Sunday, April 13, 2008

Best Day of My Life

Not even exaggerating. I reserve the right to update that claim whenever I have a new best day.

Saturday Chrissy had rehearsal in Manhattan, so we had lunch at Chelsea Market. We finally got to try the famous Sarabeth's. What I ate was very strange but I would try everything else there. He found out he'd have to go to rehearsal early, so I ended up with almost three hours to walk around Central Park instead of the one hour I'd expected. And let me tell you, I could have stayed five hours, I had so much fun. The forecast had predicted a 40% chance of rain and perhaps thunderstorms, but what we had was a day of mixed clouds and sun and temperatures in the mid-70s. The wind picked up once for about ten minutes, the way it does before a thunderstorm, and I did hear some rumbling from the sky, but it never let loose.

I entered the park near the American Museum of Natural History, and found myself walking, serendipitously, to the Winterdale Arch. That's the very same arch around which all the western tanager sightings have centered for the past week or so. I saw a few birders hovering in the area, perhaps waiting for the tanager to make an appearance. I saw one man with a big camera focusing on a small yellow bird. I wanted to see the bird up close, but I thought it would be rude to scare it away from the man's photographs. So I walked through the arch toward the pinetum, where I noticed several common grackles rummaging in the mulch and grass. A man wearing binoculars emerged from the trees and nodded to me. His name was Corey. He told me about a pine warbler he had just seen "in a pine tree," told me what to look for in a western tanager, and then pointed me toward a palm warbler. I thanked him and decided to observe the palm warbler for a while, to notice its field marks, make notes, and decide for myself whether it was a palm warbler. I like doing the work of identification myself, but I am also glad when others point me toward interesting birds.

Seen by themselves, palm warblers are rather yellow. Viewed on early spring grass, they are nearly invisible - little moving flits. I sat on a flat rock and watched three or four of them scattered on the grass for a few minutes. It struck me what a different world I'm in now that I care about birds so deeply; the people walking their dogs across the grass didn't even see the warblers, nor did they care whether they might be scaring away that crazy-young-lady-with the-field-glasses' quarry. From this perch I also watched starlings and robins bathing in a puddle.

I decided to make my way toward the reservoir by way of the pinetum. I looked around for the pine warbler Corey mentioned, but a pinetum is full of pine trees and I didn't have specific information. Continuing toward the reservoir, I paused to refill my Sigg bottle and spotted an interesting sparrow in some brush. Its crown was strikingly contrasted with heavy black and white stripes, and it had bright yellow between its beak and eye. I made note of a white beard on a grey throat, and upon consulting my field guide later, decided I had my first white-throated sparrow.

Upon arriving at the reservoir, I immediately scanned the water for buffleheads - my personal favorite. At least three pairs floated together nearby, and I watched their cute diving antics for a moment until a very ruddy duck came into view. About 15 ruddy ducks bobbed up and down in a sleeping position. It was my first sighting of this duck in breeding plumage. I suppose I had never thought about why it was called "ruddy" though I had seen its picture many times; perhaps I thought of its stiff, proud tail as a rudder. I waited patiently for a male to wake up because I knew what he was hiding - a bright blue bill! One soon obliged me, and satisfied, I made my way toward the Ramble. Passing through the pinetum once more, I spotted a flash of uncertain yellow above me under the pine trees. Intrigued, I searched the area where the flash stopped, and beheld an awesome sight: a yellow-bellied sapsucker. I was sure right away about this ID, because only an hour earlier had I begun to doubt myself about downy woodpeckers; I thought perhaps I was seeing a mix of downies and sapsuckers, but attributing them all as downies. So I briefly consulted my field guide to fix in my mind the differences between the two species. And that certainly paid off, for I can now add yellow-bellied sapsucker to my life list.

As I approached the restrooms near Turtle Pond for a much needed break, I spotted a flock of fifty or more dark-eyed juncos on the grass to the right of the path. I think juncos look a little oafish and maybe not too bright. They don't seem to have as much character as a showier or more active bird like a titmouse or a nuthatch. I scanned Turtle Pond from the Great Lawn side and spotted a couple of Canada geese and a few mallards. When I got up to the main level of Belvedere Castle, I peered over the pond again, spotting a great blue heron on the small island and something perched in a tree on the right side of the pond. It was obscured by branches, so I couldn't get a good look, but I saw an identical shape in an opening in a green bush on the island with the heron, so I inspected that. It stood on one leg, with a white front and flanks and a very dark head and neck. It appeared to be sleeping, but I couldn't tell if its head was tucked under a wing or just turned around on its back. A bespectacled and mustachioed man with his binoculars on a tripod told me it was a black-crowned night heron, and I believe him (after consulting my Sibley, of course), but I don't think I will add it to the list until I get a better view of an awake specimen. I couldn't even see its face. Also in this area I saw a northern flicker, by which I am always mesmerized, a tufted titmouse, and a red-winged blackbird.

I made my way into the Ramble, that birders' heaven. I knew my time alone was running out, and I wanted to find the feeders and sit and watch what showed up. I passed by a tall tree, and saw out of the corner of my eye and behind me, something arrive to cling to the tree's side. I slowly backtracked until I could spot the bird. It was small and brown, clung low to the tree, and had a down-curved bill. Brown creeper! I thought. If so, my first one. I later checked the book, to find that my ID was correct. I can't tell you how amazed I am that studying actually works. I know it's been a few years since I was in school, but I just love using my brain! I do study the field guide and read books and look things up about birds, and it's just honestly awesome to see and feel it all being put to good use (and good identification).

And another triumph for me this day: cedar waxwings in good light. I had seen them before in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, but they were backlit against the sky. I couldn't see any marks aside from the crest and I didn't feel right about counting that sighting. But these waxwings yesterday were visible in all their waxy splendor, perusing the dried leaves in the Ramble's underbrush. The cedar waxwing looks like the Zorro or Batman of birds - devilishly handsome with a stylish black face-mask. I did get a chance to see one fly away, and I enjoyed seeing its tail feathers spread out, with the yellow tail-tips making a nice semi-circle.

Earlier, while I was observing the palm warblers, a woman with a very cute dog told me she had seen a Swainson's thrush. Here in the Ramble, I too saw a thrush, but did not take enough notes to identify it. I must have skipped the thrushes section in the guide, because I had no idea a)there were so many thrushes, and b)what field marks to look for. Well, that will teach me to take better notes!

Chrissy called me at about 5:15 and we decided to meet at the Castle. I was just making my way over when I spotted a new bird, and I had to sit down and watch for just a few minutes. Black on top, and rusty brown and white below, the eastern towhee (another I blessedly knew off the top of my head) reminded me of a monk in its robes. At this point I really had to be going, as we had to get back to Brooklyn for a 7:30 play, but I saw a white-breasted nuthatch (another personal favorite) and met a very nice birder named Steve on the way out.

So I never did find the feeders or see the western tanager, but I spent all day out in the glory of spring listening and looking. I didn't get a sunburn, I didn't get dehydrated, my feet are sore, and we didn't find the letterbox we came for, but I got 16,000+ steps, fresh air, and several new birds. I look forward to the next new Best Day of My Life!


AKA Bird Nerd said...

Definitely a great day for you. I really like photos, as you can see when you visited my blog. But, you do such a good job of painting a picture with your words that I create images in my mind. Thanks.

I see your Dad left me a nice message about my Little Peep story.

I'm not a city person, and it amazes me that you have so many birds right in one of the largest cities in the world.

BirdingGirl said...

Hi Leah,

Welcome to the bird blogging community! Thanks for checking out my blog- I just had a chance to visit yours for the first time. Birding in Central Park is amazing I've heard. Next time I make a trip to the city I'll have to make a special stop there. It's helpful to know your tips for the best areas to go to.