January 2010

By Luza

Once upon a time, it was believed that we are the center of the cosmos, that the lights of the sky travel around us. Then that was overturned. It was replaced by another delusion, that orbits were perfect centered circles, in keeping with the sense of symmetry belonging to the primates traveling around Sol.

Of course, orbits are not perfect centered circles. If they were, Earth’s moon could not be closer to us today than it is at any other point in its orbit. And it is.

It’s also full, a combination of circumstances that occurs once or twice a year.

When regional high tide lines up with the full moon or the new moon, you get a spring tide (this can occur at any time of year; the opposite at the quarter moon is a neap tide, not an autumn tide.) When a spring tide occurs in concert with the moon’s perigee, as it will tomorrow morning in Brooklyn, you get the highest possible tide. Rails and sparrows come out of the marsh grass to stand in the light.

It was once believed, by certain Europeans of repute, that swallows, storks, and other birds of passage migrated to the moon. If this were only true, we could expect a variety of interesting accidentals in the near future, perhaps.

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/luchilu/ / CC BY 2.0
American Buff-bellied Pipit by Mdf

A Pipit is a Pipit is a Pipit

On Sunday, I saw an American Pipit. Or a Buff-bellied Pipit, of the American subspecies. Or a Water Pipit, sort of. Normally, a series of caveats like that would keep a bird off a gal’s life list, but in this instance I definitely saw Anthus rubescens so it’s all good.

Back in the misty days of yore, when I bought the now-battered field guide that actually accompanies me to the field, there was only Anthus spinoletta, the Water Pipit. Its range was “Colder parts of N. Hemisphere. Winters to Cen. Ameria, n. Africa, s. Asia.” Like many birds with such vast ranges, it had a number of subspecies (seven, according to most of the authorities I can find), and these subspecies patronized different habitats and showed morphological differences sufficient for some ornithologists to advocate dividing the species into at least two as early as the 1950s. By 1989, the AOU was on board with a 3-way split, with a group of birds that favored wet European and southern Asian lowlands getting custody rights to both the common and the Latin name. Populations living on the rocky coasts of Britain and Europe were given the name Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus, and American birds, along with those from eastern Asia, were dubbed Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens.

Of course, taxonomy never really ends, and just to keep things interesting each of these new species encompasses several subspecies of its own, fractal-like. The Buff-bellied Pipit, has four: the American Pipit divided into Pacific, Rocky Mountain, and Rubescens races and the Japanese (or Siberian) Pipit. A donut-shaped territory with a giant hole in the middle, like that massive, passerine-unfriendly Timbit we call the Pacific, is quite conducive to genetic drift between populations, and by the time the Buff-bellied Pipit had been a species in the eyes of the AOU for a decade, some ornithologists were already calling for it to be further split between the American complex and the Asian. (For more discussion on identifying, or failing to identify, subspecies of Buff-bellied Pipit, see this article at Surfbird.com.)

It is believed (although not conclusively proved) that A. r. rubescens is the subspecies most likely to be found in the eastern U.S. in winter. Typically they band together in flocks outside the breeding season, but the individual in Prospect Park didn’t know that, or perhaps s/he was merely suffering from an identity crisis of some kind. Although, really, it’s hard to imagine anything mattering less to a bird than what we call it in Latin. So it’s more likely that this bird was lost, separated from a larger group by mischance, bad weather, some slight injury – who knows? At any rate, it found a place on the Long Meadow where fences keep human and canine alike off the newly reseeded lawn, and there it has stayed for the past two weeks.

It walks alone, nearly invisible despite the short grass unless you know what you are looking for, streaked and gray-brown against a streaked gray-brown palette of earth and grass. It picks winterized insects and grass seeds from the dirt one at a time, pausing between each to eye the observer suspiciously. All descriptions of the species say that it bobs its tail, but this hardly does the motion justice – its entire rump moves up and down continually.

It was nearly the only species I spotted in Prospect Park last Sunday, with less than an hour to spend – Robins and Blue Jays and Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows and a single Ring-billed Gull were its list companions – but as you can see, it contains legions.

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Pipit by Mdf.

Razorbill by Daniel Plazanet

You can sort of see the resemblance

I couldn’t sleep. It was almost time to get up, and I’d stared at the clock for what felt like most of the night.

I was worried about making my boat on time; the MTA, curiously heedless of my personal needs and wants, had decided to suspend weekend service on the G line to do track repairs. And I was counting on the LIRR delivering me to Freeport in a timely manner, since the schedule got me to a point that was a half-hour’s walk from the boat 37 minutes before departure. Yes, in a fit of frugality/machismo/whatevertheheck it is with me, anyway, I’d decided to walk.

Then, just when I’d started to drift off, two of the cats jumped on my recumbent form and got into a vicious fight perilously near to my vulnerable face.

At that point, I figured that the universe was just messing with me, and got up. It was 4:45.

3.25 hours, one sheepish ride in a Long Island cab, one barely-caught LIRR train, two sloooooooooow subway lines, and a shuttle bus driver who ignored me later, I was on board the Captain Lou VII with coffee in my hand and hope in my heart. Straight away, I started adding birds to my year list (ah, January!) – birds like Double-crested and Great Cormorants, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, and Common Loon – the latter two prime examples of the fact that a bird can be Common (even in fact, as well as in name) and still a thrill to see, every time. More than fifty other birders, including Corey from 10000 birds (who also looked tired, for some strange reason…) and Andrew “The Birding Dude”, kept the boat lively as we passed under the Loop Parkway drawbridge and out into the gray expanse of the Atlantic.

Alcids, above all, were what I wanted to see, and it wasn’t long before I got the first indication that I wouldn’t be disappointed. Almost as soon as the shore faded from view, we started spotting Razorbills. Razorbills flying, Razorbills sitting on the water, Razorbills alone, in groups of two or three, in flocks up to 25 birds strong.

Morphology and DNA analysis alike point to the Razorbill as the Great Auk’s closest living relative. There are significant differences, of course – the Razorbills are about half as tall as Great Auks, and they can fly, the lucky little bastards – but the chunky bill, and (if I may) the remarkable good looks of the bird, speak clearly of an affinity. Also like the Great Auk – and like most alcids – it is dependent on small fish to eat, cool but not high-Arctic waters to catch them in, and small rocky islands to gather in colonies and breed on in relative peace, free from those predators who lack the wings to follow. Though the Razorbill is currently a species of Least Concern according to the IUCN, I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched them how long we’d leave them an ocean they could live in.

Besides the Razorbills, a smaller but still generous number of Common Murres crossed our path. Some of them got quite close to the boat and provided excellent looks (although none were quite as obliging as the Common Murre I met off San Diego.) Common Murres, known to our European friends as Common Guillemots, molt at a rates that varies widely from individual to individual, so we were treated to the sight of both near-perfect winter and almost-breeding plumaged birds.

Smaller, and rarer, and darker still, two young Atlantic Puffins crossed our paths. I only got really good looks at one of them, but as that was more than I had ever seen before, I was still pretty happy. (The absent inimitable Todd, when he learned of it, was highly disappointed. But a trip to Maine would probably cheer him right up.)

Meanwhile, of course, there were whole other families of birds involved in this outing too. A cloud of gulls included, at various points, first-winter and adult Iceland Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes in abundance (perhaps because they can fly so fast that they move backwards in time and replicate themselves), and yet, oddly, no Lesser Black-backed Gulls – a situation that represented a total reversal of fortune from my last Atlantic pelagic.

At least there were Gannets, although but few of them compared to, say, the Razorbills. Northern Gannets are among the best birds for just looking at of all time. And looking at them was a welcome distraction from certain salient facts, such as the fact that I was (despite actually bringing the right gear this time) getting very cold, and it was getting harder and harder to see anything through my binoculars, both of these conditions being due to the fact that the edge of the promised storm had overtaken us and rain was blowing in on us from all sides. The boat turned back, but the adventure wasn’t over; as we battled hypothermia with the help of Corey’s pretzel sticks, we crossed paths with more Razorbills, Murres, and Kittiwakes. Our return to Point Lookout revealed a few final goodies for the day, such as Purple Sandpiper, a male Harlequin Duck and a lone Sanderling.

Finally, frozen but content, we staggered ashore. Thanks to See Life Paulagics! Thanks also to Shane Blodgett, the legendary Brooklyn superbirder who seemingly finds rarities every time he leaves the house, who was kind enough to give me a ride home (I refrained from asking him to pronounce a benediction on my binoculars).

Safely ensconced with my cats, I made myself a cup of hot cocoa and dreamed… of yet more alcids.

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Razorbill photo by Daniel Plazanet



With some time to kill on Saturday and no desire to just sit around worrying about how I was going to get to Freeport on time, I headed to Prospect Park to round out my list of common winter land birds. It was a pleasant day, and I got everything I expected at the feeders (Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow). But the real highlights were the cold and miserable Wood Duck sitting in the small patch of open water outside the Audubon boathouse, and a pair of Rusty Blackbirds on the bridle path. Rusty Blackbirds have become more and more of a challenge to locate as their population plays out a catastrophic tailspin that has been going on throughout my entire life. And with blackbirds being about as un-charismatic as you can get and still be a warm-blooded vertebrate – with most people, in fact, being utterly unable to tell a Rusty Blackbird from a Boat-tailed Grackle from a European Starling, and consequently perceiving them as common as dirt – I sadly suspect that that isn’t likely to change in the near future.

Gratified, I came home with a checklist and hand. I sat down in front of the computer, and pursuant to my New Year’s resolution to do more Science!, I logged into eBird. And then, as always, I faced a dilemma – one of the major factors in driving me away from eBird the first time out, in fact.

eBird, quite rightly from a data aggregation perspective, requires you to enter a count for each species that you report – the old standby “x” doesn’t cut it. Their FAQs kindly indicate an openness to estimates and even a degree of guesswork, but this count requirement still paralyzes me, because I am neurotic. In particular, I worry constantly about the fact that birds have wings and that I may encounter the same individual twice without realizing it.

Feeder-watching is particularly bad for this. I see thirty chickadees (to pick an egregiously kinetic example) over the course of a fairly short feeder watch, and yet only have three specific individuals in my field of vision at any one time. I know (or at least strongly suspect) that the birds are taking seeds elsewhere and then coming back, so the right number isn’t thirty, but I also have a fairly good idea, based on the rate of turnover and how long it takes a chickadee to open a seed, that it’s not just the same three birds over and over. So what the heck do I enter? Normally I end up just doing a rough mathematical split of the difference, and entering 16 or something, but I always feel absolutely terrible after doing so. I’ve searched the FAQs for guidance on this issue and found none.

What say other eBird users? Am I missing something obvious in the eBird documentation? How do you count?

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Cypress Hills

Quiet as the....

Yeah, so as you might have guessed, I’ve been riding low in the water with grad school application stuff again. But never fear! This weekend – yes, I say, this very weekend – yours truly is going on a little pelagic jaunt with the good folks of See Life Paulagics. My hopes are high for some alcids.

And then, in mid-February, after all the applications are in and around the time I start to go crazy worrying that I’ll be rejected everywhere, The Inimitable Todd and I have planned a little Valentine’s Day mini-vacation. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve any cootie-related program activities*. It does, however, involve going to Amherst Island and Cape Vincent for three days of owling and other cold-weather birdy delights with Lakeshore Nature Tours. And possibly cruising back down via the Adirondacks looking for some of the mountain specialties, depending on the weather.

Plus, of course, I may actually go to the park or something again someday, who knows?

So at least you have something to look forward too.

*not that I’m going to tell you about, anyway.

The ecology of fear is the idea that predators impact the ecosystem by impacting the behavior of prey. The classic example involves ungulates, a mountain lion or two, and a riverbank covered in tasty grass. The ungulates would like to eat the grass, but they are afraid to spend too much time too far from cover because of the lions, so they don’t eat it all and the bank remains stabilized by grassroots. Remove the lions, and the ungulates chow down at the river’s edge with impunity, resulting in denuded banks and erosion (this is distinct from, albeit often happening in concert with, generalized environmental damage caused by the prey population explosion that likely also accompanied the removal of the lions.)

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis applies this concept to the human ecology of the City of Los Angeles and surrounding suburbs. Humans – particularly, as Davis is at pains to point out, wealthy white politically-connected humans – fancy ourselves the apexiest of apex predators (largely accurately) while still retaining a species memory of the fact that we are soft and made of tasty meat. In the catastrophic landscape of Southern California, where coping strategies suited to more gradual landscapes of the eastern U.S. and Great Britain often fail, triumphant industrial capitalists have reacted to the removal of normal constraint by figuratively grazing right down to the water’s edge. They build collapsibly on faults and floodplains, flammably in chaparral. They strew their children and pets promiscuously in the paths of returning mountain lions and coyotes. At the same time, they re-imagine events that are par for the Californian course as apocalypses (a self-fulfilling prophecy when failure to plan makes the inevitable earthquake or wildfire worse). And they treat the masses as a new predatory force, seemingly prepared to use the same principals of “vermin control” that they once applied to grizzly bears on any unruly element of the urban populations they exploit.

Though this book is now more than a decade old, it’s still remarkably applicable. And, judging by the online reviews, remarkably misunderstood. Some of this is to be expected; when a Malibu real-estate baron feels the need to attack you under a pseudonym, you know you’ve hit a nerve. But many of the positive reviews are also sort of point-missing. Notably, in one of the odder cases of Truffaut Effect that I’ve encountered, many readers seem to have approached the book as exactly the sort of pop disaster lit* that Davis is among other things actually analyzing, leading to criticisms that his coverage of killer bees and tornadoes is ludicrous rather than being, as it were, a vision of the ludicrosity inherent in LA itself.

But while not every landscape is as over-the-top as The Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels of the River of Porziuncola, the ecology of fear plays a role everywhere. The perceived possibility of predation has changed our airports and schools, the way we celebrate holidays, where we live, how we mate. And it impacts how we bird.

One of the fatal mountain lion attacks discussed by Davis was on a birder. Other birders have been killed by tigers, by heat and lack of water, by mountains and trees. But the stories we remember are often of attacks by our fellow humans.

I suspect that one considers this slightly more when one is (or presents as) a woman. People helpfully point out which parks I shouldn’t go to and when, remind me to be paranoid about the rides I accept (or the rides I forgo and the areas I walk through as a result), etc., etc., and this is constant and lifelong. It comes on both a personal and a societal level. It does get into one’s head. And it does, therefore, change one’s behavior. You do think twice before going down to the water’s edge.

On one level this is terrible. Not only does it make life more limited and less pleasant, but there’s something very un-humanist about taking your fellow humans as predators (let alone thinking of yourself as prey). And so very many aspects of the current human ecology of fear are ludicrously counterproductive, only serving to increase the general level of hostility and suspicion in a vicious spiral. And there’s always the temptation to victim-blame, to take the advantage of hindsight and turn it into an argument that the deceased was an idiot to take this or that previously-acceptable risk.

But neither is it useful to imagine ourselves invincible and immune, by virtue of our charming nerdish hobby, from the travails of the world. Like all ecologies, the ecology of our fear requires balance.

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*in full fairness, when I bought it that’s what I thought it was as well. But I managed to get past that impression in the interregnum between buying the book and writing about it by, you know, reading the damn thing.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch For Representational Purposes Only

As you may not have noticed if you never, ever read a birding blog before in your life, the New Year is a time of great excitement because the New Year = new year list and that means that, depending on inclination, you can revel in racking up numbers quickly, admit without shame that you were staring at pigeons, or both.

Of course, some of us strive to go beyond the ordinary, transcending what everyone else does and adding the spice of challenge to the easiest listing day of the year by, say, doing a quasi-big-sit and trying to see how many species of birds they can observe just from the windows of the Olde Homestead’s old farmhouse. Because some of us are just that darn amazing. Some of us understand that patch and even micropatch birding are the waves of the future. Also, some of us may have decided that it was too cold to go outside.

Fortunately, the Olde Homestead is equipped with some excellent habitat in full view of the house. My first stop upon waking, of course, was to check the bird feeders on the west side of the building. The birds were already hard at work snarfing down sunflower seeds and picking the last edible bits off the asters – unsurprising, since much of the landscape and thus the food supply were covered in persistent lake effect snow. A White-breasted Nuthatch became my first bird of the decade simply by virtue of being at eye-level and straight ahead – had I been looking down or to one side, that coveted spot might instead have gone to a Downy Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco, or American Tree Sparrow. A few minutes later, after grabbing a cup of coffee, I strolled back and added Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadee, and Tufted Titmouse.

You might think that I’d just want to stare at a bounty like this all day. And indeed, it was tempting – especially since my mom reported that a very confused and forlorn Eastern Towhee had showed up a few days earlier. But there were other voices, other windows.

In the kitchen on the east side of the building, for instance, I could eat my breakfast and check my e-mail while also keeping an eye on another feeder – and, more importantly, on a small weedy swamp behind the “new” barn (now the only surviving barn) and the corn-stubbled hills beyond that. The night before, while vainly straining my ears for owls just after midnight, I’d spotted three deer pawing up the snow to get at spilled grain left over from the harvest. In the morning light, I hoped that the deer’s example would be followed by Wild Turkey and Canada Geese, as it regularly was.

The Turkey showed up right on schedule – a large, bold flock that spent most of the day on the hill. The Geese were no so obliging, but in exchange, a pair of Ring-necked (Common) Pheasants appeared. It was a worthwhile swap, because while I have seen Ring-necked Pheasants in Queens, they’re not easy to come by in the city. For that matter, they’ve been declining all over the state. That’s not necessarily something that the ornithologist in me cries over, since A.) they are introduced and stocked by “sportsmen” and B.) their decline tracks to the rebound of the native and once-threatened Wild Turkey, which favors forests where the Pheasant prefers open grasslands. But they are a countable species, and very beautiful, and since they were there I was delighted to look at them.

I spent most of the morning and early afternoon bouncing back and forth between east and west. To the west, I picked up Blue Jay and Red-bellied Woodpecker and House Sparrow. To the east, I got American Goldfinch at the other feeder, Rock Pigeon soaring overhead. Turning south, I picked out a couple of crows in the trees lining the old cow lane. By mid-afternoon, it was back to the western feeders for a pair of House Finches and the long-awaited Eastern Towhee (my mother was worried about him.) I tried hard to make the Towhee into a Spotted, but he was one of ours – nevertheless very beautiful in black and a rufous so vivid it looked oriole-orange against the solid background of snow.

I was now at 18 species for the day, and the notion that I could reach 20 and thus claim a nice round number without ever leaving the house suddenly seemed very plausible. There was still the possibility that the Canada Geese might turn up, my brother reported that a Cooper’s Hawk had been eying the feeders over the last few days, and of course anything could fly over. On the other hand, the day was not only short but overcast, and I was in danger of losing light in only a few hours. I started bouncing between the windows at an accelerated rate, reducing the “sit” portion of my “big sit” (although I still took plenty of time out for heartening snacks, socialization, and making sure that the internet was firmly nailed down.)

Just when it seemed that the feeders were all through with introducing their cast of characters for the day, I spotted a single immature White-crowned Sparrow shuffling up seeds knocked to the ground by the Jays. This is another bird that can be a bit tricky to find in the city – not rare, exactly, but uncommon and mostly found in the fall migration.

Now I was within a breath of my goal. The temptation to go outside and try to flush something – a starling, anything – was enormous. But I restrained myself and watched the Pheasants, who had worked their way down the hill and across the lane and were now feeding in the shrubbery just behind where the old new barn, or perhaps the new old barn, or just the barn, and also the old old barn (aka the back barn) used to be when they used to be there. But where they aren’t, anymore. Which meant that I had a good view of the pheasants, and also of the old apple tree and the bird that didn’t look like a pheasant moving around underneath the old apple tree in an unpheasantlike manner. Almost as if it were tearing a dead bird. Almost as if it were a Cooper’s Hawk.

But the limbs of the apple tree, the frosty window, and the distance combined to keep me (and my brother Brian, who had joined in the assessment) in uncertainty for several minutes, until the bird shifted to reveal the flat head and long tail of an impeccable Cooper’s Hawk. Probably a female, judging by the size, it was chowing down on tasty squab (we confirmed this by sending my youngest brother out to collect feathers from the meal after the Hawk had flown – we were initially concerned that the hapless Towhee had compounded its bad migrational judgment by getting eaten, but he turned up at the feeder again shortly thereafter. And speaking of hapless, my brother flushed the Pheasants, who nearly scared him to death by flying in his face.)

Thus I settled back on my laurels, confident that I had a count that others had nearly frozen to achieve.

Happy New Year!

White-breasted Nuthatch photo courtesy of Dave Govoni.

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