trip report


On Saturday, I ventured forth to scope out Greenough Park, which is likely to be the subject of my next 10,000 Birds post.

In New York City I always took urban, public transit-accessible parks – well, not exactly for granted. I did appreciate them. But having lived my non-urban birding years first on the Olde Homestead and then in rather bird-centric Ithaca, I had underestimated the frustration of reading all the hotspots and seeing phrases like “head out of town on Rte. so-and-so” or “drive about fifteen minutes north of Whoville.”

Greenough Park, along with the Kim Williams Nature Trail, are the big exceptions I’ve discovered to this conundrum in Missoula. Both follow watercourses – the Kim Williams along the Clark Fork and Greenough up the lower part of Rattlesnake Creek – and both can be reached from my home with nothing but shoe leather. This weekend, I did a small part of Kim Williams and all of the mile-long Bolle Birdwatching Trail in Greenough (named for Arnold Bolle, a University of Montana professor greatly enamored of birds.)

The Bolle trail, even in winter, has many lovely birds. The mix of Ponderosa pine, older cottonwood snags, Douglas fir, and (unfortunately invasive) maple shelters an understory rich in life-giving plants like mountain ash and snowberry. The result — potential for wintertime sightings like Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, and Downy Woodpecker (which I saw) as well as Bohemian Waxwing, Western Screech-owl, and Pileated Woodpecker (which, alas, I did not.)

But the star attraction of the park is the American Dippers. They nest on Rattlesnake Creek and live here year-round. I watched one of these remarkable little bundles of feather plunge again and again into the half-frozen creek, allow itself to be swept nearly under the ice, only to emerge to open air at the last possible second with some tiny fish or insect meal. Since I was shivering in a wool coat, wool mittens, a bomber hat and Thinsulate boots, I was impressed to say the least.

Did I remember my camera this time? Oh yes, I did. And I don’t want to keep Jochen in suspense of the results, so here you go:

Bad photo of an American Dipper

Yeah, so, I really need to get better at this.

The next few days contained little birding but what I could get out of the window of the car. There were some highlights, nevertheless – White Pelicans soaring over the Mississippi, Black Terns at prairie potholes. But just little nibbles of each. Nothing you would call a full meal of birding.

Then we were in North Dakota, possibly the worst night of the trip. We’d found no bed and breakfast to bed down or breakfast up at, so we holed up in a fraying Motel Six as rain poured down and thunder cracked. We ventured out only to get food at a nearby mediocre steakhouse.

In the midst of this, though, I knew what would cheer me up – birding. Not just any birding. Expeditionary birding, the kind that would take us off the beaten six-lane path and get us in touch with the new territory we were crossing. And I had just the target in mind – the Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush.

This heavily-hyphenated Catharus is normally found far south of South Dakota – namely places like Costa Rica and Venezuela. The only U.S. records were a handfull from Texas before a lone individual was spotted in Spearfish Canyon, conveniently located almost directly between Bismarck and Rapid City, SD, where we planned to spend the night. The only change our plan would require was getting off the Interstate for Alt. Route 14 – promisingly aka’d Scenic Route 14. And, of course, getting out of the car. Jochen had tipped me off to the bird back in July, but I’d never dreamed that it would stick around until I could drop in. The Internet, however, assured me that it had.

Not that there weren’t a few potential issues. Like the fact that the thrush was active mostly in the early morning, a time when it was logistically impossible for us to be there. And the fact that, like any lonely male bird facing the onset of autumn, it had been singing less and less and lurking more and more over the past weeks. And, of course, my sad personal history with mega-rarities.

Still, if I didn’t try, there was no chance at all that I’d see the bird.

A lot of things would have been strikingly beautiful after Bismarck. Nevertheless, I can safely say that my perspective was not so warped that I am overpraising Spearfish Canyon. It was a lovely place. The road wound gently along the bottom of the canyon, and even in the middle of the afternoon long shadows fell over the pines and rock faces. I tried to get some photos, but nothing about a still imagine could really do it justice. At least, not with my photography skills. Ansel Adams might have had better luck. But even the greatest photograph on Earth could not have captured the sounds of water and wind on rock, or the smell of the trees.

The road was, not crowded, but appreciably populated with other vehicles. At first I thought they might all be birders, but it soon became apparent, not least from the number of motorcyclists among them, that many were just out enjoying the scenicness. (I’m not saying that motorcyclists can’t be birders, but I didn’t see many carrying binoculars.) In fact, when we arrived at the bird’s usual spot, there were only two other birders present. I was somewhat leery of interacting with them, because I was aware that the inevitable patch-birder backlash to invasive twitchers had begun, and I was in a car with New York license plates. As much as I wanted to run up and say “No, really, I didn’t waste that much gas just for this one bird!” I was too shy.

So I strolled up and down diffidently, one eye on the trees and one eye on the other birders. Occasionally something would move in the trees, but it proved – time and time again – to be the same American Redstart, dedicated to sowing confusion (or eating small bugs, more likely.) A few Violet-Green Swallows wheeled overhead, and above that, some turkey vultures.

We waited.

The other birders left. They came back. The IT goaded me into talking to them, but they had no new information, and soon went away again.

Shortly thereafter, we entered the most awkward phase of birding – the part where you have to decide whether stay or go. I’d been there before – I suspect we all have. Other obligations, appointments, hunger and thirst and other bodily urges, the knowledge of (or uncertainty of) the drive ahead of you. And against that, the conviction that as soon as you leave the bird will pop out of the bushes and start singing its heart out, or soar in from wherever it was visiting, or flush and show a crucial field mark, or what have you. The dwindling light or growing shadows. The long uncomfortable fading of hope. It’s hard to know whether this is more difficult to deal with when you’re with other birders – dare I be a quitter in front of them? – or a non-birder who is clearly being patient and understanding.

In short, we didn’t leave, and then we did.

It got darker. We drove into higher and higher foothills, looking for our bed and breakfast, growing anxious. Finally, up a dirt road, we found it, populated with a vast flock of Wild Turkeys and a bustling birdfeeder whose clientele included Black-Headed Grosbeaks. Oh, and also a pair of very nice proprietors and their dogs.

We talked briefly about returning to Spearfish Canyon for one more stab at the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush the next day, but we had a long drive ahead of us, a drive that included Yellowstone National Park. It was not to be.

Perhaps it was road-weariness, or maybe I’m just older now, but I couldn’t even bring myself to curse this rarity out.

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I would like to claim that on some level, I knew. That some sixth sense, some migratory instinct, told me to pass by Ames for Missoula and thus preserved me from being underwater at this very juncture. This, however, would be a blatant falsehood. I am here, and not there, because I got in here, and not there.

Nevertheless, when we stopped for the night in Ames (at a wonderful bed and breakfast that I heartily recommend to anyone who finds themselves adrift in that section of the country) I did have certain forebodings. For one thing, the weather had, apparently been perfect for growing corn. Anyone familiar with weather knows that this is not a thing that happens without the extensive application of human sacrifice. To give but one example, I lived on the Olde Homestead for eighteen years, and in those eighteen years, there was exactly one summer where the rain and the sun occurred in the right combination at the right time for maize cultivation. So either there was dark witchcraft afoot, or the piper would soon have to be paid.

Also, the IT and I went downtown, and discovered:

1. Two separate game stores selling Magic Cards
2. An American Legion outpost
3. A Christian bookstore
4. Two bars, both so scary that we felt zero desire to go inside. And this is me and the IT we’re talking about.

So, in short, Ames was not the place for me.

And yet… as we sat outside the hacienda, a Great Blue Heron flew over the pond. At bit later, a Red-tailed Hawk did the same. Barn Swallows arced over our heads, eating (I hope) the abundant mosquitoes. Song Sparrows set the grass wavering with their weight as they belted out their evening tune, and rabbits browsed on the lawn.

A Kingfisher splashed into the water, emerged, and perched on a snag nearby. I watched it for a long time; I rarely see as many Kingfishers as I want. After a time, it was joined by another Kingfisher, a male, presumably its mate.

Dusk began to fall, and the mosquitoes got more onerous, but neither the Inimitable Todd nor I were ready to go back inside after spending most of the day cooped up in the car. Too, IT wanted pictures of the sunset; but clouds were gathering to thwart him (and to engage in what, had we but known, was a very literal form of foreshadowing.)

I kept my eyes on the Swallows, finding their flight patterns soothing. Suddenly, something much larger cut across the sky, and I scrambled to switch gears and ID it, fortunately, it circled the house and gave my plenty of time to take in the pointed wings, overall dark color and distinctive white bands across the underwings.

I had heard Common Nighthawks before – most recently over Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was far more of what I think of when I think of a college town. But, as careful readers already know, I don’t count ear birds for my life list. So the Common Nighthawk was a gap. Until now.

The Nighthawk eventually set a course and disappeared. We also set a course, for a good night’s rest and eventually for Minneapolis and great swaths of new habitat still ahead… still grateful, despite the Nighthawks, that we weren’t staying here and that we had so much yet to explore ahead of us.

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Word association game for birders: Prairie.

Chicken, right?

At least, that’s what I thought as we drove through Kansas. We had, of course, missed the mating season and thus the fabulous displays that the male birds put on in hopes of winning the opportunity to breed. These dance-offs and Prairie Idol auditions, taking place as they do loudly, persistently, and in a pre-defined location, mark the best chance for long, clear, and impressive looks at a male prairie chicken (whether you are a female prairie chicken looking for a babydaddy or a birder looking for a tick.) But prairie chickens do not dematerialize when they are not dancing, so I hoped that if I put myself in the right habitat, I might get lucky.

So, as one does when one is feeling lucky, I turned to Google. Google offered me a few options, but none seemed as appealing as the Shawnee state fishing lake, conveniently located right off the highway that we were traveling on anyhow. I copied down the directions carefully and showed the IT the map. How hard could this be?

We set off down the highway, and the first turn appeared soon enough. It couldn’t be fairly called an exit – it was at grade, and we had to cross a lane of traffic heading in the opposite direction to get where we were going. How quaint, I thought.

Still, the not-an-exit had appeared just exactly where the map had indicated that it should, and this does not always happen with birding directions that you find on the internet. Or at least, it doesn’t always happen with birding directions that I find on the internet.

I examined the roadside wires and posts as we drove, netting quite a few Meadowlarks, some Kingbirds, and an odd-looking Rock Pigeon along the way. Nothing that would constitute a lifer, though, and nothing that screamed Kansas.

We made another turn, easy enough to find – but the road down which we’d turned shortly gave way to gravel.

“We must be getting close!” I said cheerfully. The Inimitable Todd, no doubt thinking of that day in the future when the car would have to be returned to the rental office, grimaced.

We made another turn, and the gravel seemed to get dustier. On the other hand, we also saw a sign for the lake, which I resolutely decided to regard as positive.

By the time we reached the lake itself, we were traveling on rutted dirt that our little Chevy Cobalt had never been designed for – the likes of which, in fact, I’d venture to say that most American SUVs never even attain. That speaks more to the inappropriate buying impulses of most Americans than it does to our foolhardiness. I think.

There were traces of a campfire where we parked, still fragrant, although only possibly Satan himself could have needed extra warmth in the 90+ degrees of the early afternoon. Far away, a couple of old pickup trucks were parked, but I couldn’t see anyone near them. Kingbirds hawked for dragonflies over an inlet. Far away, I could hear a Song Sparrow and a tractor and the buzzing of various insects.

I also heard, after a few minutes of listening, the call of a Northern Bobwhite. This would have been very exciting if I counted ear records for my life list, but I don’t. After all, for all I knew it might have been a Mockingbird mocking a Bobwhite.

I neither heard nor saw anything that seemed like it might be a Prairie Chicken. We walked around the lake for a bit, and by a bit I mean all of a few yards. The heat and humidity once again were conspiring to squish the birding impulse clean out of me, and the Inimitable Todd, with less birding impulse to begin with, was past squished.

That didn’t mean that he didn’t have his eyes open, though. And it didn’t mean that he’d forgotten what I’d asked him to look out for. So when a sparrow-ish bird popped up that was showing a bit of yellow, he asked me if it was the Dicksissel I’d wanted.

“Where?”

“Over there.” He points at a patch of weeds and I scan desperately for a movement.

“WHERE?”

Eventually, he got me on the bird. Sure enough, it was a Dicksissel, my second life bird of the trip. If I reflected on the fact that thus far my life birds had both been very very similar to House Sparrows in their own way, it was only to make a koan on the nature of Nature; and when Todd suggested that we go back to the car and look for the Prairie Chickens with four wheels and some glass between us and the bugs, I did not demur.

It seemed to me that it would be a simple matter to go around the lake; unfortunately, the roads did not cooperate. Moreover, dark clouds were gathering. We passed more Meadowlarks, more Kingbirds, many Robins and Mockingbirds. We passed many pastures and fields. The dust followed us like a cloud. Horseflies hit the windows with aplomb. Everything was rattled, even the IT; he eventually pulled out his iPhone and performed his own rite of Google to get us back to the highway. It turned out it was fairly simple – much simpler, for some reason, than getting out there in the first place. I told myself that I hadn’t really expected to see the Prairie Chickens anyway, and this was true; not only was this the wrong time of year, they seemed mythological anyway. Like prairies. Where were the prairies? They were supposed to look different, I was supposed to feel different. But nothing was different.

Shortly after we got back onto the highway, the sky opened up with rain that truly earned the name cloudburst in a way that few east coast storms can.

“Well, at least you won’t have to pay to wash the car,” I pointed out. The Inimitable Todd grimaced.

I glanced out the window just in time to see the distinctive profile of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher beating a retreat to the relative shelter of a tree. By nightfall, we would be in Iowa.

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I have to confess, I had forgotten all about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. I remember reading in the Peterson guide as a child about this smaller, less pushy cousin of the ubiquitous House Sparrow. Unlike the House Sparrow, there was only one successful introduction event for the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (sometimes called the German Sparrow to avoid confusion with the American Tree Sparrow). This event took place in April of 1870, in Lafayette Park in St. Louis.

In July of 2010, I checked into a bed and breakfast on Lafayette Square, a little frustrated because I hadn’t yet had a life bird on my epic journey across most of America. Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I was still in mostly-familiar (e.g. Eastern) territory, and birding from a speeding car on the interstate is not really conducive to identifying the finer points of sparrows. (Although if you want to see a bunch of Turkey Vultures it’s a pretty good strategy. And who doesn’t want to see a bunch of Turkey Vultures?) I wasn’t thinking about the Eurasian Tree Sparrow at all, though. I wasn’t even sure if they were still part of the avifauna, or if they’d tapered off into American oblivion; I hadn’t considered the question in years.

It was just happenstance, and the fact that my binoculars were around my neck, that the proprietor decided to share a tidbit of local history and mention the introduction of the German Sparrows in the park across the street from his house.
Of course, no birder himself, he thought that the House Sparrows in his ivy were the birds in question. Still, the tip was all I needed to jump online and do some quick research (and all praises to the internet for making such things possible!) so that I could target the neighborhoods where Passer domesticus had not pushed out Passer montanus. A helpful site gave me not only the block, but the very backyard to check!

Lest you think that modern technology robbed all the challenge from my hunt, though, I would point out that there were a couple of confounding factors.

First, we were on a schedule that, while not tight, did involve being in Kansas City before nightfall.

Second, it was wiltingly hot and compressingly humid, as one might expect in Missouri in the summer in the middle of the day – and not only does such weather discourage birders, it takes a toll on the birds as well. Red-winged Blackbirds and Starlings around the Arch were panting and flocking to the water features like Saharan castaways.

Third, birding in the backyards of strangers is always a hairy proposition – people have been accused of peeping tommery, or worse, for focusing their binoculars indiscriminately. Even as non-threatening a person as yours truly has been ordered off of lawns. And, of course, creeping people out, however inadvertently, doesn’t make one a good ambassador for wildlife.

Nevertheless, a life bird is a life bird and it would take a lot more than three confounding factors to make me drive away from St. Louis without putting in a sporting effort to get this one.

I think the Inimitable Todd may have been less impressed with some of my birding shenanigans, sometime, but I can’t recall which. He did make a good-faith effort to help me look from the car as we entered Dogtown (“There’s… no, that’s another House Sparrow”) but when it came to actually pounding the pavement, he stayed in the shade-parked car and studied road maps.

The birds were not in their appointed backyard. I walked up the block further, staring at Cardinals and Mourning Doves patronizing a well-stocked feeder until a dog began to bark. I circled back, glancing at each passing car with what I hoped was a reassuring, non-felonious face.

And then the German Sparrows flew in to the feeder. There were two of them, and as is so often the case with new birds, they were immediately distinct and recognizable in a way that the field guide could not do justice. Their red-brown caps and black ear spots were immediately apparently, but so were their more gracile builds and higher voices.

I watched them for only a few minutes. It was, after all, hot, and I was staring into someone’s backyard, and we did have to find the frozen custard stand and the highway and our next rooms down the road. But I will never forget about Eurasian Tree Sparrows again.

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When it’s too hot to go outside, it’s too hot to bird. Fortunately, I still have some interesting observations from the Old Homestead to serve with slaw and mustard on this holiday Monday!

Eastern Pondhawk

This year I have finally succumbed to the lure of the Odonata, those cheerfully menacing insects who are at their best just when the birding is at its worst – in the middle of the day, in the middle of the summer. Although I am still a dragon- and damselfly neophyte, I was able to identify a few species with confidence.

Most notably, there were a very large number of Ebony Jewelwings around the wooded creeks on the property, probably encouraged by a wet and therefore mosquito-iferous late spring. These dragonflies, which are fully as beautiful as their name, let me get close, but unfortunately not close enough to get a decent picture with my phone.

Another species I was able to put an actual name to was the Eastern Pondhawk, and an apt name it was, since I spotted one near the pasture pond. A gorgeous grass-green female adorned with black, to be specific. The Pondhawks hawk flying insects, and are hawked in turn by the abundant Eastern Kingbirds in the pasture – and this summer, by a Great Crested Flycatcher, a species that makes perfect sense for the Olde Homestead from a habitat and range standpoint, but which I had never observed there before*.

Also new to the Olde Homestead was a singing male Chestnut-Sided Warbler. I’m unsure whether he was a late migrant or a sincere would-be breeder, but either way, he was good to see. Since Chestnut-sided Warblers like early-succession forests, his presence was in keeping with the general changes taking place in the area, and with the continued absence of my old friends the Bobolinks (despite what to my eye looked like substantial patches of remaining good habitat).

And speaking of absences, those Hooded Warblers that were so ridiculously abundant last summer? I couldn’t find a single one. Maybe it was an artifact of the way the biting insects drove me out of the woods relatively quickly (see ‘wet late spring’ above), or maybe it was a genuine lack, but either way, no Hoodies for me!

*unless one attributes the Probably-Erroneous Western Kingbird Sighting Incident of 1995 to an unusually grayish GCF, but we don’t like to talk about that.

Eastern Pondhawk image by Mary Hollinger, courtesy of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Luke Dempsey’s (sadly mediocre) book A Supremely Bad Idea devotes a whole chapter* to the Cerulean Warbler. In it, the author and a pair of pseudonymous weirdos travel to Minnesota to see the lovely and vulnerable bird on its breeding grounds.

Well, the desire to see a Cerulean Warbler is about the only thing I share with Dempsey. Fortunately for me, going to Minnesota to see Dendroica cerulea is unnecessary; they also breed on Bear Mountain, at the charmingly-named ghost town Doodletown. So one fine day in early June I too set forth with a couple of eccentric companions (the incorrigible Corey Finger and a gentleman named Danny who may or may not wish to be splashed all over the internet) to track one down.

And did we ever! While the first Cerulean we encountered was content to be heard and not seen, we only had to hike a little further up the mountain to find another, more forthcoming specimen. We also found an enormous rat snake; Redstarts, Black-and-White Warblers, and Yellow Warblers; a calling Yellow-billed Cuckoo; vast rapturous kettles of Turkey Vultures, with the occasional Black Vulture thrown in. We did not find any Hooded Warblers, although we heard plenty. But, to keep things awesome, we found two more male Ceruleans showing well.

(Here I should note that ‘showing well’ meant, for me, ‘showing spectacularly’, since Corey was kind enough to loan me a review pair of Swarovskis to temporarily replace my battered Minox warhorse.)

By lunchtime, we’d proved to our satisfaction that Ceruleans existed, and not just in Minnesota. It was time to move on to our next target: the Golden-winged Warbler.

(But first, an interlude occurred in which horrific snack products of unnatural hues were purchased and consumed, but not by me. I stuck to the entirely more legitimate mayonnaise-and-sliced-meat-on-bread-with-alleged-lettuce food group.)

Then it was onward to Sterling Forest. By this time the sun was high, the day was hot, and the other birders at the site were packing it in – but not without passing along thrilling tales of singing Golden-wings and horrifying warnings of plentiful ticks. One of these would be borne out. (Note: The title contains spoilers.)

Golden-winged Warbler, like Cerulean, is a species facing trouble. Vermivora chrysoptera favors scrubby areas early in the process of reverting from field to forest, and in the northeastern U.S. such areas are getting harder to come by. Moreover, the Blue-winged Warbler tends to hybridize with the Golden-wing when their ranges overlap. This creates a merely ontological puzzle for birders, but more of an immediate and pragmatic problem for the species.

The dog tick faces no such crisis. At least not at Sterling Forest, where after trudging up a hill through a powerline cut in the blazing sun (Prairie Warbler, Brown-headed Cowbird, Indigo Bunting, and more Turkey Vultures (who could probably smell us by this time)) and through an open forest with the potential for impending bears (Scarlet Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Common Yellowthroat) and back up another hill in the same powerline cut (no birds to speak of, but some cool frogs and butterflies) we had neither sighted nor heard a single GWW – but the dog ticks, ah…

Between the three of us, we had brushed three ticks off our carefully tucked-in pants before getting back into the car (and just before a second Yellow-billed Cuckoo flew over us as a consolation prize.) Not so bad, you might say! And indeed, that wasn’t bad. Bad was when, back in the car and en route, first Corey and then Danny and then myself turned up with an additional dog tick – surprisingly clingy little buggers who vigorously resisted being flung out the car window. Really bad was when I reached up to scratch my head and found one of them crawling in my hair.

By this time we were all freaking out like we were in withdrawals, thinking we felt crawling everywhere. Not only are dog ticks creepy in and of theirownselves, we all had a powerful aversion to having them attach to our persons – Corey having a vulnerable, no doubt sweet-blooded infant at home, Danny having a dog, and me just having a profoundly selfish and unenvironmentalist aversion to serving as a habitat for Rickettsia rickettsii. The ride home, flinging more ticks onto the pavement all the way, was long. Also long – the shower that I found myself taking afterward.

That said, none of this should make the ambitious birder shy away from Sterling. We got there too late on too hot a day for luck to favor us, but it is still an excellent location for the elusive Golden-wing. Just be sure to tuck your pants into your socks! And, somehow, your hair into your socks as well.

*or roughly 1/5 as many pages as the author spends whining about his divorce.

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As Mick Jagger so memorably informs us, you can’t always get what you want. For instance, if it’s your last spring on the East Coast for the foreseeable future, you would want to go out in a blaze of warblery glory. You would wait for the good day that is always just around the corner, hoping for it to fall on a weekend. And then you head out one trip and realize that the good days are all behind you now.

Not that this past Saturday was not a good day. Just about any day spent birding with the illustrious Corey Finger is good. A day with a life bird is good, and another state bird on top of that is good also. And yet, the nagging hints that spring is well and truly over haunted our steps. Consider:

1. When I arrived at Jamaica Bay, I found Corey and a few other birders (whose names promptly escaped me, sorry!) watching a pair of courting Gull-billed Terns. The male was giving the female crabs. (Yes, we snickered about it later. Just because we have a respectable hobby doesn’t mean we’re grown-ups.)

2. We only saw and heard a handful of warblers despite hitting good habitat both at Jamaica Bay and later at Forest Park, among them the damn-near ubiquitous Yellow Warbler, the not-quite-but-nearly-as-ubiquitous American Redstart, and of course the Blackpoll Warbler. Blackpoll Warblers are to predicting the end of migration as color-coded homicidal horsemen are to more traditional forms of eschatology: if you see four or more, it’s not a good sign.

3. The full complement of summertime long-legged waders was present, with the exception of the Tricolor Heron (always a corner case) and, oddly, the Green Heron. In particular, there were notably large numbers of Yellow-crowned Night Herons and a couple of fine-looking Little Blues. There was also a White-faced Ibis, but that doesn’t say anything in particular about the time of year – just that it was a good day for Carrie.

4. Corey spotted a Cardinal feeding fledged young.

5. The Queens Ravens, which gave us fabulous looks. Both parents and young. Because the young looked about ready to jump out of the nest at any second. Yes, if all goes well those little ones too will soon be fledged, marking the completion of the first recorded breeding for the species in the recorded history of the City of New York.

1+2+3+4+5 = Spring is over. (Also, 15.)

A few more migrants may trickle through, and I can still hope to pick up some goodies during the breeding season (Orchard Oriole in Prospect Park, Hooded Warbler at the Olde Homestead, etc.) There may even be an exciting post-breeding wanderer or two waiting to join my New York State list before the end. But the Cape May warbler has earned the right to taunt me from the perch of a nemesis bird.

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[I thought I hit publish on this on Thursday. What gives?]

So in a surprise twist that I’m sure will shock everyone, last weekend, I went birding! Central Park, where the Inimitable Todd was running a 10k race. The persistent winds from the Northwest had finally given way, letting the no-doubt hungry and, shall we say, frustrated neotropical migrants flow north towards their breeding grounds.

Because the A train was also messed up, I got off at the southwestern corner of the park, rather than my usual stop nearer the Ramble. Any inclination I might have had to grumble about wasting time was totally eliminated when the first large stand of trees I cut through proved to contain a gorgeous male Blackburnian Warbler and a Yellow-throated Vireo. A bunch of Magnolia Warblers were also bouncing around, but hey, they’re Magnolia Warblers, that’s what they do.

I headed up towards Strawberry Fields, where I failed to find a reported western Fox Sparrow or Kentucky Warbler but did find a lot more warblers, including Canada, Bay-Breasted, Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, and another Blackburnian, more Maggies, along with a flyover Scarlet Tanager and the expected enormous flocks of tourists.

A 10k race had started, so I had to cut up to Tanner’s Spring (Magnolia Warbler!) before I could cruise down to the Shakespeare Garden (early Blackpoll, more Redstarts) and thence to the Ramble (Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, assorted thrushes). Then the race was over, and I left the park for brunch – but not until I’d finally spotted not one but two Black-throated Blue Warblers – male and female. These were my FoS for the species, and it was somewhat reassuring – I was starting to worry that in a Philip K. Dick-ian twist I might have imagined that the species ever existed, hallucinating field-guide descriptions, other peoples’ blog posts, etc. Or maybe it was freemasons again.

It was a fine day. But one thing that you will notice is that there were no Cape May Warblers in it. I wasn’t inclined to be bitter about this until I got home, and read the reports for Prospect Park – where two Cape May Warblers had been seen at Rick’s Place. Unfortunately, the next day was fully committed. Despite the general slowness of the spring, it seems like I’ve been enduring reports of Cape May Warblers trickling in from all over – except wherever I happen to be at the moment. Right at this moment, for instance, I am reading about a CMW that appeared in Central Park this morning, around the time I was leaving for work after having thought about packing my binoculars and then forgotten to.

I have no deep philosophical thoughts about this. It’s just pissing me off.

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Being a member of the full-time office working drone class imposes certain unfortunate constraints on birding. It prevents one, sometimes, from exercising the full degree of flexibility one would like. For instance, one may plan a trip to Jamaica Bay, only to have the day marred by a windstorm. In a perfect world, one would wait until the next day. In the world of work, one makes do with the weekend one has.

So, despite wind beating in the face of migration at 24 mph (with gusts up to 45 mph), we clambered from shuttle bus to subway train and then hiked out to Big John’s Pond. There I left the Inimitable Todd to another owl vigil while I searched for passerines and waterfowl. I discovered that while the wind may have stalled migration, it hadn’t forced the birds that had already arrived into hiding – Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, and a very large number of Yellow Warblers. A few Ruddy Ducks and a single pair of Buffleheads were still present on the East Pond, along with the usual Gadwall, Mallards, and Mute Swan.

The most impressive sight, though, was the huge flock of swallows hunting into the wind – standing nearly still, in contrast to their usual M.O., only to suddenly wheel once they’d made some progress and zoom back the way they came even faster than usual. As they hung suspended I was able to consider them at length, but no Bank or Cliff Swallows, sadly, put in an appearance.

I circled back to join the IT, who had spotted a Black-crowned Night Heron, Canada Goose, and yet more Yellow Warblers in my absence – which wasn’t too shabby, considering that I’d neglected to leave him any binoculars. But he was still Barn Owl-less. As consolation, we walked back down to the East Pond to look at the Ruddy Ducks again (several were near breeding plumage.)

“This is nice,” I said.

The IT nodded in agreement. “Very peaceful.”

Out of nowhere, a leafy twig broke off the tree above us and splashed down in the pond, making us both jump back.

Wind with a sense of humor was a little too weird for us, so we decided to leave. But not without checking the owl box one more time. Big John’s Pond now hosted a single Solitary Sandpiper as well as the aforementioned birds. And, maybe, a baby Barn Owl?

I focused on the box. A shadow, perhaps, moved. Trying not to get overly excited, I handed off the binoculars to the IT, who peered into the darkness.

The darkness shifted. I could see it with my naked eyes, although not well. The IT, with the binoculars, made a number of very quiet but very excited noises, including “I see a wing!” After a while, I prodded him hard enough to get the binoculars back.

There was a lighter place in the darkness. And it stared at me with dark – but adorable! – eyes.

After a few more exchanges of the binoculars, the owlet settled down and went back to sleep. And we went home, observing Brant and Oystercatchers and Laughing Gulls from the train along the way.

The next day, we went to work. That was not exciting or worth posting about.

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