May 2008

I was reading about Passenger Pigeons today, as I am wont to do. (Cheerful, I know.) Actually, it was serendipitous; recently, while looking up information on the Labrador Duck (see, Jochen, your cunning psychological pressure is working!) I came across Edward Howe Forebrush’s A History of the Game Birds, Water-Fowl, and Shore Birds of Massachusetts and Adjacent States, conveniently archived as a full text on Google. A few days later, I was reading Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America by Jennifer Price, which includes some of the best writing I’ve yet read on the subject of plastic lawn flamingos*, but also… lo and behold… another long description of the Passenger Pigeon!

Like some other birds, Passenger Pigeons tend to be treated more as symbols than as biological beings in the popular culture. We hear a lot about how there were billions of them, because knowing that a bird went from billions to zero tells us something about the natural abundance that this continent possessed and what colonialism did to it. And I agree that that’s an important subject to think about.

But think again about those descriptions. Birds so numerous that they cracked the trees, their young fattened until they were near bursting (to the joy of squab-fanciers,) moving in vagrant flocks that relied on multi-year cycles in the abundance of acorns and beechnuts, creating windstorms as they went. Hugely powerful symbols, living and dead. But also a hugely powerful force in the ecosystem while they lived. I mean, billions is a lot. I can’t really grasp billions, not even with Carl Sagan and a flashlight. But I know one thing. Billions of Pigeons would eat a lot… and excrete a lot.

What did the forests lose, when those billion birds stopped eating and shitting and living and dying? A quick google search didn’t turn up much, but it seems inconceivable that sudden, semi-regular influxes of Passenger Pigeons wouldn’t have had a major impact on the soil chemistry and flora of their favored nesting sites. We’ve only recently gotten a handle on the role that another, perhaps similar, seemingly-destructive force plays in North America – and like wildfires, I imagine that Passenger Pigeons would have knocked down underbrush and smaller trees, leaving the sturdiest and a crop of opportunistic new growth (although they probably would have been easier on the small animals.) To say nothing of the predator and scavenger populations nearby. I can’t think of anything that would be nicer for, say, a Cooper’s Hawk trying to raise a brood than the presence of a few million clumsy young squabs trying to learn to fly in the neighborhood; one wonders, then, if the recent incursions of Cooper’s into urban areas, with their own large (and more dependable) Pigeon populations, aren’t in a sense a return to the good old days for the accipiters.

In short, just like the bison that we almost lost forever imply prairies, and prairies imply bison, it seems to me that the Pigeons must have implied pigeon woods, and where are the pigeon woods now? What became of them?

I can’t imagine that no one else has looked into this, so I’d be very interested to be pointed in the direction of any literature on the subject.

*my true lawn flamingo story – in high school, I painted our family’s flamingos (they were a gag gift! Really!) blue and dubbed them lawn herons. The paint flaked off in fairly short order though. Friggin’ plastics.

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My office closed at two on Friday to give us a jump-start on the holiday. Clearly, the only thing to do with this windfall of daylight hours was get some birding done, so I made plans to head to Central Park.

“What will you be looking for?” the Inimitable Todd asked as we stood on the train platform that morning.

“A Wilson’s Warbler,” quoth I. Wilson’s Warbler is still yet another of my very favorite species of warbler; the males are distinctive and to my eye, very earnest-looking in their natty little caps. And this is the time of year for them.

One of the things that I’ve really started learning in depth since I moved to New York is the rhythm of migration here. Migration is a spectral phenomenon, a continuum where no fine bright lines can be drawn, but the changes of shading are easy to see. Magnolia Warblers, for instance, are the new Yellow-rumps of mid to late May; the quantity and selection of Flycatchers is expanding almost as fast as that of the spring greens at the farmer’s market; species like American Redstart and Black-throated Blue Warblers are increasingly being represented by the ladies, but there’s still a good chance of seeing a gorgeous male Canada Warbler – or a Wilson’s.

Meanwhile, many of our breeding birds have already experienced blessed events; I saw three separate Robins’ nests with young in the Ramble, and a House Sparrow being followed by a fledgling with a yellow gape in the Shakespeare Garden. The hawk-followers in the audience have probably already heard that Pale Male and Lola’s eggs failed to hatch, and that the Riverside Red-tail nest suffered disaster (though they’re attempting to regroup,) but the Prospect Park Red-tails, several other Manhattan Red-tails, and the oft-beleaguered Jersey City Peregrines are still making a go of their 2008 breeding attempts.

Others are ramping up – in particular the Baltimore Orioles, who are singing with gusto. I was filled with gusto, too, as I realized that here was yet another bird that I’d learned to identify by ear. I never really set out to learn to ear bird with the concrete game plan that I, say, came up with for learning Latin names, but I know it’s an invaluable skill and I’m glad that my “immerse myself and see what happens” technique is starting to work.

The Wilson’s Warbler – of course I got a Wilson’s Warbler, I asked for one – came down the stretch with an Eastern Wood-pewee, my year Red-eyed Vireo, and the day’s first Canada Warbler.

In the Ramble, I got the day’s first Magnolia Warbler – which might also have been the day’s last Magnolia Warbler, for all I know, since they can apparently be in twelve or more places at once – and my life Lincoln’s Sparrow. It was one of those interesting moments where a bird that I was not at all confident about identifying when I read the description was, in real life, utterly obvious. Yes, there was the buff. It was buff-er across the face and chest than a Swamp Sparrow, just the way that a Swainson’s Thrush is buff-er than a Gray-cheeked Thrush, which is in turn more gray-cheeked than the other thrushes; when you see it, in spite of everything that birds have ever done to confuse you, you know.

Also in the Ramble, I discovered a raccoon asleep in a tree. A bunch of civilians were staring at it, which made me think it might be a hawk, but it wasn’t. Apparently civilians stare at raccoons. (Apparently birders do sometime too, but with more justification.) I saw a raccoon asleep in a highly-visible Central Park location last week too, but didn’t make the connection to young and inexperienced raccoonlets being out and about until now.

The last highlight of the day was up in Strawberry Fields, across the lawn at a little distance from the hippies and canoodling couples. A single male Canadian Warbler sat on the lawn, and looked at me while I looked at him. A shaft of afternoon sun illuminated his slate back, yellow breast and onyx necklace. Only when I got out my cell phone to try to get a picture did he pick up and leave.

Happy long weekend!

Rock Pigeon Columba livia
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
American Redstart Setophaga reticilla
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus
Eastern Wood-pewee Contopus virens
Gadwall Anas strepera
Veery Catharus fuscescens
Wilson’s Warbler Wilsonia pusilla
Canada Warbler Wilsonia canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Black-throated Blue Warbler Dendroica caerulescens
Gray-cheked Thrush Catharus minimus
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Magnolia Warbler Dendroica magnolia
Northern Parula Parula americana
Lincoln’s Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii *LL
Swainson’s Thrush Catharus ustulatus
Barn Swallow Hirunda rustica
Ruby-throated Hummingbird Archilochus colubrus

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A fine example of the proper reaction to seeing an auk; unfortunately, you can’t actually see the auk.

Some auks you can see. Feel free to fill in your own “good golly!”s.

This is just cool.

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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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Last weekend I went birding with Mike and Corey of 10,000 Birds fame. Since nothing I’m going to write will surpass the excellent accounts they’ve given of the day, I invite you to peruse those here. In this space, I’m going to meditate on looks, good and bad.

Not mine. The looks we get of birds. I could have titled this “A Tale of Two Birds” if I wanted to be cliche like that. But fortunately for you, I’m above such things.

The first life bird I got on the trip was a Red-necked Phalarope. These are birds that are notorious for hanging out in the remoter bits of the ocean and tundra, and when they do turn up inland they’re quite often in their non-breeding plumage – a study in gray that is lovely, but awfully subtle if you’re trying to make out field marks from the edge of a large body of water. Among phalaropes, it is the females who get the sexy summer threads, while the males stay relatively drab. So we were unusually fortunate in what we found at the end of a bunch of scopes at Jamaica Bay: a female Red-necked Phalarope in breeding plumage, close enough to be seen well through binoculars.

Later in the day, after we’d detoured to Forest Park for a highly-coveted Kentucky Warbler (a life bird for all three of us!) we found a tree that was celebrating spring in the liveliest way – its distant, leafy crown boasted male and female Scarlet Tanagers, male and female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a Nashville Warbler – a bird that I desperately tried to see and Mike and Corey went to great lengths to put me on, but I caught only a shadowed glimpse. Then it flew away. Torn, I wondered whether to count it for my life list. So it was with great delight that I saw another one hop out of some bushes at Forest Park’s lovely (if crowded) water hole and into a shaft of sunlight, undoubtedly itself.

It was with less than great delight that I realized, when I got home, that I already had Nashville Warbler on my list. Apparently my first look wasn’t that great either.

There are some birds that I can still visualize easily – my life Black-and-white Warbler, my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak (actually a female, oddly enough, but I can still see her,) the Wood Stork that flew over the IT’s brother’s back yard while we were visiting. And there are other birds that… well, they’re on my list, so I must have seen them, right? I just hope that the former keep outnumbering the latter.

But sometimes you just get bad looks. And the universe is not always nice enough to hand out ways to avoid having to decide whether or not to list them.

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Back in February, I made a short post in my other blog about one Dr. John Francis, who abstained for roughly two decades from speaking or riding in cars, initially as a reaction to an oil spill in San Francisco Bay, later as a way of developing, and I use this word knowing that it will make some people itch but it’s really the best way of describing what actually happened here, mindfulness. It was serendipitous, then, that <A HREF=””>LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program wound up giving away copies of his newly revised autobiography: Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence..

I had extremely high expectations, and I have to say that this book lived up to them. I’m not, as a rule, someone who is easily swept away by the inspirational, and I like to think that living in Ithaca as long as I did gave me a nose for self-serving liberal do-gooder rhetoric. But I was inspired by this book, and moved. You can’t accuse Francis of being a trust-fund hippie. He continually acknowledges and reevaluates his own motives and the difficulties that his choices cause for others, avoiding self-righteousness. He describes natural beauty and human goodness without being precious.

The nitty-gritty: the story opens in 1971, a few months before Francis’s decision to abandon the automobile, and ends in 1994 when he comes to the conclusion that he can best help the people he’s met on his journey if he leaves open the possibility of using motorized vehicles on a case-by-case basis. In between, he acquires two degrees and a plethora of surprising jobs, crosses the country, is frozen, dehydrated, and threatened by violent racists, almost buys a mining claim, is eventually tapped to work for the U.S. government and ultimately dedicates his life to helping people save the environment by saving themselves. Much of this happens while he’s using pantomime and occasional note-writing for all his communication needs, and carrying a banjo. Many of the descriptions – of the community’s noble yet often futile response to the oil spill that drove the author’s big change, of walking through the nukeiferous wastelands of the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, of meeting with monks who are repairing a roof and listening to the Rolling Stones – stick in the mind; the descriptions of the oil-slicked birds made me cry a little, but I’m like that.

The pacing of the book is very interesting. The portions drawn directly from his journals are dated, and you soon realize that time is flowing in that uneven fashion characteristic of summer vacations, years off from college, and the other periods – all-to-fleeting in most people’s lives – when we’re not chasing anything. This despite the fact that Francis does have a goal in mind on each of his expeditions; that goal is just not as important, narratively speaking, as the getting there. At first disconcerting, this quirk quickly becomes enjoyable. There’s also very little follow-up from episode to episode – the feel is almost picaresque, although without the satirical edge that the word connotes. Ultimately, I found that this made for a very relaxing read, the textual equivalent, more or less, of the mood I was in when this picture was taken:

This is a good feeling, which I recommend

So, to sum up: recommended book, thoroughly enjoyable without being nice, and I would hope that, given the tenor of the times, it will be wildly successful.

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I gotta tell you, getting sick with the stomach flu during the first weekend in May is a bad plan for a birder, and especially a bad plan for a birder that has one of those irritating jobs where you have to show up, day after day, and waste valuable daylight hours inside. (My brother, with whom I debated the merits of indoor vs. outdoor jobs at Christmas, is no doubt laughing at me. But hey, at Christmas it was cold.) Net result is that this week I’ve been in Prospect Park maybe four hours all told, and while I’ve rounded up a few more species for my year list – notably Ovenbirds (my favorite wood warbler!), Black-throated Blues (also my favorite wood warbler!), Chestnut-sided Warbler (another warbler of which I am notably fond!) and American Redstart (a fine, upstanding warbler that I can’t possibly say enough good things about!) I’ve now dipped twice on Prothonotary Warbler (three times if you count the fact that there were apparently two of them in the park simultaneously today,) dipped on Kentucky Warbler, dipped on Summer Tanager, couldn’t get to the Blue Grosbeak, and missed such basic birds as Black-throated Green, Blue-winged Warbler, and everything on the page of Peterson’s entitled Warblers:Strong Yellow and Black Head Patterns (to be fair, I wasn’t really expecting a Bachman’s.) I still have no orioles for the year except good old Scotty. I apparently missed both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It’s enough to make a girl want to go freelance.

Still, as bad as things are, they could be worse. I did get the Yellow-breasted Chat – sure, I already had one for the year, but beggars can’t be choosers.

At least I’m not alone in my misery.

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