If you would like to follow my further adventures in birding and natural history (this time with a co-author), please visit Field and Footnotes.
If you would like to follow my further adventures in birding and natural history (this time with a co-author), please visit Field and Footnotes.
Although it is now officially spring, Mother Nature appears to have missed the memo. The vernal equinox brought with it a good 3+ inches of snow, and we awoke last Saturday to yet another winter wonderland. Wet snow clung to the branches and covered the cars lining our street. Really? More of this? It would have been beautiful were it not such a familiar (god, so familiar) sight. Thankfully, though, by the time we arrived in Central Park in search of the morning’s quarry, the temperatures had risen and the snow was well on its way to melting.
When you are active in certain (all?) corners the internet, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across a woodcock parody video. It’s no surprise—they’re funny little birds! All fleshy, probing beak and giant eyes positioned at the tip-top of their heads…and then, of course, there are those moves. Woodcocks strutting to “Tequila”. Woodcocks jamming to Collective Soul. Woodcocks getting down to Daft Punk. Every time I think I’ve seen them all, a new iteration pops up…but until last weekend, I’d never actually seen one of the birds in the flesh.
Here in the Northeast, the American woodcock—known colloquially as the timberdoodle, mudbat, and bogsucker—is one of the first spring migrants that start passing through in March. It’s a sandpiper and a close relative of the snipe, but you won’t find it foraging along the seashore with the other members of the Scolopacidae family. As their various names imply, woodcocks like woods (and mud). During the day, they favor young, dense forests near streams or ponds; look carefully and you might find them strutting slowly through the underbrush, probing the moist soil for earthworms, their favorite prey. And in the crepuscular hours, if you find yourself in a grassy clearing, you might just be lucky enough to witness their elaborate aerial courtship displays.
While scoping out the feeders in the Ramble, we overheard a conversation between a photographer and young African American boy, maybe around middle-school age. Have they seen something interesting? We’re looking for woodcocks, we told the man. He replied that he didn’t know about those, but there was apparently an “American woodpecker” close by—“Very rare, you should go!” (Very rare indeed, as it doesn’t exist.)
Nevertheless, we headed southwest to where the boy had gone. And there, sitting silently in a stream bed and well camouflaged by the leaf litter, was our woodcock.
Earlier that day, I had been convinced that we would come away empty handed, as has been the case time and time again with the common redpoll that frequented the feeders all winter. But here it was, and so close to the path! It was smaller than expected, maybe the size of a dove or robin, but so round. I fell in love with the mottled feather pattern on its back and its giant, white-ringed almond eye.
“It’s a woodcock!” the boy whispered (he knows what he’s seeing), and we nodded excitedly. It was a first for all of us, and a welcome sign of spring.
Elizabeth and I came across this abandoned oriole nest at Croton Point Park this weekend while on the hunt for Bald Eagles (we saw six). It was dangling over the road by the park office, just barely hanging on to its branch—or so it seemed at first, because what a feat of engineering! How hardy it must be to have survived this winter! To have weathered the unrelenting ice and snow that have been battering the Northeast for the past two months. Birds, man. Birds.
Now that it is officially March, I find myself itching for migrants. I managed to go birding somewhat regularly this winter with weekend trips to Central Park and lunchtime walks to the harbor, but then February’s deep freeze set in. It’s hard to look for waterfowl on your lunch hour when the harbor is iced over. So I welcome with open arms this week’s tropical temperatures (and by that I mean it’s in the 40s and 50s).
Spring cannot come soon enough. Away, ice! Away, snow! Give me mud and petrichor.
“Elizabeth, do you want to go on a bird walk in the dead of winter to an abandoned airfield? Please, please, please?”
It should come as no surprise to you that she said yes.
Floyd Bennett Field, the decommissioned airport on the southern edge of Brooklyn, has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s one of the many places in the outer boroughs that I’ve been wanting to visit, but somehow the prospect of spending 4+ hours on public transit just to get there and back has always dissuaded me. And despite my love of barren landscapes, I didn’t necessarily want to roam the runways alone. But that Cassin’s Kingbird…those owls… Alas. So, when I saw that there was a NYC Audubon field trip to Floyd Bennett Field on “Superb Owl Sunday,” to be led by urban naturalist Gabriel Willow, I jumped at the chance.
The target birds for this trip were the so-called “snow birds,” avian visitors from the far north who can sometimes be found in the flat, tundra-like habitat of Long Island’s south shore and barrier islands: Snowy Owl, Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur, Rough-legged Hawk.
After a bumpy but surprisingly short drive on the Belt Parkway, we arrived at our destination. We began in a small parking lot by the ranger station, scouring a stand of pitch pines for birds and hoping that we’d be lucky enough to spot one of the Northern Saw-whet Owls that have been found roosting in the area. However, the diminutive owl was nowhere to be seen, and with the exception of one Downy Woodpecker and one Black-capped Chickadee, we came up empty.
We continued on in the van, driving slowly down the iced-over runways and scanning the fields for any sign of movement. Having searched for Snowy Owls before (with varying degrees of success), I was very familiar with how difficult it is to distinguish owl from white plastic bag, and let me tell you that it’s even more frustrating when said bags are adorned with yellow smiley faces. The elusive snowy plastic bag, taunting us with well wishes (“Have a Nice Day!!!”). Needless to say, we did not see any owls.
What we did spot, in great numbers, were Northern Flickers. They were everywhere, their yellow-shafted feathers flashing in the winter light as they flew about. In all, I must have counted at least 15 individuals along the runways, many probing for insects in the frozen ground.
(At this point, I should note that although birding by car is definitely not my favorite mode of birding, it was very nice not to have to traverse the 2-3 miles of runway on foot in February!)
Once we got our fill of flickers (and resigned ourselves to the reality that this would be Superb Owl Sunday in name only), we headed to the boat ramp overlooking Jamaica Bay. I was glad to leave the confines of the van and gladder still to spend some quality time with my favorite ducks. I find myself growing increasingly fond of waterfowl and am beginning to think it’s only time before I start researching spotting scopes.
This area did not disappoint. To the north of the boat ramp, Gabriel zeroed in on a raft of upwards of 50 Horned Grebe. Being so small, they were difficult to see without the aid of a scope, but once I got a look at them I began seeing their bright white cheeks everywhere. Also seen in this area were several Red-breasted Mergansers, some distant Red-throated Loons, a flyby Great Cormorant, Bufflehead, and a pair of American Wigeon. Looking south along the shore, we spied some female Common Goldeneyes and Greater Scaup (a taste of things to come).
At Mill Basin Inlet, we got some amazing looks at at least six Red-throated Loons swimming close to shore. These loons are more elegant than their “common” cousins, with dainty bills that point up in the air (as opposed to the Common Loon’s heavier bill that is usually held parallel to the water). A little hoity-toity, but lovely! My eagle-eyed girlfriend then spotted a dark raptor perched in a birch tree on the far shore, which turned out to be an immature Red-shouldered Hawk, a lifer for me—and my 200th species! As I privately celebrated, a Harbor Seal popped its head out of the waves and splashed around, as if echoing my delight. Yes, Mr. Seal, that’s exactly how it feels!
Before heading to lunch, we did one last sweep for Horned Larks by the Aviator Center—success! There were around 45 or 50 feeding in the grass—but no Lapland Longspurs—and we watched them from the van, careful not to spook them.
Once we finished warming up in the cafeteria, we crossed the Gil Hodges Bridge to see what Rockaway Inlet had in store for us. Upon our arrival we immediately noticed a huge raft of at Greater Scaup bobbing in the waves. (I have to say that I’m proud of myself for nailing all my scaup IDs recently.) As Gabriel combed through the flock of looking for Lesser Scaup, he came across a surprising find: a White-winged Scoter! I would have loved to have seen it, but it kept dipping out of view whenever the scope was passed to me. That was okay, though, as there were other exciting species close by.
The inlet was filled with Red-throated Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Bufflehead, clownish Long-tailed Ducks, Horned Grebes, and…wait, what’s that by the second pylon? Sitting low in the water, only it’s bigger than a Horned Grebe and smaller than a loon…and the the bill is heavy and yellow…with a very faint rusty wash on the neck. Holy shit, a Red-necked Grebe! Last year they were seen all over the New York area (except by this girl) but in general they’re pretty rare here. I got some great looks at it as it preened in front of us, as well as one truly terrible photograph. Without a doubt the highlight of my day (the bird, not the picture).
Fort Tilden was our final stop and our best bet at finding the other two scoter species or maybe a Purple Sandpiper. But the beach was pretty quiet, and all we saw were some Common Loons and some very (very) distant Black Scoters halfway across the horizon. It was getting cold by this point, so we packed up into the van and headed back to Manhattan, stopping briefly at the playing fields to watch one last flock of Horned Larks whirl about in the air.
All in all, a very satisfying day thanks to a stellar guide and a great group of fellow birders. We may not have seen any Superb Owls or Seahawks (no, those buteos don’t count), but that Red-necked Grebe! Wonderful.
Birding, for many of us, involves a lot of counting. Counting Canvasbacks on the pond or White-throated Sparrows hopping about in the underbrush. Counting down the days to a much-anticipated trip. Picking through hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls, hoping to find something—anything—that will make that hour you spent in the cold worthwhile. (But it’s always worthwhile, right? Well, I haven’t yet caught the gull bug, so maybe not that last one…)
Although I’ve been birding—and counting!—for a good 5 years now, I’d never before participated in a Christmas Bird Count. There are a number of CBCs in the New York metro area, but something always got in the way that prevented me from signing up. When I was just starting out, I was worried about slowing down more experienced or competitive birders, and when I moved to the city a couple of years ago, transportation and scheduling became more of an issue. This past year, however, I resolved to put a stop to this silliness—Christmas shopping be damned.
The 115th Annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count took place on Sunday, December 14. It was cloudy and cold, but there was no snow on the ground and no rain or snow in the forecast, so there was nothing stopping us from heading out of the apartment that morning. (I later heard that this was the best weather they’d had in years.) But despite our best efforts, E and I ended up running 15 minutes late; by the time reached the park, the 80 or so birders already congregated at the South Pump Station had already split up into groups
The park covers 843 acres, but it’s divided into seven sectors during the count: the Ramble, the Reservoir, the Great Lawn, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, and Northeast. My birding excursions are usually confined to the Ramble, with its twisting paths and “dense” (ahem, by NYC standards) woods, and the Reservoir just to the north, so I wanted to try somewhere new. After hemming and hawing, and a bit of confusion, E and I threw up our hands and went with the group with the friendliest faces: Southwest it was.
There were nine people in our group, all women (score!) and many of them staff members at NYC Audubon. It’s a good thing that they were such a welcoming group, as the Southwest sector is known for being, well, pretty damn dead. It has no real wooded areas or bodies of water that might attract a greater variety of birds and mostly follows West Drive down to Columbus Circle, then back up along the ballfields and Sheep Meadow. Useful knowledge to have for next year, but I don’t regret our choice! Good company made up for the lack of birds.
As we headed south along the bridle path towards 72nd Street, we came across one of the more interesting sightings of the morning: a baby opossum! The poor dear was cowering in a sapling as dogs and their humans ran by. After passing under the Riftstone Arch, we began our count. Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches were in abundance this year, in stark contrast to 2013, when only one of each were counted in the entire park. At Tavern on the Green, we came across our first Red-tailed Hawk, perched in a tree above the take-out window—which prompted a few in our party to purchase hot chocolate to warm their hands. A smart move. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Hermit Thrush added some more interest, but for the most part it was…pigeons. Lots of pigeons. And European Starlings. And House Sparrows.
After almost 4 hours of birding, we headed over to the Arsenal on the east side of the park to warm up, share results, and fill our bellies with soup. Groups argued over hawks—who saw what where? “Reservoir, your hawk was flying from the southeast at what time? Then it was probably the same bird that the Great Lawn reported at X hour.” Et cetera, et cetera. And I am proud to say that although our sector reported nothing out of the ordinary, we did have the high count for Rock Pigeons, so that has to count for something! (Pure desperation, you mean? Oh…)
The final tally for the Southwest sector (based on my records, so consider this unofficial):
Canada Goose 7
Red-tailed Hawk 2
Rock Pigeon 130
Mourning Dove 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker 3
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Northern Flicker 1
Blue Jay 24
Black-capped Chickadee 2
Tufted Titmouse 17
White-breasted Nuthatch 8
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1
Hermit Thrush 1
Northern Mockingbird 1
European Starling 115
White-throated Sparrow 69
Northern Cardinal 4
Common Grackle 50
American Goldfinch 1
House Sparrow 129
Total Birds: 567
Total Species: 20
All in all, a fine way to end the morning. Until next year!
(I haven’t been able to do much birding these past two months—life got in the way, unfortunately—so here is a post that I meant to publish back in July! One last taste of summer before autumn sets in for good.)
Bartholomew’s Cobble lies at the foot of the Berkshire Hills in southwestern Massachusetts, just east of the Taconics. Being just a 10-minute drive from Falls Village, it’s a place that I visited countless times over the course of my childhood—but rarely as an adult, and never as a birder. A couple of summers ago my girlfriend interned at the historic house on the reservation, and whenever I picked her up in the evenings, I would always see at least one person with binoculars scanning the field or craning their necks up to the top of the trees. But I never got around to birding the Cobble myself. That finally changed this summer.
When I drove up to Sheffield one Saturday morning in early July, I had one thing on my mind: Bobolinks. I had never seen one before, and while not rare, these distinctive grassland singers are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, and their numbers have been declining across the United States over the last couple of decades. Just my luck, then, that the hayfields on top of Hurlburt’s Hill and between the Ashley House and Weatogue Road are home to Massachusetts’ largest nesting population!
Protecting this grassland habitat is an important part of the management plan put forth by the Trustees of Reservations. At Bart’s Cobble, as is the case with other known nesting habitats, mowing is timed to occur at the end of the breeding season, generally by early August. Although it may seem innocuous to some, the timing and frequency of haying has been identified as one of the primary causes of the decline in Bobolink numbers. But it is a fine line to walk: hay too early or frequently and you risk destroying the nests and unfledged young of grassland birds (not just Bobolinks, but Eastern Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows, as well); hay too late or infrequently and local farmers are jeopardizing their harvests—and their livelihoods.
Before heading out from the visitor center, we asked the ranger on duty about the current numbers. He told us that he tallied at least 50 that morning just walking through the field to do a preliminary count. Good. So we set out for the fields, hats blowing off in the wind, ears and eyes open and searching.
Casting my eyes over the hayfield, I quickly spotted a male in fine form, perched atop the swaying grass. And then another…and another…and another. With their straw-colored napes and striking black-and-white plumage, they reminded me of punk rockers in tuxedos. The Billy Idols of the bird world. Much like their Red-winged Blackbird cousins, female Bobolinks more resemble sparrows than your typical icterid, but they are no less lovely. Their heads and breasts are washed in a pale gold, and they blend in easily with the grass. I think they make a fine match.
We counted approximately 30 Bobolinks total (generally well balanced between male and female), all the while listening to a heady mix of the birds’ electronic burbling song and the buzz of insects. Above us, a particularly pugnacious Red-winged Blackbird chased a Common Raven across the sky, and Turkey Vultures circled a decidedly…fragrant…carcass in the woods close by. The rest of our walk was populated by the usual summer residents, including Indigo Bunting, Ovenbird, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Wood Pewee, Scarlet Tanager, Tree Swallow, and one lovely Virginia Ctenucha specimen. But none of them, not even the Bunting, matched the Bobolink in my book. Rock on.
On summer weekends, it is not the beach that calls to me, but the woods—lovely, dark, deep, and far from the noise and congestion of Long Island. And so, earlier this month, I went as I often do to the woods of Northwest Connecticut, where my family has a summer house. The house is part of what was once a bustling Methodist camp meeting ground in the 1800s; eventually tents gave way to about 60 small cottages in the Victorian painted lady style arranged in a double circle around a grove of towering cathedral pines. Fervent believers were replaced by summerfolk escaping the city, but there is still a chapel in the center of the grove, and the bells still ring at 11 o’clock every Sunday.
My father’s family started spending summers here in the 1950s, first in a cottage in the inner circle of the grove, and later on a sometimes forgotten spur heading deeper into the woods. That’s our cottage, the Needle Edge. Perched precariously on top of a rocky foundation, it has no insulation and only an ancient propane heater to heat its century-old bones; it is rustic in all senses of the world. Even in high summer, when the air is heavy with mosquitoes and approaching storms, it is a good 10 degrees colder (and damper) inside than out. The sharp smell of mildew (care of a pine tree that fell through the roof during a storm some 20 years go) hits you as soon as you walk into the kitchen from the back porch, and then the chill starts to seep into your bones. We call it the family moldstead, and still I love it.
When not out exploring the backroads and cobbles of the Berkshires, I sit on the porch, sometimes with a book and sometimes without. I note the singers in our summer chorus: Veery, Hermit, and Wood Thrush; Eastern Phoebe and Wood Pewee; an insistent Ovenbird; the drum of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the whir of a thirsty Ruby-throated Hummingbird.
I like to watch the hummingbirds do battle over the sugar water we put out for them. We’ve never managed to attract hummers at my parents’ house, but here they never fail to come within 5 minutes of filling the feeders. For a while I found this perplexing; here we are in the deep woods, with nary a blossom to be seen, and yet the minute we put the feeders out we hear the familiar burry buzz of wings! But of course they wouldn’t subsist solely on flower nectar; the woods around us readily provide a smorgasbord of tree sap and mosquitoes. They do just fine without us.
At night in bed, I hear the descending, trilling whinny of Eastern Screech Owls and the who-cooks-for-yoooou from a Barred Owl. And the neverending chorus of frogs. Years ago there were coyotes, but we haven’t heard them since I was a kid—and no, I don’t mind that at all. It’s pitch black outside, and there are no streetlights by our cottage. A coyote would not be on the list of things that I’d want to encounter while walking my dog at night.
or, in which we almost see a Swainson’s Warbler
Almost. If we had been there a day earlier. And had been really lucky. (One day, one day.)
Neither my girlfriend nor I are extremely confident drivers. I put off learning to drive for years out of fear of the maze of interchanges and highways that make up the New York metro area, and E is more used to driving in rural, sparsely populated areas. However, in preparation for our Midwestern road trip (now come and gone), we decided to make an effort to put more miles under our belt in May. Our first task: 1) Leave New York City; 2) Do it without dying; 3) Explore a new natural area. If we’re going to deal with the traffic on George Washington Bridge, we might as well do some birding in the process, right?
After researching the heavily birded areas that lie along I-80, our planned route, we eventually settled on Garret Mountain Reservation on the outskirts of Paterson, New Jersey. Forty minute drive from Queens (check), popular migrant stopover (check), and the opportunity to reenact my favorite Richard Shindell song? Check.
Although we got off to a later start than anticipated, the drive out of the city was uneventful. (Take that, Shindell.) From the highway, Garret Mountain seems less a mountain than a hill, and I was momentarily worried that this wouldn’t provide the escape from civilization that we were hoped for. Well, it was no wilderness, but it turned out to be the perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
After parking at a terraced parking lot near the entrance, we made our way down to Barbour’s Pond, following in the footsteps of another binocular-toting couple. Above us, Gray Catbirds were meowing, Red-winged Blackbirds were angrily chucking away, and Warbling Vireos were singing their little hearts out. I will always love Warbling Vireos; they may be drab little birds, but their song more than makes up for it. (And they were the first vireos that I was able to identify by song alone!)
As we walked along the shoreline, we ran into another birder who asked if we were there looking for the Swainson’s Warbler that was reported the day before. Swainson’s Warbler, you say? Since when do they come to New Jersey?! Swainson’s Warblers breed in the Southeast and their range barely extends to Virginia. I would never dream of seeing one in these parts…or ever.
It was just as well that I’d neglected to check the eBird reports before driving out, as the bird had apparently moved on by the time we arrived. But oh, how wonderful would it have been to have gone to this mountain on a whim—as driving practice!—only to see such a rarity? Instead of being disappointed at missing out, I was thrilled that we had come so close to seeing one without even knowing it.
While watching a Spotted Sandpiper feeding along a sandbar, I suddenly noticed that a group of birders and photographers had started to gather by a stand of trees that we’d previously overlooked. What was it? A Hooded Warbler! I A very kind birder pointed him out to use and we got some very good looks (but no pictures). That was a lifer for me, and one that I had been hoping to see this year. He flitted around the underbrush and at one point perching very considerately on a branch right in the open.
After we had gotten our fill, our new acquaintance offered to take us to a spot where a Least Bittern had been seen over the past couple of days. We struck out on the bittern, but it I was touched that this more experienced birder took the time out of his day to introduce us to the various hotspots and nesting locations on Garret Mountain.
Later that afternoon, we wended our way up some trails to get away from the sun and perhaps catch a few more warblers and thrushes. A short way up the hill, we found ourselves a nice resting place on a rocky ridge. And there we sat, listening to a surreal mix of Veeries, Hermit Thrushes, Red-eyed Vireos, and hip-hop from a far-off barbecue. Our high vantage point allowed us peeks up into the canopy that we otherwise would have missed, and we got some great looks at a male Canada Warbler, my first of the year.
This was not the start to the day that I had imagined. In an ideal world, I am a morning person. In an ideal world, I arrive half an hour early to birding trips, giving me ample time to scope out the area on my own and maybe even track down that Yellow-throated Warbler I’ve been hearing about. In an ideal world, the 7 train runs on time and is not jam-packed with cyclists early on a Sunday morning. I do not live in an ideal world.
It was 8:05 in the morning, and I was running late for a much-anticipated Central Park excursion with my hometown Audubon group, cursing under my breath at the Five Boro Bike Tour that had delayed my train. Despite the chill in the air, I had already managed to work up a sweat from running three city blocks laden down with binoculars, camera, field guide, and water bottle. My anxious inner monologue was just beginning to get going after I jaywalked across Madison when I heard it. Not halfway across the block to 5th Avenue, and I could already hear the chorus of birdsong ringing off the ornate facades of the embassy buildings that abut the park.
…old sam peabody, peabody, peabody…
Come in, come in, come in, the sparrows—and they were my sparrows, the White Throats—seemed to say. It’s cold out now, but it will be a good morning.
So I did, and it was. I may not be a morning person, but I think if I spend enough years doing this I just might become one.
After weeks of waiting, the trees have finally begun to leaf out (though not so much as to obscure the birds), and the woods were lush with spring ephemerals: mayapple, trillium, wild ginger, Virginia bluebells. I honestly don’t mind that Central Park is a bit of a zoo this time of year; I can go other places if I want a solitary communion with nature. When a mad rush of migrants descends on the only green space for miles around, the resulting crowds are almost as much of a spectacle as the birds themselves. I’d take this over Times Square any day of the week.
We spent almost 4 hours birding the Ramble, and I think I could have stayed longer had it not been for my aching feet. It was an overcast morning, which at times made it nearly impossible to distinguish colors against the bright white backdrop of sky, but the warblers were there; oh, they were there.
Black-and-white Warblers were everywhere, creeping along tree trunks right at eye level, and Common Yellowthroats skulked behind their black masks in the underbrush. An Ovenbird strolled along the perimeter of a chain-link fence. Along the water’s edge, a Northern Waterthrush wagged its tail as it criss-crossed a stream, and later I saw the same bob-bobbing action from a handsome Palm Warbler with his natty rufous cap. But the main action, of course, came from on high: American Redstart and Northern Parula, Nashville and Magnolia, Yellow and Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green, Prairie, and finally—a fitting denouement—the lovely Chestnut-sided Warbler.
That darn Blackburnian Warbler continued to elude me, and I never did get a decent good look at the Canada, but I didn’t mind; fifteen species of warbler is a not a bad way at all to start the day! We also got very nice views of two Scarlet Tanagers, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak just hangin’ out in the grass, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, Baltimore Orioles, Hermit Thrush, and a whole host more. Here is hoping that the rest of the month is just as productive as this morning was.
And if you hear a Red-eyed Vireo singing his song (“Here I am. Where are you? I’m up here. In the tree!”), you can tell him that I’m in the park, looking up.
Last weekend, I found myself with a sudden inexplicable longing for shorebirds. This was somewhat surprising for me, as you’d think I would have been instead seduced by those reports of a Cerulean Warbler in Central Park. Was it foolish of me to think that those jeweled songbirds would stick around for another week? Perhaps, but more will come (she says to herself); the need to spy on long-legged waders was too much for me to resist.
I was off to Jamaica Bay.
It’s an hour-long ride on the Q53 from Woodside to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge—not everyone’s idea of a good time, but to be honest, I’m rather fond of like it. (Part of this must come from my not having to rely on the bus system on a regular basis, I’m sure.) I like seeing the different parts of Queens where I otherwise haven’t ventured. The bus follows Woodhaven Boulevard through Elmhurst and Rego Park, Woodhaven and Ozone Park; it’s an endless stream of people coming on and off, stop and go, Chinatown and chrome-plated bodegas. It’s a congested, built-up, and somewhat lurching route to find yourself on at any time of day. Once you hit Howard Beach, though, everything starts to open up—and then you cross the bridge, and you are in another world.
Like so many of New York City’s green spaces, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is not quite as “natural” as it appears at first glance—but then, what wild landscape can you truly call untouched? From the West Pond, you can see the Freedom Tower just over the horizon and the Verrazano Bridge looming in the distance. And every so often, the racket from above is not from a Laughing Gull, but a cargo plane taking off from JFK, soon to be jetting off over the Atlantic.
It’s a peculiar, wonderful place—and a vital stop on the Atlantic Flyway, home to an immense diversity of species. The East and West Ponds, the two large freshwater/brackish ponds in the refuge, may be manmade but they play a critical role in an ecosystem that has lost 99% of its freshwater marshes to development and pollution. Or they did.
The refuge was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the damage is still very evident. The East Pond has been repaired by now (proximity to MTA-owned tracks will do that for you), but it is impossible to ignore the gaping 100-foot breach in that now bisects the West Pond Trail. Salt water from the surrounding bay now flows freely into the West Pond, effectively turning it into a tidal lagoon. The salinity levels are now high enough that the pond can no longer support freshwater species. It is a shame, and I can only hope that the National Parks Service be convinced to act quickly to prevent further damage.*
This was my first trip of the year to Jamaica Bay and Elizabeth’s first visit ever. I always like seeing the diversity of visitors there: birders young (!) and old (but of course), nature photographers, and New Yorkers of all races, all happy to be out enjoying this rare spot of calm. And there were no massive groups of people to navigate around that day, for which I was grateful. I find that as my field skills are improving (slowly but surely!), I’m growing increasingly fond of birding in smaller groups, or simply on my own. On this day, it was nice to be there with just the two of us; we could take our time and linger for as long as we pleased, without feeling like we needed to hit the next spot before we run out of time. I may add fewer species to my lists than I would on a guided walk, but I see more.
We saw 29 species total, with a good handful of them being year birds for me. Highlights included Glossy Ibis, Tricolored Heron, Yellow-crowned Heron, American Oystercatchers, Greater Yellowlegs, Boat-tailed Grackles, both Tree and Barn swallows, and lots of Snowy Egrets out hunting. I was especially pleased to see the Tricolored Heron, which is not a species that I’ve seen outside of Jamaica Bay. There was no sign of the nesting Barn Owl at Big John’s Pond, but that came as no surprise—serves us right for birding in the middle of the day. We took that as our cue to leave, and our departure was well-timed, as it started to rain just as we spotted the Q53 barreling down the Cross Bay Boulevard.
Back to the bus, back to the crowds, back to the city. Until next time, Jamaica Bay.
*A couple of months ago, NYC Audubon issued proposal recommendations for restoring the West Pond to its original freshwater state. I encourage you to read it if you have the time—and if you are moved to do so, please consider signing the related petition.