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.)

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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.

Garret Mountain

or, in which we almost see a Swainson’s warbler

Almost. If we had been there a day earlier. And had been really lucky. (One day, one day.)

Neither my girlfriend nor I are extremely confident drivers. I put off learning to drive for years out of fear of the maze of interchanges and highways that make up the New York metro area, and E is more used to driving in rural, sparsely populated areas. However, in preparation for our Midwestern road trip (now come and gone), we decided to make an effort to put more miles under our belt in May. Our first task: 1) Leave New York City; 2) Do it without dying; 3) Explore a new natural area. If we’re going to deal with the traffic on George Washington Bridge, we might as well do some birding in the process, right?

After researching the heavily birded areas that lie along I-80, our planned route, we eventually settled on Garret Mountain Reservation on the outskirts of Paterson, New Jersey. Forty minute drive from Queens (check), popular migrant stopover (check), and the opportunity to reenact my favorite Richard Shindell song? Check.

Although we got off to a later start than anticipated, the drive out of the city was uneventful. (Take that, Shindell.) From the highway, Garret Mountain seems less a mountain than a hill, and I was momentarily worried that this wouldn’t provide the escape from civilization that we were hoped for. Well, it was no wilderness, but it turned out to be the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

After parking at a terraced parking lot near the entrance, we made our way down to Barbour’s Pond, following in the footsteps of another binocular-toting couple. Above us, gray catbirds were meowing, red-winged blackbirds were angrily chucking away, and warbling vireos were singing their little hearts out. I will always love warbling vireos; they may be drab little birds, but their song more than makes up for it. (And they were the first vireos that I was able to identify by song alone!)

As we walked along the shoreline, we ran into another birder who asked if we were there looking for the Swainson’s warbler that was reported the day before. Swainson’s warbler, you say? Since when do they come to New Jersey?! Swainson’s warblers breed in the Southeast and their range barely extends to Virginia. I would never dream of seeing one in these parts…or ever.

American Redstart
Definitely not a Swainson’s.

It was just as well that I’d neglected to check the eBird reports before driving out, as the bird had apparently moved on by the time we arrived. But oh, how wonderful would it have been to have gone to this mountain on a whim—as driving practice!—only to see such a rarity? Instead of being disappointed at missing out, I was thrilled that we had come so close to seeing one without even knowing it.

While watching a spotted sandpiper feeding along a sandbar, I suddenly noticed that a group of birders and photographers had started to gather by a stand of trees that we’d previously overlooked. What was it? A hooded warbler! I A very kind birder pointed him out to use and we got some very good looks (but no pictures). That was a lifer for me, and one that I had been hoping to see this year. He flitted around the underbrush and at one point perching very considerately on a branch right in the open.

After we had gotten our fill, our new acquaintance offered to take us to a spot where a least bittern had been seen over the past couple of days. We struck out on the bittern, but I was touched that this more experienced birder took the time out of his day to introduce us to the various hotspots and nesting locations on Garret Mountain.

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus)

Later that afternoon, we wended our way up some trails to get away from the sun and perhaps catch a few more warblers and thrushes. A short way up the hill, we found ourselves a nice resting place on a rocky ridge. And there we sat, listening to a surreal mix of veeries, hermit thrushes, red-eyed vireos, and hip-hop from a far-off barbecue. Our high vantage point allowed us peeks up into the canopy that we otherwise would have missed, and we got some great looks at a male Canada warbler, my first of the year.

‘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.

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!