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.

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.

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!

‘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.

Jamaica Bay

Last weekend, I found myself with a sudden inexplicable longing for shorebirds. This was somewhat surprising for me, as you’d think I would have been instead seduced by those reports of a cerulean warbler in Central Park. Was it foolish of me to think that those jeweled songbirds would stick around for another week? Perhaps, but more will come (she says to herself); the need to spy on long-legged waders was too much for me to resist.

I was off to Jamaica Bay.

It’s an hour-long ride on the Q53 from Woodside to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge—not everyone’s idea of a good time, but to be honest, I’m rather fond of like it. (Part of this must come from my not having to rely on the bus system on a regular basis, I’m sure.) I like seeing the different parts of Queens where I otherwise haven’t ventured. The bus follows Woodhaven Boulevard through Elmhurst and Rego Park, Woodhaven and Ozone Park; it’s an endless stream of people coming on and off, stop and go, Chinatown and chrome-plated bodegas. It’s a congested, built-up, and somewhat lurching route to find yourself on at any time of day. Once you hit Howard Beach, though, everything starts to open up—and then you cross the bridge, and you are in another world.

Tree Swallows
Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor)

Like so many of New York City’s green spaces, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is not quite as “natural” as it appears at first glance—but then, what wild landscape can you truly call untouched? From the West Pond, you can see the Freedom Tower just over the horizon and the Verrazano Bridge looming in the distance. And every so often, the racket from above is not from a laughing gull, but a cargo plane taking off from JFK, soon to be jetting off over the Atlantic. It’s a peculiar, wonderful place—and a vital stop on the Atlantic Flyway, home to an immense diversity of species. The East and West Ponds, the two large freshwater/brackish ponds in the refuge, may be manmade but they play a critical role in an ecosystem that has lost 99% of its freshwater marshes to development and pollution.

Or they did.

Morning rain
Morning rain

The refuge was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the damage is still very evident. The East Pond has been repaired by now (proximity to MTA-owned tracks will do that for you), but it is impossible to ignore the gaping 100-foot breach in that now bisects the West Pond Trail. Salt water from the surrounding bay now flows freely into the West Pond, effectively turning it into a tidal lagoon. The salinity levels are now high enough that the pond can no longer support freshwater species. It is a shame, and I can only hope that the National Parks Service be convinced to act quickly to prevent further damage.*

This was my first trip of the year to Jamaica Bay and Elizabeth’s first visit ever. I always like seeing the diversity of visitors there: birders young (!) and old (but of course), nature photographers, and New Yorkers of all races, all happy to be out enjoying this rare spot of calm. And there were no massive groups of people to navigate around that day, for which I was grateful. I find that as my field skills are improving (slowly but surely!), I’m growing increasingly fond of birding in smaller groups, or simply on my own. On this day, it was nice to be there with just the two of us; we could take our time and linger for as long as we pleased, without feeling like we needed to hit the next spot before we run out of time. I may add fewer species to my lists than I would on a guided walk, but I see more.

Tricolored Heron
Blurry tricolored heron (Egretta tricolor)

We saw 29 species total, with a good handful of them being year birds for me. Highlights included glossy ibis, tricolored heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, American oystercatchers, greater yellowlegs, boat-tailed grackles, both tree and barn swallows, and lots of snowy egrets out hunting. I was especially pleased to see the tricolored heron, which is not a species that I’ve seen outside of Jamaica Bay. There was no sign of the nesting barn owl at Big John’s Pond, but that came as no surprise—serves us right for birding in the middle of the day. We took that as our cue to leave, and our departure was well-timed, as it started to rain just as we spotted the Q53 barreling down the Cross Bay Boulevard.

Back to the bus, back to the crowds, back to the city. Until next time, Jamaica Bay.

*A couple of months ago, NYC Audubon issued proposal recommendations for restoring the West Pond to its original freshwater state. I encourage you to read it if you have the time—and if you are moved to do so, please consider signing the related petition.

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…