Thursday, May 22, 2008

just a note

Two things.

1. Sorry about any weird formatting. I am new to Blogger and still learning the ropes. What's next - actually learning HTML?

2. We got the apartment. Windsor Terrace, here we come!!!

a weird week: adventure abounds

The word I choose to describe my life this week is 'frenetic'. I reported for jury duty on Tuesday and sat through several hours of waiting, watching other people's voir dire interviews, and breezing through my own. On one hand, my work situation is such that I have to use my sick time for missing work due to my civic obligation, but on the other hand, I am really interested in fulfilling that obligation and learning more about the justice system. Long story shortened: I was selected to be a juror and had to report Wednesday for noon. I did. At 12:30, they told us to go home and come back this morning at 10:00. So I called my employers and tried to arrange for me to work, because I hadn't missed any of my hours that day, but they didn't end up needing me, so hey, free day for me! The best part of that was that since it was them not requiring my services, not me asking for time off, I still get paid for yesterday without using one of my sick days. Well, actually the best part of all of that is that I spent all that newfound time birdwatching in Prospect Park.

I was dressed for court, not for birding or even being outdoors, but I had my binoculars and a thirst for nature. I entered the park at Bartel-Pritchard Square and passed a small farmstand selling fruit, flowers, and vegetables. I walked fully past it. Then the scent of apples in the sunshine took control of my body and drew me back to the stand, where I purchased an apple as big as my face to enjoy as I strolled in the spring air. At that moment I could not imagine a more romantic afternoon.

I didn't head straight for my usual haunts this time around, because I had a feeling I'd have a lot of time. At this point I was still waiting to hear from my employers; I knew they wanted me to come in, just not what time. I found a mulched path that leads into the woods close to the baseball fields and started up that. I quickly encountered a group of three teenage boys who seemed to be at work building a shelter out of found branches. Their handiwork was quite good. After chatting with them for a few minutes, I continued on the path around the fenced-in area that I soon figured out was the Quaker Cemetery I had always wondered about. Since it's closed to the public, a secret part of the park, I thought maybe the bird activity would be higher than in the well-traveled areas. I crept slowly closer to the fence, keeping my eyes alert for movement and my ears trained for new sounds. It was fairly still and quiet. The trees loomed over me, massive and aged. Even if no leaves filled out the canopy, I expect I'd have a hard time seeing birds simply because of the great height of the treetops. In the lush green carpet of the forest floor inside the fence, I spotted a brown rabbit trying not to be spotted. I also saw a bird with a friendly face, but only for a split second. It was a dull bluish-brown on top, with a complete pair of spectacles, a dull white breast and belly, and a yellow wash from its flanks to its behind. That was the extent of activity in that area. I made my way down a narrow hill-path, my dress pants catching the low branches and my too-big dress shoes cramping my toes with each downhill step.

I enjoyed peering through the fence into the mysterious burial ground. It was beautifully landscaped despite its continually locked gates. It made me think of Ben Weatherstaff and The Secret Garden. That's probably one of my favorite stories of all time. At one point, while lingering near the gate, I noticed some airy seedpods floating down from high above. I traced them back to a branch that was backlit against the sky. This whole time the clouds have been puffy and lovely, but now I notice a distinct darkness settling over the park, the kind that means rain, and soon. I struggled a few minutes to find a better place from which to view the bird disturbing all those seedpods. Eventually I found a magic spot that put the bird against a background of leaves and saw, to my delight, a handsome rose-breasted grosbeak in a red cravat! He was very high, and just as my neck was starting to give out, something impossibly bright demanded my attention considerably lower in the trees. I could not believe the beauty of this bird. It had a grey crown with small white crown stripes, a black mask, yellow chin, breast, and belly, and a black necklace across the yellow, with thick, jagged black stripes descending from it. I didn't have a notebook with me this day, because I've been using it to update my Birder's Journal a little before bed each night, and I keep all that stuff right at my bedside. So I made verbal notes and repeated them to myself several times. Though the urge to throw everything down, whip out my field guide, and look it up was nearly overwhelming, I convinced myself just to let it go for now.

The rain began lightly, giving me, with neither jacket nor umbrella nor the ability to just go home (since I was waiting to hear from work, which is one block from the park), a chance to escape into the well-leafed Ravine. I meandered its paths for a long time, avoiding the steady light rain by instead enjoying the living things around me. When the rain stopped for a few minutes, I went out to the Long Meadow paths to get a view of the pools. Nothing exciting there, but I did hear a strong and musical song in the air, and after a few minutes of following the notes, I found the singer. An orange-yellow Baltimore oriole, singing brazenly from an open branch at the top of a young tree. Another oriole responded with its own song, making a sort of conversation. Then the rain picked up again, and I headed back into the Ravine. Several times that afternoon, I heard a harsh chak repeating and tried to follow it back to a bird, only to discover that the composer of that particularly tuneless song was a chipmunk threatened by my approach. At a waterfall in the Ravine, I saw some brown, thrush-like bird with a light but bold eyebrow. Most likely a waterthrush, but it was too short an encounter to notice more details.

The real delight and torment of my day happened in the north of the Midwood. I saw some movement in the leaf litter by the path - fast, continuous movement. For a moment I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a duckling! If you know me, or maybe you can tell from my writing, you know I feel and have long felt personally connected to ducks more than any other animal. I was so sad that just that morning I had taken my camera from my backpack, thinking they might not let me take it into the courthouse. I did manage to get a shot with my camera-phone but it's not great. The duckling toddled confidently across the path, despite being hounded by a pair of cardinals, and down the hill, up a log and then into a hollow below the log, all by itself. My first thought was that maybe it was a wood duck just leapt from its nest and its mother would be nearby, but I saw no other ducks nor did I know what to listen for in a wood duck call. I could hear the little guy peeping from its not-very-safe hiding place. I called Chrissy to try to get the number of someone who could help me know whether and how to help this duckling all on its own, away from other ducks and water, in the middle of a forest. After leaving a voicemail for Nora Septoff at Animal Care and Control, I went over to the vale of Cashmere to see if any birders were around who I could ask for help. Nothing. I went back to the duckling's hollow, but it was gone. I scanned the ground in several areas nearby, but could not find the little explorer. I only hope it did not end up as food.

By this point the air had cooled down considerably, and I was chilly in my short sleeves. Also I had eaten that huge apple, a small breakfast, and not much more. I had had enough for the day. I went to Barnes and Noble to warm up. While I was walking, I let my mind wander over the warbler file in my brain, and several names came up, but when I heard 'magnolia', I knew immediately that was the bird I had seen with the impossibly yellow breast and thick, black streaks and that I could stop wondering about it. It was a good feeling later, upon checking the guide, to find that I was correct in my gut-feeling identification.

My life birds today were: rose-breasted grosbeak and magnolia warbler. But I will never forget my first encounter with a duckling in the wild!

Monday, May 19, 2008

All shook up

Lots of things are going on lately, leaving time for only little snatches of birdwatching, and not very attentive snatches at that. I did a lot of traveling last weekend to and from my brother's wedding, and this past weekend I took in a lot of theatre. And we're trying desperately to get our friend's soon-to-be-vacant apartment near Prospect Park, and things are looking good on that front. The "prospect" of a summer near the park thrills me. So I've been busy, and will become even more busy in the next two weeks as we struggle to pack all our belongings and move before May 31. But I've always got my eyes to the skies, and I'll recount to you my more interesting sightings.

May 13, Prospect Park, 12:30-1:00 p.m.

It was really the most pleasant kind of day, at about 65 degrees with bright sun and a warm breeze. After dropping off some forms to our potential landlord, Chrissy and I walked through the park to get me to work. On the west side of the lake, I had a great view of a yellow-rumped warbler on a branch just above eye-level. Scanning the lake, I spotted Canada Geese, mute swans, a double-crested cormorant, and very few mallards. I am also consistently thwarted in getting a good view of those brownish swallows I often see dipping and flapping over bodies of water by the very fact of their speed. I didn't have time to hang out behind the Pools like I usually do, but I did hear a red-bellied woodpecker.

May 15, Prospect Park, 5:45-7:30 p.m.

I got out of work early, with sunlight to spare, so I took a detour through the park. The air seemed dense with robin-song everywhere I walked. I found a common yellowthroat in the same thicket near the dog beach that I saw my first one. Cardinals' chip-ped incessantly from all directions. After a while I realized that while I heard robins singing left and right and exasperatingly, almost every bird I actually saw was a robin, I wasn't actually seeing that many birds, not even dots of movement in the canopy. I resigned myself to a down-day of birding, but still held hope for other birds to show themselves. In the Ravine, I saw most likely a red-tailed hawk take off from a far tree-limb with a lump of prey in its grasp. When I got around to the Audubon Center, I saw a lovely great blue heron coming in for a landing in a leg of the Lullwater that was edged by several great egrets. Around here I caught sight of an American goldfinch and two rabbits, one of which decided it felt comfortable with my watching it eat dandelion stems from a suitable distance. At this point the sky let down some drizzle, and I noticed that the clouds that had earlier just been big, were now big, dark, and advancing in my direction. The rest of my walk was quick, but I managed to see a yellow-rumped warbler, a red-bellied woodpecker, a downy woodpecker, and two rats along the water's edge. I think my greatest joy of that whole walk was the downy woodpecker at the end. I heard its forceful pecking, had a little trouble finding it, found it, and watched it fly to a better viewing location while voicing ki-ki-ki-ki-ki.

May 17, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Tarrytown, NY

We were itching to try a new mall, find a letterbox, and see Prince Caspian on Saturday. The letterbox clues led us to Rockefeller State Park Preserve, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful and relaxing landscapes I've ever traversed. We packed a picnic of roast beef sandwiches and Nutter-Butter cookies that my mom had given me for the long bus-ride back from my brother's wedding the weekend before. A hairy caterpillar tried to get in on the fun, but he was very slow-moving.

I love the smell of rivers in the warmer months, the sight of rolling green hills, and the feel of warm wind. I had only my binoculars with me, no notebook or field guide, but I wrote down my observations when we got back to the car. One thing I appreciated about the landscape was the amount of open sky. It afforded me some great views of turkey vultures soaring, red-tailed hawks being chased by crows, and crows being chased by mockingbirds. I saw a few little yellow birds, but never for long enough to etch things into my memory. I'm pretty sure I saw a small group of brown-headed cowbirds in the grass. I had seen the same bird in Prospect Park two days earlier singing atop a lamppost, and now I had a better view. Black, glossy body, brown head, stout beak gracefully tapered at the end. And when it sang I was reminded of the squeak that comes from washing windows. On our way back to the car, I heard a beautiful song and stopped to locate the singer. It was a very cooperative Baltimore oriole, singing brightly just ten feet away in the lower branches of the tree I stood beneath. I watched him closely as the wind coming off the Hudson ruffled his feathers, revealing black roots under the orange. Considering the weather, landscape, company, picnic, letterbox, and birdwatching, I think I have to declare Saturday, May 17, 2008, as the newest Best Day of My Life.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Rained out!

If you had asked me two days ago what I was going to do on Friday, I would have told you, "Why, I'll work for two hours and spend the rest of the daylight watching birds in Central Park!" And that would have been a lot of daylight too, considering I got out of work promptly at three today and I was already on the Upper West Side. Very sadly for me, today was a complete washout. I was alternately soaked and just damp for about three hours, and none of it came from being out in the field watching birds - just getting from one place to another! But it was the first hard rainstorm for my new umbrella, and it held up very well in the winds. I'm a little disappointed in its diameter, though, since its small size contributed greatly to the wetness of my entire lower half. The best thing I found out today was that my hiking boots, purchased recently for the purposes of letterboxing and birding in many terrains, are actually completely waterproof. My toasty feet were the only consolation for this washed out day.

But you came here to read about my birding exploits, so I'll give you some recent news.

Wednesday, May 7
I ran out of things to do at work before I had to pick up the kids from afterschool/playdate, so I left a little early and walked along Prospect Park West (toward Grand Army Plaza) to my destinations. The air was breezy but warm - about 73 degrees, I'd wager. I walked slowly along the sidewalk, trying to see where the sunlight illuminated the trees mostly brightly. On the lower half of a tree trunk, I spotted a black and white warbler doing its funny criss-cross hop. In one hop it will face left, then the next hop forward, it faces right, next hop left, etc. It's a very funny pattern of movement. I saw my four most common birds - pigeon, starling, robin, and house sparrow - in good numbers. A bit further down the park I saw a speck descending the bark of a trunk headfirst, and when I got a bit closer and it got a bit lower, I could see it was a red-breasted nuthatch. Female, I think, because the red wash was limited to the flanks from what I could see.

My new bird of the day was difficult to keep in my field of vision; the wind kicked up several times, causing the new leaves to obscure the bird's position or even whether the bird took off. But I was patient and the wind died down, and soon I found the bird again. It seemed largely black on wings and throat, with a white breast, belly, and vent, and what I could only describe as a symmetrical deep blue cloak over its back. Each wing had a small white patch. I'm glad I took my time to look for details, because it enabled me to make some good notes and later identify the bird as a black-throated blue warbler.

As I left the park behind to head down-slope, I glanced once over my shoulder and saw a brief but majestic sight. Just above the tree line, over the Long Meadow I suppose, a large red-tailed hawk flew facefirst into the wind. It seemed suspended in one place by the force of the wind against it. It looked massive with its wings arched to catch the wind, and the impression I got of this hawk was pure strength. It dipped below the treeline, only to regain its former height a second later. It must have made some headway because soon my view was obscured by treetops.

So my life bird today was the black-throated blue warbler and I had a nice appearance by a red-tailed hawk. All this happened within a half hour, maybe less. I love stolen moments.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

I didn't get out for long today, because I had to work, but I got out of work around 5:45 and had some time to spare before my dinner date with Chrissy. So I walked a block up to the park, with no real destination in mind. I walked along Prospect Park West toward Litchfield Villa. The waning light was hitting the treetops at the outer edge of the park so perfectly that I had to stick around and see what I could see. Leaning against the stone wall, I aimed my unfocused gaze up at the tallest, brightest tree to gather in any movements. I was in luck! I trained my binoculars on the moving dots and zeroed in on a bird with a black face mask and a bright yellow throat on an olive body - my first common yellowthroat. I saw another one near the dog beach an hour and a half later.

Gray catbirds are everywhere, almost as numerous as robins, it seems. And yet, even knowing I am surrounded by them, I've only heard their signature meowing cry once this season. That cry hearkens me back to my earliest birding days last year when I would hear that call and think it sounded like a baby lost in the woods.

I went down the hill toward the Third Street Playground, and paused to watch five house sparrows enjoy a dust bath in the dirt path. Past the busy Picnic House I went, slower now, listening and looking. Most rustles I heard were squirrels, but a few eastern towhees did their funny leaf-litter dance as well. I saw a man with a huge lens on his camera. He was shooting a white squirrel. I wonder if it was the same white squirrel I saw last year next to a black squirrel. That was a cool contrast. Anyway, we ran into each other a few times in the park, and it turns out his name is Bill, and I don't think he was a birder. He seemed to be looking for nature-y things to photograph. I pointed out to him a robin sitting in its nest cup in a low crook at eye level - a good photo I hope. Later behind the pools we searched for black-and-white warblers together - not that hard a task. Those guys are everywhere lately.

Eventually our adventuring led us in separate directions, and I started looking in earnest for warblers on the path behind the Upper and Lower Pools. On Friday, I had taken one of the kids for a bird walk, just to look with our eyes, and had been ridiculously lucky in seeing new and mysterious birds. I vowed to come back there as soon as I could. And today it was no less interesting. I saw several ovenbirds skulking on the ground and trying to hide behind leaves. I saw a hermit thrush and a palm warbler. And way up the in trees I spotted something black and orange that didn't exactly resemble the Baltimore oriole I saw last weekend. That turned out to be an American redstart.

Satisfied with my short birding adventure, sad about the failing light, and very hungry, I made my way out of the Ravine, back behind the pools and I almost made it out to the Long Meadow when I started chatting with a nice woman birder named Monica. She told me about the recent Kentucky warbler sightings and a little of her own history as a birder. I'm certainly glad to meet so many people while engaged in what can be a fairly solitary undertaking.

My life birds today were common yellowthroat and American redstart. I also saw several birds I couldn't identify on sight or with my notes afterward. I expect that at some point this "take good notes" mantra will set in or take effect, but for now I think I just need a lot of practice.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

the value of good note-taking

I had a lot of time to myself while Chrissy got tickets for our Iron Man date and went to his rehearsal, and I spent this time at Central Park. I got off the train at 72nd street, not 81st like always. I didn't realize just how far from my usual haunts I was, but the new scenery was quite pleasant. The weather was a little cooler than I expected - I regretted changing out of my first instinct, a sweater, and into a t-shirt once the sun dipped below the trees. The dampness clung to my bare hands and crept up the sleeves of my jacket, but the birds were numerous and cooperative, so I didn't mind.

I started my jaunt by accidentally discovering Wagner Cove, a secret southerly finger of the Lake. I had seen something yellow darting from shore to nearby shore over the finger of lakewater and mud, and that aroused my interest. I rounded the bushes and found a path leading down to a rustic shelter and the lakeshore.

Here I will pause to interject that my current very specific birding goal is to "take good notes". While I'm on the bird I talk quietly to myself and make a verbal list of the bird's visible attributes, because I know saying words helps me remember them. Then, once the bird has hidden itself from view, I try to write down what I remember, and any details comparing the bird to other standard birds for reference, the bird's location, behavior, and any crude sketches I think will help me if I can't find the right topographical bird word. In this way I force myself to stay on the bird and out of the field guide when in the field. I try to consult my field guide only after I have put away my binoculars and gotten on the train home. Then I try to reconcile my notes and sketches with what I find in the book. Many times, my hard work is rewarded with a clear or easy identification. But much too often, I am left with a list of notes that don't add up to a single bird and an empty feeling of, I don't know, let's call it "unfinished narrative". Because everyone wants to know how something turns out in the end. And this is why I'm trying to slow down, to notice more, and to take good notes.

I stopped to tell you that because I took a lot of notes during this outing and had several gorgeous birds persist in their namelessness - particularly something sandpiperish on the muddied shores of Wagner Cove and that same yellow dart I mentioned earlier.

It was here in the mud and greenery that I met my first swamp sparrows. I made a quick note of a tail-bobbing behavior, but the longer I watched, the more it reminded me of a) the butt waggle I would do as a child to entice a parent to chase and hug me and b) Bugs Bunny in drag, walking with exaggerated rear-end swing. It was not an up-and-down motion, but a wide U-shape, often accompanied by a short pik call.

After a half hour in the Cove, I made my way past a wedding party taking pictures on the grass, across the Bow Bridge, and into the Ramble. I saw some swallows darting and wheeling in the air over the Lake, and searched for telltale signs of their identity. Luckily, the light caught them right, and their dark shiny blue tops and long forked tails gave them away as barn swallows.

The Ramble was buzzing with birdsound and human activity. The joyful drumming of a Beltane maypole celebration barely drowned out the stage combat practice of several adolescents in Elizabethan garb wielding foils. Surrounded by gray catbirds and black-and-white warblers, I went deeper into the forest to escape the human noise. Someone led me to successfully see a chestnut-sided warbler. Its markings reminded me of big chocolate drool-stains. Soon I saw a bit of dusky orange and followed it for a long time through a lot of underbrush. It turned out to be a wood thrush, much brighter and bigger than the hermits I've been seeing, and with more uniform spotting, all the way to the vent.

I wandered the Ramble for a while, starting to feel the chill settle in my bones, when I tracked a song I was hearing to the top of a short tree nearby. This eastern towhee sang his song matter-of-factly, in a call-and-response with another towhee somewhere not far off. I stood and watched for a few minutes, and two birders approached to find out who was making all that noise. I let them in on the secret, and after the bird took off, the three of us stood together looking at birds on the expanse of mud that I'm sure in drier times is a walking path to what I've heard others call the Maintenance Field. We saw several American goldfinches, a bright purple finch, and more swamp sparrows. Soon three other birders joined us - Doug, who I met last weekend, and Paul and his step-daughter Claudia, who might turn out to be a good birding partner for me. The absolute highlight of this day, besides possibly making a new friend, was a group of four indigo buntings chilling out on the fence and peeking out of the grass. Soon our little group disbanded, and on my way back to the Castle I saw a few chipping sparrows.

At the Castle, I peeked over the fence to check on the Canada goose nest, only to find it had been abandoned and perhaps destroyed. One egg remained, and the down which lined the nest last week had all blow away. It reminded me of something I overheard on what was perhaps my first birding adventure in Central Park: it's some park employee's job to destroy the nest each spring to prevent overpopulation. I always hoped that wasn't true, but after seeing that lonely egg, I don't know what to believe.

My life birds today were: barn swallow, chestnut-sided warbler, purple finch, indigo bunting. Also I got the phone number of a newly bird-minded young woman like myself. Hopefully, we'll get together in a few weeks. Many birds I saw never got identified, but it's all too new and exciting to let that get me down. A good day!