No birds around here lately, unless you count me running in circles and flapping my flightless wings in despair of how much I still have to get done before the big trip to Montana!*

Not as many birds as usual in Prospect Park, either…. I was going to rant about it, but Corey has the low-down. Let me just say, GEESE DO NOT WORK THAT WAY. At best, eliminating all the geese within seven miles of the airport only ensures that the offspring of the geese eight or more miles from the airport have a nice cozy territory to call their own next spring, anyway.

*Protip: this does not make packing go any faster. It also doesn’t help when people want to skin you for a museum, boil you for oil, or execute you as a witch. The more you know!

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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.

Female Bufflehead by Mdf

Sea Duck Inshore

Sea ducks. The phrase sets a certain type of birder (cold-hardy, salt-resistant, moderately insane) throbbing with anticipation. We have spoken before of the Long-tailed Duck, the Harlequin Duck, and other anseriform denizens of the briny deep. But there is one among the tribe that need not cost you your extremities, one pocket-edition sea duck that brings its tang of winter romance even to environs as calm as Prospect Park: the Bufflehead.

The Buffle in Bufflehead is short for Buffalo – the idea being that the bulbous shape of the male bird’s head in full display bears some resemblance to that of the American Bison, which is not a buffalo. Other things that named after the bison which is not a buffalo include Buffalo, New York (and by extension the Buffalo Bills, a notoriously non-champion American football team, and buffalo wings) and Buffalo soldiers (and by extension the Bob Marley song Buffalo Soldier, Ray Petri’s visual imaging company Buffalo, and Neneh Cherry’s hit song Buffalo Stance).

The male Bufflehead puffs up his head feathers, of course, as a pose to look sexy and important to other Buffleheads, very much like the characters in the song Buffalo Stance.

Unlike most other ducks, who are notorious rakes and libertines at best, the Bufflehead is prone to fidelity. Not only do mates stick with each other from year to year (unlike the characters in the song Buffalo Stance) they tend to return to the same nesting site as well – a tree cavity, usually an old Flicker nest. Just in case you were tempted to look to them as icons of family life – always a bad idea with birds – it should also be noted that they share a predilection for violent kidnapping with their cousins the Goldeneyes. When two female Buffleheads fight, the victor will often add some or all of the vanquished duck’s young to her own brood, perhaps in order to provide safety in numbers for her own offspring.

But all of this takes place in the boreal north. The vast majority of North Americans know Buffleheads as winter birds, floating in sheltered coastal areas and those inland waters that remain unfrozen. Though they are tiny and monochromatic, they can be an incredibly beautiful sight as they pepper the water, disappearing in dives and then popping back up like rubber bathtub ducks on the lead surface of the winter water. To me they are holiday ducks, since I generally see them on the Hudson from the window of the train while going from New York back to the Olde Homestead in the late fall and winter. Even at a distance and at speed, their dark-and-light pattern is distinctive.

If you know someone who is too frail, or too sensible, to chase the other sea ducks, show them a Bufflehead this February.

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American Buff-bellied Pipit by Mdf

A Pipit is a Pipit is a Pipit

On Sunday, I saw an American Pipit. Or a Buff-bellied Pipit, of the American subspecies. Or a Water Pipit, sort of. Normally, a series of caveats like that would keep a bird off a gal’s life list, but in this instance I definitely saw Anthus rubescens so it’s all good.

Back in the misty days of yore, when I bought the now-battered field guide that actually accompanies me to the field, there was only Anthus spinoletta, the Water Pipit. Its range was “Colder parts of N. Hemisphere. Winters to Cen. Ameria, n. Africa, s. Asia.” Like many birds with such vast ranges, it had a number of subspecies (seven, according to most of the authorities I can find), and these subspecies patronized different habitats and showed morphological differences sufficient for some ornithologists to advocate dividing the species into at least two as early as the 1950s. By 1989, the AOU was on board with a 3-way split, with a group of birds that favored wet European and southern Asian lowlands getting custody rights to both the common and the Latin name. Populations living on the rocky coasts of Britain and Europe were given the name Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus, and American birds, along with those from eastern Asia, were dubbed Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens.

Of course, taxonomy never really ends, and just to keep things interesting each of these new species encompasses several subspecies of its own, fractal-like. The Buff-bellied Pipit, has four: the American Pipit divided into Pacific, Rocky Mountain, and Rubescens races and the Japanese (or Siberian) Pipit. A donut-shaped territory with a giant hole in the middle, like that massive, passerine-unfriendly Timbit we call the Pacific, is quite conducive to genetic drift between populations, and by the time the Buff-bellied Pipit had been a species in the eyes of the AOU for a decade, some ornithologists were already calling for it to be further split between the American complex and the Asian. (For more discussion on identifying, or failing to identify, subspecies of Buff-bellied Pipit, see this article at Surfbird.com.)

It is believed (although not conclusively proved) that A. r. rubescens is the subspecies most likely to be found in the eastern U.S. in winter. Typically they band together in flocks outside the breeding season, but the individual in Prospect Park didn’t know that, or perhaps s/he was merely suffering from an identity crisis of some kind. Although, really, it’s hard to imagine anything mattering less to a bird than what we call it in Latin. So it’s more likely that this bird was lost, separated from a larger group by mischance, bad weather, some slight injury – who knows? At any rate, it found a place on the Long Meadow where fences keep human and canine alike off the newly reseeded lawn, and there it has stayed for the past two weeks.

It walks alone, nearly invisible despite the short grass unless you know what you are looking for, streaked and gray-brown against a streaked gray-brown palette of earth and grass. It picks winterized insects and grass seeds from the dirt one at a time, pausing between each to eye the observer suspiciously. All descriptions of the species say that it bobs its tail, but this hardly does the motion justice – its entire rump moves up and down continually.

It was nearly the only species I spotted in Prospect Park last Sunday, with less than an hour to spend – Robins and Blue Jays and Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows and a single Ring-billed Gull were its list companions – but as you can see, it contains legions.

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Pipit by Mdf.

The morning is cold, and it’s damp, although not the buckets-from-the-sky affair that yesterday was. Dawn is getting later and later. The lawn seems bare of birds, except for a single female Flicker. Overhead, a white-tailed young Red-tailed Hawk calls. It’s my first return to Prospect Park since my overwhelming San Diego adventure (conclusion pending) and things seem quiet, despite favorable overnight winds and gushing reports of a wild sparrow bonanza the previous day.

Could I ever readjust to land? Could I go home again? Or was I, like so many birders, doomed to eternal restlessness, always investing somewhere else with the glamor of new birds and new experiences?

There’s a movement at the corner of my eye, and an off-leash dog bounds towards me (not an issue you have to deal with on pelagics much.) And as it does, scores of brown and yellow sparks fly up from the still-green lawn, each giving a high sharp note of alarm, and stream over my head to the nearest tree.

As sparks fly upwards

The Palm Warbler is so common that a lot of birders never stop to think just how odd they really are. Despite the name, they have more stomach for cold weather than many of their cousins; they migrate early in the spring, late in the fall, and nest in northern Canadian bogs and pines rather than in their namesake trees. Like the similarly hardy Yellow-rumped Warbler, the Palm pulls off its extended temperate sojourn by switching to fruits and seeds when cold knocks down most of the insects that make up their summer diet. (Interestingly, the Palm Warbler shares spur on the Dendroica family tree with the Yellow-rump – but also with the more traditional Black-throated Blue and the sun-loving, southern Yellow-throated Warbler.) But while the Yellow-rumped Warbler still tends to stick to the trees, the Palm Warbler throws wood-warbler-ness to the wind and gets down on the ground, often sharing seedy parkland and edge habitats with flocks of sparrows.

Like right now, for instance. Roughly half the brown sparks are warmed with reddish tones; Chipping Sparrows on their way to winter in Florida or even further south (or perhaps just waiting for Halloween to change into American Tree Sparrows and trick-or-treat us all into filling our feeders.) The other half glow more-or-less yellow. That more-or-less covers a vast range – both metaphorically and literally, as the yellower birds are eastern breeders and the more whitish ones hail from the west.

I watch the birds settle into the nearby shrubs and weeds, picking around for late bugs and grass seeds to occupy their time until the dog moves on. Most of the Chipping Sparrows have gone high, but the Palm Warblers are more confiding – indeed, I’ve always found them to be the most trusting of warblers, often allowing full minutes of unobstructed viewing. Their habitat and incessant tail-bobbing makes them easy to pick out even before I spot the rusty cap and yellow under-tail coverts. So, rather than wasting precious time scrabbling through my field guide or wracking my brain to remember which eyestripe belongs to whom, as I might with some other species of fall warbler, I just enjoy them. And if they were unfamiliar, if I was never in a place where I saw them every trip for a month or more at a time, would I be able to do that? Not as easily.

As the sun gently dries the grass and Flickers flick overhead, the Palm Warblers and I sit in the weeds. I don’t need any more glamour than that right now.

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Swan riot rocks Brooklyn

“The couple in the southern end of the lake, raising four brown cygnets, are trying to drive out the other family, which has one cygnet. The southern father — wings beating, back hunched and neck extended — streaks across the lake with a wake behind him and repeatedly jumps on members of the other family. It looks as if he’s trying to drown them. Sometimes he has the help of the mother and their offspring. All appear to be males, and some are almost as large as their parents.”

Honestly, considering the Mute Swans’ propensity for violence, I’m surprised that the two pairs ever managed to co-exist at all. I’m also surprised at the people who think it’s a good idea to step into the fray between thirty-pound birds with bone-cracking wings and the intent to commit mayhem for reproductive glory. One wing to the crotch and they could win a Darwin award of their own.

Plus, hello, Mute Swans. Invasive, obnoxious, probably crypto-monarchists. Like when the Cowboys play the Redskins, the correct reaction is to root for both teams to lose.

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In the birding stock market, pelagics attract the day traders – their risks are high (expensive, can be scuttled instantly by bad weather, you might spend more time leaning over the rail than watching birds) but so are the potential rewards (Tropicbirds! Albatrosses! Species of petrel believed to be extinct since the 1800s!) They also represent one of the few ways that the all-conquering savanna ape H. sapiens can experience what it is to be small in the face of an element that is still, defiantly, not ours. When that last strip of land disappears over the horizon, even the sturdiest boat suddenly seems very, very small.

Renting a paddleboat at Prospect Park is nothing like that, of course. But it is a lot of fun!

The Inimitable Todd and I started our mini-pelagic near the Wollman Rink, and headed up the Lullwater. Plenty of the usual Mallards and Canada Geese crowded the shores, waiting for handouts. A small family of Mute Swans were less forthcoming, and the male got downright testy when our imperfect steering brought us too close for his taste.

What are YOU looking at, buddy?

What are YOU looking at, buddy?

Further up, we found ourselves in the flight paths of many Barn Swallows – a lot less threatening than the Swans, but equally fearless. The sunning turtles, on the other hand, were dubious about our intentions.

Dont make eye contact, maybe theyll go away....

Don't make eye contact, maybe they'll go away....

And of course there were herons. While we didn’t run into any of the wildly out-of-place post-breeding wanderers that I discussed earlier, we did see several Green Herons (which bred successfully in Prospect Park this year) and Black-crowned Night Herons.

The Lurking Heron would make a good story title...

The Lurking Heron would make a good story title...

So, for mid-August in Prospect Park, it was a pleasant, birdy day on the water.

But nothing like what’s coming in September, when the IT and I head to California for a REAL pelagic!

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