November 2008

Just a quick note from Florida – compared to last March, there’s a remarkable number of White Ibis in Tarpon Springs right now, but slightly fewer Egrets of all kinds. Still plenty of Ospreys; Good numbers of Wood Storks, Brown Pelicans, and Anhingas, and to my surprise, a male Wood Duck still in breeding plumage at the park today!

I’m thankful that even in this repulsive suburbanized landscape, so many beautiful birds find a way to hang on.

Let’s be fair; this book is not a field guide in the standard parlance. It’s a bit too big to carry conveniently in the field, and it is not going to be much use as an identification tool for anyone but beginners – it goes for breadth rather than depth, covering wildflowers AND trees AND insects AND birds AND mammals AND herps, all very basically, and doesn’t even illustrate both plumages of the sexually dimorphic birds that it covers.

What Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City actually is is an excellent browsing book. It has beautiful watercolor illustrations and a wealth of interesting tidbits about the species it covers; I particularly appreciated that each entry includes an etymology of the species’ Latin name and, where it’s not obvious, the common name as well. It also includes detailed instructions for getting to various key nature-watching sites around the city by car and public transit.

This probably doesn’t need to be on the shelf of every hard-core birdwatcher, but it would make a nice gift for a friend who is interested in nature in a general sort of way, the one who is always vaguely describing something they saw and then asking you what it was.

David Sibley has recently done an interesting series of posts…. No, look away from the Sungrebe. I know, I know. I drooled too, but I’m trying to make a point… anyway, an interesting series of posts on rarities; not the ones we see, but the ones we miss. As I mentioned in my musings on the Western m)(@*&@$*^$&*#ng Reef-Heron, birds do not teleport that we know of. A bird that goes from Point A in its normal, expected territory to Point Z on some whole other coast, let alone a different freaking continent, passes through Points B through Y on the way, in accordance with the known laws of physics for things that are not quarks. It may, literally, be fly by night. It may be too high to see sometimes, or out of sight of land. Still, it is somewhere at all times.

But. For purposes of the binocular-wearing nerds of the world, a rare bird can’t exist until someone has looked at it, ID’d it, and communicated that ID* to others.

This means that every park, field, forest, pond, and other patch of habitat is a Schrodinger’s box. Anything could be anywhere, until you go look for it. And some of these boxes get opened a lot less often than others, what with the frequently birded spots building reputations and creating a positive feedback loop where more eyes means more good birds spotted means more eyes.

In the interests of opening such a box, the Inimitable Todd and I spent a blustery Sunday biking up to Wave Hill in the Bronx. Not quite a public park, not quite a botanical garden, this “public garden and cultural center” nestled on a hill overlooking the Hudson is relatively small but richly provided with assorted pines, London plane trees, and other promising seed-bearing horticulture, along with a panoramic view down into the tops of trees and out across the river where the Hawks pass by. Despite these advantages, I rarely hear bird reports from Wave Hill; no doubt the admission fee and the fact that it is not terribly accessible by public transit don’t help.

My aim on this day was to lay eyes on one of the veritable deluge of Pine Siskins that have been coursing down from Canada and dancing over the heads of apparently every single birder in the Eastern U.S. other than me. To this end, we first swung by Central Park, where Inimitable Todd was far too fast in his 4-mile race, leaving me only enough time to pick up a gaudy bouquet of winter regulars like Blue Jay, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Tufted Titmouse. Then we biked up the Riverside Park Greenway, where Canada Geese abounded and we spotted a migrant Red-tail soaring high in the wind-wracked sky.

Wave Hill itself is very beautiful, and equipped with warm greenhouses, a charming gift shop, and most importantly, well-appointed, clean and fully-functional bathrooms. To say thanks for the latter, I bought a copy of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, of which more in due time.

Wave Hill

Wave Hill

After wandering the trails for a bit and spotting what struck me as a rather late Broad-winged Hawk over the river, we stumbled across exactly what I’d hoped to find; a large flock of American Goldfinches making their way from seed-bearing tree to seed-bearing tree.

Surely now, I thought as I walked backwards up a muddy slope, trying to find a view of the birds that wasn’t silhouetted against the cloud-diffused November sun, surely now I would get my Siskin.

Maybe now?

Maybe now?

Well, maybe now.

Maybe now?

Maybe now…..

Sadly, all the Goldfinches insisted on being Goldfinches; the only uncertainty was of the Heisenberg kind, generated each time I focused on observing one bird and all the others scrambled themselves around just outside the perimeter of my view.

Finally, though, I satisfied myself that the Goldfinches were, alas, really and truly all Goldfinches, and as the rain was threatening to not remain in the sky and we still had over twenty miles to bike home, we were forced to retreat. A couple of Mockingbirds taunted us on the way out.

So, no rarities in this box, this time. But now that we’ve shut it again, who knows?

My trip on Birdstack

*In theory, a birder could communicate in notes not released until after her death, which brings in the whole matter of time travel, but since I have no reason to believe that this will allow us to prevent the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and/or Guy Bradley, I’ll leave it be for now.
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The vicissitudes of family life are such that I am once again heading to Florida. This time, besides a hearty turkey dinner, I’m getting a trip (albeit brief) to the Everglades out of it. This, of course, fills me with glee.

However, my mad internets research skills have failed me when it comes to getting a bead on Florida scrubland specialties, such as Scrub Jay, obviously, and Burrowing Owl. I’m going to be as far south as Fort Myers and as far north as Lake Tarpon, on the western coast and with a limited mileage latitude. Anyone got any suggestions?

I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Plum Beach lately. Once upon a time, it was apparently a noted cruising spot*; it is now generating a lot of buzz as a place for saltmarsh birds.

I didn’t quite get it. I’d biked by Plum Beach many times – it’s located right off the greenway to Floyd Bennet Field and thus to Jamaica Bay – and I’d seen a lot of people fishing, letting their dogs runs around, and generally making nuisances of themselves in the sand, but little that looked promising as far as birds went. But then again, I’d never actually stopped there.

So on Sunday I stopped.

Initially, my first impression seemed accurate. I walked up and down the seashore, seeing Gulls, and more Gulls, and yet more Gulls, scads of Brant, and a couple of Sanderlings. Lots of very interesting shells and washed-up things, including a dead Herring Gull (first year, I think) and one wing from a Yellow-shafted Flicker (conveniently, one of the easiest birds to identify if all you’ve got is a wing), but not much to put on the ol’ day list. Still, I doubted very much that there was a conspiracy to trick me into thinking that the birding was good here, so I kept on, a little farther and a little farther.

When we came into sight of the Gil Hodges bridge, I reluctantly decided it was time to turn around. The Inimitable Todd, whether out of sheer inimitability or because he’d earlier spotted a gentleman with a scope up on the dunes or because he was sick of the sand in his shoes, suggested that we cut through the scrub instead of retracing our steps, so we did.

Almost immediately, we found a clutch of birders staring intently into a stand of grass. A Clapper Rail called from within, but alas, the grass was far too high to allow me to add another Rail to my life list that day; no, the quarry was Sparrows.

Of course, the Sparrows that make saltmarshes their home are unobliging, secretive creatures who practically have to be knocked over the head before they’ll let you get a good look. Ergo, clearly the Nelson’s Sharptailed Sparrows who sat obligingly in the grass allowing beautiful looks were from Bizzaro World, or perhaps the Island of Misfit Ammodramus. Still, there they were.

We lingered a bit, hoping against hope that the Clapper Rail might see fit to pop up out of the vegetation, but it was not to be. Large flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds flew over and a single Northern Flicker (with both its wings) put in an appearance; a single Yellow-rumped Warbler picked among the berries near the road. It was a beautiful place, and I only wish I’d discovered it sooner.

Plum Beach marshes

Then it was back on the road, or rather the bike path; I hoped to hit Jamaica Bay while it was still early, maybe pick up some of those Pine Siskins that everyone and her brother have been spotting lately, maybe have the IT get some good pictures of Snow Geese. Yes, much joy was in store, I was sure, once I hit Jamaica Bay.

Instead, I hit a post.

For one short but very unpleasant moment, I felt myself falling. Then I skidded along the ground a little. Then I tried to get up, but my leg wouldn’t cooperate; I quickly ascertained that that was because it was tangled up with the frame of the bike, and a few deep breaths later I was able to extricate myself.

Fortunately, my leg was scraped and bruised, not broken or wrenched; equally fortunately, I was wearing my helmet (I always do.) Fortunately as well, my binoculars were undamaged. Go Minox!

My bike, not so much. The front wheel was badly bent, so it was back to Williamsburg to get the wheel put into the straightening machine for me and the IT. No Snow Geese; no Pine Siskins.

Still, it could have been much worse, and a day that produced a life Sparrow can’t be written off as a total loss.

My Birdstack list

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*It occurs to me that an interesting post could be born of a careful examination of the convergent ecological needs of birdwatchers and guys looking for anonymous gay sex. But perhaps another time.

Those of you from the Big Apple, and hardcore twitchers up and down the east coast, will probably feel a vague stirring of recollection when I mention the name Dreier-Offerman Park. Or Calvert Vaux Park, as it’s now formally known. Ring any bells?

Of course it does. Dreier Offerman/Calvert Vaux is where the Western $%%#$^%&^%^ Reef Heron made its celebrated appearance in the summer of 2007.

Though the area is a former landfill site and sometimes not the most prepossessing place in the borough, it’s a significant place for birds – I got two life-list species in two trips there last year. Obviously, water-bound birds are significant – both Night-Herons, Snowy and Great Egrets, Kingfishers, a range of Terns and Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants and assorted shorebirds and Ducks.

But the park is also kind of a big deal for grassland birds. Killdeer breed there, Kestrels hunt, and in migration your trip list might also include Eastern Meadowlark, American Pipit, Horned Lark, and various Sparrows.

Via Rob Jett, I learn that the Parks Department has recently taken notice of Calvert Vaux, and plans to make a number of improvements. Some of these are most welcome, including proposed habitat creation on part of the 70-acre site. Unfortunately, the very first step, planned to start by the end of the month, is tearing up six of the soccer fields and replacing them with artificial turf.

Not only will this move be bad for birds (and the plants and invertebrates they feed on), it’s also likely to be bad for the park’s other bipedal users. Artificial turf has been implicated in many injuries, both because it gives less than natural turf and because it absorbs more heat from the sun. On top of this, it increases storm-water runoff.

Despite all this, the Parks department is quite enamored of artificial turf; it requires less maintenance and satisfies the demands of soccer players who want an ever-green playing surface that can be used without being allowed to rest. Naturally, soccer players are stakeholders too; but their needs could be met by doing more and better maintenance (which would also create jobs) or by creating a few additional fields so the burden was shared out more.

If you have something to say about this, say it to:

Bill Tai, Director, Natural Resources Group,
City of New York Parks & Recreation
Arsenal North
1234 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
bill.tai AT

And copy:

Adrian Benepe, Commissioner
City of New York, Dept of Parks & Recreation
The Arsenal at Central Park
830 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10021
adrian.benepe AT

Suzanne Mattei, Regional Director
NYSDEC Region 2
1 Hunters Point Plaza
47-40 21st St.
Long Island City, NY 11101-5407
smmattei AT

Thanks to Ida Sanoff of the Natural Resources Protective Association for the contact information.

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“The piping plover is a pit bull of a bird…”

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either!

I wasn’t sure WHAT to expect when I picked up a copy of Curtis J. Badger’s Salt Tide: Currents of Nature and Life on the Virginia Coast; I knew it was about the coastal marshes of Virginia, and I knew that those were interesting, so I gave it a shot. I didn’t know that I was picking up a book of essays that in my opinion deserve to be ranked but slightly lower than those of Aldo Leopold in terms of perfectly balancing the specific and the sublime. Like Leopold, Badger is gifted at capturing the majesty of nature and the beauty of the human life connected to the land by dwelling on the individual. The essay “Plover Watch”, for instance, spirals out from its peculiar opening metaphor and the sandpiper-chasing critter that inspired it to embrace not only the whole of the endangered bird’s life cycle and the efforts of humans to protect it, but the relations of all sorts of native birds to the delicate seaside territory that humans covet so destructively. The biology of Spartina, the art of digging for clams, the peaceful joy of the small boat and the grand scope of history and the ultimate impermanence of all beaches and barrier islands in the face of the relentless sea, are all tiles in a mosaic of love for a place that is a home. It’s a mystery to me why this book isn’t considered a classic in nature writing.

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

In that breath, the Kinglets come.

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

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

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

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

My November 01 bird list

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