Rusty Birding

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.

Pine Warbler
Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

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.

Rusty Blackbird
Rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

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.

The small flock in Alley Pond Park were lively, giving bubbly calls and eagerly flipping wet leaves and rooting in the mossy bank of the kettle pond. We submitted the sighting via eBird to the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz, an initiative of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group. I am crossing my fingers that we will see them again next year.

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.