January 2008


April 17, 1910, was a Sunday. If, on that day, you sat down with a copy of the New York Times and flipped to page 6, you would have seen the following:

BIRD-LIFE TRAGEDY IN PROSPECT PARK; Hermit Thrush, Rarest of Songsters, Slain by the Bloodthirsty Northern Shrike.LURED TO DEATH BY SONGVictim’s Own Sweet Melody Imitated by the Murderers — Sentenced to be Shot on Sight.

“A tragedy of bird life has upset the colony of feathered folk in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, for the great northern shrike, which appeared in the park last Winter on a trip down from Canada, has murdered the little hermit thrush, sole fellow of his kind, and the most highly prized songster in the colony.”

(if you have a .pdf reader installed, you can get the rest of the article here.)

An alert reader will first notice that the 1910 Times used thirty-five words to get across the same idea that the 2008 Post would have summed up with the headline CHEEP TRICK. But besides that, there are a couple of interesting details.

First, the anthropomorphism. On beyond the “murder” thing, the shrike is described as a “cannibal” multiple times in the article, in defiance of the fact that Shrikes and Thrushes are, in fact, two different sorts of bird altogether and that the one eating the other has about as much to do with cannibalism as the packet of soup bones in my freezer does. These days, this much is evident to six year olds and Creationists. Indeed, I feel rather foolish even pointing it out. It is hard for the modern reader not to suspect that the journalist responsible for this piece was not being just a little bit tongue-in-cheek. However, assuming that said author was not some member of a cult that makes a month-long celebration of April Fool’s Day, the Park Superintendent’s decision to have the Shrike shot speaks to a very surprising standard of wildlife management ethics.

But beyond that – in Brooklyn of the twenty-aughts, the Hermit Thrush is by no means “the rarest of songsters.” A day with a Hermit Thrush sighting in Prospect Park is a nice but relatively ordinary day. A sighting of a Northern Shrike, however, would get the mailing lists jumping. Has the Thrush’s population improved that much, or is its toleration for people and noise grown better (as seems to be the case with the Cooper’s Hawk)? Or is it merely that in these days of modern field guides and high-tech optics, we actually know a Hermit Thrush when we see one?

Things have improved for birders in Brooklyn since 1910. In some ways, they have even improved for Brooklyn’s birds – especially predatory birds, who for the most part no longer incur the wrath of the Parks Department just by getting dinner. But note the end of the article, and the touching story of how a mystery bird was identified for a local naturalist by a homesick German emigrant.

Yes, in 1910 it was entirely possible to do a year list in Prospect Park and not know what a Europen Starling was. That’s why they call it “the good old days”.

Scotty in his favorite tree

… the Staples delivery truck.

Photo by Todd Zino. I highly recommend searching Flickr for Scott’s Oriole, by the way. You find things like this.

On a totally unrelated note, I would love to hear from any birders who have done the West section of the Great Florida Birding Trail, especially the portions at Crystal River or Brooker Creek Preserve. I’m planning a trip in early April.

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Things that don’t seem to bother the Union Square Park Scott’s Oriole:

People
Dogs
Cameras
Starlings
Rock Pigeons
The Union Square Park Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which he apparently pinned to the ground and thrashed during a tussle over a slice of orange, according to some of the birders who got to the park before me
Fire trucks
A huge Barack Obama rally
The audio bird-scaring device across the street. To be fair, this doesn’t appear to bother any of the other birds either. The only living things who pay it any attention are the birders going “Where’s that Cooper’s Hawk?!?!”

I was at Union Square for my second look at Icterus parisorum bright and early, despite the cold weather and a spirited attempt by the G train to derail my schedule. Even with the high concentration of binocular-laden people about, I easily met up with Corey Finger. After some great looks at the oriole and a quick refueling stop in the Farmer’s Market we were joined by Mike Bergin. As the Oriole and his papparazzi dodged around their corner of the park, we headed out to the deep wilds of Brooklyn to try for Yellow-breasted Chat and/or Northern Goshawk in Prospect Park.

Full of hopes and dreams and coffee, we made our way up the Lullwater trail and around the boathouse. The usual suspects were much in evidence – Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatch, and of course a great many White-throated Sparrows. What wasn’t in evidence was the Chat – the obliging ice-skating Chat of Wednesday lunchtime had reverted to the I’m-not-there Chat of every other time I ever looked for the bird. I suspect the fact that Corey and Mike had cameras had something to do with this.

In its place, a Winter Wren bounced on a weedstalk, calling persistantly. There were no other Winter Wrens in sight, no predators to scold. We couldn’t figure out what ze was getting at at all.

Eventually, after circling the Lily Pond and the pagoda, we decided to go down to the lake and see if the Northern Goshawk would do hir trick of buzzing the feeding gulls. On the way, we got distracted by a promising raptor-lump in a tree; it confused all three of us, although later in photos it proved to be very Merlin-like.

We were now just a bit off-course, so we headed over the hill, which proved to be a fortunate turn; the weeds and leaf litter were loaded with birds, including two red-and-gray Fox Sparrows, probably the handsomest creatures to go under the Sparrow name (yes, including Johnny Depp.) There was also a Red-tailed Hawk up a tree.

Then on to the water’s edge, where we stopped to scan the gulls. Suddenly, over the trees, a big crucifom hawk! We looked… we looked…

CRACK!

The sheet of ice on the lake split loudly. All of us lost the bird.

The ice would carry on making weird noises – mostly further gunshot cracks, but also whale-like moaning sounds – for some time. There was a lot of ice. On the plus side, the ice did a great job of concentrating the ducks – the usual Shovelers and Coots, plus the persistant Pintail, a pair of Pied-billed Grebes, and of course a great many Mallards, manky and otherwise, Canada Geese and Mute Swans. Further out, a small pod of Ruddy Ducks mingled with more Canadas. The Ring-necked Duck and Hooded Mergansers seem to have moved on, however.

At one point, a mob of Shovelers took off with great alacrity, and we scanned the skies for the cause, but to no avail. There would be no more raptors; indeed, we’d be ushered out of the park by birds on the other end of the drama scale, a pair of Swamp Sparrows drawn out into the open by the need to get water from one of the few holes in the ice (and running a gauntlet of angry Song Sparrow on their way.)

No longer full of hopes and dreams, but unfortunately still full of coffee, we returned to Union Square and went our separate ways. Eventually, I began to feel my fingers again. Good times. Birding with others is a very different vibe from going alone, but I hope to do more of it in the future, especially with such congenial companions as Mike and Corey.

Trip List:

American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Scott’s Oriole Icterus parisorum
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
White-breasted Nutchatch Sitta carolinensis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus
Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Merlin Falco columbarius
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Fox Sparrow Passella iiaca
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana

Photo by Todd Zino

This immature Red-tailed Hawk, along with another one of similar age (a nestmate, I assume) was hanging around the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn last week and really pissing off the local squirrels. Around this time of the year, last summers’ cute little fuzzy eyases are now dorky new grads looking for a likely place. Unlike the young of some species, they’re definitely not going to be welcome to move back into Mom and Dad’s basement if they can’t make it on their own, so the stakes are pretty high. Todd and I were speculating on the suitability of the abandoned parts of the Brooklyn Navy Yard as Red-tail habitat; at first blush it seems small and crowded, but on the other hand, all those tragic rotting buildings on Officer’s Row practically scream for rats to come be fruitful and multiply in them, and where there’s rodents, there’s things that eat rodents.

(don’t worry – updates on the Scott’s Oriole and the rest of today’s adventures are on the way!)

Union Square is a hop, skip, and a jump from where I live in subway terms. So naturally, when I heard about the Scott’s Oriole there, I hopped, skipped, and jumped (after cursing that it didn’t get posted to the mailing list a day earlier, since I went for groceries at the farmer’s market after my Prospect Park walk and knowing that the Oriole was there would have changed it from a merely very lucky day to an absurdly lucky day.)

To be honest, it was almost too easy. I got off the L train at Union Square, went up the stairs, oh look, there’s a crowd of people with scopes and big-ass cameras. Walked a few yards over to join them and the bird is sitting on the ground with a couple of pigeons and sparrows. Eventually it flew up into the shrubbery, where it posed obligingly. It didn’t feed while I was watching, yawned once, and spent some time with its eyes closed – I hope that it remains in good health despite the cold snap and the mass of observers (I suppose if it’s been in the park since December it must already be somewhat used to crowds.) got some photos, which I will post soon.

Field marks – well, it’s sure as shit an oriole, primarily lemon-lime across the bulk of the body with grayish wings (two white wing bars) and back and a black bib and mask the extends to the eye. The top of the head was obviously in transition, with a scaly combination of black, grayish, and greenish feathers. The size controversy – well, the bird didn’t have the good grace to sit next to a starling for a length comparison while I was there, but it seemed slighter that the nearby starlings to my eye. Of course this is rather subjective since different birds may be fluffed up to different degrees, particularly in weather like this. The bill, black with blue-gray at the base, was very very slightly decurved.

Of course, I can’t really really really count this little guy until NYSARC gives the all-clear, declaring it both a Scott’s Oriole and not an escapee from captivity. But given how well-documented this bird is, and the known vagabond nature of the species in question, I have high hopes that this will be bird number 246 for my life list and the first NYS first record I’ve participated, in however small a capacity, in.

Scott’s Oriole Icterus parisorum *LL
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
House Sparrow Passer domesticus

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If you live in New York, you add warblers to your life list in April and May. If you live in New York and are totally hardcore, you also add warblers to your life list in September. Only if you are ridiculously lucky do you add warblers to your life list in New York in January.

I’ve always been ridiculously lucky. Except in Coney Island Creek, but what ya gonna do?

The Yellow-breasted Chat who lingered, for reasons best known to hirself (Chats are among the relatively few eastern warblers that are not sexually dimorphic,) in Prospect Park when the rest of hir kind* headed for Panama is also ridiculously lucky. It’s been a warmish winter, but the place is hopping with bird-eating hawks and the Chat’s favored food, bugs, aren’t exactly abundant right now. Still, staying here allowed the Chat to experience a pleasure this morning that probably few of its kind will ever know – namely ice-skating, as I watched it slip and slide across the frozen Binnen Waters to an open spot for a drink. If I had had a camera… well, if I had had a camera the bird probably would have stayed in the brush.

Even aside from the Chat, it was an excellent day of birding. Started slow, to be sure, but by the time I hit the lake even the sight of some idiot feeding bread to a Mute Swan that was taller than he was couldn’t dampen my enjoyment (It’s not that I don’t understand the impulse that makes people want to cram Wonder Bread into waterfowl, but its gotten to where if you go down to the water’s edge without carbs in hand, the Mute Swans start eying you like extras from The Sopranos. The Canada Geese do too, but the Canada Geese can just hurt you real bad, whereas Swans will kill you. And if I must be killed by a bird, it’s fucking well not going to be an invasive species.) Especially when the scavenging flock of pigeons and gulls got busted up by Prospect Park’s other overwintering superstar, the Northern Goshawk. Hot stuff.

*except that one is also attempting to overwinter in Central Park this year. Maybe they could form a support group.

American Robin Turdus migratorious
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaciensis
Brown Creeper Certhia americana
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens *LL
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
American Coot Fulica atra
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinus
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Northern Junco Junco hyemalis
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

I have to admit, I’m a little jealous of the good people of Boston. I know that snow causes traffic wrecks, depression, and myriad other evils (hey, I’m from Buffalo) but within me, a cruel and seductive logic whispers that I’m not going to see my Common Redpoll unless there’s at least an inch of fluffy white on the ground, plump flakes are drifting out of the sky, and all the tree branches are coated like they’re posing for a Christmas card.

And that could be true, for all I know, because I sure didn’t see any Redpolls today, nor Pine Grosbeaks, nor yet any Bohemian Waxwings. I found a promising flock feeding in a hawthorn tree – mostly American Robins, with a handful of House Finches – but alas, it concealed no boreal tag-alongs. It did draw the attention of a Cooper’s Hawk, who made a nice low obliging fly-over and sent the Robins coursing away in a panic.

With the Cooper’s Hawk, along with an assortment of usual but new-for-the-year winter ducks on the reservoir (hightlighted by a Hooded Merganser who had pulled up onto the shore with a flock of Mallards for one of those super-close, leisurely looks that I only get when I haven’t got a camera) my 2008 list stands so far at 38, 31 of which count for my BGBY. This means that I’m doing better than I was this time in 2007 (21), but am still lagging badly behind my January 2006 species count (52, which to be fair included 24 species from a Brooklyn Bird Club trip to Westchester.) Hopefully, buying a new bike this weekend will help kick-start things a little bit.

White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
American Coot Fulica atra
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Robin Turdus migratorius
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula

Woodcocks are tricky.

Stop snickering, for god’s sake. They are not tricky because they have a name that ranks up with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Tufted Titmouse in the competitive “Making Non-Birders Think You’re Making Shit Up” sweeps. Just to make things worse, they’re colloquially known as Timberdoodles, but that’s still not the tricky part.

They’re tricky because they’re sandpipers who have forsaken the sea. Some other shorebird species have done the same – the Upland Sandpiper, to pick an obvious example – but they mostly go for open fields. Woodcocks, with their cousins the Snipe*, have mastered the fine art of living in damp scrubby woods and damp woody scrubs. They have an elaborate worm-catching strategy, which involves stomping the ground (as much as a five or ten ounce bird can stomp) to make the worms move, and then probing them out with a specialized, flexible bill. To work this strategy, they need soft but not flooded earth. Take a spotty second-growth grove with some little spit of a stream running through, a stream that becomes a string of grass beaded with puddles in July, something that Mallards ignore and no self-respecting Piping Plover has ever been within a mile of, and you’ve got prime Woodcock habitat.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll see a Woodcock. What you’ll see, most likely, is absolutely nothing. Next most likely, you’ll see a feathery explosion of WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT whistling rapidly away while you put your foot down in the spot where a Woodcock was.

The only Woodcock I ever saw, I saw because I was looking for dead things. The pattern on her back, brilliant at breaking up the perceptions of predators with the search pattern ‘bird’, bore enough resemblance to a bleached ribcage partly covered in leaves that it tripped my search pattern instead. She was nestled under a crabapple bush, in last year’s leaves, and it was only while I was bending down to see what kind of specimen I’d got that I realized what I was dealing with.

I’m fairly sure that she was incubating eggs, but I can’t swear to it, because she never moved as I stood back up, walked around the bush, and studied her at length, and I had better manners than to prod her. With her eggs or whatever at stake, she seemed inclined to keep up the “I’m detritus” charade just as long as she could. Eventually we were at an impasse – I hate to walk away from a bird, but in this case, if I didn’t I might stand there the rest of the season. And the next day I was flying to Germany, so that wasn’t really feasible. I did think that if my plane crashed, she was a good life bird to go out on and I should appreciate her as much as possible, though.

I’m not sure how long I stood there, but it wasn’t long enough. Especially as I’ve never seen another one.

There is a slightly more fruitful way to see Woodcocks than by not looking for them, though, one that I hope to take advantage of this year – the Woodcock’s mating flight (stop snickering!) Each spring, before the snow melts (well, not in January, but you know, before the snow usually melts), the male Woodcock abandons his species’ usual lurking habits and begins to call. Then he flutters into the sky, spiraling up between 70 and 100 meters, with the tips of his wings making the air whistle. Then he zigzags down again, and starts over.

The temptation for some writers would be to make a tacky parallel here, either about love and chivalry or about how desire makes men stupid, depending on inclination. Happily, I’m not one of those writers. I mean, come on, they’re sandpipers. And anyway, the male isn’t all that stupid; he only performs at dawn and dusk and on occasional moonlit nights, when the hawks are asleep and there’s still enough light to see approaching owls.

In NYC, most birders favor Floyd Bennett Field as a Woodcock observing ground, but the dance is known to occur in Central and Prospect Park, as well.

The third way to see a Woodcock is to get obscenely lucky.

*Another bird that non-birders tend to take for a joke. I’m not sure why. I’m told it has something to do with going to summer camp in New Jersey.

I picked up a handful of birds on my trip home (notably Wild Turkey) and my Saturday visit to the NY Botanical Garden in the Bronx (notably Northern Goshawk) but today was my first dedicated birding trip of 2008, a pleasant pre-work hour in Central Park. It’s unseasonably warm today, but the birds in evidence were mostly the usual suspects:

Rock Dove Columba livia
Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
American Robin Turdus migratorius
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus

There were two Red-tailed Hawks, actually. The one I saw better was an immature bird, which was being watched from a distance by an adult and from rather closer range by a mob of very angry Blue Jays. It looked very harassed.

But it’s a new year, with new lists to make and new birds to see. Many bird blogs have mentioned the excitement of getting to tick “boring” birds again, but I’ve tried to go one better and really look at them with new eyes, because there’s really no such thing as a boring bird. Even chickens can be interesting, like for instance when they try to kill you.

Today, what I noticed in particular was Black-capped Chickadees, and in particular in particular the way that the gray on their backs is almost green in some individuals. It’s really very pretty. Looking at that color is like sleeping in a mossy glade. In fact, chickadees with the gray and black and greenish and bluish and buff and cream, are like a very small portable mossy glade with rocks and a stream and some mushrooms. Edible mushrooms. Maybe oyster mushrooms.

And then there’s the Northern Cardinal. I know it’s a Christmas-card cliche, but a male Cardinal in a snowstorm on some evergreen branches is just about the best thing ever in basic visual composition. Warm color, cool color, neutral. Throw in a cinnamon-toast female, even better.

This list doesn’t count for my BGBY, unfortunately, because getting to my parents’ joint involves a car to ride me from the train station to here, but the birds of the first day of 2008 are:

American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricappilus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Purple Finch Carpodacus purpureus
Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus
White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker Colaptes auratus
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus

It’s interesting that several of these species didn’t enter my 2007 list until quite late; the differences between NYC and Buffalo winter birds are striking. In particular, my mom’s feeder has White-crowned Sparrows regularly and White-throated Sparrows sporadically; in Prospect Park, the reverse is true.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a new species of liocichla has been discovered in northeastern India. Unfortunately, a highway is planned for the area where ten of the fourteen recorded sightings have taken place.

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