I had an excellent weekend well outside the five boroughs, but before I tell you about that, I need to tell you about what I did the previous weekend. Which was, I went birding in Van Cortlandt Park.
The park, up at the top of the Bronx, is bigger than Central or Prospect Park but receives less attention. And this is a shame. Because for mature forest, and critters that live in mature forests – such as Pileated Woodpeckers, breeding Wood Ducks, and Great Horned Owls – this is one of the top spots in the five boroughs. It also features the Bronx’s largest body of fresh water, its oldest house, and the remains of the Old Croton Aqueduct, an early piece of New York City’s remarkable public waterworks.
Spoiler alert – I didn’t see any of the three above-mentioned species. Nor did I see the mysterious disappearing Rusty Blackbird – a species once regular in the park’s central wetlands in winter; their precipitous decline has been largely concealed from the public eye by the fact that it is “just” a blackbird, and most people can’t tell one from a Starling or for that matter a hole in the ground.
But that doesn’t mean I went away disappointed. Indeed, my good luck started much earlier than I had a right to expect, along the edge of the golf course at the southeastern quadrant of the park. There I blundered on to a convocation of half-hardy birds discussing the end of the brutal cold snap; Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmice and more tried out their neglected courting songs in a tentative but most welcome manner. Around the time I’d gotten their flitting forms and sometimes misleading notes sorted out, a single immature Snow Goose glided in to graze with a couple of Canadas out on the links. Since I’d missed my rendezvous with the Snowies at Jamaica Bay, I was grateful that this one went out of its way to see me. Or, more likely, to see the grass.
After making my way around the end of the lake (where a solitary Great Blue Heron hunched among the reeds and an optimistic pussy willow looked ready to bloom) I crossed into the wetland area. The lack of blackbirds was in no way compensated by the numerous Juncos and a single Mockingbird, but as I made my way uphill into a dryer area, I spotted a flash of unlikely blue and robin-rust – a male Eastern Bluebird, perched on the corner of a rustic bench. A female picked at the lawn nearby. Now, you get sporadic Eastern Bluebird sightings in Central and Prospect Parks – and I do mean you, I certainly never have – but the nearby bird boxes seemed to suggest a certain optimism on the part of park management that these two are in it for the long haul.
The next bit of my journey was unbirdy – although I don’t know whether to blame the birds, or the inch-thick layer of ice with a half-inch layer of water on top that still coated much of the trail. Since the park changes elevation with some dispatch as you head north, the slippery conditions made reaching the northwest woods a challenge.
Still, I made it, and the towering trees of this stretch of woodland – which runs nearly to Yonkers – proved once again the old adage that once you finally see a nemesis bird, it turns out to be everywhere. A flock of American Goldfinches yielded up no less than three Pine Siskins, where searching through similar flocks last winter produced nothing but heartache and eyestrain.
By now it was nearly time to go – the Inimitable Todd, who was running a half-marathon nearby, called to let me know that he’d reached the finish line. So I made a beeline for the edge of the park. Except that unlike a bee, when I realized that I’d come to a fence or the edge of a precipice, I had to turn around and go back. Across the inch of ice with its half-inch of melt water.
Still, I’m rather glad that I’m not a bee, if only because my westward ramblings eventually led me near three frozen squirrels. As always, the sight of inert squirrels led me to check nearby for raptors, and this time I found a handsome, golden-eyed immature Sharp-shinned hawk bathing in a puddle of melt water. I crept as close to her as I could without disturbing her toilet, but thanks to the vines and crackling twigs and uncertain footing (did I mention it was icy?) this wasn’t close enough to get a good photo. But it was close enough. I left the park with a new regard for the Bronx.