[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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It seems absurd for me to get Western Tanager before Summer Tanager, but so it goes, like my man said.

The parallels between this bird and my last passerine lifer, the Scott’s Oriole, are eerie. Both, having wound up on the wrong side of the Continental Divide due to some sort of migratory map-reading error, found themselves in Manhattan. Both looked around and betook themselves to parks where, to compensate for the relative lack of insect foods, they took to pirating meals from the wells of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Both of them took advantage of this bounty by sticking close and staying regular, which meant that both of them were absurdly easy to twitch, the more so as both of them picked locations in easy walking distance of subway stops.

If only we could teach Tufted Ducks to do that.

I hadn’t birded Central Park since I changed jobs, and I wouldn’t say I really birded it today either – I was the bad naturalist today, I came in and got my target and got out, like a Front 242 song. But at least I did a proof-of-concept on the kind of subway shenanigans that would ensue from a Brooklyn-to-Central-Park-to-Astoria commute. Let’s just say that I’m going to have to get up pretty early in the morning this spring.

The Tanager hirself was a sweetheart, with big bold wing-bars and a nice light head. Zie also had what struck me as a fairly light-colored beak, but it might have been the sun. Now that I think about it, I can’t remember ever having really looked at Tanager beaks before – usually when I see one it’s just like “Whoa! Shiny!” See? Like I said, bad naturalist.

Anyway, welcome to my life list, #251.

American Robin Turdus migratorius
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana *LL
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Northern Junco Junco hyemalis

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But first an aside: the starling story I mentioned has been accepted for Phantom, an anthology edited by Paul Tremblay and Sean Wallace, coming from Prime Books this summer. It’s entitled “Invasive Species”.

Ok, ok, the binoculars. Minox 8×42; much lighter, brighter, and sharper than the pair I’ve been carrying around for most of the last decade. I’d been considering the purchase for awhile, but my trip to Prospect Park with Corey and Mike of 10000 Birds convinced me that I was missing a lot of action by, well, not being able to see the action.

It just so happened that I had an appropriate chunk of money coming to me, due to my participation in an NYU medical study to determine if a popular malaria drug also protects against sun damage to the skin. My heritage being Irish and Polish, I am a veritable Pasty McSunburn and I spend every summer on an often-futile quest for the latest and greatest sunscreen products. So I figured I would be paying it forward by contributing to this research.

The downside was that a study to detect changes in the subjects’ skin requires pieces of, well, skin. Multiple punch biopsies, taken from that bit of my anatomy that is broadest and least exposed to the sun in the course of normal events. Ouch. I’ve dealt with skin biopsies before, so I was unconcerned. But people I told about it seemed to react with universal horror, culminating in my brother’s offer over Christmas to just give me $300 next time I needed it that bad. So I figured that I better spend the money on something nice, something I could point to years from now and get people to say, yeah, that was worth it. Well, at least obsessive dorks like me.

Thus, the new binoculars. Which I literally obtained by selling a piece of heiney*.

Took them to Central Park yesterday to get in practice with them. I still had a small, forlorn hope of seeing a Common Redpoll, and an equally faint inkling that the Ramble might be harboring an American Woodcock or two. Neither idea would bear fruit, although it did snow in appropriate Redpoll style a little bit and I did see that other, showier early spring migrant, a male Red-winged Blackbird. But the binoculars themselves were awesome. I could see for miles, as the Who would say.

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinus
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Goldfinch Cardeulis tristic
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

*The Marxist-feminist analysis would suggest that I also got my last pair of binoculars that way, since The Inimitable Todd bought them for me for Christmas.

Well, my delay yesterday did me no good whatsoever, as it was still raining when I got to Central Park this morning. It was a pretty light rain, though, and I entered the Ramble with hope in my heart. The usual White-throated Sparrows, a small but energetic flock of Tufted Titmice, and a very bedraggled Mourning Dove all reassured me that the birds were here, even if viewing conditions were less than ideal.

I headed down to the feeders, where things were hopping. Lots more Titmice, plus American Goldfinches, Black-Capped Chickadees, and a White-breasted Nuthatch. As a bonus, a fly-over by a hardy Great Blue Heron – my first of the year. I was prepared to just spend some time waiting and hope that a Common Redpoll showed up.

But what showed up was an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk, putting a damper on everyone else’s breakfast. Were it not so serious for them, it would be hilarious the way the Titmice froze, like a find-the-hidden-picture puzzle. The Chickadees likewise froze, the Goldfinches had vanished altogether, and obviously no Redpoll in its right mind was going to choose this moment to fly in for a snack.

I spent a while studying the hawk (he had a picture-perfect square tail,) but it became clear that he was prepared to outwait me and the Titmice alike and I realized that I had to move on if I was going to see any more. Ever since the Mourning Dove Incident I’ve been more mindful about carelessly flushing birds when there might be a predator lurking about, so I edged past the feeders very slowly. This not only had the intended effect (all the Titmice stayed frozen) but a little further on, still moving with care, I spotted two Carolina Wrens foraging in the shelter of a fallen log and a Brown Creeper trusting to luck and hir camouflage for protection.

I proceeded around the Ramble, carefully inspected the sweetgum and locust trees, but aside from a small gang of Blue Jays nothing turned up but more of the same. Will this entire massive irruption year pass me by? Tune in next week, when we both continue to find out.

Species:

House Sparrow Passer domesticus

Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura

White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis

European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus

White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis

Canada Goose Branta canadensis

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus

American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic

Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus

Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

Brown Creeper Certhia americana

Rock Pigeon Columba livia

Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata

My trip to Central Park to look for Common Redpolls was called on account of rain (I’ve now officially run through my whole stock of baseball metaphors, by the way. Stephen Jay Gould I will never be.) So instead, here’s a link to a 2005 article on the history of Screech Owls in New York City, including an account of the reintroduction efforts in Central Park, from the online journal Urban Habitats.

I first heard about the Central Park Screech Owl reintroduction on a Brooklyn Bird Club trip in 2006. I had only just moved to the city in fall of 2005, and in my rural-nurtured naivety I was shocked that Central Park was ever lacking Screech Owls to begin with.

My experience up until then had led me to regard Screech Owls as rather hardy and people-tolerant birds. One regularly roosted in the hay loft of my family’s barn from about 2000 until the barn burned down in summer 2007; this being a space that was used daily by people, dogs, and cats, and often sheltered motor vehicles in inclement weather. When I was in Ithaca, another bird turned a lot of heads by spending several days sleeping in the ivy on one of Cornell’s administrative buildings, in plain view of the road. The sheer difference in magnitude of human disturbance that Manhattan represented was a bit difficult to grasp even when I looked straight at it, like one of those presentations on the size of interstellar space where the Earth is the the size of a dog louse.

Happily, the owls still persist in Central Park. Less happily, they are still fairly precarious – they don’t even rate the “expected species” list for Central Park from NYCBirdReport.com.

One of the big tensions is between publicizing the owls – in order to educate the public, get them into the recovery effort, and facilitate getting data from “citizen scientists” (aka people who see stuff) – and keeping their location undisclosed – in order to protect them from evil-doers, but also from people who might get too into them, and pull stunts like this. I’ve heard tales of people hassling rarely-seen owls like Great Grey, but Screech Owls? Really?

I have to admit, I’m a little jealous of the good people of Boston. I know that snow causes traffic wrecks, depression, and myriad other evils (hey, I’m from Buffalo) but within me, a cruel and seductive logic whispers that I’m not going to see my Common Redpoll unless there’s at least an inch of fluffy white on the ground, plump flakes are drifting out of the sky, and all the tree branches are coated like they’re posing for a Christmas card.

And that could be true, for all I know, because I sure didn’t see any Redpolls today, nor Pine Grosbeaks, nor yet any Bohemian Waxwings. I found a promising flock feeding in a hawthorn tree – mostly American Robins, with a handful of House Finches – but alas, it concealed no boreal tag-alongs. It did draw the attention of a Cooper’s Hawk, who made a nice low obliging fly-over and sent the Robins coursing away in a panic.

With the Cooper’s Hawk, along with an assortment of usual but new-for-the-year winter ducks on the reservoir (hightlighted by a Hooded Merganser who had pulled up onto the shore with a flock of Mallards for one of those super-close, leisurely looks that I only get when I haven’t got a camera) my 2008 list stands so far at 38, 31 of which count for my BGBY. This means that I’m doing better than I was this time in 2007 (21), but am still lagging badly behind my January 2006 species count (52, which to be fair included 24 species from a Brooklyn Bird Club trip to Westchester.) Hopefully, buying a new bike this weekend will help kick-start things a little bit.

White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
American Coot Fulica atra
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Robin Turdus migratorius
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula

I picked up a handful of birds on my trip home (notably Wild Turkey) and my Saturday visit to the NY Botanical Garden in the Bronx (notably Northern Goshawk) but today was my first dedicated birding trip of 2008, a pleasant pre-work hour in Central Park. It’s unseasonably warm today, but the birds in evidence were mostly the usual suspects:

Rock Dove Columba livia
Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
American Robin Turdus migratorius
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus

There were two Red-tailed Hawks, actually. The one I saw better was an immature bird, which was being watched from a distance by an adult and from rather closer range by a mob of very angry Blue Jays. It looked very harassed.

I overslept, but that’s no reason not to get out there and look, right? Today was Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches out the wazoo.

Tomorrow apparently there’s a bird walk to go look for the Long-eared Owls. Going to have to get in on that*.

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Dove Columba livia
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Hermit Thrush Catharus guttattus
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
House Finch Carpodicus mexicanus
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Brown Creeper Certhia americana
Purple Finch Carpodicus purpureus

*Postscript: as it turned out, I was too hung over. Long story.

Here’s a special bonus two-trip entry, because my week has been insanely busy.

On Thursday, I went out to Prospect Park to clear my head before immersing myself in the kitchen. Initial disappointments, including a distinct lack of Pine Siskins at the Breeze Hill feeders and a falcon that flew overhead too rapidly to be positively id’d (based on size I suspect it may have been a Peregrine but can’t rule out a large female Merlin,) were swept away when I saw my life Red-necked Grebe on Prospect Lake. These grebes are rare but regular in the park and two individuals were seen this past spring, but I’m a little disappointed that no one else has reported this one. Nevertheless, it was a distinctive bird, with the silhouette, size, dark cap, and traces of red remaining in the plumage of the neck making for an id that I’m confident in. I also had a good mammal sighting in a melanistic squirrel.

Then I got back home to find that the stray cat we took in last month was delivering her kittens in the bathroom! Dinner, let alone posting my bird list, was necessarily somewhat delayed.

Rock Dove Columba livia
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
American Coot Fulica atra
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia alibicollis
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Falcon sp.
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Northern Shoveler Anas acuta
Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisigena *LL
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis

Friday I stuck close to home, but this morning I went to Central Park with Todd. While he trained for the marathon, I did a little walking through the Ramble and the Shakespeare Garden. I didn’t get a long list, but I did pick up Rusty Blackbird which I was afraid by this time I might have missed for the year.

Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Tufted Titmouse Baeopholus bicolor
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicolla
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Purple Finch Carpodacus purpureus
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Thrush sp?
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Northern Shoveler Anas acuta
Rock Dove Columba livia

I got lost in Central Park, oh yes I did. I think the cold wind coming off the Reservoir befuddled me or something. Of course, in the process of being lost I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk that brought my year list to 145, a very late Ovenbird, and a couple of other things as well.

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Dove Columba livia
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Wood Thrush Hylocichla mustelina
White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucoprys
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus
Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Northern Junco (Slate-colored) Junco hyemalis hyemalis
American Robin Turdus migratorious
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) Colaptes auratus
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
American Coot Fulica americana
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Double-crested Cormorant Phalocrocorax auritus
Great Black-backed gull Larus marinus
Gadwall Anas strepera
Bufflehead Buchephala albeola
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Northern Shoveler Anas acuta
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Ovenbird Seiurus aurocapillus
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius