August 2009

How important is it to label what you see?

Peep sp. isn’t the same experience as Least Sandpiper isn’t the same experience as “those little birds Kaitlyn chased at the beach” even though they might all be the same birds. Oftentimes, specificity in labeling is useful; it’s very hard to get “those little birds Kaitlyn chased at the beach” listed under the Endangered Species Act or create a conservation plan for them (although teaching Kaitlyn to appreciate and interact more respectfully with wildlife as she grows up might be a start.)

But birders, and especially listers, are often accused of being obsessed with labels to the detriment of both their own personal Zen and their grasp of birds as part of a holistic system. Being a person who thinks in words, I often worry that I may be particularly prone to this error. And for myself or anyone else who wants to take a step back from bird labels, fall migration is the time to do it.

There’s the aforementioned shorebirds of course. I believe I have made my feelings on the difficulties of shorebird ID abundantly clear, but I have to admit that there is something about the birds themselves that invites quiet contemplation (although not so much contemplation that you forget to watch your step).

Fall warblers do not lend themselves to being objects of meditation so much, on account of all the moving around, but they can be equally humbling. Take this sighting:

It’s around three pm in the Vale of Cashmere at Prospect Park. A small bird jumps out of a bush and into a more open area, allowing me a brief but relatively close look.

It’s warbler-shaped, and warbler-sized (although the beak strikes me as on the chunky side for a warbler. It’s a warm brown above (no hint of a bluish, grayish, or greenish cast) and yellow below. Legs pink, beak dark. No strong marking of any sort – no eye ring or facial stripe, no wing bars, no streaks (I do not get a good look at the tail) – with one exception: it has a collar, a single thin but distinct and unbroken black line, around its throat. It does not vocalize. After a bit it gets sick of me looking at it and disappears.

Of course, there is no such bird. But I saw it anyway. I can speculate (Hoodie in extremely odd transitional plumage? Common Yellowthroat that poked its head through a charcoal-grill grate?) but I’m never going to know.

Fall is like that. Birds change outfits and contexts. They confound birders and then move on. It certainly isn’t their problem. The immature Chestnut-sided Warbler near the Ambergill didn’t have a single trace of chestnut anywhere on hir body, and the Worm-eating Warbler I was lucky enough to spot in the Midwood was five and a half feet up in a small tree, which is about three feet further up a tree than I’m used to seeing Worm-eating Warblers (last year around this time I saw a Waterthrush five and a half feet up in a tree, which is a good five and a half feet further up a tree than I’m used to seeing them!) Baltimore Orioles bounced around in all sorts of scaly, half-in plumages. The world is also full of strange insects (notably cicadas and dragonflies), fruiting plants (it’s a great year for the jewelweed, which is good because there’s nothing like a plant that explodes!), and all sorts of other things which are awesome. And the weather is progressing nicely towards that stage where it neither bakes nor freezes the unwary wanderer.

Of course, my newfound personal Zen didn’t keep me from noticing that I’d just added Chestnut-sided Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Great Crested Flycatcher to my year list. And it doesn’t mean I won’t be listing like crazy a week from now….

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Mostly, I like to bird alone. But sometimes, it’s fun to have a buddy. And sometimes, it’s important to have a buddy, as when you go in search of desperately confusing brownish birds in mid-molt in a realm of oppressive heat, man-eating insects, and sucking mud that has achieved not only sentience but a licensing deal with Marvel to appear as the next major supervillain opposite Captain America*. In fact, in that case, you don’t just want a buddy; you want a crack team of ultimate birding commandos who are prepared for anything.

Hence the convergence of birdbloggers (and tweeters, and so forth) at Jamaica Bay this past Saturday.

Despite threatening weather forecasts and dubious traffic conditions, ten hardy souls ultimately showed up:
Corey from 10000 Birds
Chris from Picus Blog
BirdingBev of Behind the Bins (the instigator of the expedition)
Ann Marie, the iheartwarblers tweetist
Catherine of Birdspot
Scott of Peace, Caffeine, Linux (none of which, of course, are birds, although Linux does have a bird mascot)
Cindy from Living in Brooklyn – Longing for Maine
Laura from Somewhere in NJ
Jay from birdJam

We were well-equipped with water, bug-spray, sunscreen, field reports from Friday that indicated some goodies to be found. We also discovered that we were only one of four birding groups who were making the rounds of Jamaica Bay that morning! So really, there was surprisingly little danger of being sucked down by the mud and trapped helplessly until such time as the Great Black-backed Gulls decided I looked tasty.

The day started at the north end of the East Pond, where we almost immediately spotted the previously-reported Wilson’s Phalaropes, marking my first life bird for the day. Shortly thereafter we came upon a more surprising but no less welcome bird – a surprisingly self-confident Sora strutting around in broad daylight despite the crush of birder traffic. Here yet another advantage of group birding became evident – virtually everyone has better optics than me, and seeing this bird (only the second Rail to make its mark on my life list) through someone else’s scope was infinitely preferable to squinting vaguely at it through my binoculars or trying to get closer and spoiling it for everyone.

And THEN, a little further up, there was a stunning winter-plumaged American Avocet. The word stunning is actually kind of redundant when it comes to Avocets, and although this wasn’t one for my life list, it was new for me for New York. This particular Avocet was notably unconcerned by the many, many people staring at it. It was also notably unconcerned by the gigantic Snapping Turtle that spent some time cruising alongside it before heading off in search of deeper water and meatier birds (or perhaps small horses).

Past the Avocet was the first really difficult mud-slog of the day; I escaped with only the hems of my pants damaged, but not everyone was so lucky.

Then came the bigger challenge; the inevitable massive flock of brownish birds of varying shapes, sizes, and dimensions, all of which overlapped with all the others in at least one salient feature. I was able to use my mad shorebird skillz to pick out a Ruddy Turnstone, Least and Semipalmate Sandpipers, a trio of Willets and a mass of Dowitchers (Short-billed), a few Yellowlegs (both varieties), and one more lifer – a handful of Red Knots. Mass excitement was roused by a funny-looking bird that proved to be another Turnstone (an atypical juvenile) but no Stints or anything of that kind popped up a brownish little head. And, of course, the Black-bellied Plovers in the group were scrutinized vigorously, but none were obliging enough to turn into an American Golden-Plover.

Non-shorebirds included Mallards, Canada Geese, and Mute Swans (of course), Double-Crested Cormorant, Glossy Ibiseseses, Little Blue Heron, Forsters and Black Tern, and all the expected Gulls.

Then it was off to the West Pond, for more of the same (with Common Terns subbing for the Black) plus Great Blue and Tricolored herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Northern Shovelers and their little cousins the Blue-winged Teal. These last formerly held the coveted position of Most Embarrassing Gap on my life list. But now they must yield that position to the Black-Billed Cuckoo or maybe Evening Grosbeak. They would also be my last life birds of the day. But the Peregrine Falcon that swung over and put them all to flight, the Osprey, the assorted Night Herons, etc. kept things interesting. The only sour note was the lack of land-based migrants – not a Flycatcher to be seen, only local breeders like Yellow and Common Yellowthroat representing for the Warblers.

Then it was time for lunch. A wise man once advised that you should never try to absorb an energy field larger than your head, and this proved eerily prescient when it came to the sandwich I wound up ordering. Sadly, much of it ended up going to waste, not only because it was an obscene amount of food, but because the swiss cheese involved was petrochemical. My milkshake, on the other hand, was delicious.

Back at Jamaica Bay, we tried the south end of East Pond – not much love there, but for a young Yellow-crowned Night Heron at Big John’s Pond and the lovely but uncountable Black Swan that’s been reported there on and off for years. Upon retuning to the visitor’s center, we saw that a Marbled Godwit had been spotted just when we were at lunch. A few hardy souls (including me, as it would have been a state bird for me) went in quest of it, but the formerly insanely high tide was now insanely low, and if the Godwit was around, it was out among the shimmering heat wave beyond the reach of even those with scopes.

Then I went home, had a bath, and slept for a million years. So you can tell it was a good time.

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*and you thought the Civil War arc was bad!

Brooklyn is buzzing with the latest boost to its tough reputation: over the past week, not one but two baby falcons have been rescued from pigeons in Greenpoint, Williamsburg’s slightly less hipster-infested, more ethnic neighboring nabe. (And, not entirely coincidentally, a major setting of my novel-in-progress, Sister Rat, a story of urban wildlife gone wrong.)

The story has legs for obvious reasons: falcons are charismatic megafauna, baby falcons are adorable big-eyed big-headed charismatic megafauna, the food chain role-reversal makes this the avian equivalent of Man Bites Dog, and frankly it’s too damn hot out to do any hard-hitting investigative journalism unless Bloomberg gets spotted frolicking with a woman not his wife under an illegally opened fire hydrant. But there are a couple of key points that this story raises that I find interesting.

1. Despite their hard-bitten reputation, New Yorkers really love them some wildlife. Even the rats and the pigeons, while we will cheerfully and futilely attempt to exterminate them, earn grudging respect for their tenacity. Anything out of the ordinary (a turkey in Battery Park, a coyote on the lam in Manhattan, an alligator in the sewer) will promptly earn a nickname and a fan club. This is of course a sign of our innate if scrappy good character and a hopeful indicator for those who want to make cities more habitatiferous. However….

2. Love is not enough. Despite widely publicized success stories (and they deserve their wide publicity, don’t get me wrong) of city-nesting raptors, urban environments make the already fraught and hazardous fledging process even harder, introducing all sorts of novel (in evolutionary terms) dangers like cars and windows. And animal lovers. It’s a catch-22, because while being in the actual street is clearly untenable for a young falcon, being chased down and handled by a Good Samaritan is stressful in and of itself, however necessary. (Figuring out how necessary it is to rescue a given bird from its present circumstances is another matter, and apparently one most people aren’t very adept at.) Given that very real, anthropogenic hazards faced by raptors and other wildlife in the city every day, it’s kind of ironic (and not in the Williamsburg ‘I’m wearing someone else’s bar mitzvah t-shirt!’ way) that the primary villains in the coverage of the incident are the pigeons.

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In the birding stock market, pelagics attract the day traders – their risks are high (expensive, can be scuttled instantly by bad weather, you might spend more time leaning over the rail than watching birds) but so are the potential rewards (Tropicbirds! Albatrosses! Species of petrel believed to be extinct since the 1800s!) They also represent one of the few ways that the all-conquering savanna ape H. sapiens can experience what it is to be small in the face of an element that is still, defiantly, not ours. When that last strip of land disappears over the horizon, even the sturdiest boat suddenly seems very, very small.

Renting a paddleboat at Prospect Park is nothing like that, of course. But it is a lot of fun!

The Inimitable Todd and I started our mini-pelagic near the Wollman Rink, and headed up the Lullwater. Plenty of the usual Mallards and Canada Geese crowded the shores, waiting for handouts. A small family of Mute Swans were less forthcoming, and the male got downright testy when our imperfect steering brought us too close for his taste.

What are YOU looking at, buddy?

What are YOU looking at, buddy?

Further up, we found ourselves in the flight paths of many Barn Swallows – a lot less threatening than the Swans, but equally fearless. The sunning turtles, on the other hand, were dubious about our intentions.

Dont make eye contact, maybe theyll go away....

Don't make eye contact, maybe they'll go away....

And of course there were herons. While we didn’t run into any of the wildly out-of-place post-breeding wanderers that I discussed earlier, we did see several Green Herons (which bred successfully in Prospect Park this year) and Black-crowned Night Herons.

The Lurking Heron would make a good story title...

The Lurking Heron would make a good story title...

So, for mid-August in Prospect Park, it was a pleasant, birdy day on the water.

But nothing like what’s coming in September, when the IT and I head to California for a REAL pelagic!

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So, in my last post, I mentioned niblets of hope. Here’s another one.

The Bronx River, like most bodies of water in major urban areas, has historically had a little pollution problem, by which I mean it spent over two centuries being used as a giant open sewer and disposal unit for points from Westchester down to the harbor. Although it is by no means pristine, it’s made some progress since an agreement by the relevant communities to stop using it for sewage overflow…. which they finally figured out was a bad idea in 2006.

Compared to the vast sweep of the history of life on earth, the millions of years it takes to carve a river and evolve the critters to go in it, or even the amount of time it took to make the river as dirty as it was, 2006 is not very long ago. Still, it’s long enough for things to begin to look up. In fact, it was in 2007 that a beaver was spotted in the river, to much rejoicing throughout the city (one of the things that living in NYC has taught me is that many people have a fierce pride in the toughness of nature here, to go with their urban chutzpa. Look at the cult of Pale Male or the celebrated if ill-fated Manhattan Coyote for additional anecdata.) Now, alewives have also returned, albeit with a little help from the evil human overlords.

Alewives are a fish of the herring type. Like their more famous cousins the salmon, some populations are born in fresh water, swim out to sea for some schooling (heh), and then return to their natal streams to breed in their turn. Also like the salmon, this migration was once a magnificent phenomenon involving numberless shiny silver creatures traveling en masse, but humans, with their damming and harvesting and polluting and whatnot, fucked it up. In the case of the Bronx River, we fucked it up so bad that the alewives disappeared entirely. However, in 2006, 201 young alewives were moved from Connecticut to the Bronx. They spawned, and this year their offspring have returned.

Of course, all is not shiny. The river is dammed, and the dams, dating back as they do to the beginning of the Open Sewer Era, are historical structures. So fish ladders must be installed with a great deal of delicacy – but these ladders are needed to give the spawning fish access to less turbulent waters, and thus a better chance of success.

Still, if the fish can do it, maybe we can too.

Now that the public comment period is over, suddenly the Tejon Ranch developers are getting all disclose-y.

Have I left seeing the Everglades too late?

Recently, I have been seized with a great cynicism. When I think of staying in New York, I think of rising sea levels; when I think of moving out west for a new start, I think of the Yosemite supervolcano, or less melodramatically of being another burden on an ecosystem that was never realistically able to host the number of humans it has now. I wonder if we’re even going to be able to get it together enough to get a decent health care plan or get out of the useless, grinding wars we’re in, let alone save the world from the consequences of our endless needs and wants. Here in the States, the new administration has overturned some of the destructive, unscientific things that the last administration did, but not enough. It’s never enough. We’ve already trashed this continent six ways from Sunday. Most people don’t, maybe can’t comprehend the scope of what we’ve already lost, so they don’t understand that we really can lose what’s left.

Still, occasionally there are these flashes of hope.

Maybe I need to go out and look at some birds.