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!

1 comment:

AKA Bird Nerd said...

An interesting account of your birding day as usual. On other blogs I find myself skimming over the dialog, but I always read your writings word for word. You really have a talent, but then I've praised you many times before and it wouldn't be good for your head to swell.

I am a little concerned that a young lady is traipsing around the park by herself. I hope you do hook up with some other birders - safety in numbers and all that.

I guess I watch too many TV programs about New York City and think there's a boogie man around every corner. You probably think I wear a flannel shirt and have a shotgun in my 4x4 back window! Actually, I drive a Prius.

Anyway, be careful out there.