March 2008


I heart NY – I’ve been here two and half years, growing my life list the whole time, and I still haven’t been to all the amazing birding sites in the city. I checked one off yesterday, though, with a bike trip to Floyd Bennet Field, the airport-turned-park that I’d previously only cruised through on my way to Jamaica Bay.

Floyd Bennet is best known as a place to see grassland birds, which my lists have been horribly light on since I left the farm; 2007′s year list, for instance, included neither Bobolink nor Northern Harrier. My particular targets this time out were Horned Lark, the afore-mentioned Harrier, and American Kestrel. Kestrels turn up in various places around the city, on their own and in the talons of hungry Red-tails, but they’ve been good at not turning up in my field of view. I only saw the one last year, and that was driving in Western New York – no good if I wanted to tally the bird for a Big Green Big Year.

On the way up, I got my year Common Loon among the fishing boats in Sheepshead Bay – a sighting that I foolishly took for a good omen. Then I got a tantalizing, scramble-for-my-binoculars look at a lightish hawk that I thought for a moment might have a white rump just as we were riding along the outside fence of the park, but it had disappeared into the sky by the time I’d pulled the bins out of my backpack and never reappeared.

Inside the park, we quickly realized that there was a lot more going on than we had anticipated – model car racing, two separate soccer games, and a lot of people driving up and down for no apparent reason – and also that grasslands are not much good for blocking the wind. Immense flocks of Canada Goose and Brant were gliding in regularly to graze, but it was hard to really enjoy them with what felt like a giant hand impeding our progress as we pedaled.

We stopped at the community gardens, and walked around a little in hope of Horned Lark – a hope which proved forlorn. We did find a flock of mixed blackbirds foraging in a stand of small ornamental trees, which included my year Brown-headed Cowbirds as well as Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle, but no Rusty Blackbirds, which we’re supposed to be keeping an eye out for. When we got tired of watching blackbirds frolic, it was back into the headwinds for us.

Not much further on, we came across a track where several individuals were riding what looked like the bizarre offspring of go-carts and sailboats. It seemed like a better idea than what we were doing, in the moment, although the sailcarters could only go around and around. We stopped in a parking lot near some signs that instructed us to keep the hell out of the grassland bird nesting area, since that seemed like it might be a good place for grassland birds, and I walked the perimeter (carefully keeping out as instructed, though that meant trudging the shoulder of the road and thus putting my mortal coil in danger of idiot drivers) while Todd watched the bikes.

I’d walked about three-quarters of the way to the end of the road when I saw something take off from a fencepost and ascend steeply. I had a pretty good idea of what it might be even before I got my binoculars to my eyes – an idea that was confirmed not only by the bird’s color and conformation, but by the way it started hovering over the field, beating into the wind. Kestrels are the only falcons that can pull off this nifty trick. After hovering for a few seconds, the Kestrel (a largish female) dived, only to come up empty and start all over again.

Though I never did get my Larks or Harrier, I saw two more Kestrels and a couple of rather out-of-place seeming Northern Flickers before we decided to head back. The wind, with low cunning, managed to be in our face from Floyd Bennet all the way through Sheepshead Bay (where another look in the water revealed the largest and most terrifying concentration of Mute Swans I’ve ever seen) and along Gravesend Bay. In consolation, the greenway there turned up several large mixed flocks of Scaup (although not as large as the ones present in February.) Once we finally got off the waterfront and away from the mother-loving wind, there was not much birding left to do nor light left to do it in, although a few Monk Parakeets were kind enough to fly over as we passed Greenwood Cemetery, squawking distinctively.

Overall,though I got less than half of my targets, I can’t complain – any day with four year birds in late March is a good day. Next weekend I’ll be in Pinellas County, Florida, with any luck picking up goodies like Sandhill Crane and Gray Kingbird (although all for naught as far as BGBY is concerned) and after that, migration should be swinging.

Rock Dove Columba livia
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Common Loon Gavia immer
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Brant Branta bernicula
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
Greater Scaup Aythya marila
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus

It seems absurd for me to get Western Tanager before Summer Tanager, but so it goes, like my man said.

The parallels between this bird and my last passerine lifer, the Scott’s Oriole, are eerie. Both, having wound up on the wrong side of the Continental Divide due to some sort of migratory map-reading error, found themselves in Manhattan. Both looked around and betook themselves to parks where, to compensate for the relative lack of insect foods, they took to pirating meals from the wells of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Both of them took advantage of this bounty by sticking close and staying regular, which meant that both of them were absurdly easy to twitch, the more so as both of them picked locations in easy walking distance of subway stops.

If only we could teach Tufted Ducks to do that.

I hadn’t birded Central Park since I changed jobs, and I wouldn’t say I really birded it today either – I was the bad naturalist today, I came in and got my target and got out, like a Front 242 song. But at least I did a proof-of-concept on the kind of subway shenanigans that would ensue from a Brooklyn-to-Central-Park-to-Astoria commute. Let’s just say that I’m going to have to get up pretty early in the morning this spring.

The Tanager hirself was a sweetheart, with big bold wing-bars and a nice light head. Zie also had what struck me as a fairly light-colored beak, but it might have been the sun. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember ever having really looked at Tanager beaks before – usually when I see one it’s just like “Whoa! Shiny!” See? Like I said, bad naturalist.

Anyway, welcome to my life list, #251.

American Robin Turdus migratorius
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana *LL
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Northern Junco Junco hyemalis

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So how busy is my new job keeping me?

So busy that I’m just getting around to blogging last Sunday’s walk through Prospect Park.

If you’re getting bored with my lackadasical postings, here are some things you can read instead:

there’s a very interesting discussion of seals that are visible from space in the comments thread of the previous post.
and a new contest to win a copy of The Life of the Skies at 10,000 Birds
and N8 writes encouragingly about a bird that’s one of my dead-list nemeses (birds that I’ve seen only as ex-birds, sadly not countable.)

Spring continues to sproing. The Pine Warblers that I met up with in Cape May two weeks ago are now in Prospect Park. The drake Pintail that Rob Jett found (thus embarassing my assertion that the duck Pintail had gone off in search of love) continues, and looking mighty snappy too, I might add. Albeit drake pintails pretty much always do. They’re the Brooks Brothers wearers of the Anatidae, to the Mallard’s Abercrombie and the Wood Duck’s Prada. (Hi, Kudla!)

And, even though the weather keeps wavering, the botanical world thinks that it’s spring too. Trees budding and flowers poking up everywhere. Good times. Hopefully soon I’ll dig out from the pile at work and get to enjoy it (although work is making me wistful to enjoy spring or what have you in Costa Rica or Kenya.) At least I’m going down to Central Park tomorrow to make a run at the Western Tanager.

Rock Dove Columba livia
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
Song Sparrow Melospizza melodia
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
American Coot Fulica atra
Northern Junco Junco hyemalis
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos

Sunday morning, with hope in our hearts and an excellent breakfast in our stomachs, we walked the few blocks from our bed and breakfast to the beach. The day was, as promised, a bit windy and threatening rain, but there was nothing in the sky that could dissuade us from our purpose: we would walk down the beach to the lighthouse, explore the park, and then circle the point to the legendary Concrete Ship. The Concrete Ship, I had read, was a common gathering place for Red-throated Loons in March. Why someone should choose to erect a concrete statue of a ship, as I fondly imagined it to be, in the water was a bit obscure, but it wasn’t any weirder than Jersey City’s highly stylized statue of a Polish Army officer with a disembodied bayonet sticking out of his back. People in a memorial-erecting mood can get weird. Anyway, that wasn’t the point. The point was birds.

The Northern Gannets were almost embarrassingly easy. Several winged over the water as we went down the boardwalk; their stiff flight and stark black-and-white pattern made them easy to pick out.

We came to the end of the boardwalk and had barely struck out a few yards into the sand when I noticed another couple with binoculars scanning the waves. The gentlemen said that they had something out there diving “like an Anhinga.”

Floridians. We backed away carefully. Towards the bird, of course.

I was expecting, from the description, a Cormorant – maybe if I was lucky a Great. Instead, I got an eyeful of a sooty grey back and white underparts. The white extended up the throat and over the eye. A slender, upturned bill sealed the deal – I had my Red-throated Loon. We’d been out for less than an hour, and I’d already gotten both my target species. What more might the day hold?

For the next little bit it held a lot of gulls. And a lot of shells, a bit of sea glass, some wrack, a skate’s egg case; all the joys of a not (for the moment) overcrowded beach. We reached the lighthouse in good order, although we were cold enough to happily take shelter in the Nature Center’s museum, which featured a lot of really neat live snakes but only a few stuffed birds. It also featured the true story of the Concrete Ship – yep, it was a ship built of concrete, because of wartime steel shortages. And yep, it floated. Not forever, though. When it stopped floating, its owners left it where it lay.

In the parking lot, I encountered my year Killdeer and my much-anticipated first Warbler of 2008; unsurprisingly, a Yellow-rumped. Also a great many Song Sparrows, Robins, a single Cedar Waxwing, and a vigorously singing Carolina Wren. Also, low and fast along a row of trees, a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It was hard to even leave the parking lot.

After enjoying the Nature Center’s facilities to their fullest extent, we proceeded around the point. There were a series of rock jetties extending into the ocean from this stretch of beach, covered in gulls and green weed. As the Inimitable Todd scrambled out onto one to get a better shot of the ocean, a small, very pale shorebird took off and winged down the beach.

“Gosh darn it!” I said (not an exact quote), and scrambled after. I knew that Piping Plovers had been turning up over the past week in Cape May, but this seemed like a whiter shade of pale. I’d gotten a long enough look at the bird’s retreat to note the black-and-white pattern of the wings, but without other wings to judge it against I didn’t feel like I was able to judge species on the width of the pale stripe alone.

By the time we had arrived at the next jetty, the bird had elected to make a U-turn and head back.

While we pondered this conundrum, the IT once again decided to pursue his strange jetty-crawling ways. This time, instead of flushing a bird from the jetty, he was fortunate enough to be in the path of a flock that flew to the jetty – and they didn’t let the foolish human balancing precariously on the slimy, wave-washed rocks dissuade them from going about their birdy business.

Turnstones and gull

As you can see, some of them were Ruddy Turnstones.

Purple Sandpiper

Some of them were Purple Sandpipers – looking, I must admit, purpler and prouder than previous.

And some of them – the ones that flushed soonest, of course – were the mystery white ‘Plovers’.

What were they? Clearly not Piping Plovers. Snowy Plovers had black at the shoulder, but not like that, and anyway, that was silly talk. It was only when the ‘Plovers’ got sick of playing taunt-the-dopey-mammal and started running back and forth on the sand that I recognized them for what every reader has undoubtedly figured out by now – Sanderlings.

In my defense, I’d never seen any before. Nor had I seen any Ruddy Turnstones, so I was now up three lifers for the day.

We circled through a gift shop and thawed out again, and headed up yet another windy stretch of beach. There was a small knot of people gathered around something on the sand, and after the rather grim cautions in the museum about what happens to plastic at sea, I was afraid that it was a beached and dying marine mammal.

It was a marine mammal; not dead, however, but sleeping! According to the helpful Animal Control officer who’d been dispatched to stand guard, it’s not unheard of for seals (and such it was – a Gray Seal specifically) to just pull up on the sand at Cape May for a little nap, especially in heavy weather, and especially when the seal in question is young. This one had been examined by a vet on the spot and pronounced fit, healthy, and about six to eight months old; old enough to have separated from hir mother, but not yet fully mature. It’s a dicey time in the life of a seal (as it is in the life of a hawk or a human) but the seal in question seemed downright relaxed. We snapped some more photos and wished hir, and the nice Animal Control dude, good luck.

We had only a little further up the beach to go before we encountered the one, the only, the legend, the Concrete Ship. Sure enough, it did indeed have Red-throated Loons around it (though none of the promised Scoters) and I’m not so jaded that I wasn’t excited to see them. In the distance, the ferry (sometimes called a ‘poor man’s pelagic’, such rich waters does it run through) was coming in.

You can kind of see the Loons, but not really.

The weather continued cold and drizzly. There was a hot tea waiting for us at the b&b, but we weren’t going to get it unless we trekked back; and like all good explorers we had no intention of merely retracing our steps. We walked through the village, talking about real estate and the like, and encountered the CMBO building; an unprepossessing little blue-sided house with a message board out front covered in assorted, mostly unhelpful notices. On the other side of the street, though, there was a pond with a great many Coots and a pair of American Wigeons, and another singing Carolina Wren on shore.

We looped, still talking about which of the houses we would buy in an absurd universe where we could afford a house in Cape May. Soon enough – it’s not a big point, that’s part of its virtue – we were back at the lighthouse. This time, instead of the beach, we followed a boardwalk into the scrubby woody marshy thing that was just over the dunes from the sea, the scrubby woody marshy thing that at times is so dripping with migrants as to make Cape May the birding shrine of the American East. It had some migrants today. Not the crowding-each-other-off-branches migrants of a fal day with a wind from the south, but some – including my second warbler of the year, the equally-unsurprising Pine Warbler. It also contained a pair of bird photographers who mentioned that a Barnacle Goose had been spotted up in the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. But that would have to wait until after tea – and a few more Sanderlings.

Tea was delicious. Afterward, hot drinks in bellies and rental car in hand, we headed to Higbee. We found alpacas. We found Eastern Phoebes. We even found geese – but Canada Geese. Alas, the Barnacle Goose was not to be mine.

Instead we watched the sun set over the ocean, and then went out to dinner. And then we got kind of inebriated, and ran into this rules girl from Soho and her fiance, and she started yelling at IT for not marrying me, and I may or may not have stolen her hat… but that’s another story, and doesn’t involve any birds.

Of note: as of the end of this trip, my life list now stands at 250 species, which is about half of where I would like it to be.

All photos, as always, by the Inimitable Todd.

Fish Crow Corvus ossifragus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Northern Gannet Sula bassanus
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata *LL
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler Dendroica coronata
Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Brant Branta bernicla
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres *LL
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima
Sanderling Calidris alba *LL
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker Colaptes auratus
American Coot Fulica atra
American Wigeon Anas americana
Pine Warbler Dendroica pinus
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe

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The Inimitable Todd’s holiday present to me was a pelagic birding trip out of Cape May, complete with a romantic bed and breakfast stay for the weekend. I’ve never been to Cape May nor done a pelagic trip, so as I’m sure you can imagine, I was psyched.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature put the kibosh on the cruise in her own inarguable way, with seven-foot swells. Still, the bed and breakfast was already paid for, and it was too late to cancel. So we decided to go ahead and make the trip. I figured that at the bare minimum, I could get Northern Gannet for my year list and Red-throated Loon for my life list.

The trip down was full of interesting new sights, like the wind turbines outside Atlantic City and my first look at the Pine Barrens and my year first Turkey Vulture (and my year second through thirteenth Turkey Vulture.) Cape May itself smelled good, was picture-postcard charming and pretty darn quiet. While walking around town before dinner, I picked up Fish Crow and Red-breasted Merganser for my year list as well; the Mergansers were particularly nice, a pair right up close in an inlet with the male in good plumage and seemingly intent on impressing his lady friend.

This was all well and good, but would I pick up my life Red-throated Loon and get my Gannets? Only time would tell…

Rock Pigeon Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
American Crow Corvus brachyrhnchos
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Fish Crow Corvus ossifragus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

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I’ve complained often enough about birds whose names don’t make good sense to the casual observe, so let me sing the praises of one that does. If you happen to look up in a tree in the northeastern US, say in Prospect Park on a lovely sunny morning, and you see a couple of ducks in a tree, there’s a better than excellent chance that they’re Wood Ducks. And so they were. They probably felt pretty good about staying in the tree, because if they’d gone down into the water they would have had to deal with the two pairs of extremely edgy Canada Geese disputing whether the Upper Pool was big enough for the four of them.

As the title implies, I saw a butterfly as well – I’m no expert, but I think it was a Mourning Cloak. And the turtles were out and sunning themselves. There was one slider – a big one – who had climbed up on a rock at the edge of the lake and died. Odd timing. I hope zie got to enjoy the morning, anyhow.

Oh, and the Eastern Phoebes are back. The Northern Pintail seems to be gone, as do most of the White-throated Sparrows.

Rock Pigeon Columba livia
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Bufflehead Bucephala albeola
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Wood Duck Aix spansa
Brown Creeper Certhia americana
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapilla
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
American Coot Fulica atra
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe

I realize that it is in part my snotty hipsterism that makes me sneer at golf, and the trappings of golf, like pesticide-drenched botanical monocultures with incredibly ugly subdivisions built around them, filled with McMansions and streets named after the wildlife that used to live there before some jerk-face developer caught up in the subprime mortgage orgy brought in the bulldozers.

But this sure doesn’t help.

Yes, filming instructional golf videos has now joined racing mutant pigeons in the big book of things people think are worth a hawk’s life. Tripp Isenhour, a small-time golf pro with a big-time sense of privilege, was apparently irritated by the Red-shouldered Hawk’s repeated vocalizations as he filmed in Florida in December. So he hit several balls at the bird, the last of which struck it in the head and killed it.

Isenhour claims that this was an accident, the result of a “one in a million” shot, and that he was just trying to scare the bird away. Members of his film crew, however, tell a different story, saying that he persisted in harassing the hawk after it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be scared off by a golf ball, deliberately hitting shots closer and closer to it.

The bird was buried off the fairway by a production assistant, but Isenhour’s sound engineer, haunted by bad dreams about the incident, later reported it to the authorities.

Frankly, I haven’t got much sympathy for the “accident” claim; hassling wildlife over something so trivial, in a way that has an inherent risk of injury to the animal, is in and of itself bad enough for me to condemn.

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