January 2009

While all the cool bird bloggers were off participating in the Superbowl of Birding, I got up way too early with the intention of seeing the Inimitable Todd off on his trip to North Carolina and subsequently going to Jamaica Bay so I could get my birding in before the TSA discovers that there are geese there and thus determines that the park is a threat to airline security.

A touch of lateness meant that I fulfilled my first mission very incompletely (although the IT did make his flight, barely), and the second met with attempted thwartation when I went to get off the train. Apparently Broad Channel needs to work on its PR, because three different people, including a conductor, attempted to convince me that I didn’t want to get off because Broad Channel is not, in fact, Far Rockaway. I explained to them that I was aware, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that I’d been mentally prepared to deal with so early, and it left a bad taste in my forehead.

As I walked down Cross Bay Boulevard towards the park, I noticed that it was, as usual, colder near the water and a stiff breeze was blowing. These would later prove to be very salient facts.

At Jamaica Bay proper, I soon found myself creeping along an ice-covered path without another human being in sight. That part was rather romantic, in a Jack London sort of way, but more annoyingly, there were also very few birds in sight. The West Pond was nearly devoid of open water, and even the bay was sporting quite a bit of icy cover. The enormous flocks of Snow Geese I’d been hoping for, perhaps flecked with a few cooperative Ross’s Geese and a Barnacle Goose or two, were nowhere to be found. The little liquid available was dominated by Canada Geese and Mallards, although Brant and Black Ducks put in a good showing, and of course a small raft of Bufflehead put in an appearance, as they are apparently legally obligated to do at every body of water in New York from December through March. Honestly, I’m surprised that I don’t find Bufflehead in my sink when I go to brush my teeth in the morning. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great birds. They have moxie. They’re spiffy. I’m just saying, they’re ubiquitous.

Of course, Jamaica Bay is not just for waterfowl. There were gulls, just the usual suspects, taking advantage of the thick ice by using it to drop shellfish on. There were a number (5) of American Tree Sparrows and quite a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, highly welcome little critters that didn’t seem slowed down by the cold at all. And as I came around a corner, I put up a lovely Northern Harrier, which means that I have seen as many Northern Harriers in January of 2009 as I saw in all of 2008, and that’s something.

Both of my 2009 Harriers have been immatures. A lot of people talk up the mature male “gray ghosts”, and those are gorgeous birds, but the warm red-brown of the young birds is something special too, especially on a day when Mother Nature has redecorated in ice, dead grass, and leaden water. So the Harrier warmed my heart, but it didn’t warm my toes, inappropriately shod in Vans. I looped around into the gardens, hoping vaguely for an Orange-crowned Warbler or perhaps one of the wandering Cross-bills that have been popping up around town, but got only a stubborn more-than-half-hardy pair of Brown Thrashers and a trio of imperious American Crows. I decided that skipping the East Pond was the better part of valor and headed home.

The trip on Birdstack

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Real post later, but according to a post to the NY Bird list, the Thick-billed Murre was indeed recovered and will spend the afterlife as a specimen at the American Museum of Natural History.

After the Murre non-starter, I sulked for a bit, then went to Central Park on my lunch break and picked up a Pine Siskin for my life list. It was one of those birds that you get through sheer persistence – you know that if you get out in the field often enough you’ll be in the right place at the right time someday, and it was my day. And, because it was my second trip to the field for the year I put a bunch of other species on my year list as well, including the always-fun Sharp-shinned Hawk and Ruddy Duck.

But I was hungry for a real trip. And always, always, the next lifer.

Snowy Owl seemed like a good bet – they’ve been reported from practically every patch of decent grassland between here and Cape May. But I didn’t just need a patch of decent grassland, I needed one I could get to without a car. And with paparazzi hassling the Snowy Owl at the Meadowlands, people had become reluctant to be specific in their posts about the Big Whites. So I went off an old tip and decided to play the odds on Liberty State Park, a bit of Superfund site tucked in industrial Jersey City and turned into some lovely trails and meadows. Supposedly there was a Snowy seen there “near the golf course”. So off we went.

My fellow east-coasters will be aware that this meant braving some considerable cold. Still, bundled up, we walked the paths and headed for the waterfront, because we did not know where the golf course was.

Nothing interesting happened until we got just across from the statue of liberty. There I first spotted a flock of Horned Larks – which were all by their lonesome, despite my earnest scanning for a Snow Bunting or, better yet, a Longspur of some sort – and then a Grebe, which again despite giving me some tight moments, resolved to be a Horned. I sound dismissive here, but Horned Lark and Horned Grebe are both species that I’ve seen on trips with others but never found for myself until now. So life was pretty good, even though we walked around in the wind until we nearly lost our fingers and never did find the Snowy Owl, or indeed the golf course, which upon careful retrospective googling, appears to not exist. And only saw ten species of birds overall. Because it was too damn cold out to be out, as sane species of birds had no doubt concluded.

And next weekend I can try again.

Unlike some football teams I could mention.

The Central Park trip

The Liberty State Park trip

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“Thick Billed Murre on Long Island”, the e-mail read, and my heart jumped. It was in Hempstead, yeah, but Hempstead has a train station!

The Inimitable Todd (who has what appears to be a congenital loathing for Long Island) was dubious at first, but I showed him a few pictures of Murres (and sound clips of them squawking) and he was sold. Alcids are, after all, clearly evolution’s most perfect triumph. And Murres are quintessential alcids, like an uncoiled ying-yang symbol, no frills or crests or fancy-pants puffin beaks, just a fish-catching, fish-eating machine of loving grace.

So a plan was planned. My natural assumption was that the bird would head back out to sea before Saturday, but I had hopes, especially when it stuck until Friday. I went to bed with a forward-looking heart.

But there were darker rumors too. “Has anyone called a rehabilitator?” asked a message that was replying to a message I couldn’t see. So when I stumbled out of bed in the dark hours and logged on for one last check, I was not completely surprised to see that it been transformed in the night into a sad bit of oily meat stranded somewhere on the ice.

“It died,” I said as I crawled back under the covers.

“?” The IT was still mostly asleep.

“We don’t have to go to Hempstead. The Murre died.”

He gave me a hug and we slept late.

These things do happen. This summer, my old stomping grounds in Ithaca were visited by a Magnificent Frigatebird that, when the sun came up, proved to be an ex-Magnificent Frigatebird; and a close examination of any state’s Records Committee will show that many surprising records, even in these post-collecting days, are supported by specimens. Specimens are corpses. Corpses are irrefutable. How many birders do you know who you would believe, if they were claiming to have seen a Grey Heron winging rapidly away where a Great Blue Heron ought to be? But with a (dead) bird in hand, the Grey Heron has joined the avifauna of the ABA. (Note in the same report the equally perished Intermediate Egret.) Likewise the Murre, if someone was able to get to it by kayak or cherry-picker, will reside in the American Museum of Natural History for all time; something that no doubt would not comfort the Murre at all, but somehow comforts me.

Yet it’s hard to avoid a sense of waste. The same day that we didn’t go look for the Murre, I learned that a Snowy Owl had died in Albany from a trichomoans parasite. The Owl, which had attracted the rapt attention of local office workers, contracted a parasite from eating infected city pigeons. That such a bird should come all the way from the tundra just to fall to such a disease feels wrong; but natural selection, of course, relies on waste. If there is one thing that evolution is all about, it’s throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

And if we feel desperate, well that’s our own fault; we’ve made the wall more slippery, we don’t allow the vast swaths of nature, the vast populations to exist, within which such deaths could simply be shrugged off as the working-out of the world.

But still. Human nature, and birder nature, is oriented to the individual, the singular narrative, the lone ranger on a little pond where no Murre has ever boldly gone before. And so it’s hard when these things happen, it reminds us that we, too, might be thrown at the wall by nothing more than time and chance and stick or slide off into catastrophe.

Sometimes even the most peaceable of hobbies can be a bit existential.

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Where I would go birding the first weekend in January was an easy decision. A Pink-footed Goose, late of Iceland or someplace similar, had been reported from Flushing Meadow Park. This wee goose, though of late near-annual in New York, is still kind of a big pink-footed deal. So the Inimitable Todd and I set off for Queens.

The Pink-footed Goose was no sooner looked for than seen; it was feeding in the little patch of lawn embraced by an off-ramp, with a large flock of Canada Geese, Brant, and a single weirdo domestic hybrid. I was surprised at how small and delicate it was for an intercontinental traveler, with a russet head and pink-and-black bill that were downright cute.

That experience stood me in good stead when I went looking for the other hot goose that had been reported at Flushing Meadows that day. The Cackling Goose was considered a subspecies of Canada Goose until very recently. Specifically, it was the titchy one. Although many Cackling Geese have a white ring where the neck joins the body and only a few Canada Geese do, the only surefire differentiator between the two species is that the Cackling Goose has proportions more like a Pink-footed Goose than a Canada Goose.

Needles in haystacks are easy; needles are a whole different color, and the hay doesn’t wander around anywhere near as much.

Nevertheless, I was able to get on this bird too, grazing with a big flock of Canadas in a field just over the road from the north end of the lake. It wasn’t as viscerally thrilling as the Pink-foot – it’s always nice when you’re experiencing the thrill of discovery rather than the drag of constantly darting your eyes around checking yourself and making sure that the bird isn’t just malformed and standing in a ditch or something. But still, it was a life bird, and it made me happy. I tried to get the Inimitable Todd on it, but just then a couple of dog-walkers with fluffy white puntables somehow managed to put the whole flock up and they went back over the road. Now, this made me wail and gnash my teeth, as I’m sure you can imagine, but in the dog-people’s defense, their critters were in fact on-leash (remarkable, I know), thus demonstrating vividly how wary migratory geese are. And, by contrast, how decadent our local layabout Branta have become. I believe firmly that the resident geese at Prospect Park would have mistaken the dogs for very large bits of Wonder Bread and eaten them.

Hey, nice segue.

I hadn’t birded Prospect Park in quite a long time; with the IT at Central Park nearly every weekend, tagging along for the birds there was just too convenient. A new year seemed like a good time to renew my acquaintance with the finest park in the finest borough, so the next day I went off down the G line to see what was up.

I was crossing the Long Meadow when I noticed a clump of squirrels. Five of the little rodent beasties were huddled together on a single exposed tree-root, and all of them lacked the typical squirrel joie de vivre; indeed, they were statue-still. Another squirrel nearby was also frozen. It didn’t take a Tom Brown to deduce that a raptor might well be nearby. I was scanning nearby branches for a local Red-tail when I saw the real culprit soar overhead – an immature Northern Harrier!

Now, Northern Harriers are grassland hawks, typically found coursing low over fields and marshes in places like Jamaica Bay, Floyd Bennet Field, or the pastures of the Olde Homestead. One had been reported from Prospect Park on New Year’s Day, but I’d assumed that it was a flyover and destined to be unrepeated. Instead, here was a bird – the same, or very similar – flying uncharacteristically high but still obviously close enough to throw the squirrels into mortal fear.

Northern Harriers have experienced a decline in the northeast U.S. as grasslands are taken over by second-growth forest or, less excusably, are gobbled up by development, although their overall U.S. population is believed to be roughly stable at the moment. Unlike most hawks, they nest on the ground, so the multifarious ledges and parks of the city offer them less by way of opportunity to adapt than cliff-nesters like the Peregrine or even tree-nesters like the Cooper’s Hawk. In fine, this was an exciting spot for me and, though hardly a lifer, it made the day a success before I’d even reached the Upper Pool.

The rest of the day produced good numbers of the typical winter birds I’d hoped for and expected – both Nuthatches, Junco, Fox and White-throated Sparrow, and the like, along with the heartier year-rounders like Red-bellied and Downy Woodpecker, Song and Swamp Sparrow, and Great Blue Heron. I missed a reported flock of Pine Siskins, but then, it seemed to me that hoping for three life birds in two days in my usual stomping grounds might just be a bit too greedy. My only other really notable miss was Ruddy Duck – the Lake was mostly iced over, with the only open water down at the end where the Mallards and Mute Swans congregate to take bread from the kiddies. The Shovelers and even five brave Pied-billed Grebes were willing to accept unwonted exposure to humanity and the rough company of the resident carb-gobblers (as well as a cacophony of gulls) but the Ruddys apparently possess a spirit too delicate to bear it, and they’d gone off somewhere.

So would my remarkable 2009 luck hold? Only time would tell…

Hey, nice cliffhanger.

My New Year Goose Chase on Birdstack
January Third in Prospect Park on Birdstack

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Unnatural Selection

Unnatural Selection

Columba livia, better known as the Common Pigeon (or back in my day, the Rock Dove), occupies an odd niche where the world of biology meets the world of human psychology. Sort of domesticated and now sort of feral, it’s sort of invasive, turning up virtually everywhere that humans have built a city or town but not moving much beyond a world defined by manmade structures. It’s sort of a pest, pooping on things and what not, but then again it lives off of human profligacy with food and thus disposes of a lot of material that would otherwise rot in the streets (or else be consumed by our other major urban symbiotes, rats and cockroaches.)

There was a time when our symbiosis was a more straightforward thing. Humans built dovecotes, which the pigeons found pleasant to nest in, and humans provided concentrations of food (grains in those days) that were convenient for the pigeons, and so the pigeons were left with plenty of leisure to make more pigeons. The humans would then eat some of the pigeons. It was a fairly simple exchange as these things go, and both pigeons and humans became major global species. As we urbanized, pigeons adapted brilliantly; today, arguably, cities and towns are their natural habitat, and they belong in cities as truly as trout belong in mountain streams and bison belong on sweeping prairies.

Nowadays, though, our relationship has become more fraught, more neurotic, burdened with a perverse hatred – pigeons are practically our collective Jungian anima, filthy because of their contact with our trash, lowly because of our own self-doubt about the rightfulness of our vast success, scorned because they’re not hiding in a mythic wilderness but right here dropping our own discarded French fries back on our shoulders. And that’s where Andrew D. Blechman’s slender but action-packed book Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird comes in.

Chronicling a year of investigation into the world of all things Columba livia, Blechman comes face to face with the myriad ways that humans play out their most human impulses, for good and bad, on the bodies of these birds. Racing aficionados cater to their pigeons’ every health need – or dose them with steroids in search of the big win. Fanciers breed pigeons unable to eat on their own or fly without suffering from seizures, and then complain that street birds give their hobby a bad name. Pigeon-shooting clubs in economically depressed rural Pennsylvania torment live targets to express their futile, misguided contempt for big-city values and big-city people (often using pigeons captured from the very streets of those hated cities in the shadowy gray-market economy of pigeon poaching – and Blechman’s account of these activities cast a less sanguine light on the possibility of humane pigeon harvest that I wishfully proposed.) Lonely eccentrics take up pigeon feeding in order to feel needed and are drawn half-unwitting into realms of activism and even civil disobedience.

And, of course, some people still eat them.

By the end of the book, unsurprisingly, Blechman has been captured as well, taking up the flag of humane pigeon control after recognizing the futility of trying to poison off our own shadow side. Where pigeons are too much, he argues, it is because we need to curb waste and practice self-restraint. It seems we can look from pigeon to man, and from man to pigeon… and it is impossible to say which is which.

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I always get my Snow Buntings between Buffalo and Rochester. Call it tradition, or just call it evidence that I don’t spend enough time in grassland habitat; either way, that Christmas trip to the Olde Homestead is where I get my last bird of the year. For some reason, the Snow Buntings do not favor the Olde Homestead itself; its cornfields and meadows are good enough for Harriers and Boblinks, but never for these denizens of winter. It’s on the margins of the road I must find them if I find them at all.

So when I reached the Olde Homestead without seeing so much as one brown and white blob flying rapidly away, I knew that my year list was in dire peril. Well, if by dire peril I meant I would miss one bird that I thought I’d get.

So yeah, DIRE PERIL.

Anyway, I was showing my mom the wonders of Birdingonthe.net‘s online mailing lists, and I noticed that someone had reported a flock of 150 snow buntings from an area that sounded vaguely familiar; a place just fifteen minutes up the road, in fact. Also in the flock were Horned Larks (another bird conspicuously absent from my year list) and Lapland Longspur (which I have never seen.)

So, the day after Christmas, my mom and the Inimitable Todd and I sallied forth to track this flock down.

We saw some crows.

A bit late, we saw some pigeons.

The cornfields stretched away on either side of us, looking for all the world like a perfect bunch of cornfields for a bunch of Snow Buntings. But aside from a single Red-tailed Hawk, only more Crows and Pigeons met my eye, Crows and Pigeons and a small flock of brown and yellow flying-away things that looked tantalizingly, but not countably, like Horned Larks. It was fun spending time with my mom and IT, commenting on the local horse farms and elk farms and wind farms and mud farms, but not a damned bit of good was it doing for my year list.

We cruised up and down the road where the birds were last reported twice; a large manure spreader gave me hope that some birds might be attracted to the recycled grain from the local herds, but the spreader was stuck in the mud and not doing much spreading at all. It was not a long road, and finally we were forced to concede defeat and drive home.

On the way back, we passed a single male Common Pheasant standing by the side of the road, watching us go by. He was my last bird species for 2008.

2008 year list total: 238
BGBY list: 128
New life birds: 80
First life bird of the year: Yellow-breasted Chat in Prospect Park on January 23rd.
Lst life bird of the year: Red-headed Woodpecker at Central Park on December 9.
Biggest Day: June 29, when Charlie showed me all the birds in England, resulting in 31 new life birds including number 300, the aptly-named Little Grebe.

Yeah, it was a good year. But time marches on, and already 2009 is shaping up to be a worthy replacement…

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So, what birds do I want to see more than any in the whole wide world? Tough call. Still, duty demanded that I make a list, if by “duty” you mean “the need for symmetry in my blog”. And thus, here they are:

1. Any Albatross. Strictly speaking, this is not “a bird”. It is many birds – between 13 and 24 species, depending on who you ask and how their shoes fit today. But all of these birds are elegant, amazing creatures. Oh, sure, they’re not much on the ground; but then, they’re not on the ground much. And in the air, they are masters of perfect efficiency.
Unfortunately, the slow pace of their lives leaves them very vulnerable to the casual depredations and careless litter of the human species, and more than three-quarters of all species are considered threatened by the IUCN. So If I’m going to see them, I’m going to need to see them posthaste.

2. Andean Condor. First of all it’s a condor. And second of all it’s the biggest bird in the Western Hemisphere. And thirdly, it lives in the Andes. And fourthly, despite having a bald lumpy head, it always looks faintly pleased with itself

3. Kakapo. The world’s only flightless parrot, this fuzzy green lumpkin vaguely resembles an owl (hence its genus name Strigops, roughly owlfaced) except of course for being green. And a parrot. And flightless. It is nocturnal, though, and wanders the mountains making booming calls. I’ve wanted to see one ever since I read Douglas Adam’s account of the species in the delightful yet melancholy Last Chance to See, but with only 90 individuals known to exist, perhaps it would be better to give them their privacy so they can get on with making more Kakapos.

4. Smew. Smew. Smew. Smew. Smew.

5. The Sapphire-spangled Emerald, doing duty as a representative of South and Central America’s vast and fascinating population of hummingbirds. At the Olde Homestead, hummingbird feeders provided us with an endless range of daring, dexterous Ruby-throats all summer long; my mother especially loves the tiny creatures and the vast pendulum swoops they sometimes execute and the heedless dogfights they perpetrate. I’ve since seen Anna’s and Allen’s Hummingbirds out west, as well, but the world is full of hummingbirds I haven’t seen.

And as a birdwatcher, I have to do something about that.

I’m not tagging anyone for this, because most of my blogroll has already done it! (Old meme is oooooooold.) But if you’re reading this, even in the year 2525, and feel like doing it, consider yourself tagged.

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