August 2007

Went to Great Kills Park by bike. No Reef-heron, which didn’t surprise me; not much in the way of other wading birds or migrating shorebirds, either, which did. Meanwhile, the folks at Jamaica Bay had over a hundred species going. Still, a day with a life list bird (and a slightly challenging one, at that) cannot go down on the books as purely disappointing.

Since I’ve never been birding on Staten Island before, this list also represents my borough list.

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Dove Columba livia
Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Double-crested Cormorant Phalocrocorax auritus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri *LL
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Green Heron Butorides striatus
Grey Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Buteo sp.
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Canada Goose Branta canadensis

I was lucky in that my Western Sandpiper did me two big favors. First, it was feeding by itself in a small muddy rain pool in the trail, allowing me long, relatively close and unobstructed looks without any other peeps running in and out to confuse matters. Secondly, it was still in breeding plumage, very rusty in color, making it easier to separate from the Semipalmated.

Also saw a mystery white goose flying with two Canadas; it gave a call like a Canada being strangled. It was too big to be Snow Goose (plus, no black on wings) but, I think, a bit too small to be a swan (and making the wrong noise.) I assume it was some kind of domestic goose, feral or hybrid.

Looks like The Bird Who Wasn’t There isn’t the only out-of-place wading bird turning heads on the North American continent this August!

Jabiru in Mississippi.

The Jabiru is native to the Americas from Mexico to Argentina, so it hasn’t come as far as the Western Reef-Heron. However, it is also an ABA checklist 5 for difficulty, meaning that it’s been seen at most three times in the last thirty years in North America north of Mexico, or less than five times in this region in history, which is the same rating as the Bird of Great Coyness. (There is such a thing as an ABA 6; this distinction goes to birds that are extinct, extinct in the wild, or have never been seen in the region at all. The dude who allegedly sighted the Ivory-billed Woodpecker would score a six, as would the gentleman who claims he observed an Eskimo Curlew last September.) Also, the Jabiru is the largest stork species in the world, meaning that it is arguably cooler to look at than the Reef-heron, and it has indisputably got a cooler name.

For those of you who aren’t birders, have there ever been specific wild birds that turned your head and were memorable to you? For those who are now birders, what got you started?

The decaying pilings looked as though they ought to have herons on them. This was mainly due to their color. The lower portions of the pilings were wet and dark, while the bits above the high tide were bleached by the sun to a pale grey shade that looked almost bluish. Like a heron.

I kept pointing my binoculars at them and twiddling the focus wheel, but they always resolved into eroded wooden snags instead of roosting birds.

The heron had been seen twice more since my first attempt, but I’d been largely thwarted in attempts to make a second visit by work, and then I’d made the (successful, but now haunting) decision to pursue the Curlew Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay instead. The Curlew Sandpiper hails from Asia, but it makes its way to the U.S. somewhat more frequently than the Reef-Heron. It even merits a picture in Peterson’s Eastern Birds. Still, this was a particularly nice specimen, in full breeding plumage, and certainly a jewel for my life list, and… well, hell, there was no point in rehashing the decision. I’d made it for reasons that seemed good at the time. And now, for reasons that also seemed good at the time, I was standing in the weeds of Coney Island Creek again. The sun was sort of starting to think about going down, and the flies were definitely more than thinking about starting to bite. I slapped and scratched and focused on another piling and twiddled the focus wheel and saw more eroded wood.

The angle of the sun made looking into the sunken barges even more difficult than usual, so I began to make my way around the trail to see if I could spot them from the other side. This was not such a long trail, but the day even on the ebb was still hot, and the bugs were going like motherfuckers, and the slightly decrepit demeanor of the environs combined with my recent readings to make a bubbling worry-sauce in my brain pan.

Part of it was that I’d just read Jon Evans’s Dark Places. Part of it was the more directly relevant fact that a few days prior, a couple from West Virginia (I assume the folks that the Inimitable Todd and I met on the first trip, but who knows how many crazy birders there are in WV?) had seen a group of young men with air rifles firing at egrets in the creek, and had chased them and photographed them and called the cops.

Now, I am pretty hard on heron-shooting – it is clearly illegal, reckless, dangerous to bystanders and harmful to the environment. It indicates a basic destructive impulse. At the same time, I couldn’t help but fear that with the cop-calling and the chasing of young men engaged in what people might arguably see as Tom Sawyer-like all-American recreation, and the traipsing through the territories of homeless people trying to build homes, and the being around at any daylight hour looking at things that didn’t normally get looked at in a lurking-type manner, the birdwatchers might have become disruptive to regular park users, and might indeed be unwelcome. I don’t like feeling unwelcome, but I like the idea of guys with guns, even air guns, finding me unwelcome even less. And the sun didn’t seem like it was going to stop crawling down the sky.

So I was a little antsy.

The other side of the creek was heavy with greenery, both trees and patches of knee-high weedy annuals that one could wade into just far enough to realize how much the bugs really, really liked them and how nice a habitat they would make for rats before one decided to turn around and get the hell out. This was nice habitat for the robins and starlings and the Indigo Bunting that I spotted, but it didn’t make for good viewing.

Finally, I found a beaten-down trail between two trees. Putting to the back of my mind the question of who had beaten down this clearly unauthorized trail and for what purpose, I followed it toward the shore.

I passed an open space of indeterminate use, scrambled down some rocks, and and found myself facing the backs of the barges. From this vantage point I could see straight down into their ruined hulls, where the heron was , according to observers, given to lurk. I looked for lurkings. A survival of loose rope swung back and forth in the breeze and confused me for a minute before I made out what it was.

Two Great Egrets flew in and landed on a piling. A duck circled beneath them. Schools of small silver fish began leaping out of the water for some purpose, perhaps to feed on the flying insects that were now abounding everywhere, not just in the immediate vicinity of my tasty blood. The egrets eyed the fish. Surely, this was a place that a heron could not bear not to be. But the sun was getting lower.

A cormorant flew overhead, and I tried to make out if there were any interesting gulls out over the open water. (One of the great things about birding is that you come to find out that there are such things as interesting gulls.) No luck. A handful of terns flew by, doing their extremely capable ternly aerobatics that make them almost impossible for me to identify on the wing.

Suddenly, something moved on the barge just in front of me. It was clearly a heron… not white… I twiddled the focus knob frantically.

Slowly, a grayish bird came into view. Not blue-gray, sadly, but black-gray. It assumed the hunched posture characteristic of a night-heron, and moved into profile, and I saw the dark face and white cheek-patch of the Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

Now, both Night-Heron species had been my particular arch-enemies for several years, evading my gaze until a trip to Jamaica Bay last summer when a brief glimpse of a flying Black-crowned broke the curse. Since then, I’d seen Black-crowned Night Herons in three boroughs, and caught sight of at least one seemingly every time I went birding near fresh water. In Prospect Park they dripped from the trees of the Lullwater Trail. In Central Park, groups of five or more paraded around in my full view, as if to say, ‘ha! You thought we were hard.’

But the Yellow-crowned had continued to elude me. Until just now. I stared at it in deep satisfaction for as long as my wrists would hold the binoculars steady.

Now the light was gone slant-wise. I knew that I should leave. But I didn’t want to stop looking at the Yellow-crowned, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I left, the heron would fly in behind my back. I looked for another few minutes, slapping my leg in a futile attempt to retain a few drops of blood for myself, and then I turned for home.
Breaking News: As I write this, I get word that the Western Reef-Heron has been spotted this morning at Great Kills Park in Staten Island. Will the bird who wasn’t there be there when I show up? Stay tuned.

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The couple from West Virginia had been there three times. Todd, who was a bit skeptical about getting up at six and taking the train across Brooklyn to look for this bird, settled into the regard that one has for the impressively mad when they told us how, three times, they’d driven through the night to be here at Coney Island Creek at dawn, standing on a narrow spit of land that terminated in the skeleton of a wooden barge and scanning the water for the heron. They hadn’t seen it yet.

At least if we did see it it would be easy to recognize. The Western Reef-Heron, a native of western Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia, follows the trends that make most of the heron/egret clan iconic. It has a distinctive long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked profile, and it stands around in open water poking at fish and letting humans get long looks. The combo of blue-gray color scheme, white throat patch, and bright yellow feet easily separated it from the impressive roster of other herons that frequent the creek – Great and Snowy Egrets are pure white, the Little Blue Heron’s feet and throat are dark, the Green Heron is tiny and greenish and rust, and the Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons are small sullen birds that have a perpetually hunched posture and a scowl, probably because they’ve been relegated to a semi-nocturnal lifestyle by their larger and more aggressive cousins. We birdwatchers were lucky in this regard. The Western Reef-Heron also comes in a white color morph that, if seen, could easily be taken by a careless birder for an egret and overlooked.

We were lucky too that it had been spotted at all. Drier-Offerman/Calvert Vaux Park is not a heavily birded area. The Western Reef-Heron has only been seen six times on the North American continent. Speculation persists, though, that the Brooklyn bird is the same individual as the heron seen in New Hampshire and Maine and Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Obviously it didn’t teleport from point to point. It just wasn’t seen until it was seen by somebody who knew what they were looking at.

Once that somebody saw it, of course, trekking to this unlikely park commenced; hence the West Virginians. Todd and I came through the back of a Home Depot parking lot, past a bunch of locked gates with helpful signs saying that the park was open from sunrise to sunset (at least they didn’t twinkle in the sun; that would have been just insulting.) Once we finally found an open gate, we were able to make our way to the water’s edge. Half-burned pilings stuck out of the water in a way that was weirdly reminiscent of the drowned trees at Montezuma; here and there someone had found it more economical to abandon a rotting barge than haul it out. Small trees grew out of the barges, and rats got back in touch with nature among them.

I spotted something just edging out of the water, moving in-shore; for some reason my mind flashed on sting rays, although I felt no real alarm. A closer look proved that it was a horseshoe crab. People always describe these as the size of a dinner plate, but this one was only about the size of a salad plate. It was, however, alive and trundling along in the water rather than dead and upside-down on the beach, and in this regard it was remarkably different than every other horseshoe crab that I had ever seen. I watched in fascination for a few seconds before moving on.

Todd and I made our way down the path to an openish area; no luck, though we did spot a lovely, if out-of-the-way, community garden with waist-high corn and squash plants that looked like they might go out for the football team. Then we looped up and around the ball fields, along the spur of creek where our target was most often seen. Not much luck there either, except for a number of Black-crowned Night Herons and the shadow of what looked like an abandoned car – I didn’t investigate too closely. Then we spotted the other couple out on the spit by the sunken barge, and doubled back to see if they were having any luck.

We hopped down some rocks, penguin-style, and joined the West Virginians just above the waves. The were an older man and woman, outdoorsy, and the man sported the most impressive graying ponytail I’ve seen outside of Ithaca, NY. Once we’d mutually ascertained that none of us had seen the heron, we exchanged introductions and our new acquaintances shared the sad story of their three fruitless drives. Todd, as I said, looked dubious, but gave them a pizza-place recommendation in the spirit of camaraderie nevertheless.

I mentioned the community garden above, and that’s when I learned that it was actually nothing of the sort; rather, we had come near to trespassing on the homestead of a woman who lived a bit further up among the trees, who had taken to growing her own food in the park. She had a tame pigeon, too. I had overlooked it before, as one does with pigeons, but it was there and it was giving us the stink-eye. When we stepped toward it, it scuttled away but didn’t even raise its wings.

We looked out over the water. Plenty of egrets. No Western Reef-Heron. There wasn’t much to say.

A flock of small waders flew by our spit. I pulled them up in binoculars. They were dark chestnut above, white below, with black rings on their chests – Semipalmated Plovers, not a terribly uncommon species, but a life bird for me. I resolved to appreciate what was there.

I could have stayed for hours, but we had responsibilities to attend to, what with work and all. But the saga was just beginning.

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So, hearing that the Reef-heron was back, I tried again. Still no luck, but I did spot my long-time nemesis the Yellow-crowned Night Heron, so I can’t say I’m mad.

By the way, Coney Island Creek is an incredibly picturesque and apparently under-birded place. The burnt-out, semisunken barges lend a certain ghostly atmosphere, and the egrets really seem to dig them.

Spotted this evening between 5:45 and roughly 7 pm:

Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Great Egret Egretta eulophotes
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus
Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax violacea *LL
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

More on how I found the Curlew Sandpiper.

I took the train to Jamaica Bay – one of the coolest things about living in NYC is the number of birding sites accessible by subway – and then walked about 3/4 mile to the refuge. First I did the West Pond loop, though I knew that the bird was unlikely to be there, because I figured I needed a warm-up before tackling the East Pond. And boy, did I ever.

I’d never actually birded the East Pond before, because I’d previously always traveled to JBWR by bicycle, and that meant that I didn’t have all day to wander around if I wanted to get home before dark, since it’s almost twenty miles each way. Given my total lack of experience, it is perhaps not surprising that I was, shall we say, a trifle ill-equipped. Also, the visitor center map does not include the East Pond area at all, perhaps to prevent ill-equipped, inexperienced dorks like yours truly from going over there and getting sucked into the quicksand and perishing.

Oh yeah, by the way, they have quicksand.

I didn’t encounter the quicksand right away. First I had to navigate quite a distance of rough and mostly-unmarked trails. It was fortunate, I was saying to myself, that I’m much better at navigating in the woods than in the city… just as I stepped into a clearing I recognized and realized that I’d circled back on myself.

After I sorted that out, it was mostly tedious (though with the pleasant interruptions of a great many Yellow Warblers and a lovely male Towhee) until I made it to the point, nearly two miles further along, that I would have come in if I actually had a car. There I ran into two members of the Queens County Bird Club, whose names I unfortunately did not catch. I did, however, catch that they were both wearing knee-high boots and long pants…

Now, I am an extremely fortunate person inasmuch as I am not allergic to poison ivy, which apparently grows around East Pond in abundance. I am, however, allergic to tiny biting blood-sucking insects, which also grow around East Pond in abundance.

Another thing around East Pond in abundance (although not growing, hopefully, unless we’re in a Lovecraft story, which I am not ruling out) is stinky mud composed of five parts damp earth to four parts rotting plant material to one part goose shit (which is a highly advanced form of rotting plant material) (approximate formula) that is kept moist by the fluctuation of water levels in the pond. This mud is apparently great for the ecosystem of the pond; it was terrible for the ecosystem of my shoes. And, as I mentioned, in some places it composes itself into great sucking pits from which grown adults, if they once stumble in, cannot extricate themselves without help. All this the Queens birders explained to me as I trailed along carefully setting my feet in their exact bootprints.

It was here that the Curlew Sandpiper had chosen to hang out.

Alas for the sandpiper’s privacy, birders have more moxie than sense, and that includes yours truly. I navigated the mud flats without losing my shoes (though they were copiously befouled) and we finally spotted the bird on the other side of the pond. It was keeping company with some Stilt Sandpipers, and it was still in bright summer plumage, so it was fairly easy to spot. It was then that my second motive for tagging along with better-equipped birders came into play, since they were kind enough to let me look through their scopes when my binoculars provided an id-able but unsatisfying image.

The Curlew Sandpiper was apparently handling the pressures of celebrity well; it fed on, unconcerned, as a man on the opposite shore got within a few feet of it and photographed it. I, alas, got no such permanent mementos, only long looks; but on the other hand, we also spotted a Gull-billed Tern hanging out on the small island in the center of the pond, so it’s not like I have anything to complain about really.

Except the second-degree sunburn, and the insect bites, and my shoes. And the two mile walk back to the visitor center for water. But that just proves that I’m hardcore, yo.