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.

Another hastily-chugged cup of coffee. Another early-morning stagger out into the bitter cold. Another Tim Horton’s stop and fuel-up. Another voyage on the ferry across the icy spur of Lake Ontario, another careening ride down rutted dirt roads.

Another chance – our last chance – at the Owl Woods and its bounty of Strigiforme goodness.

The difference in the woods soon became apparent. For one thing, someone had spent time on Sunday laying out small tree trunks at the entrance to form a path. Not exactly a velvet rope, but it did funnel every visitor directly in front of the sign with the rules. Subtle, but fierce. A bit like a Saw-whet.

Moreover, it being both a weekday and earlier in the morning than our previous visit, there were far fewer people in the woods. Oh, we weren’t the only humans, but the others were pairs and singletons, not vast groups. Even the Chickadees, not put on high alert by the prospect of food, seemed more subdued.

So we began, once again, the process of moving slowly from cedar to cedar. This time the group, perhaps more confident or merely less patient, fanned out to check trees each on their own.

I was dubious about this strategy – the other thousand times I’d checked trees on my own, at the Olde Homestead and Prospect and Central Parks, had always come to naught – so I hung back and looked at pellets. The pellets were gray, and rich with the bones of the meadow voles who enthusiastically populate the island and make it an owl (and hawk) Mecca.

Suddenly, I heard a frantic whisper. The rest of the group was making a determined beeline for a tree at the very edge of the wood. This tiny, non-descript, and twisted pine, upon inspection by one of my tripmates, had proved to contain a Boreal Owl.

Boreal Owl

Keep it down, I work nights.

The Boreal Owl is a dream-bird, not just because it is nocturnal, not just because it is small (I would say ‘elfin’ but that should probably be properly reserved for the Elf Owl itself), not just because it is remote, but all three. When I told people about the trip in the planning stages, this was the species that I made sure to mention, and the response was always one of congenial jealousy. I had put it down as nice, but not necessary, in an attempt to manage my expectations. Now here it was. I felt a strange urge to get – not closer, but further away; to not risk even in the slightest disturbing or harming something so perfect. I tried not to breath.

After the exquisite agony of balancing the owl’s well-being with our own desire to stare at it forever, we moved away. I couldn’t tell you how long it took, although I think not very. It was still forever-ish enough.

The story was over, the happy ending written. But birding trips are not stories, so even though we were now moving towards our cars and lunch and goodbyes and the long drive back to New York, we kept checking the trees. We were, perhaps, halfway back when The Inimitable Todd stuck his head into a cedar and came out looking like he wanted to shout for joy, but was nobly refraining.

Saw-whet Owl

What IT Saw(whet)

Yes, The Inimitable Todd – the world’s most patient non-birder – had found the trip’s only Saw-whet Owl, provided me with a seventh life bird in three days, and provided another happy ending.

But birding trips are not stories. Before we left the woods, we stumbled over the Barred Owl once again.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl? Where?

Then we drove around the island several times, searching for Rough-legged Hawks and finding many Red-tails, Kestrels, and more Tundra Swans before finally finding a light-morph bird hunting over the fields.

Then we had lunch.

Then the IT and I made the long drive towards home, in the snow. As we drove over the bridge into the United States, a Raven paced our car…. only to turn back mere inches before joining my NYS list.

Then the birding part of the trip was over.

Looking back, I have to say that it was a wonderful trip, despite the challenging weather and a couple of dips. Lakeshore Nature Tours won my appreciation from the start. I probably won’t be going back to Amherst Island any time soon, but only because the heavy human pressure on the island makes me think I should give a turn to someone else, someone who – like me – will love it, and spread that word that it should be respected and saved.

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Snowy Owl

Our better angels of hard work and persistence having been rewarded with the sight of the Northern Hawk Owl, we promptly broke for lunch.

And it’s just as well that we did, because after our next stop no one was hungry. Turning down a lonely, windswept rural road, we passed a handful of Horned Larks and then found ourselves at the gates of a garbage dump.

The Inimitable Todd, perhaps sensibly, elected to stay in the car with Jerome*. The rest of us piled out and trouped across the frozen, yet somehow still pungent, expanse to the fence around the dump. There we scanned the gulls.

Vast flocks of gulls rose squabbling over the churning black muck; Great Black-backed, Herring, Glaucous, and Iceland, in an array of plumages, mixed almost as promiscuously as the trash they picked over. I was surprised at how little was recognizable in the affray – a broken milk-crate here, a scrap of grocery bag there, but for the most part it was just unspeakable ooze, a sort of eldritch perversion of a healthy, well-blended soil. I got my eyes on the gulls I wanted to see – no point being here for nothing – but I was quickly overcome by a sense of futility and waste (and cold and stench) and retreated.

From there, we drove to a more suburban, more wooded location, in the hopes of spotting Evening Grosbeaks at a feeder. The front cover of my first field guide featured Evening Grosbeaks. They’re a bird I’ve always dreamed of and never seen – born as I was after they entered their steep decline, the accounts of mass irruptions and flocks of hundreds descending on bird feeders were just a taunt. So I was excited as we scanned the pines and feeders – although also a bit wary that we’d be mistaken for peering in someone’s window.

Alas, we scanned in vain. The only birds who showed were Chickadees, Nuthatches, and a few overhead Ravens. The big yellow finches would stay a dream.

So we piled back into the cars, drove further east through broad fields, scanning the roadside for Snowy Owls. Sure, we’d seen these magnificent predators yesterday, but through a glass (or a pair of glasses) darkly, and we were in quest of better looks. Besides, you can never see too many Snowy Owls.

Nor can you see too many Snow Buntings, as I discovered when we pulled over to scope a promising distant white lump. Suddenly, a flock of Snow Buntings – scores of them, maybe a hundred, in gorgeous winter plumage – rose up from where they were gleaning the nearby cornfields and circled our caravan. Probably they were waiting for us to go so that they could get back to dinner, but it felt like being in the center of the world.

The Owls, perched on telephone poles or in the corn stubble, were also incredibly accommodating. Less confiding, but still cool, were a pair of foxes in the distance and a muskrat forced into the open presumably by the frozenness of its usual haunts. A last owl soared directly over us as we were distracted by the muskrat – perhaps irritated that we had spooked its would-be prey.

As the sun declined, we split up and went our separate ways for dinner – the Inimitable Todd and I electing to continue east to Montreal, where a delicious and romantic evening was followed by a long ride back. And this must stand as testament to the IT’s hardcore foodie cred, for tomorrow would see us rise at 6 once more for a last desperate visit to the Owl Woods….

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*Who is Jerome? Why, Jerome is our birding mascot:

Jerome the Stuffed Owl with Yours Truly

Jerome and Me

The second day of our Canadian adventure started far too early to be bright. By six in the morning we had risen, sucked down a quick cup of hotel coffee (shade grown, I was pleased to see) and brushed off the night’s accumulation of snow from the car in preparation for our first crucial stop of the day – the local Tim Horton’s, where I hoped to add the elusive maple-frosted doughnut to my stomach’s life list.

I know. That sounds stupid. One refined-flour-made, corn-syrup-sweetened, mass-produced doughnut may be expected to be very much like another.

On the other hand, some people would say that about sparrows, too.

Despite growing up so near the Canadian border, I was never a Tim Horton’s aficionado as a young lass – our family generally relied on the supermarket bakery to supply our doughnut-related dietary needs. Eventually Tim caught up to me, and franchises opened to much fanfare in the Big Apple in 2009 – but by that time I knew I could only be satisfied by the most Canadian of pastries, the maple-frosted doughnut which contained REAL MAPLE. Everything else, it seemed, could only risk comparison to DDs. But alas, none of the New York stores had the maple glazed doughnut, at least not when I went searching. The Inimitable Todd began to question my devotion to the search – were there really such things as maple doughnuts? I began to fear that perhaps the doughnut was a myth, or some fevered fantasy concocted out of my own culinary perversion. So I stepped into the Canadian pre-dawn slush and entered the store with trepidation.

Breakfast at Tim Horton's

My fears proved unfounded

After all that, you will understand that our failure to find the Gray Partridge was a bit of an anticlimax.

The Gray Partridge, like the Ring-necked Pheasant at the Olde Homestead, is not a native species. Introduced for the benefit of the hunting community, both birds have always had but a tenuous grip on their ABA list positions. With the ethos of scattering animals willy-nilly across the globe for “sport” in a (hopefully permanent) decline, and native predators like coyotes on the upswing, the Partridge is now a hard-to-find specialty bird. Our fearless leaders knew of an office park where a small flock frequently roosted, but when we arrived they were nowhere to be seen – either cleared out for the day or sleeping elsewhere. There was no time to stew in disappointment. We knew from the start that our chances were slender. And we had so much more to do.

Go to a tennis club parking lot, for instance. There were abandoned our vehicles and clambered over hard-packed snow to the edge of a creek, where a large flock of Common Goldeneye floated. This hardly seems worth the risk of slips and falls, you might say, when you saw Common Goldeneye just yesterday. And this is true. But these Goldeneye were different, inasmuch as they had among them a western visitor. I took a bit of scanning, but we were all eventually able to pick out a single male Barrow’s Goldeneye – a species that was also being reported at the time from Jamaica Bay, ironically. I have to say, though, that I ended up with much better looks (that is, any looks) on the tour than I would have trying to pick out a tiny bird riding a distant tide with my cruddy binoculars.

Goldeneye

Digiscoped Duck

We savored this for a while, and picked up some additional waterfowl – the expected Mallards and a couple of Black Ducks and Common Mergansers – before heading back to the cars to seek the first owl of the day.

A Northern Hawk Owl is a small bird that typically perches on the tops of trees, telephone poles, and the like, and engages in blatant daylight hunting, more like a hawk than an owl. Go figure. It’s also typically a denizen of the far north, but known (and loved) for sometimes straying south to the haunts of humanity during the winter months, then picking out a small range and sticking to it despite the gawping of birders. Last year a Northern Hawk Owl pulled this stunt in Peru, New York, and nearly every birder in the Tristate area eventually made the trek to see it – except me. Now, I hoped, this error would be rectified.

So our caravan drove slowly through the little town of Moose Creek (yes really) with the eager eyes of passengers (and I suspect a few drivers, as well – but we were traveling pretty slow) scanning the likely perches for any signs of an owl. Not a feather did we find, despite crawling along so many small side roads that I began to worry that the locals would take us for kidney thieves or mobsters or possibly evil clowns.

Eventually we stopped and got the scoop from a local (friendly and confiding and not, that I could see, carrying any anti-clown weaponry on his person) who pointed out a few areas where the owl habitually roosted. We trudged up and down railroad tracks peering into coniferous trees, and followed the trail of the mighty herds of snowmobiles into fields. It was snowing a little.

Let me take a moment to talk about the snow. The English language has a serious inadequacy inasmuch as I am forced to use the same word to describe the cute thumb-sized gobs of frozen water cotton candy that blanketed New York last weekend and the tiny angry shards of ice that the wind carried like a switchblade that day. We stood in the field and trembled like poorly bred chihuahuas as a flock of snow buntings disappeared over a hill, probably laughing at us. The snow that was already on the ground had a frozen crust on it, cleverly calibrated to just barely not hold my weight. Eventually, even the lure of a potential Northern Hawk Owl could no longer hold people, and they began to drift back to the cars. Eventually, they became we, and back to the cars became driving away, and there was dispirited talk of lunch.

Then, on the main street out of Moose Creek, the entire caravan suddenly lurched to an awkward stop and we came tumbling out – still not like evil clowns – but like a group of birders who had just spotted the obscure object of desire on the top of a telephone pole. Speaking in hushed tones and crouching behind a handy building, we watched it sit, turn its head, hack up a pellet, and generally be an owl – in full view, giving fabulous looks, in the brazen (or actually more like silver in this instance) light of day.

“Now wait,” you may be saying to yourself at this point. “That sounds suspiciously like the climax of a narrative. Is this blogger – also a known fiction writer – creating a happy ending in a James Frey style? Has her Creative Nonfiction gotten too creative and not nonfictiony enough?”

Clever reader. I do love unreliable narrators; doesn’t everyone?

But in this case…. I have proof! Call me, Oprah!

Northern Hawk Owl

Yes, someone does need to clean his lens

We stared until the owl was thoroughly bored with us, then retreated to thaw out, refuel, and plan the next half of the day’s adventures.

Patch birding is wonderful. Patch birding is an unmatched pleasure, an unmitigated good, and in many ways the apotheosis of the birder’s art and science; in its best incarnations, it involves becoming truly one with a piece of the landscape in a way that brings one closer not only to the birds, but to the entire ecosystem.

But travel is broadening. And while listing leaves one vulnerable to the pain that desire and attachments bring, it also satisfies the collector’s urge in a way that is relatively harmless and indeed educational. It helps one think globally whilst acting locally. And let’s face it, it’s fun.

So the ideal is to travel, and in so doing hook up with someone who knows the local patch. A guide, formal or informal.

The Inimitable Todd and I, moved to visit the magical but imperiled Owl Woods of Amherst Island, booked a trip with Lakeshore Nature Tours. Besides multiple species of owls – typical northern highlights like Barred- Saw-whet, Snowy, Long-eared, and Short-eared, as well as the tantalizing prospect of Boreal and Great Gray – the tour offered the possibility of other cold weather specialties such as Northern Shrike, Rough-legged Hawk, Evening Grosbeak, and even Gray Partridge. Sure, it seemed a bit counter-intuitive to run towards the cold and snow rather than away from it, but who ever said that birders make sense?

Despite my discontent at the fact that we had to rent a car for the journey, the good times started rolling almost at once. As usual, my first major car trip of the year netted me my first Turkey Vulture of the year. Less expected was a Pileated Woodpecker that flew over the road – beautiful, but too brief to satisfy. And, of course, a plethora of Red-tailed Hawks observed our journey as we made our way down through the Delaware Water Gap, then back up through New York to Ontario. Night fell before we got through the border and to our hotel, scarfed a (sadly overpriced due to the holiday) dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning we had a far more leisurely and pleasant breakfast, did introductions with the group, then drove to Kingston and boarded the ferry. It was cold, and not just a little cold – I speak from a place of extensive cold experience when I say that it was really freaking cold. The wind acted on every bit of exposed skin like pincers, and I found myself involuntarily huddling, which was less than effective, as there were no other auks to huddle with. The crossing was nearly frozen over, and the only waterfowl in evidence were a few Canada (and, for once, Canadian) Geese.

Amherst Island itself was a charming collection of sheep and horse farms, art studios that had closed for the season, and similar pastoral delights. Most of the roads were gravel-paved and very dusty; the access road to the Owl Woods wasn’t even that ambitious. There were points when I wondered whether my decision to rent a compact car had been a wise one.

Nevertheless, we made it to the woods. At the trail-head, cars of all descriptions were nudged up on what passed for the shoulder, and not because the Rapture had occurred.

Right off the bat, I was please to see evidence that the owners of the woods (and one of the odd things about this gem is that it is privately owned; fortunately, at least for the time being, it’s in the hands of people who care more about the owls and the birders than about more extractive values) were taking potential threats to owl equilibrium seriously:

Owl Woods Rules

The Rules and Regulations

The cautions seemed common-sense, but they turned out to be necessary, because the place was crawling with people. Small kids with parents, college students, and elderly birders alike covered the trails and peered into evergreens. I was hardly in a position to complain that this was a bad thing – going by accent, a lot of them had more right to be there than I did – but the fact remained that this was more agreeable for the ubiquitous Chickadees, who clustered around the feeders looking for handouts of seed, than it was for the owls.

A single Barred Owl was on the hunt, surrounded by numerous spectators and photographers. Though each, individually, seemed respectful, the aggregate effect was a bit overwhelming for me, so I can only imagine how it was for the bird. Nevertheless, it maintained its composure and scanned diligently for voles – and for smaller owls, whose decline the Barred was suspected of having a hand in. Or a talon, as it were.

Barred Owl, Digiscoped

Smirking Owl, Crouching Paparazzo

Whether because of the Barred Owl, or the unbarred humans, or both, or neither, we saw no other owls in the Owl Woods.

Out on the road again, we circled the island slowly, spotting waterfowl from the banks in the open water of the deeper side. The Gadwall, Buffleheads, and large flocks of Common Goldeneye were all nice, but the Tundra Swans were the stars – lifers for me, and I believe for many others on the tour as well. We also got a short but diagnostic look at a Northern Shrike. Then we scanned the open fields for Snowy Owls (present, but distant) and Short-eared Owls (hiding until the light was too dim to really make them out, alas) as the sun, and the temperature, got lower.

Though the day had been long, and many of our target species MIA, I was still reasonably happy as we returned to the inn. Three lifers could not be accounted a bad day, and more promising opportunities were still ahead of us….

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A Long-eared Owl is loose in Baltimore after escaping from the Maryland Zoo’s native birds exhibit.

Long-eared Owl in the snow

The roof, the roof, the roof... is pretty much the opposite of on fire

Long-eared Owl, by the by, is one of the few target species The Inimitable Todd and I didn’t get on our amazing Canadian adventure, on which more is forthcoming when someone uploads the photos he took. Which are not of Long-eared Owls, but to give you a taste…. Boreal Owl, Saw-whet Owl, Barred Owl, Snowy Owl, Barrow’s Goldeneye…..

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Long-eared Owl photo by Pavlen

Female Bufflehead by Mdf

Sea Duck Inshore

Sea ducks. The phrase sets a certain type of birder (cold-hardy, salt-resistant, moderately insane) throbbing with anticipation. We have spoken before of the Long-tailed Duck, the Harlequin Duck, and other anseriform denizens of the briny deep. But there is one among the tribe that need not cost you your extremities, one pocket-edition sea duck that brings its tang of winter romance even to environs as calm as Prospect Park: the Bufflehead.

The Buffle in Bufflehead is short for Buffalo – the idea being that the bulbous shape of the male bird’s head in full display bears some resemblance to that of the American Bison, which is not a buffalo. Other things that named after the bison which is not a buffalo include Buffalo, New York (and by extension the Buffalo Bills, a notoriously non-champion American football team, and buffalo wings) and Buffalo soldiers (and by extension the Bob Marley song Buffalo Soldier, Ray Petri’s visual imaging company Buffalo, and Neneh Cherry’s hit song Buffalo Stance).

The male Bufflehead puffs up his head feathers, of course, as a pose to look sexy and important to other Buffleheads, very much like the characters in the song Buffalo Stance.

Unlike most other ducks, who are notorious rakes and libertines at best, the Bufflehead is prone to fidelity. Not only do mates stick with each other from year to year (unlike the characters in the song Buffalo Stance) they tend to return to the same nesting site as well – a tree cavity, usually an old Flicker nest. Just in case you were tempted to look to them as icons of family life – always a bad idea with birds – it should also be noted that they share a predilection for violent kidnapping with their cousins the Goldeneyes. When two female Buffleheads fight, the victor will often add some or all of the vanquished duck’s young to her own brood, perhaps in order to provide safety in numbers for her own offspring.

But all of this takes place in the boreal north. The vast majority of North Americans know Buffleheads as winter birds, floating in sheltered coastal areas and those inland waters that remain unfrozen. Though they are tiny and monochromatic, they can be an incredibly beautiful sight as they pepper the water, disappearing in dives and then popping back up like rubber bathtub ducks on the lead surface of the winter water. To me they are holiday ducks, since I generally see them on the Hudson from the window of the train while going from New York back to the Olde Homestead in the late fall and winter. Even at a distance and at speed, their dark-and-light pattern is distinctive.

If you know someone who is too frail, or too sensible, to chase the other sea ducks, show them a Bufflehead this February.

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Brown-headed Nuthatch

Once upon a time, there was a river. It flowed from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Wateree River, which flowed to the Santee River, which flowed to the sea. A people known as the Catawba lived along its banks, and after assorted Europeans came and killed, infected, evicted, or otherwise displaced them, the river continued to bear their name.

In 2008, the Catawba, with the Wateree, was named the most endangered river in America.

One reason for this designation is the Cowans Ford Dam, a hydroelectric dam that created, among other things, Lake Norman, by backing up the river into the valleys that surrounded it. And Lake Norman created lakefront property, and lakefront property creates a near-unstiflable urge in certain people to build hideous “communities” full of overly large houses, golf courses, boat slips, designer dogs, and people who were born on second base, stole third, and still think they hit a home run.

Christmas, of course, is a time for family. In this case, the Inimitable Todd’s family. Which means Lake Norman.

Some 45 minutes from the artifice of the lake is the somewhat more noble artifice of the McDowell Nature Preserve, where a project is underway to restore a fragment of the native prairie. McDowell also has several miles of hiking trails that encompass creeks, lowlands, cedar forests, and bits of the equally artificial Lake Wylie.

I was hoping it might also have Brown-headed Nuthatches. But Brown-headed Nuthatches are among the many birds that have declined due to fire suppression, keeping such elite company in that regard as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Florida Scrub Jay, and Kirtland’s Warbler. They like mature, open pine forests, and apparently McDowell Nature Preserve did not fit their bill. It was too dense, perhaps, or the cedars not appealing.

It was a lovely preserve for all that – full of easy trails, soft earth, and flocks of traditional winter birds of the southeast U.S. – Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, both kinds of Kinglets. Brown Creepers throwing me into a false alarm every time they hitched along a limb. Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Cardinals.

Two days later, with Christmas hanging tattered in our past and a flight back to JFK in our very near future, I was walking the streets around Lake Norman with the Inimitable Todd . I knew I was bound to find some last-minute goodies here – mix of wooded and lawn/golf course habitat had previously been productive for Eastern Bluebirds, the occasional Loggerhead Shrike, and of course more Chickadees, Titmice, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Just a few days prior I’d spotted a massive, sleek Cooper’s Hawk scoping out a neighbor’s birdfeeder.

A flock of Chickadees and Titmice bounced from pine to pine as we rounded a corner, calling constantly. Among the calls – so similar to the calls that a similar flock might make up in NYC or Buffalo, yet distinctly different, half-formed and blurry to an ear more used to Black-capped Chickadees – I noticed a sort of dog toy squeak. “You know,” I said to the Inimitable Todd, “Nuthatches sound a lot like that…”

I put my binoculars on the source of the call, a small bird hammering at a pinecone far above my head. At first, I could only make out a slate back – but the profile seemed wrong for a Titmouse or Chickadee. And then it turned. And as if someone had written the story, the brown head and white nape spot became obvious. Another bird, younger, without the nape spot, joined the first. And then a third appeared.

I stared as long as my wrists would let me, then handed the binoculars to the Inimitable Todd. Eventually the flock moved on, taking with it what was most likely my last life bird of the decade. A bird that appeared, even in this inauspicious place, determined to survive.

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Union Square Scott's Oriole

A Blast from the Past

Via The New York Birding List, I am delighted to learn the New York State Avian Records Committee has officially accepted the 2007-2008 Union Square Scott’s Oriole as a legitimate record, marking the Official One True and Only First State Record of Icterus parisorum for New York.

What does this mean, exactly? It means that NYSARC, composed of eight illustrious and experienced New York birders, has gone over all submitted records of Scotty – the photos, the written descriptions, any recordings that were made – and determined that he A.) is an actual, honest-to-goodness Scott’s Oriole and B.) can be reasonably believed to have gotten to Union Square under his own power, rather than escaping from captivity. Since 1977, the committee has used this two-pronged criteria to determine which birds are and are not recognized rarities in New York State. Sometimes it can get quite complicated, with discussions of hypothetical hybrids and tail-feather wear from cages spanning years. The result, after the votes are counted, is the official list of birds known to occur in New York.

The committee also accepted four other new additions to the state list for 2007/2008 – the Western M(*^$^&^%&^^ing Reef-heron, Pink-footed Goose, Cassin’s Kingbird, and Yellow/Eastern Yellow Wagtail. This brings New York’s list to 475.

If it seems like I’ve been waiting eagerly for this day, I have. Things don’t always work out so happily for listers and the megararities they cherish.

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The weather is starting to show flashes of spring-like behavior, for good (60-degree days) and ill (persistent rain, which honestly is not really an ill unless I have to be out in it). So I decided to sneak in a bit of pre-work birding in Central Park.

I was hoping to snag some characteristic early spring migrants, maybe an Eastern Phoebe or even a Woodcock, but no luck there. I did see a lot of winter residents and year-rounders gearing up for spring, including a Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a nest cavity, singing White-throated Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Cardinals, and Black-capped Chickadees, and a pair of Robins having a dispute over a promising bit of lawn. I also got nice looks at a single Flicker and three Swamp Sparrows just chilling. Pine Siskins and Juncos are still kicking around, and none of the Goldfinches I saw looked particularly yellow yet. Neither Spring nor Winter describes this moment accurately.

I am trying to take my own advice to appreciate what is instead of chasing after what isn’t, to savor the whole year, but a Pine Warbler would be pretty sweet right now.

On another note, I thought I would follow up on my brief mention of the organic beer that Edgar Allan Poe enjoyed so much in my last post. Beer isn’t as closely associated with birding as coffee (for the very good reasons that birders often need to drive, and need not to have to stop and pee often) but if you do like to kick back with a brew after a long trip or a tough day, there are a plethora of options to look out for the environment while doing so.
The explosion in microbreweries means that most areas of the U.S. can now claim at least a few good beers as local; seeking these out not only reduces your beverage-related carbon footprint, it gives you beer nerd street cred. Organic beer is catching on too. Grist recently posted a pretty good article which reviewed twelve organic beers; besides the ones they name, I enjoy Peak Organic out of Portland Maine and Wolaver’s, a spin-off of Otter Creek Brewing in Vermont. (Eddie favored the Wolaver’s). Non-organic breweries like Dogfish Head out of Delaware experiment from time to time with the use of organic ingredients as well, so keep your eyes peeled for one-offs. Even Anheuser-Busch is in on the act with a division called Green Valley Brewing which produces Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill Ale.

Besides drinking good beer, you can be environmentally friendly by recycling your cans or (preferably) bottles – or better yet, find out if one of your local suppliers fill growlers. A growler is a resealable jug that holds 32 oz. of liquid; you can drink up, wash it out, and bring it back for new booze as many times as you’d like for a zero waste drinking experience. (If you’re a party-throwing type, kegs offer the same refillable awesomeness.)

So there you go.

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