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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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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Mostly, I like to bird alone. But sometimes, it’s fun to have a buddy. And sometimes, it’s important to have a buddy, as when you go in search of desperately confusing brownish birds in mid-molt in a realm of oppressive heat, man-eating insects, and sucking mud that has achieved not only sentience but a licensing deal with Marvel to appear as the next major supervillain opposite Captain America*. In fact, in that case, you don’t just want a buddy; you want a crack team of ultimate birding commandos who are prepared for anything.

Hence the convergence of birdbloggers (and tweeters, and so forth) at Jamaica Bay this past Saturday.

Despite threatening weather forecasts and dubious traffic conditions, ten hardy souls ultimately showed up:
myself
Corey from 10000 Birds
Chris from Picus Blog
BirdingBev of Behind the Bins (the instigator of the expedition)
Ann Marie, the iheartwarblers tweetist
Catherine of Birdspot
Scott of Peace, Caffeine, Linux (none of which, of course, are birds, although Linux does have a bird mascot)
Cindy from Living in Brooklyn – Longing for Maine
Laura from Somewhere in NJ
Jay from birdJam

We were well-equipped with water, bug-spray, sunscreen, field reports from Friday that indicated some goodies to be found. We also discovered that we were only one of four birding groups who were making the rounds of Jamaica Bay that morning! So really, there was surprisingly little danger of being sucked down by the mud and trapped helplessly until such time as the Great Black-backed Gulls decided I looked tasty.

The day started at the north end of the East Pond, where we almost immediately spotted the previously-reported Wilson’s Phalaropes, marking my first life bird for the day. Shortly thereafter we came upon a more surprising but no less welcome bird – a surprisingly self-confident Sora strutting around in broad daylight despite the crush of birder traffic. Here yet another advantage of group birding became evident – virtually everyone has better optics than me, and seeing this bird (only the second Rail to make its mark on my life list) through someone else’s scope was infinitely preferable to squinting vaguely at it through my binoculars or trying to get closer and spoiling it for everyone.

And THEN, a little further up, there was a stunning winter-plumaged American Avocet. The word stunning is actually kind of redundant when it comes to Avocets, and although this wasn’t one for my life list, it was new for me for New York. This particular Avocet was notably unconcerned by the many, many people staring at it. It was also notably unconcerned by the gigantic Snapping Turtle that spent some time cruising alongside it before heading off in search of deeper water and meatier birds (or perhaps small horses).

Past the Avocet was the first really difficult mud-slog of the day; I escaped with only the hems of my pants damaged, but not everyone was so lucky.

Then came the bigger challenge; the inevitable massive flock of brownish birds of varying shapes, sizes, and dimensions, all of which overlapped with all the others in at least one salient feature. I was able to use my mad shorebird skillz to pick out a Ruddy Turnstone, Least and Semipalmate Sandpipers, a trio of Willets and a mass of Dowitchers (Short-billed), a few Yellowlegs (both varieties), and one more lifer – a handful of Red Knots. Mass excitement was roused by a funny-looking bird that proved to be another Turnstone (an atypical juvenile) but no Stints or anything of that kind popped up a brownish little head. And, of course, the Black-bellied Plovers in the group were scrutinized vigorously, but none were obliging enough to turn into an American Golden-Plover.

Non-shorebirds included Mallards, Canada Geese, and Mute Swans (of course), Double-Crested Cormorant, Glossy Ibiseseses, Little Blue Heron, Forsters and Black Tern, and all the expected Gulls.

Then it was off to the West Pond, for more of the same (with Common Terns subbing for the Black) plus Great Blue and Tricolored herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, Northern Shovelers and their little cousins the Blue-winged Teal. These last formerly held the coveted position of Most Embarrassing Gap on my life list. But now they must yield that position to the Black-Billed Cuckoo or maybe Evening Grosbeak. They would also be my last life birds of the day. But the Peregrine Falcon that swung over and put them all to flight, the Osprey, the assorted Night Herons, etc. kept things interesting. The only sour note was the lack of land-based migrants – not a Flycatcher to be seen, only local breeders like Yellow and Common Yellowthroat representing for the Warblers.

Then it was time for lunch. A wise man once advised that you should never try to absorb an energy field larger than your head, and this proved eerily prescient when it came to the sandwich I wound up ordering. Sadly, much of it ended up going to waste, not only because it was an obscene amount of food, but because the swiss cheese involved was petrochemical. My milkshake, on the other hand, was delicious.

Back at Jamaica Bay, we tried the south end of East Pond – not much love there, but for a young Yellow-crowned Night Heron at Big John’s Pond and the lovely but uncountable Black Swan that’s been reported there on and off for years. Upon retuning to the visitor’s center, we saw that a Marbled Godwit had been spotted just when we were at lunch. A few hardy souls (including me, as it would have been a state bird for me) went in quest of it, but the formerly insanely high tide was now insanely low, and if the Godwit was around, it was out among the shimmering heat wave beyond the reach of even those with scopes.

Then I went home, had a bath, and slept for a million years. So you can tell it was a good time.

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*and you thought the Civil War arc was bad!

More on how I found the Curlew Sandpiper.

I took the train to Jamaica Bay – one of the coolest things about living in NYC is the number of birding sites accessible by subway – and then walked about 3/4 mile to the refuge. First I did the West Pond loop, though I knew that the bird was unlikely to be there, because I figured I needed a warm-up before tackling the East Pond. And boy, did I ever.

I’d never actually birded the East Pond before, because I’d previously always traveled to JBWR by bicycle, and that meant that I didn’t have all day to wander around if I wanted to get home before dark, since it’s almost twenty miles each way. Given my total lack of experience, it is perhaps not surprising that I was, shall we say, a trifle ill-equipped. Also, the visitor center map does not include the East Pond area at all, perhaps to prevent ill-equipped, inexperienced dorks like yours truly from going over there and getting sucked into the quicksand and perishing.

Oh yeah, by the way, they have quicksand.

I didn’t encounter the quicksand right away. First I had to navigate quite a distance of rough and mostly-unmarked trails. It was fortunate, I was saying to myself, that I’m much better at navigating in the woods than in the city… just as I stepped into a clearing I recognized and realized that I’d circled back on myself.

After I sorted that out, it was mostly tedious (though with the pleasant interruptions of a great many Yellow Warblers and a lovely male Towhee) until I made it to the point, nearly two miles further along, that I would have come in if I actually had a car. There I ran into two members of the Queens County Bird Club, whose names I unfortunately did not catch. I did, however, catch that they were both wearing knee-high boots and long pants…

Now, I am an extremely fortunate person inasmuch as I am not allergic to poison ivy, which apparently grows around East Pond in abundance. I am, however, allergic to tiny biting blood-sucking insects, which also grow around East Pond in abundance.

Another thing around East Pond in abundance (although not growing, hopefully, unless we’re in a Lovecraft story, which I am not ruling out) is stinky mud composed of five parts damp earth to four parts rotting plant material to one part goose shit (which is a highly advanced form of rotting plant material) (approximate formula) that is kept moist by the fluctuation of water levels in the pond. This mud is apparently great for the ecosystem of the pond; it was terrible for the ecosystem of my shoes. And, as I mentioned, in some places it composes itself into great sucking pits from which grown adults, if they once stumble in, cannot extricate themselves without help. All this the Queens birders explained to me as I trailed along carefully setting my feet in their exact bootprints.

It was here that the Curlew Sandpiper had chosen to hang out.

Alas for the sandpiper’s privacy, birders have more moxie than sense, and that includes yours truly. I navigated the mud flats without losing my shoes (though they were copiously befouled) and we finally spotted the bird on the other side of the pond. It was keeping company with some Stilt Sandpipers, and it was still in bright summer plumage, so it was fairly easy to spot. It was then that my second motive for tagging along with better-equipped birders came into play, since they were kind enough to let me look through their scopes when my binoculars provided an id-able but unsatisfying image.

The Curlew Sandpiper was apparently handling the pressures of celebrity well; it fed on, unconcerned, as a man on the opposite shore got within a few feet of it and photographed it. I, alas, got no such permanent mementos, only long looks; but on the other hand, we also spotted a Gull-billed Tern hanging out on the small island in the center of the pond, so it’s not like I have anything to complain about really.

Except the second-degree sunburn, and the insect bites, and my shoes. And the two mile walk back to the visitor center for water. But that just proves that I’m hardcore, yo.

Frustrated by my lack of Western Reef-heron, I decided to try for the city’s other newsworthy overseas visitor – the Curlew Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. At the cost of my Vans (I wanted a new pair anyway,) my skin (forgot my sunblock,) and about a quart of my blood (forgot my bug block too,) I got it! And a lot of other stuff as well.

Gray Catbird Dumetella carolinensis
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Double-crested Cormorant Phalocrocorax auritus
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
American Oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Great Egret Egretta eulophotes
Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Yellow Wabler Dendroica petechia
Cedar Waxwing Bombycilla cedrorum
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes *LL
Eastern Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus
Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker Colaptes auratus
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla *LL
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
Stilt Sandpiper Micropalama himantopus *LL
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea *LL
Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica *LL
Forster’s Tern Sterna forsteri
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla*LL
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
also many Peeps (sp.) and one Dowitcher (sp.)