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.