. The temperatures showed signs of warming up by President’s Day weekend, which nicely coincided with the Great Backyard Bird Count. Elizabeth and I don’t have a yard or outside space  of our own (our apartment looks out into an alleyway—we hear sparrows, starlings, and the occasional mourning dove, but that is it), so we headed out to New York’s backyard: Central Park. And it was well worth it. The Ramble was a-buzz with the usual winter residents, including droves of my favorite white-throated sparrows singing their sweet song, a skulking brown creeper, and two very handsome fox sparrows.

Baltimore Oriole
Male Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula)
Baltimore Oriole
Female Baltimore oriole

The highlight was definitely a stunning pair of Baltimore orioles who have apparently been overwintering by the feeders at Evodia Field all winter. I was glad to see that they at least seem to have a steady supply of fresh oranges to give them sustenance. Still, the frigid mid-Atlantic is no place for an oriole, not when they ought to be wintering in Central America. By the time our hour was up (but before Miss E’s fingers turned purple), we were quite happy to take shelter in the Boathouse for some mediocre tea and cappuccinos. If only the orioles were so lucky.

The following weekend saw temperatures hit the upper 50s, so I headed out to Long Island with the hopes of taking advantage of the weather, spending some time with my parents, and hopefully seeing some birds. We headed to Caumsett State Park, one of my favorite places on the island, and it seems like the rest of the town had the same idea. The parking lot was filled to capacity, but although the park was crawling with walkers, joggers, and cyclists, not a bird was to be seen. We ran into a group of birders on the way back, and it seemed like we were not the only ones who came up short. In the end, though, I didn’t mind; I was just happy to be outside.

My mom and I swung by Centerport Harbor on the way home, and there at least we were finally able to get some good views of waterfowl, including a flock of around 100 Canvasbacks. Now that I think of it, I think that canvasbacks were one of the first ducks that my mom taught me to identify when I was a kid (after the obvious mallard and wood duck); even though this was long before I actually started birding in earnest, there was something about those handsome ducks that stuck with 7-year-old me. Must have been that aquiline profile (I do like a good nose)!

Now is the month of warblering

It’s the first weekend in May, which to most birders means one thing: migrants! I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t been looking forward to this weekend for a while now. Jenny came over yesterday evening so that we could be up and at ’em at an indecent hour and we went out for Korean food at Natural Tofu (I tried soondubu jigae for the first time—tasty, despite the fact that the soft tofu’s texture reminded me a little too much of undercooked egg). Then we took her on a tour of our local supermarket (it’s a hopping social life we have), and settled in for the night, getting ready to wake up at 6 AM the next morning for what I hoped would be a productive day of birding in Central Park. Key word is hoped.

In general when I go birding, I tend not to get annoyed at so-called “trash birds”—those ubiquitous, “boring,” often year-round birds that so crowd your field of vision and prevent you from adding new species to your list. Now, I do keep lists, but I’m not going to discount a perfectly good bird just because I saw it last week. Honestly, it’s usually exciting enough to me to be out in the field enjoying and observing nature. If I can see a bird that I’m not familiar with and identify it correctly, then my day is made.

But today. Today. It is May 5 and I live in New York City. This week and the next should be peak migration for our area, the best weeks for warblers passing through on their way north, especially in Central Park. It’s a big swath of green in the middle of a concrete jungle and is the perfect place to refuel. It should be teeming with migrating songbirds. But it hasn’t been, due to some combination of stubborn fronts, wayward winds, and a too-cold spring. Checking the listserv and eBird, I knew that the forecast was pretty dismal, but I think I still held out some vain hope that maybe we would be blessed with a change in wind and see some movement.

After three hours of combing through the Ramble, we had a grand total of 25 species, featuring such luminaries as…European starling! Blue jay! House sparrow! Canada goose! American robin! And, lest we forget the star of the morning…the illusive rock pigeon! Sigh.

It wasn’t a total disappointment, though. We did see some good birds, but they were in such low numbers that you wouldn’t think that it was May: yellow warbler, warbling vireo, ruby-crowned kinglet, two black-crowned night-herons (one roosting high in a tree, the other with a fish in its beak), American goldfinch, Baltimore oriole, and some nice views of a prairie warbler, a lifer for me. All birds that I would personally be very happy to see any day of the week, but when you run into real experts who basically do this for a living and they ask, “Did you see the yellow warbler? Did you see it??” you know things are bad for everyone. So that was one consolation, I guess. Instead of birdsong, the woods were filled with the moans and grumbles of depressed birders. Sweet music!

In any case, I will be keeping an eye out on the weather and the reports, and if conditions seem favorable then you can bet I will be dragging Elizabeth out there again. I will not be discouraged! But I’m also not about to wake up up at 6 AM on a weekend if I know the rewards won’t be good. Does that make me a bad birder? Perhaps, but I fell asleep for a good 3 hours when I came home this afternoon—clearly that means something!