I had planned to bicycle down to Fort Tildon and Breezy Point with the Inimitable Todd today. Unfortunately, the Inimitable Todd’s bicycle had other ideas. So, needing to salvage the day, I jumped on the train to Jamaica Bay. On the way, I flipped through the field guide and tried to prep myself. I knew it was far too late in the day for Rails, and word on the street was that the high water level at the East Pond was depressing shorebird numbers, but maybe, I thought, I could finally pick up an Ammodramus sparrow.

From the train, as usual, I was able to spot a few Egrets and Gulls, and I picked up House Sparrow, Starling and Mallard on my walk to the refuge. But the first bird I saw in the refuge itself was a Sparrow.

As I came around the side of the Visitors’ Center, it flushed before I could get my binos on it, making for the trees. From the trail through the trees, a mom with two small children emerged. The bird banked sharply and ran smack into the window.

The kids were traumatized and exclaiming (not shrieking, fortunately.) The mom seemed confused. When I ran up, I found that the bird was not dead, but badly stunned, so I scooped it up and assured the family that if we took it inside to the park staff, they’d know what to do. Then I took a good look at the gasping creature in my hands.

Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Life bird.

“This is not what I wanted to see today,” the mom said.

The woman at the desk found a small box to let the bird rest in, and I turned it over, and went on my way feeling like a grade-A turd. I was especially dispirited to see that most of the windows on the Visitors’ Center had netting for just such an emergency… but not the small one on the side where my path and the bird’s had crossed.

The day improved from there, as it could hardly have gotten worse. New flocks of Brant came whistling and squeaking in by the minute, and there were good numbers of both Northern Shovelers and Ruddy Ducks – a few of the latter still showing their handsome summer plumage. A raft of Scaup stayed mostly too far out for me to accurately pick out Lessers from Greaters (though I did find one pair of Lessers consorting with the Canada Geese further in) and someone said there were Pintails but I never picked them out. Great and Snowy Egrets were still fairly numerous, and I spotted a single immature Yellow-crowned Night Heron, but the Tricolored and Little Blues seem to have taken a hike.

Also hiked were all Terns, the Tree Swallows, and the vast majority of the Brown Thrashers. These handsome Catbird cousins were ubiquitous last time I was at the refuge; today I saw one, and a sad, dull one at that. A few Mockingbirds were still around, though not the numbers that I’d had previously; Red-winged Blackbirds were still showing strongly, starting to flock up for their own inevitable departure. Oddly and probably not migration-related, I had no Cardinals at all.

The big story in the passerine world, though, was Yellow-rumped Warblers. Everywhere. In huge numbers. Flycatching in trees, flitting from shrub to shrub, skimming over the recently-moved grasses. Other warblers were present only as one-offs; one female Black-throated Blue, one Pine Warbler, one Common Yellowthroat, and one Bay-breasted that had retained enough of reddish wash on its flanks to be id-able, along with a couple of hopelessly confusing fall “baypolls”.

Shorebirds were a total washout. There were none to be seen on the West Pond, not even down the terrapin trail, and a small flock on the East Pond was separated from the trail outlet by so much water that only Jesus or Aquaman could have IDed them. I did spot a few American Oystercatchers on the way home, in singles and pairs along the spit of sand where the train leaves the island and to cross the channel.

By that time, I was feeling a bit more right with the world. But I can’t quite shake that moment when I looked down and saw the yellow-ocher face and gray cheeks of the bird that was almost weightless in my hand…

I’m trying something new here… view my trip list on Birdstack.

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