essay


I meant to blog on this post of Nate’s a while ago, but I got distracted with all the crazy birding adventures and so forth. Still, better late than never.

150 years after we got the origin set out for us, the species concept remains nebulous, wispy around the edges. The endless lumping and splitting, along with oddball hybrid birds popping up to frustrate local committees, have given us ample notice that birding as we know it and the world as we find it don’t always map perfectly to each other. Still, like many scientific concepts with a wispy edge, the species idea remains robust in the center, and it’s hard to see how even the most holistic birding could dispense with it entirely.

But if we get to a place where many species of bird cannot be reliably identified in the field using our current tools, what then?

The Technocratic Paradise (Arthur C. Clarke goes birding): Nanotechnology creates iPhones powerful enough to perform the work of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Super-focused microphones let us tune birds in and analyze their flight calls on the spot. No matter how far this goes, however, it’s difficult to see how it could apply to species distinguished only by the quirks of their DNA – to analyze that, you need physical specimens, and there’s no way that birding could return to a collector’s ethos under our present circumstances. Still, technology being what it is and the market for birding gadgets being what it is, I expect we will see big leaps forward to help with the audio side of the problem.

The Dystopia (George Orwell goes birding): The new, subtle species distinctions forever slay the citizen-scientist and sunder the expert from the hobbyist. The former stretch limited grant money to cover only the most urgent or trendy species while the latter are reduced in significance to something between a trout fisherman and a stamp collector. Frankly, certain big listers won’t have far to fall in this scenario; and there would still work to be done for citizen scientists doing things like observing life cycles, habitat preferences, etc. for the birds that can be identified. It need not be Birding Apocalypse Now. Still, losing the connection between the scientist and the hobbyist would mean losing the thrill of the chase as a tool for drawing people into ornithology, and that would be a damn shame.

The Totally Unforeseen (Philip K Dick goes birding): Just because it’s hard to see doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Birding becomes about displaying great technical skill in observing every facet of a single individual bird, in a single instant, and recording it totally in every aesthetic dimension using technology yet unknown…. or birding becomes about tagging a bird once, with minimum intrusion, and then following the rest of its lifecycle with tiny cameras and GPS, every bird a bird cam… or hell, birding becomes about taking psychoactive drugs developed by the CIA and communicating with birds telepathically and reporting back on what they tell us. I mean, this is the future we’re talking about here.

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By synchronicity, I come across this news article as I am also reading The Western Paradox: A Bernard DeVoto Conservation Reader – a volume that combines Bernard DeVoto’s unfinished last work with many of his essays against the economic exploitation of public lands.

It’s interesting, because the subject of the article is clearly exactly the sort of person who DeVoto worked himself to death opposing – someone who is willing to do permanent damage to a public resource for short-term gain, and not even willing, but has constructed a world-view in which he is awesome to do so. Look at some of those quotes. He clearly thinks he’s some sort of a Trickster figure sticking it to Da Man, and everyone likes tricksters who stick it to Da Man. If you can convince yourself that some relatively weak opponent (the Forest Service, or the tree-huggers, or if you prefer working in a cozy east coast office you might use Ivory Tower professors, feminazis, PC liberals, there are lots of choices…) is Da Man, then you can be a cross between Bugs Bunny and Robin Hood practically every day. In your own head.

Outside your own head, of course, you’re being a spoiler and a gangster, a childish figure who causes destruction just to demonstrate power. “Nice park, shame if anything should happen to it.” DeVoto demolished the argument that the Forest Service was Da Man, coming from similar people for similar motives, back in my grandparents’ day.

Now, unfortunately, a perfect regard for the rule of law forces me to say that if this guy wins his case on a by-the-book basis, somebody is going to have to pay him some money, and he’ll walk away thinking he’s a big winner. Too much attention to him will probably just cause him to raise the price on his blackmail demands. But in a world where people still make fun of a woman who sued McDonald’s even though McDonald’s actually put her in need of skin grafts, the idea that anyone would valorize this guy for his expertise in system-playing makes me sick.

(As an aside, the whole idea of being able to “sell” mineral rights separately from the rights to the land on top of them has always struck me as a bit odd, and should probably be rethought. It seems set up mainly to privilege large corporations in extractive businesses, who can lock in future profits at low current prices, over individual humans who move around, die and pass property down, and might learn more about what their land is really worth as time goes on.)

It is really exhausting reading DeVoto’s work, and seeing how little has changed, but also inspiring.

Here’s a guy, little remembered today, who went time after time into the fray with people who would lie for profit, lie to stick it to the “socialists” (they didn’t have the phrase tree-huggers yet), and handily label anything that results in a smidgen of profit or a momentary sense of triumph for themselves as a great All-American good. And he didn’t lose. He didn’t win, exactly, but the opposition goal then as today was ultimately to get all public resources into private hands for exploitation (at the time, a few cattlemen and sheep growers were openly speaking of obtaining all the National Parks as potential grazing land) and that didn’t happen. Here’s a guy who was warning us before World War II that we needed to pay attention to watersheds and take it easier with irrigation, or the American West could find itself in a really bad fix. A guy who looked at the deserts and said that they couldn’t be what our triumphalist mythology demanded, so mythology, not the deserts, needed to yield.

The Western Paradox is the first thing I’ve read by DeVoto, but I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to him.

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The Inimitable Todd and I go to the Union Square Farmer’s Market to pick up something for dinner. We’re food nerds, he and I. He loves to cook; unfathomably, it relaxes him. I grew up on a farm and am snobbish about the notion that when I eat something, it should taste like it had something to do with a plant or animal in the not-too-distant past. We both grok that shipping apples to Brooklyn from Africa or chowing down on burgers that are really mostly corn that is really mostly petroleum maybe isn’t the best plan in a world of finite resources, and we are blessed with the economic privilege to do something about that.

So we’re at the Union Square Farmer’s Market looking for something for dinner. And, since it’s Union Square, I have an eye out for improbable birds.

Up in a tree is a shaggy lump which is not at all improbable; a Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tails are the ubiquitous hawks of North America, thanks to their high degree of adaptability. If a thing is smaller than a Red-tail and moves, the Red-tail will probably try to eat it; if the thing is larger than the Red-tail and sits still, the Red-tail will probably try to build a nest on it. Kestrels, house cats, carp, grasshoppers? On the menu. Saguaro cacti, building ledges, trees of all kinds, the Unisphere? Home sweet home. As a result, the Red-tail has a population estimated at up to a million individuals at any given time.

So. We buy some pork chops from pigs raised at the Queens farming museum, where a Red-tail probably soared overhead looking for rats attracted to feed spillage. And we buy apples from New Jersey, where a Red-tail probably perched in one of the taller trees and scanned the orchard for Robins slower or stupider than the rest of the flock. We buy potatoes and onions from upstate, where a Red-tail might have picked off a tasty nightcrawler or a young, foolish raccoon or a confused field mouse turned up by the plow. And all the while, above us, the Red-tail eyed a stupidly brave squirrel. His dinner, when he gets it, will have ours all beat for being local.

The New York City Audubon Society has announced the most dangerous buildings for birds in NYC. The top three deathtraps:

* The Metropolitan Museum of Art
* The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
* Bellevue Hospital Center

I’m not surprised that these buildings are killers. I am surprised that the article describes glass-intensive buildings as green, unless “green” is here, as it is so often, not “green” as in environmentally friendly but “green” as in “demonstrating that the architect and buyers/renters have green cash money to chase trends.” Walls of glass, unless intelligently placed and equipped, make apartments a bear to heat and cool. It’s akin to certain yuppies I could mention who buy organic milk for their kids because that’s what good parents do, but can’t be bothered to recycle and hop in the car to drive three blocks – it’s about status, not a stand.

Of course, it’s not exactly news that environmentalism and status have become tangled in often contradictory, self-undermining ways. Ideally, environmentalists want products that don’t push the true cost of production – in packaging waste, pollution, or whatever – off onto the Commons, but that often means that these products are more expensive at the point of purchase. And generally, the poor pay at both ends – taking the brunt when the air is fouled, the soil soiled, and the waste needs to be dumped somewhere, and only able to afford deliberately-disposable crap that increases the problem. Meanwhile, upper-crusters take on “green” projects as though they were detox diets or some other form of ritual purification – all personal, never political, and ultimately ineffective except as a way to demonstrate your virtue in public. And the marketplace chases both sets of people around like interchangeable sales units, resulting in all sorts of absurdities.

My colleague David Barouh has written a series of articles on how this plays out in the world of drinking water. You can read the first two here and here. As David lays out, bottled water perversely captured people who probably bought organic fruit and single-source cheeses, by selling itself as healthy and exclusive. By doing so, it’s undermined the idea of clean water as a public resource. (David’s articles and hard work were instrumental in getting the Park Slope Food Coop to stop selling bottled water.)

Or consider the issue of coffee. Fair Trade, shade grown, organic – it’s right, but it’s also ritzy, in part because our system makes it cheaper to do the wrong thing. Again, the problem of companies who externalize costs onto their producers and the environments that provide raw materials is the tooth-breaking core of the problem. But on the American end, the perception is that environmentally friendly (well, friendlier) coffee is a luxury, a status symbol.

But when the environment is considered a plaything for the rich, there’s a danger of backlash, either suddenly in these economically trying times, or over the long term as strivers emulate the top dogs and the trendsetters decide to move on to something else (consider how white bread went from status symbol to just the opposite over three generations.) Species and ecosystems can’t wait around to come into style again, or long withstand stupidly symbolic, counterproductive gestures like building a glass atrium and putting a tree inside.

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Just as spring often waits a beat between the first yellow-rumped warbler and the full flood of migration, fall too pauses and takes a breath between the departure of the festive summer songbirds and the full reveal of winter’s wonders.

In that breath, the Kinglets come.

These tiny birds, closely related to the Goldcrests and Firecrests of Europe, Africa, and Asia, nest in the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern U.S. They live almost exclusively on insects and other invertebrates and their eggs, and eat prodigiously for their size. Despite this, some of them manage to overwinter in New York City and points even further north, and others manage to migrate to southern Mexico.

That takes a rather single-minded dedication to the art and science of finding bugs. Oh, it doesn’t distract them from making more Kinglets – they’re known to produce two clutches of eight or nine eggs a season – but it sure seems to distract them from nosy humans who get within mere feet of them while they’re making pit stops on migration. This is fortunate, since Kinglets are best appreciated up close.

Kinglets are primarily army green, gray and cream, a bit yellow… the colors of woods that are barely waking from or slowly slipping into winter. The Golden-crowned have two strong wing-bars and the Ruby-crowned have a single wing-bar and vivid eye-rings. But as their names suggest, the real action is on top of their heads – male Ruby-crowned Kinglets have a small cap of bright red feathers, while Golden-crowned Kinglets of both sexes have a black-lined yellow streak down their domes. Alas, the Ruby-crowned’s ruby crown is almost always hidden from view, and the Golden-crowned’s golden crown, while more obvious, has subtleties that are easy to miss, like the red-orange shading in the center of the males’ yellow patches. Only a lucky, nearby observer will see the male Ruby-crown flash his jewels. This weekend, I was that lucky observer twice, to say nothing of the magnificent views of Golden-crowns at eye level, doing their hyperkinetic thing. A flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets can make even the biggest Grinch smile.

Soon the year will exhale, and we’ll get our winter wanderers – up to our elbows in Pine Siskins, it looks like, and on the hunt for Crossbills and Snowy Owls. And we’ll have a few Kinglets to remeber this moment in fall by, until things begin to thaw and they flock back through again.

My November 01 bird list

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So where do people get their weird ideas? The notion that some secret cabal of environmentalists might be turning Owls loose in Long Island to stymie an indoor ski mountain, or punting Murrelets over the mountains in the Pacific Northwest to cause woe to foresters, or even airdropping pumas into Michigan to frustrate deer hunters… how do you walk around thinking this? Are our hinterlands populated by papier-mache people built from pages of The Paranoid Style in American Politics? Is it mass hypnosis?

Nah. Just tinfoil hattery, fear-mongering, and a little good old fashioned lying. As usual.

Travel with me to the hazy days of the early aughts. In December 2001, the Washington Times breaks a wild story – biologists, they claim, have planted fur from captive lynx in the forests of Washington State in a bid to get those forests closed to human use. It was scientific fraud of the worst order; deplorable, dispiriting, and damning….

Or it would have been, if it had actually, you know, happened. In fact, while the captive lynx samples were a violation of study protocol, they were never part of any claim about lynx habitat or land use; they were introduced (in a thoroughly documented manner) into the testing procedure as a gotcha trap for a DNA lab that was returning results that the biologists found shady. Undesirably ad hoc methodology, to be sure, but nothing like an attempt to defraud the American public. And in fact, even had the biologists in question produced a whole hairball of fake lynx in the disputed areas, it still wouldn’t have meant closing the area to humans without a whole lot more study, if at all.

Still, this story of hippy tree-huggers crossbred with jack-booted government thugs was so entrancing to the Times that they ultimately ran ten articles on the subject. Their coverage sparked interest at the Associated Press, and while the truth was still getting its boots on indignant editorials appeared from coast to coast condemning the biofrauds who were unfairly putting a finger on the scales to the benefit of those already oh-so-privileged endangered species. A good account of the whole fiasco can be found here.

Eventually, refutations began to circulate and the matter faded from view. I myself had never heard of it until I spotted an uncritical mention in the otherwise interesting Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma – a book that puts the hunt for the extinct/”extinct” Eastern mountain lion in Michigan into a rich context of personality clashes, political maneuvering, and wildlife management decision-making that is beholden to the interests of “sportsmen” to the exclusion of other aims.

But even if the specifics are gone, it’s easy to see why the urban (rural?) legend lives on. It aligns the triggers of the timber industry, kneejerk Libertarians, and the religious-right fringe that believes their enemies to be literal Gaia-worshipers. It also has that heady “can’t trust the scientists” smell that the Republicans are breathing out yet again this election cycle.

The species will change. The rumors will evolve. But I don’t think that we should expect the meme of the Audubon Mafia to go away any time soon.

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Before there was the Great Auk, there was the California Condor. This may not be true chronologically (the Great Auk is believed to have diverged from pre-Razorbills and pre-Dovkies in the Pilocene, while the California Condor apparently came into its own in the Pleistocene) but that’s how my life went. I was a devotee of endangered animals before I became a connoisseur of extinct ones, and my idealism has not yet been fully replaced by melancholy. The baby geek who drew California Condors (and black-footed ferrets, another perennial favorite) on her book covers, who was tantalized by the prospect that she still could, maybe, see one some day even though California might as well have been the moon, still is eager for news of them.

Sometimes it’s good news.

Sometimes not so much.

“Seven endangered California condors — about 20 percent of Southern California’s population — have been found with lead poisoning.

The birds started turning up sick about a month ago during random trappings at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley.

One of the birds died during treatment at the Los Angeles Zoo and four others are still being treated there. A chick and its mother were sent to the zoo to undergo treatment…”

It really pisses me off, frankly, that this is happening. It isn’t some deep, occult mystery that lead bullets are a problem for condors and other scavengers – it’s been suspected since at least 1992 (a year when I was just starting to transition from drawing California Condors in my notebooks to tracing the Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson logos) and all but certain since 2006, when a team of researchers determined that the isotopes of lead found in released Condors matched the isotopes most commonly found in ammo.

The wheels of the law grind slow, but birds die fast, and the second that they’re dead, that’s it. A ban on using or possessing lead bullets in California Condor territory goes into effect on July 1, but the birds can’t go on a diet until then; they’ll be at risk up until the very day (and for that matter afterwards, as the bullets already in the mouldering, wasted venison that the hunters of California can’t be bothered to track will not magically disappear in compliance. Also, and I say this with all due respect, but my experience in landowner-hunter interactions has not left me with perfect faith in the inclination of “sportsmen” to adhere to the law.)

For that matter, we’ve had an inkling in general that lead was just not a good thing to scatter about the landscape. But could the ban come any sooner? No. In 2005, the California Fish and Game Commission refused to ban lead bullets – a move that, from where I’m sitting, looks like pure pocketbook. It’s not like projectiles made of other metals don’t kill the tasty venison* just as dead – but they cost more.

Yeah, I have to admit, I take this sort of thing personally. Although, as I approach my 30th birthday, a trip to California no longer seems like a lunar expedition – I’ve been a princely total of once – I haven’t seen a California Condor. And I still mean to.

*and I’ll be the first to admit that it is tasty. Apparently the Condors agree!

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Today there was a fly-over Swallow-tailed Kite at Prospect Park and a Yellow-throated Warbler at Central Park. Of course, I had biked to Riverside Park to see if I couldn’t find the Summer Tanager reported there earlier this week.

I couldn’t. I dub this season the Migration of Near-Misses.

I did get Swainson’s Thrush and Black-throated Green Warbler and Baltimore Oriole for my BGBY list, which made me happy… particularly the Black-throated Green, a bird that I list often but get really good looks at much less often. This one posed gorgeously at the tip of a flowered branch, flaunting its golden cheeks and obsidian throat in the last brief ray of sunlight before we got drizzled on all the way to brunch. That was a good sighting.

The best sighting, though, was of an American Redstart.

I’ve always been partial to Redstarts. Their name is so idiosyncratic yet perfect. Their plumage is so handily unlike anything but itself, especially of course when you’re speaking of a bright adult male, but the females are relatively easy too if you take the time to look. There was a pair back home on the farm that regularly spent the summer, I presume nesting though I never tracked down the nest, near the edge of one of our maple lots, where a stream ran through. With the Common Yellowthroat and Yellow Warbler, they were the warblers I knew well in my youth.

Today an American Redstart did me a particular favor, though, and raised the species in my estimation even more. You see, the Inimitable Todd recently confided in me that he does not like warblers. Although this may provoke gasps, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Herons and Egrets, Hawks and Eagles, those are great birds for the birder’s non-birding partner, especially one who is photographically inclined. I mean, when they’re there, there they are. And don’t get me wrong, the IT’s totally down with passerines so long as they’re willing to make a bit of a public spectacle of themselves, like Scotty, or any of the several Red-winged Blackbirds that he’s photographed over the years.

red-winged blackbird, montreal, 2007

But warblers, for the un-obsessed, are nice in books, but in the field they are just so many lengthy intervals where Carrie is staring into the trees and occasionally cursing (in fact, sometimes they seem that way to me too.) It’s not unlike the Unfortunate Western Meadowlark Incident of 2001, which climaxed with that worst of all sentences between lovers… “Was that it?”

But today, a male American Redstart came to the edge of branch and stayed there, at eye level, in a tree that was easy to point out and a location that was easy to describe. It sat long enough for me to hand the binoculars to IT, long enough for him to get on the bird, and long enough for him to really see it. And I think, in the eyes of the IT, all those invisible, absent, and obnoxious warblers were a tiny bit redeemed.

Now to bring him around on sparrows… wait, what am I talking about? First I’ve got to bring myself around on sparrows! (I am starting to warm to Swamp Sparrows, and I like Song Sparrows and Field Sparrows, but that’s another post…)

Species List:

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottis
Magnolia Warbler Dendroica magnolia
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Black-throated Blue Warbler Dendroica caerulescens
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Swainson’s Thrush Catharus ustulatus
Black-throated Green Warbler Dendroica virens

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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 NYC hawkblogs have been abuzz lately, as the resident Red-tails start to spruce up their nests and get their freak on in anticipation of spring. This season has already seen some interesting data points trickling out of Manhattan, to wit:

1. There are now eight known active Red-tail nests in that borough alone, plus two more suspected sites.

2. When one of the breeding adult Red-tails went missing, presumed dead, a new male took up with the widow within days, indicating a good supply of unaffiliated youngsters in the area looking for their genetic big break.

Wikipedia gives Manhattan’s area as 58.8 square kilometers.  The University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web states that Red-tail breeding territories range in size from .85 to 3.9 square kilometers.  In theory, then, if every square centimeter of Manhattan were ideal Red-tail habitat, with sufficient prey to allow for the smallest possible territory sizes, the island could sustain some 69 pairs of Red-tails; but this is, shall we say, unlikely.  Using the upper end of the territory-size range gives us a total of 15 potential territories; even that is probably high, given that some areas of the city are probably so unfruitful that no Red-tail will even bother trying to hold them.  So most likely, taking into account the number of unpaired juveniles floating around, Manhattan is approaching its Red-tail saturation point.

Brooklyn has some famous Red-tails too, but it doesn’t seem as thoroughly blog-documented as “the city”; there are Red-tail nests in Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery, ably blogged by Rob Jett, but those are the only ones that leap to mind.  We’re bigger than Manhattan, though, and it’s absurd to suppose there aren’t more.  The Farragut Houses, where I spotted the pair of juveniles this winter, are not only adjacent to the small wooded portion of the Brooklyn Navy Yard but also not far, as the hawk flies, from Fort Greene Park and Commodore John Barry Park, which both have the kind of open-with-isolated-trees habitat that Red-tails dig for hunting.

Maybe I should go look around.  (As best I can.  The Navy Yard has guard dogs.)

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