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.
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.
Well, 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?
*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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