Sunday, September 21, 2008

accidental find

On Friday, I was walking my charge home from school when we noticed something distinctly not sparrow in the lowest branches of a big tree on 8th Avenue. We stood for about a minute, telling each other what we could see about the bird: two white wing bars, bluish grey wings and lower back and face, yellow breast, white belly and under-tail, greenish-yellow upper back, white around dark eyes, tiny sharp beak. The little fellow (the bird, not the boy) swung around the thin branches nimbly in search of better purchase, coming within five feet of my face. We looked it up in my field guide upon arriving at home, and I think we had a first-year female northern parula on our hands. I have to commend the kid's school for last year's field-trip-ridden science unit on birdwatching -- it's given him the vocabulary to talk about birds and it's given me a chance to share the source of my daily joy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

good times at Prospect Park

Today I volunteered at Prospect Park Lake for International Coastal Cleanup Day. While I was very busy cleaning up the lakeshore, I had my eyes open for birds and trash and I kept a mental list. Of note: a hummingbird at some jewelweed bushes; a pair of pants; the juvenile mute swan looking hale and hearty; a sock filled with something brown, unscented, and gelatinous; the first American coots of the season; a bloated raccoon corpse; a beautiful seashell; drug paraphernalia; a coconut; and an unbelievable number of plastic bottles and bags. I had a great time meeting people and working toward a common goal, especially one that helps the animals and park I love so well.

The next cleanup, which I'm hoping to attend, is scheduled for October 18 to prepare Lookout Hill for the Halloween Haunted Walk & Carnival. Also, this coming weekend, September 27 & 28, is Hawk Weekend. I was too shy and too new a birder to feel comfortable participating last year, but this time around I'm really excited to see what Hawk Weekend is all about. I suspect the event will be largely for children, but I'm interested in seeing the bird show, at the very least. There's so much I can learn!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

and for a fleeting moment, there passed between them a faint sense of some common destiny

Yesterday I walked through the park on my way to work, but didn't have my binocs or time to scan my surroundings for birds. I hesitated between the Nethermead and the steep hill to the Long Meadow because I yearned for a few extra minutes to sneak into the horse path to look for warblers. Just as I resolved to ignore the wonderful possibilities and just go to my job, a buzzing speck of green shot past me, hovered over a bush, and zipped into the woods. My flesh thrilled with goosebumps of recognition and elation: the hummingbird I had asked the universe for on my birthday had appeared! Though it was a brief and distant encounter, I thanked life, the universe, and everything for conspiring to deliver my belated birthday present.

Fast forward about twenty-four hours.

This afternoon I traipsed into Prospect Park to sniff out some migrants. The air was sun-filled and warm with a cool breeze - one of my favorite kinds of weather. I hit a few of my usual spots and found a few of my usual birds: blue jay, cardinal, robin. I could see very little from my perch on the Path Between the Pools, but the moment I asked for an ovenbird, one appeared right in front of me. I think having a sense of what to ask for, you know, things that are possible, not outlandish or selfish, really helps. I decided to haunt the area where yesterday I briefly met the green speck. Was I ever in luck! I spotted a little buzzer among the jewelweed flowers, quickly got on the bird, and enjoyed thoroughly my first live close-up of a ruby-throated hummingbird - female. About ten seconds into the great view, I heard the scream of red-tailed hawks above and nearby. Stupidly I wheeled around, just in time to spot three of them heading out over the Nethermead in search of an afternoon snack. Blessedly, the hummingbird lingered long enough for me to observe her again, this time for a minute or more, as she paused deliberately at the tiny orange flowers to glean their sweet nectar. Soon she zoomed up and up and over the trees, out of sight. The combination of my first great hummingbird sighting and the three red-tails in the late summer sun qualifies as the best birding minute of my life so far -- must leave room for more wonders!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

happy bird-day to me

My mom was in town this past weekend for a date with me at a rained-out Yankees game on Friday and to celebrate my 25th birthday on Saturday. Since it was so hot on Saturday, Chrissy and I took her to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where I was sure there'd be a sea breeze. She enjoyed our trip to the salt marsh at Marine Park, and I couldn't think of a lovelier thing to do on my birthday than share a place I love with a person I love.

But, boy, was I wrong about the sea breeze! It was perhaps even hotter there because there's very little shade. It was also early afternoon, not the best time for birds. But we saw the ospreys on their platform nest, plenty of Canada geese, a pair of snow geese, lots of gulls, two black-crowned night herons, and several very long-necked great blue herons.

The tide was out while we walked around the West Pond, and there were tons of birds out on the mudflats, too far to see any details. The frustration rekindled that old, familiar desire to have my own spotting scope for occasions and locations such as this. I'd love to have your recommendations, reviews, and warnings for/against certain brands/models in the <$1000 range.

At Blind Pond, the water level was extremely low, and therefore, not very attractive to birds. I did, however, see one new life-bird on my birthday: a northern waterthrush gleaning what it could from the pathetic puddle. I didn't get a good photo of the bird, but just a foot in front of the blind basked this gorgeous caterpillar:

And, as a treat just for you, here is a photo of one of Mother Earth's natural color palettes:

Stuff Happens

Something that's been an absolute treat for me lately is a new show on Planet Green called Stuff Happens, hosted by everyone's favorite science guy, Bill Nye. It's the most interesting new non-fiction program I've seen since the debut of MythBusters, and that is saying something. Stuff Happens teaches me where all the things I use come from, how their production, use, and disposal affect the planet, and how I can help. I highly recommend it for you and your family.

Monday, September 15, 2008


One day last week I lit out for work, traveling a parkless route because I knew I wouldn't have time to stop and enjoy all details of nature around me. Well, Nature was having none of that; if I wouldn't come to her, she would come to me. I saw three neat things on my walk:

1. A fluff-feathered, or maybe weathered, mockingbird atop a hedge, doing a dance I've seen before. It stretched out its wings slightly, and then moved them slowly thus: up, further up, down. Up, further up, down. With the white wing patches, perhaps it's some sort of mockingbird semaphore.

2. A monarch butterfly wafting across an intersection in the crosswalk during the WALK signal. I swear, animals are smarter than people.

3. At the park's outer edge, a black-and-white warbler hopping about on the ground. I'd only ever seen them in more protected areas, so it was odd to watch the little guy act more like a house sparrow on the sidewalk than a nuthatch on a tree trunk. It foraged under the watchful gaze of a nearby rat.

Because I could not stop for Nature, she kindly stopped for me!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

little observations

Sunday, September 7

Sunday is Project Day in our family. Chrissy gets to work on his home video collection and screenplays, and I get to enjoy my interests - birding, writing, reading, cooking. So this afternoon I went to Prospect Park in the post-Hanna gorgeous weather for a bird-walk. I was greeted at the Lake by a red-winged blackbird, the first I've seen in a month or more.

Hanna knocked down a few branches here and there, but I didn't see any terrible damage. I did see a young man harvesting green gingko nuts from a fallen branch. I have held my breath many times when passing the fallen ripe orange nuts on the sidewalk, so I asked what he intended to do with them. A woman on a nearby bench told me that the inner nut is good for the memory and can be eaten fresh or dried. She also told me that to make gingko tea, it's best to boil the tree's leaves in springtime, before the air pollution has a chance to ruin them. I thanked the woman and said goodbye, heading off to admire the massive numbers of Canada geese on the Lake.

I have a new favorite spot to search for migrating warblers - right off Wellhouse Drive on the Peninsula is a thick stand of young trees and ferns and other flora. I have seen brief glimpses of warblers zipping from branch to branch here while catbirds try to ward me off with their constant mewing.

By the time I got deep into the Lullwater Trail, the sunlight was no longer reaching over the tops of the trees. That is not to say it was getting dark, just that there was a demarcation in the air, due to the position of the sun, between what was in the sunlight and what wasn't. This led to a few thrilling moments when, from my place on the shaded ground, I saw several red blasts of bird flap by over the treeline. I was no less thrilled when I finally realized they were robins hitting the sunlight just right, because I guess it's become easy to take robins for granted and I appreciate a reminder of their beauty and worth.

I was just about home when I heard the telltale signs of the nightly Canada goose flyover. Every evening, or many evenings, I see one or two groups of about fifteen geese fly over my apartment building in the direction of Green-Wood Cemetery. This night, I paused and stared, dumbfounded, for the group of geese coming into and flying out of my view was enormous. They attempted a V-shape, but it was very messy. After a full fifteen seconds, the last bird flew out of sight, leading me to estimate about eighty birds in the flock. It could be more. Perhaps they're heading a little further than Green-Wood after all.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

light in August

My vacation is over, but, simply by virtue of having enjoyed much of it outdoors, certainly well spent. Some of these recent days I wish I could fix and fasten to my heart, to carry with me the elation and the delicious languor and the simultaneous bounty and dearth that have characterized August for me this year.

Monday, August 25
Something felt markedly different in Prospect Park today. I couldn't pinpoint it as the weather or the light, maybe something different in the air. It was humid and in the upper 80s, but it felt so much not summer: the trees are beginning to exhale, to relax a little from showing off their green all year. It sounded different today, too. The still air gave the trees respite from their graceful waving; few birds sang. The new brood of starlings clicked and chittered, adding percussion to an otherwise expectant quietude. Branches voluntarily dropped their seedpods, berries, and nuts onto the leaf litter below, Mother Nature tapping out endless mysteries on the telegraph of the earth.

My stroll began on the west shore of the Lake, where I found my feet surrounded and tumbled over by ground-clouds made of thousands of little downy feathers. It seems the mallards are in their eclipse plumage, which, while not as showy as the breeding plumage, I find to be quite as beautiful: a deep brown tinged with rust. That would explain all the feather-clouds, at least. On the Lake I found the usual Canada geese and mallards and their cohorts, with one addition by the lakeside: a spotted sandpiper. I watched it tiptoe around the much larger geese and occasionally hang back behind a small bush. I noticed it had a feather wrapped around one ankle; perhaps it was on house arrest?

I walked up Wellhouse Drive to sit by the Wellhouse, where I had a great view of a puddle and treetops full of activity. At least three times while I sat here, and it was only about fifteen minutes, I heard a child say, "What is that lady doing?" Am I a lady now? Weird! The puddle attracted such fine species as gray catbird, American robin, and a young Baltimore oriole. In this area's trees I also saw a downy woodpecker, a black and white warbler, and some American goldfinches. As I got up to continue my journey, I scanned the treetops one last time, only to find an orange spot that hadn't been there before. A beautiful adult male Baltimore gave me just a moment of his time before flying off.

As I crossed the Terrace Bridge to take the secret path down to the Lullwater, I felt the watchful gaze of an eastern kingbird standing sentinel on the tallest branch of the barest tree. When I later crossed the Lullwater Bridge, I knew I was in for a treat if only I could find the source of the nasal peek I was hearing. In a not-too-big pine tree at the end of the bridge, I found a great big male hairy woodpecker. I see downies all the time, so it's a treat to see one of these fellows once in a while.

I made my way to the path behind the pools by crossing the Nethermead and climbing that short, steep path. Sometimes I walk backwards up the hill to make my leg muscles confused. I've been surprised lately at the complete lack of red-tailed hawk sounds in Prospect Park. No flyovers, either. Perhaps I'm just out at the wrong time of day, or perhaps they're busy making preparations for autumn. When I reached the path behind the pools - that sounds like a chapter in The Magician's Nephew called "The Wood Between the Worlds" - I stopped at my usual viewing spot. It's an area where the plants don't block the view across the pool, but where I can use the shade of a tall tree to block the sun and rest my arms on the fence while I hunt for birds. I watched cedar waxwings take off from thin branches on the island, whirl and twist in the air, and land again with bug in beak. It's funny to think that while I have a favorite perch from which to scout them, they have a favorite perch from which to scout bugs. Paddling in the shadows of the island were a pair of young wood ducks. I wonder how long they'll stay.

Thursday, August 28
I had books on hold at the Central Library, so I took a nice, long walk with the birds on my way to pick them up. The second I left my apartment building, I heard the mechanical rattle of monk parakeets, and I looked up in time to see a pair zoom by in the direction of Green-Wood Cemetery. I have seen monk parakeets at Brooklyn College, at the feeders on Ocean Parkway and Ditmas Avenue, at a cemetery in Connecticut, and at Green-Wood, but nowhere else. It just struck me as funny that to see an exotic bird all I had to do was go outside.

At the west shore of the Lake, there's a little area made into a sheltered cove by the reeds on the left and the West Island to the right. Sometimes I stop here briefly, and sometimes longer if the benches are unoccupied. Though a few families and their children sat chatting, I stayed to watch two green herons in a tree on the West Island and two double-crested cormorants, one swimming and one sunning.

I ventured to the Path Behind the Pools (it will remain capitalized now that the C.S. Lewis bug has bitten me) to check up on my friends the waxwings. They were active in the afternoon sun, accomplishing daring feats of acrobatics just to get a little lunch. The wood ducks made a brief, if shadowy, appearance. A casual birding couple visited my viewing spot, and I helped them identify the waxwings, a black and white warbler, a downy woodpecker and a young or female American redstart. On my way home from the library, I had a lot of heavy books, so I just observed nature with the naked eye. The second I got back to my block, four or five monk parakeets sped by, crank-ing loudly. Strange that they bookended my day.

Friday, August 29
I went for a walk unarmed in terms of equipment. I really just wanted to get some exercise. But up on Lookout Hill, the birds are just begging to be seen. I climbed the steps and walked the path, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw something flit quickly to a closer branch. I'm glad I bothered to take one step backward, slowly, to see what it was: a male American redstart, which I haven't seen since spring! The sense of triumph carried me the rest of the way up the hill. I walked around the top wildflower garden, and made my way around the lower one, noticing how very quiet the air was. Usually I'd hear robins and cardinals and maybe chickadees here, but no sounds today. Boy, was I surprised then, when I accidentally flushed about 30 American goldfinches up into the trees! Then, then there was noise.

After having been in Maine and Rhode Island for the past three weekends, the idea of being home in Brooklyn for at least the next three weekends sounds good. I'm hoping to get out to Jamaica Bay this weekend, or maybe next weekend when my mom visits. In any case, I'm nearly ready for it to be autumn, because now I'm a full year into this birding thing, and don't we always miss the part of the year that is furthest behind us? I'm interested to remember what fall birding is like and to experience it in a much less blind and stumbling way than last year. I'm so glad to have been born and brought up in a part of the world where I can see and feel the change of seasons. I could never live somewhere that didn't make me grateful for the current moment and the moments promised to me by the advent of spring, summer, fall, and winter. It is the advent of things new that gives us adventure.