April 2009

Last weekend’s veritable fiesta of warbler goodness was not, of course, the first event of its kind. The September 2005 Kingbird has an interesting article about an even more intense (and earlier!) pulse of Prothonotarys, Yellow-throated Warblers, and similar goodies that took place in the spring of that year, and discusses some of the evidence that can be used to weigh different causes for notable southern incursions (generally favorable migration conditions vs. expanding populations vs. discrete, disruptive weather events). It’s an interesting read, if you’re into scientific papers, or if you need to induce sudden and vertiginous jealousy towards those who were birding in NYC in March 05 for some reason.

h/t Shaibal Mitra on the NYS Birds mailing list.

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Seeing new birds is always good. But sometimes, after a few go-round where you see new birds because someone points them out to you – or because a dozen someones point them out to you – you begin to feel like you need to go out and be the person getting other folks on the rarity for once, lest you become less of a bird watcher and more of a bird watcher watcher.

With this in mind I headed to Prospect Park on Saturday in high hopes that the new, unseasonably warm weather might have brought some new, unseasonable birds with it. My first hint that this was, indeed, the case came at the Upper Pool, where a drake Ring-necked Duck and two drake Wood Ducks were paddling about in the morning sun. Good times. Most of the regulars were there too – Red-winged Blackbirds singing lustily, Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, lingering White-throated Sparrows, Hermit Thrush….

Oh holy balls, what was THAT?

As I scanned the Lower Pool, spot of yellow that looked practically illuminated from within dropped out of a tree and landed on a twig jutting out of the water. It didn’t take me long to determine that I was not looking at a transcendental meyer lemon, but rather at a male Prothonotary Warbler, because A.) male Prothonotary Warblers look like basically nothing else in eastern North America and B.) I’d only been waiting to see one practically my whole life!

The bird, unaware that it was like the Holy Grail only shinier, drank some water and made some jabs at some bugs. Now I had a conundrum. Because I wanted to stand there and stare at it, but I also wanted to get other people on this bird. Thankfully, a quick glance up the trail revealed two innocent bystanders with binoculars, who I shanghaied into sharing my moment. They were extremely nice about being shanghaied, and extremely enthusiastic about the bird. And they called over a friend with a camera, while the warbler obligingly flew directly at us and posed. It was glorious.

So we all stood around and watched, and eventually the bird flew off in the direction of the Upper Pool and we dispersed. Filled with delight, I went on down the path into the Ravine, bursting to share the Good News of the Gospel According to Prothonotary Warbler with all the birders I met.

Of course, I didn’t want to brag. So when I did run into some more birders, I was careful to preface my exciting news with an inquiry into the state of the Yellow-throated Warbler that had spent the last two days on Lookout Hill. Perversely, Yellow-throated Warbler was not quite as exciting for me as Prothonotary, because I already had it on my life list courtesy of last fall’s trip to Florida. Still, it is not a bird to be sneezed at.

And yet, the birders I queried sneezed at it. “Oh yeah, it’s still around. And did you hear that there’s a Townsend’s Warbler up there too?”

Suddenly, my Prothonotary shrank. The more so with the news that it was one of two (or possibly three) of its kind present and the park that day. Still, it was a damn good bird and it was mine, and I passed along word of it to everyone I met (most of whom had tried and failed to find the Townsend’s).

I did meet two nice ladies who saw the Bittern last week after I told them about it, which was also rather heartening.

I climbed Lookout Hill with practically every other birder in Brooklyn, and heard but did not see (and thus sadly for my purposes cannot count) the Yellow-throated Warbler. The Townsend’s was being invisible, which throughout the course of the weekend would prove to be a technique it was extremely skilled at. Eventually, I walked down the hill again.

As I made my way up the other side of the Lullwater and into the Vale, the true extent of the weather’s unseemliness began to make itself felt, and the birds got less active and enthusiastic. Still, the Vale itself as always had a final surprise – a singing male Orchard Oriole who beautifully closed an embarrassing gap in my life list.

And I saw this guy.

Prothonotary Warbler courtesy of Debbie Esquinazi of Park Slope

Prothonotary Warbler courtesy of Debbie Esquinazi of Park Slope

So it’s not like I can be mad.

Other notable sightings: more definitive proof that I have broken my Gnatcatcher curse; FOS Black-and-White Warbler, Ovenbird, Blue-headed Vireo; nesting Robin and Canada Goose, nest-building Mourning Doves, and copulating Song Sparrow; and all the Yellow-rumped Warblers in the world.

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Most herons and related birds are quite popular even with non-birders. The stately, somber Great Blue and the flashy white egrets are, now that we’ve gotten past putting bits of them on hats, a decorative element on ponds, marshes, and muddy-edged rivers, companions to fishermen, photo opportunities for happy tourists.

They are also, according to a 2005 study, among the more intelligent birds. They use a wide and flexible array of techniques to acquire a wide and flexible array of foodstuffs. Some use their wings to create shade on the water and lure shy fish to what seems like shelter; others shuffle and dance to turn up interesting items from the muck; they are even known to use bait. And when mammals are on the menu, they are also known to subdue their struggling prey by holding it under water – a technique contraindicated with fish or amphibians.

I want to make it clear that I am not underselling herons, here.

But the American Bittern… something of a wallflower, compared to the rest of the family. In habits, more akin to the mysterious skulking rail that the forthright Great Blue. Still, the bittern too has some handy tricks. For instance, when an American Bittern would like very much not to be observed – and this is most of the time – it can freeze among the reeds that are its habitat and turn its beak to the sky. Marked with strong vertical lines, the sky-facing bittern becomes nearly invisible among the vertical stems.

Of course, if it’s not among vertical stems, the trick doesn’t work. If it’s sixty feet up in a tree just above the reedless Ravine in Prospect Park, for example, it’s quite likely I’ll see it. Especially once a clump of a dozen birders gather around to stare jubilantly at the unexpected early spring sighting, tipping me off that something big is going down (or staying up, as the case may be).

So yes, I had a good Saturday. The bittern sat quite still up there, beak to the sky, ignoring the rabble below. Maybe it should try working some more of that vaunted heron adaptability into its repertoire.

Other sightings included my first completely gold Goldfinch of the season, a Red-tailed Hawk plucking a dead branch, a pair of Downy Woodpeckers dancing with each other, and nesting behavior from American Robin, Canada Goose, and Mute Swan (no big surprises there); substantial movement of Palm Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Hermit Thrushes, with Northern Flickers also still numerous; single Louisiana Waterthrush, Pine Warbler, and Eastern Towhee; and an important non-sighting, a complete absence of Northern Shovelers on the lake (though there were still several Ruddy Ducks present).

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Just got a call from my mother. They’ve got nesting Turkey Vultures! Which means that if all goes well, eventually they will have adorable little vomiting baby Turkey Vultures! How cool is that?

I promise I’m going to stock up on birds for you this weekend (I’ve been busy writing about people who steal people’s kidneys for a living, and software), but until then, I wanted to point out that The Clade is now live and looking for contributors.

The brainchild of Chris Clarke, this seems to be sort of like Daily Kos for environmental bloggers, where information in the field can be aggregated and then dispersed, like finding a big dandelion head to blow. It’s set to fledge, if I may mix up my metaphor, in May, and I’m definitely eager to see how it shakes up.

There is a tide in the affairs of birds – and thus, in the affairs of birders. For many birds, and many birders, the major tide is migration. In particular, on the eastern coast of the U.S., the months of April and May are the time to see gorgeous breeding-plumaged passerines in large numbers. After a winter of freezing your buns off chasing gulls or irruptive finches or mad sea ducks, this is understandably a very popular time of year.

Migration is a bit like white-water rafting. Not in the sense that you might die or that it will make you cool, but in the sense that it builds up slowly – one day an Egret is back, and then maybe you put up a Woodcock or two, and you start to notice that the Ruddy Ducks are fewer but Ruddier – and then suddenly you tumble over an invisible precipice of sorts and things start coming at you fast.

For me, after not having a chance to get out all week, Easter was the day I tumbled.

I got out to do my usual round of Prospect Park, which sadly has become not-so-usual under the pressure of work. I was almost immediately given notice of what kind of day it would be, too, when I spotted a Northern Rough-winged Swallow skimming over the dog beach. There were no odd ducks there (perhaps because an aggressive pair of Canada Geese has once again taken up residence) but the day’s first warbler cache was hanging out in the wooded end. Predictably, these were mostly Pines and Palms, but since I was wishing with all my heart for a nice Palm Warbler just last week, I wasn’t complaining. A couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets were tagging along as well.

In the Ravine, a single Louisiana Waterthrush was picking its way along the rocks. It gave me some nice long looks, which were much appreciated – in particular I’d forgotten how bright their legs can be. A Great Blue Heron soared over – maybe not strictly speaking a migrant, since at least one overwintered in the park, but always a bird worth seeing, especially in flight.

Further up the trail, it became apparent that warblers weren’t the only birds on the move. Hermit Thrushes and Northern Flickers were around in abundance, and a pair of Eastern Phoebes popped up too. The Upper Pool produced a Great Egret, Golden-crowned Kinglet, and Yellow-rumped Warbler – and perhaps most exciting, my state first Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. (I’m good at finding them in Florida but for some reason not so much up here.) Good times, good times.

Proceeding down the Lullwater turned up a lot of more of the same, as well as Brown Creeper, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpecker, and a flock of Grackles (no Rusty Blackbird.) The lake itself was a bit disappointing, with very little by way of exciting duck action and only a single Pied-billed Grebe, but above and near the lake? A different story. A Belted Kingfisher swooped by in plain view, no less than 9 Black-crowned Night Herons came tumbling out of the trees squabbling loudly, and near the ice rink I found another flock of Grackles, this one with three Rusty Blackbirds in.

From here on out, it’s going to be an interesting ride until June.

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Today New York City had a whale in the harbor. Yesterday, it (or a completely different humpback whale?) looked like it was going to beach itself in the Rockaways. Now it is chilling under the Verrazano.

I’ve been following all of this natural drama from my mind-numbing, hostility-inducing beige cubelette on Park Avenue: on the Gothamist blog, at the NYTimes and Daily News web pages, and on the NYC Coast Guard Twitter feed.

What a strange world.

I’m pinguinus on Twitter too, by the way.

More than a fifth of the Whooping Cranes that were present at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last spring have since died or disappeared, according to a recent survey. While some new cranes have also been born in this time, the flock’s numbers are still down nearly 10%. Signs point to the ongoing drought as a significant cause, since less fresh water means fewer blue crabs and blue crabs are a major part of the cranes’ winter diet.

The issue of drought in the southwestern US is a painful one, and likely to get worse rather than better. Droughts have always occurred in that landscape, often lasting years or even decades. Many fascinating ecosystems have adapted to cope with this, with a combination of delicacy and toughness that favors dynamic equilibrium and weeds out rigidity.

The ecosystem of the modern, suburbanized American is not one of them.

Our culture reacts to drought by drilling deeper, pumping farther, perpetrating further vampirism on already brutalized rivers, and only imposing the weakest constraints on consumption with the maximum whining possible. The idea that there could be any virtue in doing with less anything is dismissed as hair-shirt environmentalism, a radical plan that would reduce us all to living like serfs of the middle ages the second we think seriously about turning off the tap. Giving up your lawn or refraining from growing alfalfa in the desert is somehow an evil distortion of all that’s good and true in a way that, say, the subsidies that made those lawns and alfalfa fields possible in the first place is not. Go figure.

The thing that bugs me the most is this – how many people seem to think that current conditions truly are basically down to immutable laws of reality, when in fact a bit of history shows that our current conditions – our environmental woes, our patterns of highway and housing development, the gigantic clusterfuck that is our food system, even our ideas of what freedom is (the right to choose what color car you have if you can afford a car) and isn’t (the right to not be given asthma for someone else’s profit and convenience) are often down relatively arbitrary bits of politics which are long-forgotten now.

The cranes have changed their diet from blue crabs to fiddler crabs, which can tolerate the drought-related increases in salinity in the marshes better. This isn’t ideal for them, but it’s better than nothing. The way water is used in the American Southwest in particular is also going to change, either because we decided to change it, or when there simply isn’t enough left to do what we’ve been happy-assholing along doing. This change will include inconvenience and real suffering either way, but we can plan it and try to make it fair, or we can scramble through it and let the devil take the hindmost – both in terms of less-privileged people, the poor, minorities, and in terms of the environment. Right now, our cultural attitudes seem to favor the latter.

If there were plenty of Cranes, after all, these fifty dead ones would be replaced, when the drought is over someday, by young birds from other flocks or independent individuals who fed in outlying areas – areas that are now shopping malls, perhaps. If we had let Nature take her course, the right thing to do would be to let her keep on keeping on. But what we have done precludes that option, unless we want to lose the Whooping Cranes today, and maybe tomorrow ourselves – for want of a better word, our souls.

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I recently learned that Postcards From…., the ezine that published my bird-heavy flash fiction “A New Heaven and a New Earth”, has itself become extinct. Since reprint rights have now reverted to me, I’ve decided to make the story available right here, for free, as an early Earth Day gift to my readers.

And here it is.

Long-time followers of this blog will know that the American Woodcock has become a bit of a nemesis bird for me. After my first, phenomenal close encounter with the species, over a decade went with nothing but a single windowstrike and other people’s anecdotes to prove to me that the species even existed.

Still, I lived in hope. Every spring, every park, every muddy patch I got my feet wet in made me think: “Hmmmm…. Woodcock?” After all, like the man said, if you live long enough the bird comes to you.

So it was with wistful regrets for Woodcocks, among other migrants, that I agreed to accompany the Inimitable Todd on a bike trip to Queens to visit friends. It’s difficult to bird with non-birding acquaintances along. Interrupting a conversation to stare over someone’s shoulder and then say “Oh! A Song Sparrow!” is generally considered a faux pas unless you’re with fellow birders.

Still, when we entered the Kissena corridor, and I spotted a male Ring-necked Pheasant just strolling along the lawn near some bushy cover, I hesitated a minute. But hey, Ring-necked Pheasant! I poked the IT and broke up the conversation.

Happily, a male Ring-necked Pheasant is a sufficiently shiny (in both the strictly literal and the metaphorical sense) that my non-birding companions were awed rather than annoyed. We tried to take some pictures (this went poorly) and observed the bird until it retreated to cover.

So I felt I had established some credibility. Still, I was bracing myself to take a social risk. We were headed to the Velodrome, which is a circle for people to bicycle extremely fast around. Ever since my little mishap last fall I have not had much interest in bicycling extremely fast, but the rest of the party did not share this handicap.

Behind/ alongside the Velodrome, there is a brushy area filled with reedy weeds and patches of hardy tree (say it five times fast!) and muck. On our way to the Owl Prowl we had biked by this area, and I’d thought to myself, looks like a place that a migrating Woodcock might chill. So while the others waiting for their turn on the circle, I disappeared into the brush.

Not long after I started down the path, I began to think that I’d made a poor decision. There was standing water and deep mud at several points in the trail, while the weeds and brush were over my head and seemed like a good place for anybody with an antisocial tendency to kill witnesses to lurk. And there weren’t many birds. And most of the birds there were were Robins.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with Robins. Especially this time of year, when their songs, although not all that impressive for a thrush, are one of the better things going in the urban soundscape. Still, as I flushed Robin after Robin (and got stabbed and scratched by spiky weed after spiky weed) I began to wonder if perhaps going around in circles fast mightn’t have been the better option.

Then suddenly I flushed something that wasn’t a Robin.

Two somethings in fact. Oddly enough, my first impression was “That’s a weird bill for a Flicker”, perhaps because of the warm coloration. Then I realized what I was seeing…

The Woodcocks executed a tight spiral and came down nearby, obviously not wanting to foresake this nice wet lonely place for the unforgiving streets of Queens. I tried to get a better view of them with stealth, but only succeeded in flushing them a second time. At least I was able to get better looks as I followed their flight – and appreciate the excellence of their camouflage when they landed.

I this point I decided that enough was enough and that I should let them go about their day. And I went about mine, biking around Queens, spotting Downy Woodpeckers, Ruddy Ducks, and my first-of-season Laughing Gulls along the way. I can only hope that having broken this curse, Woodcocks will be as common for me as Pine Siskins have been the past month… but that might be asking a little much.

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