September 2008


This week I was at Central Park even brighter and earlier, hoping to redeem myself for last week’s strike-out. And I did!

Oh, there was nothing of Black-throated Gray caliber. But, despite the intermittent and extremely irritating drizzle, I racked up a nice round forty species on my five-hour ramble from the Ramble all the way up to the Harlem Meer.

The Blue Jays were still on the move, and lots of other migrants were in evidence. The warblers were anchored by Ovenbirds and Common Yellowthroats, with a good showing by Black-and-Whites and Redstarts, and singles of Black-throated Blue, Yellow, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, and a lovely male Black-throated Green. Other notable passerines included Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrush and no less than three Eastern Towhees. The shape of things to come was presaged by my first-of-season White-throated Sparrows and a single, disgruntled-looking Northern Shoveler on the otherwise quiet Reservoir.

But far and away, the big migration story today was Northern Flickers. The Ramble is usually good for a couple of Flickers, of course, but today I had fifteen, appearing in loose knots of three or four at a time. Flickers are one of those species, like Blue Jays, that are year-round residents here but migratory if they breed further north. As I watched the yellow shafts and white rumps flash across the landscape, I got to wondering about this phenomenon – how far do the Canuck birds have to travel, on average?

I did some googling, and I didn’t find out, but I did find this online copy of the always-charming Arthur Bent’s account of the species.

The most exciting non-migrant was my first sighting of the legendary Central Park Turkey, now looking even more ragged than in Corey’s photo from last weekend. I was able to persuade a couple who came by while I was watching it to put their stupidly large sight-hound on a leash* on the theory that the turkey probably can’t fly at its usual level of skill with half its feathers gone. Just call me Captain Planet Jr.

*Never mind that people aren’t supposed to have their dogs off-leash in the Ramble anyway.

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September days are often beautiful in New York City. The stranglehold of heat and humidity that choked us into dazed submission throughout August has usually passed, and the cold and slush are yet to come. Summer birds and migrants linger, while tantalizing hints of what the winter might bring crop up in reports from just north. Post-breeding wanderers yet wander, and occasionally a hurricane drives something really special up the coast or in from the briny deep (until the day comes when we get the hurricane that wipes Long Island into a shmear of rubble, of course – the clock is ticking.)

So, with great delight, I wandered out into Central Park on Sunday morning, along my usual route – in at 81st Street (best. subway. stop. EVAR.) and south through the Ramble.

In the Shakespeare Garden I stopped to admire the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that were fueling up for the morning at the cardinal flowers. And speaking of Cardinals, they mostly seemed to be over that molting thing, and gearing up to be decorative all winter long, although a few persistent young were still begging after their parents.

A big group of birders was entering the Ramble at the same time I was, and I thought about tagging along, but felt awkward and decided to go off on my own. It didn’t seem like they were having any more luck than I was.

The Ramble itself was mighty quiet, except when large, raucous flocks of Blue Jays moved through. Which was pretty often, actually. I love Blue Jays, the nattiest of birdfeeder birds, and while they’re in Central Park all year round the difference in population in the fall is very noticeable. I surprised a group of three bathing and drinking in the Gill, a beautiful sight that wiped any thoughts of grumbling about my paltry three species of warbler on the day list from my mind.

Until I went to work the next day and heard about this on the mailing list.

No, the Black-throated Gray didn’t make the Blue Jays less blue or the Hummingbirds less green. But I still ground my teeth a little bit, and sent an urgent e-mail to the Inimitable Todd, who being inimitable brought my binoculars to me at lunch*. Monday evening found me charging up Central Park West, back to 81st Street, to head north this time into the gathering gloom… both literal and figurative, as the daylight slipped away and the small group of equally deprived birders I found at Tanner’s Spring slowly gave up and left.

I suppose it could be worse. I could have been in Ithaca, planning to go look for the Frigatebird – hell, I could be the Frigatebird in Ithaca. It’s not as bad as the Great Reef-heron Fiasco of ’07. There’ll be other Black-throated Grays, and in the meantime, there are Blue Jays.

But still, I suck. I bet if I’d followed the tour group, I would have got it.

*I was able to make it up to him by finding his ID in time to bring it for him before a concert that very night. It’s symbiosis, which is like love, but even better.

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Troubles in the world’s fisheries have often been overshadowed by other, equally catastrophic issues like global warming (likely to contribute to further collapses in fish populations, as temperature changes shift currents all higgledy-piggledy) and deforestation (contributes to global warming; see previous.)

Well, overshadowed in human view. The seabirds are noticing:

“The sudden rise of infanticide in a [guillemot] colony in the Firth of Forth marks an unprecedented breakdown in the social behaviour of the birds, described by experts as a “catastrophe” that could eventually see the whole colony die out.”

It’s wildly disheartening, but interesting to note that at first stress elicited more social behavior, with adults guarding chicks whose parents were both out to sea. It’s only the prolonged and severe food shortage that is causing them to turn red in beak and claw.

(A short guide to ocean-friendly seafood.)

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But wait, there’s more!

Two pairs. Two nests. Two fledglings.

Apparently, a pair also spent the summer in Connecticut, although I’m not finding a first-hand confirmation of nesting… (curse you Google!)

So who wants to take a flutter on which county in New York will get a nesting pair first?

Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

As an object, this is a beautiful book. Sized to fit comfortably in the hand, it has an elegant dust jacket; it’s printed on thick, serious stock, meant to last; and best of all, it’s illustrated throughout with lush watercolors by Mary Woodin.

Unfortunately, and contrary to what the cover led me to expect, this is not a book about birds. It’s a book about how one man took his self – his anxious masculinity, his spiritual confusion, his fear of death, his absurdly overinflated sense of purpose – into the field and offloaded all those feelings on to some birds he saw. This has always been a popular school of nature writing, but I dislike it intensely. No one can avoid taking birds personally a little bit, or at least I can’t, but to me the neat thing about birds is that touch of the alien, the magnificent indifference. If I thought that birds were coming around with messages for me, that would be cheap. That would be cheating.

Keen’s sensibilities clashed with my own most in his essay about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Our author, now elderly, was a young boy and just a budding birdwatcher as the Ivory-bill was going extinct/”extinct”. A friend of the family takes him to Tennessee, where she claims to still see the “peckerwoods” regularly. Staying with a rural family, he spots a suspicious Picus – only to have a member of his host family obligingly shoot it out of the sky for him. Horrified, he buries it without identifying it, and then walks around as though somehow his eleven-year-old ass is bearing a direct load of original sin. Understandable for a pre-pubescent child; inexcusable in an essayist of mature years, especially when said essayist uses the alleged re-emergence of the Ivory-bill to pontificate about how he won’t even attempt to see it, not wanting to taint it with his all-destroying gaze or whateverthefuck. Not a shred of scientific spirit in the man, is what I’m saying. This comes to the fore even more strongly in his essay on bird intelligence, where he conflates the theory of a mechanistic universe with a Descartian disregard for the possibility of intelligences other than human, apparently based on nothing more than the fact that this must be true in order for him to believe that mystics make better naturalists than materialists.

Still, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. Keen can describe a bunting, that’s for sure. And as I said, it’s really very pretty.

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I know this may come as a terrible shock to some of you, but I’m also a geek when I’m indoors!

As such, I recommend Daymare Town: an amazing point-and-click game by Mateusz Skutnik in which birds play a key role (and you have to look pretty hard for them.)

This is considered one of the best and most complexly designed point-and-click games out there, so if you’ve never played this style of game before, you should probably warm up with a game like Submachine 1 or The Great Living Room Escape.

Speaking of great living room escapes, I promise to scrape myself away from the computer and get outside again soon!

Who Killed the Great Auk?

Everyone knows this, right? Those three dudes on Eldey Island in the summer of 1844.

Only maybe not.

This slender volume by writer/ornithologist Jeremy Gaskell does a brilliant job of delving into the question, weighing the relative impact of egging, sport hunting, market hunting, feather harvesting, collecting, a few key instances of habitat loss, and some notable examples of sheer assholery (including reports of sailors throwing live birds into fires for entertainment.) Since all these groups (except the sinking volcanic islands and, for the most part, the sadists) commenced to eagerly cast blame on each other in the wake of the Great Auk’s extinction (especially in Great Britain, when it became clear that declining seabird stocks were going to result in action on the part of Parliament) it’s not an easy matter to unravel.

Complicating matters, as the book documents, is the fact that during the time when the Great Auk was being driven out of existence pretty much nobody had a good idea of what the hell was going on. Peoples who lived near the auk colonies (including a few cultures who had managed to feed themselves with sustainably harvested seabirds and eggs for centuries before capitalism and colonialism came into the picture) noticed local extinctions, but lacked a global perspective. Even the experts who first raised the alarm about the overall dwindling mostly assumed that the Auk was at heart an Arctic species and that the colonies being lost represented the southern fringes, not the core, of the population.

The incredible paucity of accurate information collected about the Great Auk during its tenure in the world is a theme that Gaskell returns to over and over again, as when he poignantly notes that we have but two or three written descriptions of the sound the bird made and hardly any understanding of its transitional plumages. He also stresses the links between man’s inhumanity to man and man’s inhumanity to Auk – many of the most serious depredations resulted from conditions of ongoing desperation and a tragedy of the commons, where those who practiced restraint in leaving breeding birds and eggs for another day were simply scooped by those intent on making the most money fastest.

The text, though at times brutally depressing reading, is well-crafted, combining a lively, accessible style with meticulous and extensive footnotes and a number of fascinating black-and-white illustrations of the bird and the people who studied it. In fact, the only thing I can truly find to hold against this book is its price – being from Oxford University Press, it’s not cheap, particularly in our tiny American dollars. (I confess, I bought mine used.) Still, if you can come at a copy some way, it’s very much worth reading.

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If you have a sufficient number of friends and loved ones, there’s a good chance that one of them has a behavior that drives you bonkers. And you know that they have a perfectly good reason for doing it, from their point of view, but you can’t help thinking, deep down, just a little bit, despite your better nature, that maybe they do it just for that very purpose – to drive you bonkers.

Molting is kind of like that.

Never mind that molting results in fall plumages and intermediate plumages and all sorts of plumage tomfoolery of that kind. I’m talking about the very act of molting. The perverse avian lifestyle that caused me to see, over my holiday weekend, crestless Cardinals and Blue Jays, tailless Grackles, and some of the grottiest specimens of Crows, Robins, and Mockingbirds that ever dotted the landscape. Of course all this is for the greater good, helping to ensure that our feathered friends go into another winter well-insulated and at peak flying capabilities, with up to 12% of their body weight replaced while there’s still an abundance of food around to fuel the replacing.

But it wasn’t all falling feathers and despair. I saw my first New York State Tricolored Heron at Jamaica Bay on Saturday, spotted a Northern Waterthrush that was up in a tree (something I’ve never observed before,) and though I missed the Wilson’s Phalarope by cleverly mixing up north and south, I got to practice my Peeps, and really, is there anything better?*

Then on Labor Day proper, I went to Prospect Park. With a bit of a hangover and only middling expectations, I dodged the baseball-playing tykes and the wafting smell of hot dogs and was rewarded right away with a high-flying, rattling Belted Kingfisher, not at the usual Kingfisher spot on the Lullwater trail, but in the woods behind the dog pond. Other highlights included roughly six billion Redstarts, a very handsome Canada Warbler, a number of sporty young Northern Parulas, Black-throated Blues all flashing their pocket handkerchiefs, and a bunch of silent annoying flycatchers. Ok, that last wasn’t a highlight, but it was definitely a prominent feature of the day.

Welcome to fall, y’all.

Saturday, August 30, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Brown Thrasher Toxostoma rufum
House Wren Troglodytes aegon
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Great Egret Ardea alba (? – Ardea or Egretta, people? Wikipedia is letting me down.)
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor *NYS
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Double-crested Cormorant Phalocrocorax auritus
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Black Duck Anas rubripes
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Northern Waterthrush Seiurus noveboracensis
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica

Monday, September 1, Prospect Park
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Black-and-white Warbler Mniotilta varia
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Belted Kingfisher Megaceryle alcyon
Brown Creeper Certhia americana
Black-throated Blue Warbler Dendroica caerulescens
Canada Warbler Wilsonia canadensis
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Emp. Flycatcher – 3 ?
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubris
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Northern Parula Parula americana
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapillus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula

*yes

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