I have to admit, I identify with the Ash-throated Flycatcher. Much like myself, many individuals of this species apparently have a terrible sense of direction – they leave Texas or California (reliably indicated by Woody Guthrie to be “the Garden of Eden/ a paradise to live in or to see”) and instead of ending up at their traditional wintering grounds, they end up…. well, in Queens.
Which is why I ended up in Queens. I wasn’t lost, though. In fact, this bird rivaled the Union Square Scott’s Oriole for proximity to a subway stop. Only the subway stop was not in Union Square, surrounded by coffee shops and boutiques and the bustle of the farmer’s market. It was… well, in Queens.
Nevertheless, after Sunday dawned all innocent of the split-personality precipitation that forced me to spend Saturday in a series of bookstores and bars (a terrible burden), I got on the A train and traveled out to the strange netherworld where a confused Ash-throated Flycatcher had lingered for some two weeks. It was brisk but cold, and the subway in this remote, benighted land ran above the ground, if you can imagine that. I left the station, rounded a corner, and peered into a vacant lot where the bird had been wont to linger.
It wasn’t there. And worse yet, when I spotted a group of birders on a nearby lawn and rushed up to join them, I heard those most dreaded words…. “It was just here a minute ago.”
Yes, the Ash-throated Flycatcher had put in an appearance, and I’d missed it! Would this be Western M(*^*(^^&^$%#% Reef-heron Part Deux?
We scanned the backyards full of hedges and bittersweet. I wondered if anyone was going to call the cops. We turned around and scanned the shrubbery around the elevated train line. I wondered if anyone was going to call Homeland Security.
We spotted House Sparrows, Robins, Mockingbirds. A Song Sparrow, a White-throated Sparrow, a female Cardinal. A good variety of common, typical, not the least bit lost birds.
The only official-type person who ever did ask us our business was an off-duty bus driver who pulled over, curious about what he’d been seeing people staring at all week. We explained it to him as best we could. He seemed duly impressed.
But as time went by and the bird didn’t show, I was feeling less and less impressed myself. I could have gone to Jamaica Bay, I thought, and looked for the Red-necked Grebe; I could have gone to Central Park and looked for owls; I could have gone to Staten Island and looked for the Rufus Hummingbird. But no. Here I was, staring at trees and Robins and various sparrows….
Suddenly a Mockingbird flashed across the corner of my vision; only it wasn’t a Mockingbird, too small, proportioned wrong, and most of all, too green and brown for a gray and black bird.
The Ash-throated Flycatcher landed just long enough for my to register it, then ducked behind a convenient shed. But soon it was back again, showing off not just for me but for two other birders that I was able to get on to it. It flitted from weed to weed, apparently resorting to seeds in lieu of flies.
The traditional description of the Ash-throated Flycatcher is a smaller, washed-out Great Crested Flycatcher. But this hardly does justice to a bird with a pearl-gray throat, a bright rufus wing-patch and tail, and a belly the color of the lemon cream in a Whitman’s Sampler. It kept fluffing up its crown while I watched it, a Tyrant Flycatcher to the core, even if it was alone and confused and dearly wishing it had taken that left turn at Albuquerque.
Eventually it moved back into the scrub, and I got back on the train for the long trek back to Brooklyn.