March 2010

Time Travel Bird has failed.

We are all Higgs bosons now.

(You probably shouldn’t expect any good sense out of me until the last week of April or a decent sunny weekend, whichever comes first.)

You know, back in my day birds didn’t have a sense of smell. Maybe, maaaaaaaaybe New World vultures did. But no one else.

Now look at this new-fangled tomfoolery: Could Smell Play a Role in the Origin of New Bird Species?

One of the interesting things about nature is that it goes in a circle and in a straight line at the same time.* While the birds of passage are returning to their breeding grounds in the same reassuring rhythm – male Red-winged Blackbirds and then the females, small flocks of Robins today yielding to large flocks of Robins tomorrow, Eastern Phoebes before Olive-sided Flycatchers, Palm Warblers first and Wilson’s after – we large and curious mammals who observe them are going through life changes of a distinctly less reversible nature.

Which is to say that there is an excellent chance that come this time next year, I will be embarking on my first spring outside New York State. This means a lot of things, nearly all of them good. But not all – for this may be my last season for some time to partake of the eastern wood-warbler migration.

Until now, I’ve participated in the rites of spring in a joyful but rather desultory manner. So what if I dipped on easy birds through procrastination? There’s going to be another season along in a minute. Now I’ve developed a new sense of urgency.

It got a little easier to bear this weekend when I picked up a life Orange-crowned Warbler, a frustrating little trickster that I’d come to think of as half-mythological, along with my first-of-season Eastern Phoebe and a handful of other early migrants (Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, more Red-winged blackbirds, and those aforementioned large flocks of Robins) at Prospect Park. Still, I have my work cut out for me:

Golden-winged warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Cape May Warbler
Cerulean Warbler
Swainson’s Warbler

Those are the Parulidae known to occur in New York that I have yet to add to my life list. Swainson’s is a bit of a stretch unless I head south, but the others are my mission for this coming season.

Let the migration games begin.

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*if I attribute this to quantum something, I assume I will get a major movie deal, right?

Another hastily-chugged cup of coffee. Another early-morning stagger out into the bitter cold. Another Tim Horton’s stop and fuel-up. Another voyage on the ferry across the icy spur of Lake Ontario, another careening ride down rutted dirt roads.

Another chance – our last chance – at the Owl Woods and its bounty of Strigiforme goodness.

The difference in the woods soon became apparent. For one thing, someone had spent time on Sunday laying out small tree trunks at the entrance to form a path. Not exactly a velvet rope, but it did funnel every visitor directly in front of the sign with the rules. Subtle, but fierce. A bit like a Saw-whet.

Moreover, it being both a weekday and earlier in the morning than our previous visit, there were far fewer people in the woods. Oh, we weren’t the only humans, but the others were pairs and singletons, not vast groups. Even the Chickadees, not put on high alert by the prospect of food, seemed more subdued.

So we began, once again, the process of moving slowly from cedar to cedar. This time the group, perhaps more confident or merely less patient, fanned out to check trees each on their own.

I was dubious about this strategy – the other thousand times I’d checked trees on my own, at the Olde Homestead and Prospect and Central Parks, had always come to naught – so I hung back and looked at pellets. The pellets were gray, and rich with the bones of the meadow voles who enthusiastically populate the island and make it an owl (and hawk) Mecca.

Suddenly, I heard a frantic whisper. The rest of the group was making a determined beeline for a tree at the very edge of the wood. This tiny, non-descript, and twisted pine, upon inspection by one of my tripmates, had proved to contain a Boreal Owl.

Boreal Owl

Keep it down, I work nights.

The Boreal Owl is a dream-bird, not just because it is nocturnal, not just because it is small (I would say ‘elfin’ but that should probably be properly reserved for the Elf Owl itself), not just because it is remote, but all three. When I told people about the trip in the planning stages, this was the species that I made sure to mention, and the response was always one of congenial jealousy. I had put it down as nice, but not necessary, in an attempt to manage my expectations. Now here it was. I felt a strange urge to get – not closer, but further away; to not risk even in the slightest disturbing or harming something so perfect. I tried not to breath.

After the exquisite agony of balancing the owl’s well-being with our own desire to stare at it forever, we moved away. I couldn’t tell you how long it took, although I think not very. It was still forever-ish enough.

The story was over, the happy ending written. But birding trips are not stories, so even though we were now moving towards our cars and lunch and goodbyes and the long drive back to New York, we kept checking the trees. We were, perhaps, halfway back when The Inimitable Todd stuck his head into a cedar and came out looking like he wanted to shout for joy, but was nobly refraining.

Saw-whet Owl

What IT Saw(whet)

Yes, The Inimitable Todd – the world’s most patient non-birder – had found the trip’s only Saw-whet Owl, provided me with a seventh life bird in three days, and provided another happy ending.

But birding trips are not stories. Before we left the woods, we stumbled over the Barred Owl once again.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl? Where?

Then we drove around the island several times, searching for Rough-legged Hawks and finding many Red-tails, Kestrels, and more Tundra Swans before finally finding a light-morph bird hunting over the fields.

Then we had lunch.

Then the IT and I made the long drive towards home, in the snow. As we drove over the bridge into the United States, a Raven paced our car…. only to turn back mere inches before joining my NYS list.

Then the birding part of the trip was over.

Looking back, I have to say that it was a wonderful trip, despite the challenging weather and a couple of dips. Lakeshore Nature Tours won my appreciation from the start. I probably won’t be going back to Amherst Island any time soon, but only because the heavy human pressure on the island makes me think I should give a turn to someone else, someone who – like me – will love it, and spread that word that it should be respected and saved.

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Meanwhile, back in New York, the real owls are being kept under wraps by those in the know, in order to protect their nesting from disturbance by avid fans.

At Gallery Hanahou, on the other hand, the owls are getting a lot of well-deserved publicity. Owls Have More Fun by designer Lisa Grue is aptly named – there are a lot of owls, and they’re a lot of fun. The birds are stylized in stark black and white, accented with vivid pink and yellow, and presented in a desire of contexts – enormous wallpaper designs, tiny little painted ceramic plates – with cryptic messages. The theme, beyond the obvious, is a feminist desire to see young girls embrace cleverness and wisdom – not just cuteness – as a driving force in life. I certainly can’t argue with that.

It’s always interesting to me to see how people who aren’t naturalists or scientists or specifically nature-oriented artists nevertheless connect with nature in their work. The show is running through March 26, so if you’re in NYC, consider checking it out!

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Snowy Owl

Our better angels of hard work and persistence having been rewarded with the sight of the Northern Hawk Owl, we promptly broke for lunch.

And it’s just as well that we did, because after our next stop no one was hungry. Turning down a lonely, windswept rural road, we passed a handful of Horned Larks and then found ourselves at the gates of a garbage dump.

The Inimitable Todd, perhaps sensibly, elected to stay in the car with Jerome*. The rest of us piled out and trouped across the frozen, yet somehow still pungent, expanse to the fence around the dump. There we scanned the gulls.

Vast flocks of gulls rose squabbling over the churning black muck; Great Black-backed, Herring, Glaucous, and Iceland, in an array of plumages, mixed almost as promiscuously as the trash they picked over. I was surprised at how little was recognizable in the affray – a broken milk-crate here, a scrap of grocery bag there, but for the most part it was just unspeakable ooze, a sort of eldritch perversion of a healthy, well-blended soil. I got my eyes on the gulls I wanted to see – no point being here for nothing – but I was quickly overcome by a sense of futility and waste (and cold and stench) and retreated.

From there, we drove to a more suburban, more wooded location, in the hopes of spotting Evening Grosbeaks at a feeder. The front cover of my first field guide featured Evening Grosbeaks. They’re a bird I’ve always dreamed of and never seen – born as I was after they entered their steep decline, the accounts of mass irruptions and flocks of hundreds descending on bird feeders were just a taunt. So I was excited as we scanned the pines and feeders – although also a bit wary that we’d be mistaken for peering in someone’s window.

Alas, we scanned in vain. The only birds who showed were Chickadees, Nuthatches, and a few overhead Ravens. The big yellow finches would stay a dream.

So we piled back into the cars, drove further east through broad fields, scanning the roadside for Snowy Owls. Sure, we’d seen these magnificent predators yesterday, but through a glass (or a pair of glasses) darkly, and we were in quest of better looks. Besides, you can never see too many Snowy Owls.

Nor can you see too many Snow Buntings, as I discovered when we pulled over to scope a promising distant white lump. Suddenly, a flock of Snow Buntings – scores of them, maybe a hundred, in gorgeous winter plumage – rose up from where they were gleaning the nearby cornfields and circled our caravan. Probably they were waiting for us to go so that they could get back to dinner, but it felt like being in the center of the world.

The Owls, perched on telephone poles or in the corn stubble, were also incredibly accommodating. Less confiding, but still cool, were a pair of foxes in the distance and a muskrat forced into the open presumably by the frozenness of its usual haunts. A last owl soared directly over us as we were distracted by the muskrat – perhaps irritated that we had spooked its would-be prey.

As the sun declined, we split up and went our separate ways for dinner – the Inimitable Todd and I electing to continue east to Montreal, where a delicious and romantic evening was followed by a long ride back. And this must stand as testament to the IT’s hardcore foodie cred, for tomorrow would see us rise at 6 once more for a last desperate visit to the Owl Woods….

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*Who is Jerome? Why, Jerome is our birding mascot:

Jerome the Stuffed Owl with Yours Truly

Jerome and Me

The second day of our Canadian adventure started far too early to be bright. By six in the morning we had risen, sucked down a quick cup of hotel coffee (shade grown, I was pleased to see) and brushed off the night’s accumulation of snow from the car in preparation for our first crucial stop of the day – the local Tim Horton’s, where I hoped to add the elusive maple-frosted doughnut to my stomach’s life list.

I know. That sounds stupid. One refined-flour-made, corn-syrup-sweetened, mass-produced doughnut may be expected to be very much like another.

On the other hand, some people would say that about sparrows, too.

Despite growing up so near the Canadian border, I was never a Tim Horton’s aficionado as a young lass – our family generally relied on the supermarket bakery to supply our doughnut-related dietary needs. Eventually Tim caught up to me, and franchises opened to much fanfare in the Big Apple in 2009 – but by that time I knew I could only be satisfied by the most Canadian of pastries, the maple-frosted doughnut which contained REAL MAPLE. Everything else, it seemed, could only risk comparison to DDs. But alas, none of the New York stores had the maple glazed doughnut, at least not when I went searching. The Inimitable Todd began to question my devotion to the search – were there really such things as maple doughnuts? I began to fear that perhaps the doughnut was a myth, or some fevered fantasy concocted out of my own culinary perversion. So I stepped into the Canadian pre-dawn slush and entered the store with trepidation.

Breakfast at Tim Horton's

My fears proved unfounded

After all that, you will understand that our failure to find the Gray Partridge was a bit of an anticlimax.

The Gray Partridge, like the Ring-necked Pheasant at the Olde Homestead, is not a native species. Introduced for the benefit of the hunting community, both birds have always had but a tenuous grip on their ABA list positions. With the ethos of scattering animals willy-nilly across the globe for “sport” in a (hopefully permanent) decline, and native predators like coyotes on the upswing, the Partridge is now a hard-to-find specialty bird. Our fearless leaders knew of an office park where a small flock frequently roosted, but when we arrived they were nowhere to be seen – either cleared out for the day or sleeping elsewhere. There was no time to stew in disappointment. We knew from the start that our chances were slender. And we had so much more to do.

Go to a tennis club parking lot, for instance. There were abandoned our vehicles and clambered over hard-packed snow to the edge of a creek, where a large flock of Common Goldeneye floated. This hardly seems worth the risk of slips and falls, you might say, when you saw Common Goldeneye just yesterday. And this is true. But these Goldeneye were different, inasmuch as they had among them a western visitor. I took a bit of scanning, but we were all eventually able to pick out a single male Barrow’s Goldeneye – a species that was also being reported at the time from Jamaica Bay, ironically. I have to say, though, that I ended up with much better looks (that is, any looks) on the tour than I would have trying to pick out a tiny bird riding a distant tide with my cruddy binoculars.


Digiscoped Duck

We savored this for a while, and picked up some additional waterfowl – the expected Mallards and a couple of Black Ducks and Common Mergansers – before heading back to the cars to seek the first owl of the day.

A Northern Hawk Owl is a small bird that typically perches on the tops of trees, telephone poles, and the like, and engages in blatant daylight hunting, more like a hawk than an owl. Go figure. It’s also typically a denizen of the far north, but known (and loved) for sometimes straying south to the haunts of humanity during the winter months, then picking out a small range and sticking to it despite the gawping of birders. Last year a Northern Hawk Owl pulled this stunt in Peru, New York, and nearly every birder in the Tristate area eventually made the trek to see it – except me. Now, I hoped, this error would be rectified.

So our caravan drove slowly through the little town of Moose Creek (yes really) with the eager eyes of passengers (and I suspect a few drivers, as well – but we were traveling pretty slow) scanning the likely perches for any signs of an owl. Not a feather did we find, despite crawling along so many small side roads that I began to worry that the locals would take us for kidney thieves or mobsters or possibly evil clowns.

Eventually we stopped and got the scoop from a local (friendly and confiding and not, that I could see, carrying any anti-clown weaponry on his person) who pointed out a few areas where the owl habitually roosted. We trudged up and down railroad tracks peering into coniferous trees, and followed the trail of the mighty herds of snowmobiles into fields. It was snowing a little.

Let me take a moment to talk about the snow. The English language has a serious inadequacy inasmuch as I am forced to use the same word to describe the cute thumb-sized gobs of frozen water cotton candy that blanketed New York last weekend and the tiny angry shards of ice that the wind carried like a switchblade that day. We stood in the field and trembled like poorly bred chihuahuas as a flock of snow buntings disappeared over a hill, probably laughing at us. The snow that was already on the ground had a frozen crust on it, cleverly calibrated to just barely not hold my weight. Eventually, even the lure of a potential Northern Hawk Owl could no longer hold people, and they began to drift back to the cars. Eventually, they became we, and back to the cars became driving away, and there was dispirited talk of lunch.

Then, on the main street out of Moose Creek, the entire caravan suddenly lurched to an awkward stop and we came tumbling out – still not like evil clowns – but like a group of birders who had just spotted the obscure object of desire on the top of a telephone pole. Speaking in hushed tones and crouching behind a handy building, we watched it sit, turn its head, hack up a pellet, and generally be an owl – in full view, giving fabulous looks, in the brazen (or actually more like silver in this instance) light of day.

“Now wait,” you may be saying to yourself at this point. “That sounds suspiciously like the climax of a narrative. Is this blogger – also a known fiction writer – creating a happy ending in a James Frey style? Has her Creative Nonfiction gotten too creative and not nonfictiony enough?”

Clever reader. I do love unreliable narrators; doesn’t everyone?

But in this case…. I have proof! Call me, Oprah!

Northern Hawk Owl

Yes, someone does need to clean his lens

We stared until the owl was thoroughly bored with us, then retreated to thaw out, refuel, and plan the next half of the day’s adventures.