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.