Saturday, November 22, 2008

time to play catch-up

Sorry for the lag in updates. I've been busy doing awesome stuff. Read on to find out what!

Three weeks ago, Chrissy and I trekked up to Inwood Hill Park, which had this veil of mystery around it, because we just couldn't imagine a big, cool park up there. This park is home to Manhattan's only remaining salt marsh. When we arrived, the tide was out, so the gulls and egrets and ducks were left to slog through the mud to reach the few remaining shallow puddles. This park is also the site where Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan from the Lenape, and a boulder bears a plaque commemorating a tree that was planted in that spot to commemorate the exchange but which has since passed on to tree heaven. We climbed the hill and hiked around, ever wary of the slick carpet of wet leaves. This snail-like rock and tree combo greeted us amid a landscape of yellow. A few years ago the park staff made an effort to reintroduce bald eagles and the remains of the now-defunct project, a wooden shelter with an open top and caged front, sit high on the slope of Inwood Hill. No eagles here, but it was an excellent spot to watch a flock of cedar waxwings in the treetops below. I also caught sight of an eastern phoebe flouting the usual rules all over the empty eagle shelter. Several red-tails made appearances, and I nearly fell over on the slippery leaves trying to keep them in my binoculars. Later, we came to some natural caves, to which Chrissy was brave enough to hike over the steep and slippery ground but I was not. I hate falling down, or thinking that I have a good chance of falling down. But I'm glad I spent that time peering into the trees, because I spotted my first white-breasted nuthatch of the season. The nuthatch holds a special place in my bird-heart because it was the first bird I didn't recognize when starting this crazy birdlife and so also the first bird I had to attempt to identify. Also, they're just plain cute.

One Saturday we ventured out to the Queens County Farm Museum, the city's only working historical farm, for a self-guided tour. The sky was darkly overcast, and the wind was warm but damp and strong, and I wished I'd brought my jacket after all. As soon as we walked through the gate, I spotted some smallish bird of prey diving after a smaller bird. I saw this bird several times throughout our tour, but the light was terrible for identification, so it remains a mystery. I had a great time looking at the different types of ducks and the many colorful chickens. The farm also has resident turkeys and peacocks. It was also cool to see a bunch of stylishly polka-dotted guinea fowl running around. I've only seen those guys once before, at the Norman J. Levy Park and Preserve, a great place to walk around and explore. I went there very shortly after my love of birds blossomed but before I really undertook any bird-learning, so I'd love to visit again. At the Queens Farm, a huge flock of grackles squawked in the trees. At a rough estimate, I'd say there were about five hundred. It was pretty cool. The bird of prey made several swoops toward the flock, upsetting a black cloud from the trees each time, but I don't know if it got what it came for.

One day I took the kids to my perfect leaf pile in Prospect Park for an hour of ridiculous fun. When we were finally getting tuckered out and our lungs were clogged with leaf dust, I noticed that this fellow had been standing sentinel directly overhead. I'm glad I kept a close eye on the little ones, lest they be mistaken for prey!

I took a walk in Prospect Park one Sunday afternoon to check up on autumn's progress and seek out some feathered friends.
Highlights included a few cedar waxwings, a rattling kingfisher, and this partially submerged heron.

Later that week I had a bonanza in Prospect Park. Not only are my favorite birds, the buffleheads, back (o, frabjous day!), but I saw a ton of American goldfinches, a pert little golden-crowned kinglet, and a pair of red-winged blackbirds flying in the sunlight.

Saturday we were on our way to see Quantum of Solace when we stumbled across CANstruction at the Winter Garden. It's a feat of small-scale architecture for a good cause. I reccommend checking it out!

And finally, we're almost up to date. This past Sunday we walked around the Reservoir at Central Park. Well, most of the way around - the glare off the water on the last leg of the loop gives me a wicked headache. Buffleheads made plenty of appearances - all male, though, like some adorable feathery Chippendales show. I haven't seen a female yet this season. Also present on the Reservoir were a pair of hooded mergansers, plenty of lush and velvety mallards, some great black-backed gulls, and plenty of northern shovelers. On the way out of the park, I had views of white-throated sparrows, blue jays, a mockingbird, and a red-bellied woodpecker.

I'm in the market for good birding gloves, now that the chill is really upon us. Windproof/waterproof? Any suggestions?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

birds...and people?!

Sunday morning, bolstered by the extra early hour of sunlight, I finally made it to a bird walk hosted by the Brooklyn Bird Club. I'd never gone birding in a group. The air was cold, the sunlight was warm, and I was a little underdressed. Still, I had a wonderful time, and I got to meet the authors of two blogs I read regularly, A Brooklyn Bachelor and brooklynometry, which was a real treat for me. I was, by far, the youngest person in the group, but I welcomed the experienced eyes and ears of other long-time birders. Simply being awake when birds are active is a great first step. As soon as I walked outside, I spotted a downy woodpecker on an evergreen in front of my building, and some bluish-yellowy warbler type nearby. I knew I was in for a good morning.

The light in Prospect Park at 8 a.m. was bright and clear, and made the whole day seem young. Our group meandered very slowly from the Audubon Center, over the Binnen Bridge to the Nethermead, up to the dog beach (which is when I sneaked off to take advantage of the comfort station at the Picnic House - I had forgotten what cold weather does to the bladder!), then across the ballfields and back down to the Lake, where I parted ways with the group so I could get home in time to go to church. A few exciting birds were called out, but I didn't get to see the meadowlark, merlin, or woodcock, all of which would have been life-birds for me. I did have some excellent views of a sleepy hermit thrush taking in the sunshine, the golden flight of flickers, a pair of red-tails in synchronized flight, golden-crowned kinglets flitting about low branches, and an extended view of a handsome yellow-bellied sapsucker.

I took a picture of this tree because I loved the contrast of color between the berries and leaves. Later I overheard someone say that shrikes use the three-inch thorns on these hawthorn trees to impale their prey so it cannot get away. Deadly beauty, right here in my backyard.

These walks are the first Sunday of each month. They will start at 10 a.m. beginning next month, and they always start from the Boathouse. I think I'll be dressing a little warmer next time!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Fall leaf walk

Chrissy read somewhere that peak foliage for NYC this year would be November 1-2, so we planned our weekend around that. Saturday morning we rose and went to breakfast at The Oak and the Iris on our way to Green-Wood Cemetery. I had forgotten my cemetery map, but was confident the security guard at our trusty Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance would be able to furnish one. First mistake. While we were waiting for the patrol to drive some over to the guardhouse, we tried to help another couple locate a plot on a map with no street names. A gust of wind later and there's my second mistake. The unclosed guardhouse door slammed into the concrete post which is supposed to prevent it from swinging too far open. Unfortunately, I had been resting my hand on this post, unaware that the door was not properly shut. Pain shot through my hand and I fell on the ground and cried. Now if you witnessed this, you might think I am a giant baby, but actually I have a very high threshold for pain, except for finger pain. Weird. I discovered this a few years ago on the job when my charge smashed my finger in a mailbox at the children's museum in Boston. Anyway, after I dried up, I inspected my finger, which was all right aside from some pinprick bruising, residual pain, and a feeling of flatness in the muscle tissue that hadn't been there before. On the bright side, it turned out to be a lovely day for leaves and birds!

We didn't stick around to get that map after all, and just headed off to climb a tall hill. On our way up, we saw dark-eyed juncos, northern mockingbirds, and northern flickers. At the top, we found Stephen Whitney's impressive family mausoleum surrounded by hermit thrushes. The views from up there are incredible. We could see the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge that we scooted over in the summertime. Above, I noticed a large bird of prey trying to catch thermals. It was distinctly different from the silhouette of a red-tailed hawk, which I've come to recognize so well this year yet not take for granted that every hawk is a red-tail. The wingspan was perhaps comparable, but this bird's wings were very tall, taking up a lot of space on the sides of its body. Also, it had gorgeous uniform speckling across both underwings. The bird showed white undertail coverts, and its striped tail seemed longer than it was wide, and not spread out like a fan, but held in a more rectangular shape. My first thought was a Cooper's hawk, and I suppose it's possible and even likely at this time of year, but I wish I'd had a longer sighting so I could catch more details.

The cemetery is alive with color, and with birds. Also up on this hill I saw a downy woodpecker and a red-bellied woodpecker. At the base of the hill on the other side, sitting atop a stone obelisk, was a proud little yellow-rumped warbler. Here's a beautiful tree for you. The sight of it helped me forget about my throbbing finger.

We soon headed home to rest our feet, but we stopped at The Oak and Iris again for lunch. I guess that says we have a lot of exploring left to do in our neighborhood. After lunch, we sat on our couch and had a Mario Party. When our feet were thoroughly rested, and Chrissy's butt was firmly kicked (I was the Super Star of the game), we left our jackets at home and ventured into Prospect Park for a self-guided tour of gorgeous leaves and the birds among them. I was so busy ogling the trees that I forgot to take notes, so instead of telling you about birds, I will leave you with a lovely photo from late Saturday afternoon. The big Leaf Dump is sure to happen soon, so get out there and enjoy the splendor!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Halloween work walk

On Friday, I made time to walk through Prospect Park on my way to work. It was too warm to really feel like Halloween, but it was certainly good weather for finding birds. At the Lake I checked in with the seasonal regulars: mallards, Canada geese, coots, ruddy ducks, and shovelers. In one report someone claims to have seen a bufflehead in Prospect Park this season, so I'm gearing up for a happy day when I see my first of the year.

On Wellhouse Drive, I was accosted on all sides by that incessant chip chip chip of cardinals making sure they're all still there. That sound gets right into my sinuses and reverberates in my head. Maybe that's a bad wavelength for me or something. I hope their numbers thin out over the winter (not that they die, just that they move for a while) so I can appreciate their sounds again next year. I've had enough!

I had a little extra time (what an idea, extra time - that's as silly as saying extra money) so I stopped over at the fishing beach to see if I could find some wigeons or grebes. No wigeons that day, but I got a great look at a pied-billed grebe with a fat little fish in its beak. It dove under with the fish, resurfaced a few feet away, and gulped it down its gullet in a few swift movements. At this location I was also tricked by a bird. Here is what I thought I was looking at: a branch sticking up from the water with some sparrow-sized, long-tailed bird perched on top. Then the whole thing moved, and I realized with some awe that the part I thought was the small bird was a great blue heron's whole head. It was a like a Magic Eye puzzle when your eyes adjust to see what's really there, if only you know how to look.

I worked my way through the Lullwater, where I heard the telltale tapping of a nearby woodpecker. I love when I'm successful in finding a bird by locating the source of a sound. It turned out to be a lovely female hairy woodpecker, pecking thoughtfully and deliberately at a branch a few feet away. On this trail I also encountered a downy woodpecker and white-throated sparrows. I also followed my ears to find a belted kingfisher perched on a fallen tree in the water. I enjoy their distinct rattling calls, almost like an engine failing to start.

In the Nethermead I came upon an impressive flock of dark-eyed juncos. About fifty of them blended into the dry autumn grass. I like juncos because I think they have a dumb expression, and they remind me a little of Feathers McGraw. Here I also spotted a palm warbler hopping in and out of the shade and a brown creeper that landed so fast it seemed to have been drawn to the tree next to me by magnetism.

When I returned around 5:45 p.m., the light was fading fast. I expected to see children and dogs in costume, but I'd have to get out into the neighborhoods for that. I did see several small bats doing their silent, frantic, bug-catching acrobatics in the light of streetlamps along Center Drive. Wonderfully apt for the holiday.