May 2010

As Mick Jagger so memorably informs us, you can’t always get what you want. For instance, if it’s your last spring on the East Coast for the foreseeable future, you would want to go out in a blaze of warblery glory. You would wait for the good day that is always just around the corner, hoping for it to fall on a weekend. And then you head out one trip and realize that the good days are all behind you now.

Not that this past Saturday was not a good day. Just about any day spent birding with the illustrious Corey Finger is good. A day with a life bird is good, and another state bird on top of that is good also. And yet, the nagging hints that spring is well and truly over haunted our steps. Consider:

1. When I arrived at Jamaica Bay, I found Corey and a few other birders (whose names promptly escaped me, sorry!) watching a pair of courting Gull-billed Terns. The male was giving the female crabs. (Yes, we snickered about it later. Just because we have a respectable hobby doesn’t mean we’re grown-ups.)

2. We only saw and heard a handful of warblers despite hitting good habitat both at Jamaica Bay and later at Forest Park, among them the damn-near ubiquitous Yellow Warbler, the not-quite-but-nearly-as-ubiquitous American Redstart, and of course the Blackpoll Warbler. Blackpoll Warblers are to predicting the end of migration as color-coded homicidal horsemen are to more traditional forms of eschatology: if you see four or more, it’s not a good sign.

3. The full complement of summertime long-legged waders was present, with the exception of the Tricolor Heron (always a corner case) and, oddly, the Green Heron. In particular, there were notably large numbers of Yellow-crowned Night Herons and a couple of fine-looking Little Blues. There was also a White-faced Ibis, but that doesn’t say anything in particular about the time of year – just that it was a good day for Carrie.

4. Corey spotted a Cardinal feeding fledged young.

5. The Queens Ravens, which gave us fabulous looks. Both parents and young. Because the young looked about ready to jump out of the nest at any second. Yes, if all goes well those little ones too will soon be fledged, marking the completion of the first recorded breeding for the species in the recorded history of the City of New York.

1+2+3+4+5 = Spring is over. (Also, 15.)

A few more migrants may trickle through, and I can still hope to pick up some goodies during the breeding season (Orchard Oriole in Prospect Park, Hooded Warbler at the Olde Homestead, etc.) There may even be an exciting post-breeding wanderer or two waiting to join my New York State list before the end. But the Cape May warbler has earned the right to taunt me from the perch of a nemesis bird.

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[I thought I hit publish on this on Thursday. What gives?]

So in a surprise twist that I’m sure will shock everyone, last weekend, I went birding! Central Park, where the Inimitable Todd was running a 10k race. The persistent winds from the Northwest had finally given way, letting the no-doubt hungry and, shall we say, frustrated neotropical migrants flow north towards their breeding grounds.

Because the A train was also messed up, I got off at the southwestern corner of the park, rather than my usual stop nearer the Ramble. Any inclination I might have had to grumble about wasting time was totally eliminated when the first large stand of trees I cut through proved to contain a gorgeous male Blackburnian Warbler and a Yellow-throated Vireo. A bunch of Magnolia Warblers were also bouncing around, but hey, they’re Magnolia Warblers, that’s what they do.

I headed up towards Strawberry Fields, where I failed to find a reported western Fox Sparrow or Kentucky Warbler but did find a lot more warblers, including Canada, Bay-Breasted, Black-and-White, Black-throated Green, and another Blackburnian, more Maggies, along with a flyover Scarlet Tanager and the expected enormous flocks of tourists.

A 10k race had started, so I had to cut up to Tanner’s Spring (Magnolia Warbler!) before I could cruise down to the Shakespeare Garden (early Blackpoll, more Redstarts) and thence to the Ramble (Northern Waterthrush, Ovenbird, Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, assorted thrushes). Then the race was over, and I left the park for brunch – but not until I’d finally spotted not one but two Black-throated Blue Warblers – male and female. These were my FoS for the species, and it was somewhat reassuring – I was starting to worry that in a Philip K. Dick-ian twist I might have imagined that the species ever existed, hallucinating field-guide descriptions, other peoples’ blog posts, etc. Or maybe it was freemasons again.

It was a fine day. But one thing that you will notice is that there were no Cape May Warblers in it. I wasn’t inclined to be bitter about this until I got home, and read the reports for Prospect Park – where two Cape May Warblers had been seen at Rick’s Place. Unfortunately, the next day was fully committed. Despite the general slowness of the spring, it seems like I’ve been enduring reports of Cape May Warblers trickling in from all over – except wherever I happen to be at the moment. Right at this moment, for instance, I am reading about a CMW that appeared in Central Park this morning, around the time I was leaving for work after having thought about packing my binoculars and then forgotten to.

I have no deep philosophical thoughts about this. It’s just pissing me off.

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Being a member of the full-time office working drone class imposes certain unfortunate constraints on birding. It prevents one, sometimes, from exercising the full degree of flexibility one would like. For instance, one may plan a trip to Jamaica Bay, only to have the day marred by a windstorm. In a perfect world, one would wait until the next day. In the world of work, one makes do with the weekend one has.

So, despite wind beating in the face of migration at 24 mph (with gusts up to 45 mph), we clambered from shuttle bus to subway train and then hiked out to Big John’s Pond. There I left the Inimitable Todd to another owl vigil while I searched for passerines and waterfowl. I discovered that while the wind may have stalled migration, it hadn’t forced the birds that had already arrived into hiding – Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds, and a very large number of Yellow Warblers. A few Ruddy Ducks and a single pair of Buffleheads were still present on the East Pond, along with the usual Gadwall, Mallards, and Mute Swan.

The most impressive sight, though, was the huge flock of swallows hunting into the wind – standing nearly still, in contrast to their usual M.O., only to suddenly wheel once they’d made some progress and zoom back the way they came even faster than usual. As they hung suspended I was able to consider them at length, but no Bank or Cliff Swallows, sadly, put in an appearance.

I circled back to join the IT, who had spotted a Black-crowned Night Heron, Canada Goose, and yet more Yellow Warblers in my absence – which wasn’t too shabby, considering that I’d neglected to leave him any binoculars. But he was still Barn Owl-less. As consolation, we walked back down to the East Pond to look at the Ruddy Ducks again (several were near breeding plumage.)

“This is nice,” I said.

The IT nodded in agreement. “Very peaceful.”

Out of nowhere, a leafy twig broke off the tree above us and splashed down in the pond, making us both jump back.

Wind with a sense of humor was a little too weird for us, so we decided to leave. But not without checking the owl box one more time. Big John’s Pond now hosted a single Solitary Sandpiper as well as the aforementioned birds. And, maybe, a baby Barn Owl?

I focused on the box. A shadow, perhaps, moved. Trying not to get overly excited, I handed off the binoculars to the IT, who peered into the darkness.

The darkness shifted. I could see it with my naked eyes, although not well. The IT, with the binoculars, made a number of very quiet but very excited noises, including “I see a wing!” After a while, I prodded him hard enough to get the binoculars back.

There was a lighter place in the darkness. And it stared at me with dark – but adorable! – eyes.

After a few more exchanges of the binoculars, the owlet settled down and went back to sleep. And we went home, observing Brant and Oystercatchers and Laughing Gulls from the train along the way.

The next day, we went to work. That was not exciting or worth posting about.

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Saturday was the first of May, a day traditionally given over to the celebration of labor activism and, as I learned from the great sage Robert Anton Wilson, al fresco coital activities. But for New York birders, it’s also a key date when you size up the spring migration so far, and the spring migration still to come.

Spring migration so far: Kind of cruddy, until April 30. On that day, a sudden push of warm air from the southwest was followed by a sudden push of really appealing field reports from around the city.

By the next day, many of them had moved on (and a few, like the reported Cerulean Warbler I chased to Prospect Park, were suspected to be illusory.) But there was still lots to see.

Up until this trip, my New York warblers for the year had been Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, Palm, and Pine. All lovely birds, to be sure, but not the species that make a spring. Up until now, winter had a hold, however tremulous, on the avifauna of Prospect Park. (The foliage was another matter altogether.)

But no more. Gone the Shovelers, Ruddy Ducks, and most of the White-throated Sparrows – gone, we hope, to fruitful breeding seasons on abundant home ranges to the north.

I spotted a Northern Waterthrush along the edge of the lake almost immediately. Crossing the path to the foot of Lookout Hill got me my first of season Common Yellowthroat. Not exactly mind-blowing, but a promising start.

Chimney Swifts arced through the air high above the hill, emitting their vaguely disconcerting chittering cries (I love these birds, but they do sort of sound like they belong in a zombie-themed video game.) Black-and-White Warblers circled the trunks of trees while Northern Parulas and Yellow-rumps picked at the leaves. At the top of the hill, I ran into a large birding group, and an even larger group of birds – more Parulas and Yellow-rumps, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-throated Green Warbler, and of course some of our year-round birds like Red-bellied Woodpecker and Mourning Dove. Coming down the other side added Gray Catbird and Baltimore Oriole to the list of incoming migrants, along with more Parulas, Black-and-White Warblers, and Waterthrushes.

Even at the time, though, something was odd. Though I heard a handful of Black-throated Blue warblers, I saw none – and I didn’t find so much as a hint of a Redstart (though others reported them from the park the same day.) No Ovenbirds, either.

But hey, the season is young.