Sunday, April 27, 2008

'tis the season (for warbler neck)

For a few weeks, Chrissy's got rehearsals on Saturdays from 4-6 p.m., so today I took advantage of this time with my binoculars in the Ramble. The weather was pretty good, just cool enough for a jacket, and the sky was overcast, but not in a rain-threatening way. I started on the mulched path that leads from the Pinetum area down to the restrooms near Turtle Pond. I had seem palm warblers here before, but today the ground was populated largely by pigeons, starlings, and robins. I did get a great view, however, of a brilliant male red-bellied woodpecker fairly low on a tree trunk.

I visited the great egret at Turtle Pond, and while I was scanning the far edge, I saw a bit of tawny-brown fluff in a duck-like shape resting in the hollow of some rocks. I couldn't get a good view from so far away, so I climbed the castle and peered down, only to discover a Canada Goose (boo, that's so regular) on its nest (yay, that's so awesome)! The nest was lined with downy feathers, and a sparrow kept lurking nearby, perhaps hoping to steal some of them for its own nest. Once I saw the goose stand up and reposition itself, and I could see a few big eggs. What a thrill!

The Ramble was alive with birdsound. I walked though pockets of dense singing sound and pockets of quiet leaf-litter sound. The first bird I noticed gave me a hard time. I took a lot of notes, and it obliged me in this endeavor by sticking around a good long time. I thought I was getting a new bird, but when I consulted my field guide on the subway, it turned out to be a female eastern towhee, with a brown head, throat and back rather than the black I had seen before. I felt a little silly, of course, because I flipped through the book twice before I found it. But I also felt good at having done some detective work and making a successful ID. I won't be tricked by that one again!

As I was gathering my things to move to a new area, a small black and white striped bird landed on the tree trunk not seven feet away from me. I watched it climb, or rather, hop, quite actively up the trunk. The amount of movement and activity the bird displayed gave it an air of flightiness, excuse the pun. I enjoyed watching this bird, and I had the gut feeling it was a black-and-white warbler. When I consulted my field guide later, it mentioned a similarity in behavior to that other adored bird of mine, the white-breasted nuthatch, so I knew I had the right bird.

I spent some time craning my neck near what I think is called Azalea Pond in the Ramble, and spotted a Baltimore oriole way up in the leaves. Other birders flocked (boy, the puns are just begging to be used) to this area too, perhaps drawn by the density of birdsound. Several species of birds were fighting over this one patch of tree bark about five feet up the trunk. I wondered what could be so special or delicious about this one patch, and when no birds were on it, I went over to look. It looked regular to my eyes, but something about it certainly attracted the attention of house sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, starlings, and downy woodpeckers. In this area I also had my first yellow-rumped warbler.

My time was almost up, and I was wandering back toward the Castle when I spotted a rock just the right size and angle for reclining to get a good view of the birds in the canopy with less neck strain on my part. It was here that I met Doug, a friendly birder who helped me identify a palm warbler far above us by the tell-tale tail-pump. Apparently not many yellow birds pump their tails.

Overall an excellent day of birding, with three life birds - black and white warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, and Baltimore oriole.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Ithaca Wrap-Up

Chrissy and I made the trip up to Ithaca to visit some friends, track down a few letterboxes, and seek out some birds. Admittedly we spent more time letterboxing and exploring the very cool town of Ithaca, but I have a few good sightings.

Notably, on the drive north, I saw a good number of turkey vultures swirling up in the air, a red-tailed hawk perched on a limb beside the road, three wild turkeys by the side of the highway, and two deer perilously close to the highway. Also, not to be gross, but we saw a lot of roadkill too.

The sky threatened rain when we arrived at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so we explored the exhibits, watched some educational films, played a sound identification game, and watched birds through the many windows facing the pond and the feeder garden. It did rain for a short time, and when it stopped we headed out into Sapsucker Woods to find some letterboxes and spot some birds. The bugs after the rain were relentlessly interesting in buzzing in my face, making it difficult to concentrate and stay still. But the forest was pretty quiet of birdsong anyway, to be honest. The highlights of my time at the Lab include a ring-necked duck, several tree swallows, and a great blue heron perched high in a tree over the pond.

Our letterboxing adventures took us also to the Cornell campus, specifically Beebe Lake. We watched two brave college students jump into the lake from a bridge that must have been 25-30 feet above the water. They seemed to be having a good time. On this lake I saw a beautiful common merganser swimming away from the splashes the jumpers made. Also on an island in the lake sat a bird I couldn't see too well because its head rested on its back, but from its size, colors and pattern, I'd say it was a hooded merganser.

The next day, our letterboxing clues took us to Buttermilk Falls State Park, which boasts a series of beautiful waterfalls and a 450-foot climb to see them all. The great part about this was that once we found the letterbox, we were so high up that I had a great view of the turkey vultures making their rounds. I'd never had the chance to see them so close up before. I also was startled by a little garter snake, and thrilled when a red-tailed hawk flew close by.

Next we headed to Stewart Park, which borders Cayuga Lake, one of the five big lakes that constitute the Finger Lakes Region of New York State. After tromping the wooded paths for almost an hour, I left Chrissy to search crazedly for the last box while I found a quiet place to stand and watch birds. I did see a bright little American goldfinch, which excited me because I had only ever seen goldfinches at feeders so far. I found a little stream bordered by trees on both sides and decided to stay and see who showed up. I saw several downy woodpeckers hopping about on the same tree limb and a northern flicker making its way majestically through the woods. Soon Chrissy rejoined me and we crossed to the other side of the stream and walked along it. I could see some ducks across the way, and with my binocs I saw they were wood ducks! When they noticed that they were being noticed, they hopped out of the water and stood in the leaf litter for a few minutes, enabling me to get a great view. And I got to show them to Chrissy so he can understand just how beautiful and weird-looking birds can be.

We returned to Stewart Park the next day for one last try at the impossible letterbox, and that's when I saw a pair of gorgeous common mergansers taking a swim-stroll on the lake. Really beautiful. We also saw lots of turtles basking and a pretty big brown snake that quickly escaped into the water. I never thought I was afraid of snakes, but I have to admit I was a little jumpy after that.

Soon it was time to make the long drive back to New York City for Chrissy's rehearsal Friday night. Although I was really sleepy and absolutely love sleeping in the car, especially in the afternoon sunlight, I kept my eyes open for interesting roadside sights. I saw Canada geese lounging in someone's backyard pond, a crow hounding a red-tailed hawk in mid-air, a deer eating clover by the roadside, and a belted kingfisher on a telephone wire above a bridge over a creek.

Road trips with my husband are already my number one favorite thing, but now that we letterbox all along the route and I watch for birds, I think I'm going to be pushing for more road trips!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Way up yonder

Today I knew I'd have plenty of time to myself, so I started at the northern end of Central Park and worked my way south. I haven't walked through the North Woods or around the Harlem Meer since I became a birdwatcher, so I was excited for a new experience. The Ravine is a peaceful walk with paths on both sides and a weak stream in the middle. I saw some really beautiful birds in this area, including a northern flicker, an eastern towhee, and the tiny, well-camouflaged brown creeper. I enjoy watching the brown creeper do his thing - namely, creep up tree trunks. The real highlight of my time in the North Woods, however, was my first owl. I had seen a pair of birders training their binoculars on something high up, but I was too far away at the time to ask them about it before they wandered away. When I got over to where they had been standing, I scanned the area and found their quarry - about the size and shape of a Furby, colored exactly like bark, and sleeping in the crook of two tree limbs was an eastern screech owl. I stuck around to watch this guy, even though it was asleep, and I caught a glimpse of its yellow eyes as it woke up a little to reposition itself in the tree's branches.

I walked around the Meer, trying in vain to get a good look at the swallows that darted and zoomed over the water. I also went into the Conservatory Garden(s) for the first time. They are lovely formal gardens, but I think I would enjoy them more with a friend along. A wedding reception was under way, with a string quartet playing softly.

I walked down to the Reservoir and spotted some northern shovelers, a few mallards, and several buffleheads. A double-crested cormorant stood on the corner of one of the buildings overlooking the reservoir at its northern end, and its eyebrow-plumes were visible against the late afternoon light.

Down through the Pinetum I wandered, spotting a few friends, including a palm warbler who obliged my desire to watch it for several minutes by not flying away. I also saw a dark-eyed junco and house sparrow in this area. Over at Turtle Pond, the red-winged blackbirds sang in the trees and reeds. This time, it was close to evening, and the black-crowned night heron was awake and active. I got a good look and will count it on my list now.

By the end of my adventure, I had walked seven miles within Central Park, and made my way from 110th street all the way down to 59th street. I wear a pedometer every day, and the days I come to Central Park with the express intent of watching birds, I take many more steps for a lot less ache afterward than if I just went for a walk of the same distance. Must be a case of "time flies when you're having fun".

Friday, April 18, 2008

short but sweet

I took a very short walk through the Vale of Cashmere at Prospect Park this afternoon. The flora is starting to become quite fuzzy and colorful, with small buds giving way to tiny flowers and leaves. I saw the usual suspects, including starlings and a cardinal, squirrels and a chipmunk, and a proud robin keeping watch over the Vale from its perch. The same pair of friendly mallards from last week paddled around in the very shallow puddle. I wonder when that pond will be filled - I'm sure it will be beautiful. I also saw again the ruby-crowned kinglet, and this time he was out in good light with his ruby crest raised like a little mohawk. I kept my binoculars trained on a northern flicker for a while as it popped in and out of a high tree-hole. As I climbed the hill-path toward the Long Meadow, I saw a spot of black and white moving about on a log. I'm always happy to see a downy woodpecker, so I watched for a few minutes. But it quickly became apparent from the size of the bird and the size of its beak that what I had here was my first hairy woodpecker. I watched it slowly push its way up a tree and out of sight. It was a nice way to end my brief outing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

sometimes I wish a sparrow would land on me

Today I only had to be at work for 3:00, and Chrissy had to go into the city for 10:00 anyway, so I got up early and we rode the train in together. The prospect of having time to find birds on a weekday excited me. I entered Central Park from 81st Street and poked around the Winterdale Arch for a few minutes. I started seeing the really good birds near the statues in front of the Delacorte Theater, including a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a downy woodpecker, and a red-bellied woodpecker. And all this within the span of ten minutes!

In the grass across from the statues, a robin worked hard at extracting an earthworm from the ground. I observed the robin as it seemed to prepare the worm for eating by picking it up several times with its beak, gripping the worm's body in different places - perhaps to immobilize its prey. The robin gulped down a big piece of worm, but not as big a piece as the length of the full worm I had seen struggling to stay underground. I wonder whether the robin left some behind, having had its fill or perhaps been scared off, or whether the worm appeared elongated to my eyes as the bird stretched it from its hole.

As I stood near the statues, I happened to witness some small sparrow land on a thin tree branch and alight again immediately into the sunlight. With it rose a nearly imperceptible cloud of pollen, released from its home by the weight and then the absence of the sparrow, and beginning a journey to complete its purpose. Watching birds allows me to immerse myself in the nature of little things, but lovingly suggests that the immensity of interconnectedness is secretly inherent in all things. I love feeling deeply the universe's secrets.

I made way for a large group of high school students on a field trip whose leader announced their plans to climb Belvedere Castle next. I dawdled at Turtle Pond, spotting a great blue heron sitting in much the same way a hen sits on her eggs. I'd never seen a great blue heron not standing up straight or at least resting upright on its feet. There didn't seem to be a nest on the ground where it sat. Also in this area I saw a great egret, several common grackles, mallards, Canada geese, and a double-crested cormorant whose double-crestedness was actually a little bit apparent.

The school group took their time on the castle, so I strolled into the Ramble for a good long time. I had intended to find the Evodia Field feeders to see what I could see, much like the bear who went over the mountain. After a while of walking, it occurred to me that birds don't need feeders when they're surrounded by flowering and fruit-bearing plants. Asking a fellow birder helped clear up the matter; the feeders were taken down two weeks ago. So I felt a little better about my navigational skills, at least; since the feeders had been a landmark for me and were no longer there, I was rightfully lost, not through ineptitude. While in the Ramble, I spotted a red-tailed hawk making a wide, upward spiral in the sky. It was very calming to watch this hawk swirl around, searching for thermals to ride, held aloft by nothing more than air. Somehow it affirmed my faith in the benevolent nature of the universe.

I spotted a lot of the common woodland inhabitants, including cardinals, tufted titmice, and black-capped chickadees. Again I saw an eastern towhee, and I watched that for a few moments as it chilled out in the low crotch of a young tree. A small personal triumph: I finally put together the O sweet Canada Canada Canada or Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody song with the bird that sings it! The white-throated sparrow is the culprit, heralding spring in its unique way and getting the first five notes of O Come, O Come, Emmannuel really stuck in my head.

I also saw one white-breasted nuthatch. I'm not sure I'll ever not be thrilled to see those little guys. I like their behavior, movements, and apparent curiosity. Now that I think of it, I believe that was the first species I ever attempted to identify as a birder with my own binoculars and field guide, after having spotted one near the Harlem Meer last fall. Since that day it's been a joyful and educational descent into bird madness, a madness from which I hope never to recover.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

thank goodness for Free Tuesdays

I only had to go into work for 2:00 today, so Chrissy and I took a jaunt over to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to take advantage of its wonderful "free on Tuesdays" policy. The sun was bright and strong, but the air was just cool enough for long sleeves or a light jacket. I wanted to see if the cherry trees had blossomed yet, but I think that won't happen for a few more weeks. But splashes of color are rising up everywhere; the magnolias are going strong, a few weeping-style cherries are in bloom, and the tulips are about to pop open any day now. The garden had a much different feel in the winter - very still, even dormant, as though the plants had shut down to minimum function to conserve energy. On this visit, I had the distinct feeling that I was surrounded by potential energy, as though the plants have a happy secret to tell and might burst from the energy required to keep it quiet.

I saw a lot of the usual suspects like robins and starlings. Now that I recognize white-throated sparrows, I can see them everywhere. That may just be because their numbers are up for the season, but it feels that way with new information sometimes - now that I know, I can't not see.
Walking on the Celebrity Path near the pond, I spotted a yellow-bellied sapsucker in a tree nearby, but lost sight of it when it flew below a ridge. I spent the most time in the Native Flora Garden, where I saw a few things I couldn't identify and which were gone too quickly for note-making. I did see a northern flicker fly around the area a few times, its yellow underwings perhaps the most colorful part of the Native Flora Garden at this time of year. I also saw a thrush and this time took more time to make mental notes of what it had and didn't have for field marks - dark brown chest spots, no spectacles, dark eye with thin, complete white eye ring, a redder tail than back. A hermit thrush! It was nice to do a better job with this thrush than my earlier one at Central Park.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Short Stroll

This afternoon I had a short window of time in which to meander the paths of Prospect Park. The air was warm and the sun shone brightly. Instead of my usual route - toward the pools, feeders, and lake - I resolved to find the Vale of Cashmere, which I had visited once long before my birding life began. And find it, I did! Along the way I crossed the Long Meadow and passed a lot of robins and starlings. Though I realize what a pesky bird the starling can be, I am endlessly amazed at the sheer number of different sounds it produces. Today it was a loud clacking noise made while snapping its bill shut. I also enjoy the one that sounds like a human blowing through a noisemaker, specifically the short cylinder with a little fan inside. I hear that one a lot when I am waking up in the morning.

The Long Meadow is so big that one moment you can be in the shadow of a big cumulonimbus cloud while seeing bright light over there, and the next you can be in the bright light while the clouds darken a different 'over there'. I always find that to be an interesting experience, like driving out of a rainstorm. It makes me wonder just where the line is that separates storm from not storm.

On to the Vale! What a beautifully designed hideaway it is. It sits in a hollow between hills and centers around an oddly-shaped man-made pond. The pond is tastefully surrounded with various flowering trees and bushes, creating a haven for small birds. The air was fairly quiet of birdsound, but I saw my first chipmunk of the year, several white butterflies, a friendly pair of mallards, and a cardinal. I found a good spot to stand still to see if that would allow birds to present themselves. After about a minute, I spotted movement in a nearby pond's-edge bush. I could see the shape of the bird, but not colors because of the lighting in the bush. I thought it might be a titmouse because of its posture and small crest, but it seemed a less natural location for a titmouse. Soon the bird came into the light for a very brief glimpse - plain appearance with a very small bill and a bright red crown stripe. The ruby-crowned kinglet disappeared quickly into the foliage and no amount of standing still and being quiet drew him out again. At this time I had to make my way out of the park and resume the other part of my life - NOT birdwatching.

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!

Friday, April 11, 2008

First Green-Wood excursion

Thursday we treated ourselves to our favorite decadent lunch from Blue Apron Foods and had a picnic in the car at Green-Wood Cemetery. Then it was out into the sunshine for a long jaunt (and my first sunburn of the year) around this beautiful, absolutely giant, and historic burial ground. Around and down, up and over - we found ourselves getting quite the workout with all those hills.

I wish I had consulted a map before heading over there, but I take comfort in the idea that I can visit Green-Wood Cemetery many times in my life. The roads wind around many hills and wend into many valleys before flattening out at the cemetery's far edges. On top of that, I just didn't know where to look for birds. Early in my adventure, I saw a lot of easy targets: robins hopping about on the ground and singing cheery songs, starlings whistling up in the trees, and mockingbirds atop headstones, singing profusely. I also saw one eastern phoebe pumping its little tail and being indecisive about which branch was most comfortable and one house sparrow.

I had the distinct feeling there were thousands of birds around me and I just couldn't see them. Sometimes I feel like such a noob. To make matters worse, a nice lady in a Jeep drove up and asked, "See anything good?" and I replied, "Not yet," which on one hand shows my endless optimism, but on the other hand made me feel a little bit pressured and incompetent because I really hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary. Only after I walked a good distance away did it even occur to me that the woman and her companion must also have been birdwatchers (duh) and I could have had a more productive and less awkward response ready (Not yet. Have you?) I have so much to learn!

I saw a mockingbird doing a funny thing with its wings -- run, run, run, stretch a little. Run, run, run, stretch a little. Was he perhaps trying to show a female how broad and bright his wing bars were? In any case, it was an interesting display.

One neat thing about the cemetery is that it plays host to a colony of monk parakeets, who have built a complex nest on the roof of the main gate. I have seen these birds on Ocean Parkway around 18th Avenue and on the campus of Brooklyn College as well. They are noisy and ostentatious. I watched several parakeets return to the nest with new furnishings - twigs and longish grasses, it looked like. I had read that sometimes hawks terrorize the colony, so I made sure to have a look around. I saw something resembling a red-tailed hawk far off, flying away from the gate toward Park Slope. The parakeets were safe for now.

Also by the gate I saw rock doves and three common grackles. After a bathroom break, Chrissy and I felt refreshed and ready for more walking. We visited the mallard pair on the koi pond and then had a sit in the cool, dark chapel. Relaxing music played softly from invisible speakers. That was lovely.

We headed over to a nearby pond and sat on a shady bench to watch the fountain for a few minutes. Some Canada geese dotted the pond's edge, and shortly the mallard pair flew in from their koi pond vacation. I'm glad I stayed put for a few minutes on that bench, because soon I noticed a white dot in a tree across the water. Through my binoculars, I could see that the white dot was surrounded by blue, and yet, the whole picture didn't resemble a blue jay at all. This bird had a different sort of a crest and a big bill. I started to get excited and curious. I watched it flop onto the water and recover itself gracefully a few times - fishing, presumably. I couldn't quite see whether it had caught anything. I took note of a lovely rufous shade on its flanks and a sort of bow-tie area on the chest. My very first belted kingfisher! I had expected it to be smaller from looking at pictures.

We knew it would take ages to find the car, and I had to pick up the kids at 3:00, so my birdwatching adventure ended there. But it's nice to go out with a bang and a new bird after feeling so silly. Next time, I will try to buy a map at the gate!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Day of Casual Birdwatching

Gorgeous weather in Brooklyn today - sunny and warm. Chrissy and I headed down to Plum Beach for the first time since last summer - certainly the first time since I became a birdwatcher. A steady ocean breeze battled the strong heat from the sun to make quite a comfortable afternoon by the water. Luck was on our side today; through no planning of our own, we arrived when the tide was out. The water took up what seemed like 2/3 of its high-tide capacity. We walked out to the water's edge and Chrissy claims we were so far out he could see around Kingsborough Community College. I was more interested in the birds. With my new binoculars, about which I am still finding new things to be amazed, I could see a swirling flock of birds that was so far away I couldn't find a trace of it with my naked eye.

I'll warn you -- I'm fairly new at birding, and sparrows and gulls I haven't even begun to study in earnest. I just figured out that all the little brown jobs in Park Slope are house sparrows, so you'll forgive me if my IDs are a little tentative. My eye just skims past flocks of gulls to the next interesting thing, especially if I don't have my field guide or a pen and paper (which I didn't today).

The first bird of note, standing on a sandbar at the water's nearest edge, I'm pretty sure was a great black-backed gull. This thing was sizable. Nearly as big as a goose. I kept my distance. As a gull-related aside, I love to watch a gull wheel up into the air with a clam in its beak and drop the clam onto the packed sand below. Sometimes the gull has to take a second or third try, and it's got to be fast or else another gull will rush in and steal its quarry. After a successful drop, it's like watching a lottery winner get swarmed by distant relatives begging to share in the wealth.

We walked out to the water's farthest edge to get close to some dots I was pretty sure would be birds upon closer inspection. A large flock of brant dotted the water between Plum Beach and Rockaway Point and only a few meandered about on the sandbars. In this area I also saw what I'm fairly sure were red-breasted mergansers - nice, shaggy crest and red bills. I also noticed some tiny buffleheads bobbing up and disappearing in the waves. I'll tell you now, buffleheads hold a special place in my heart and I get unreasonably happy to see them.

While I was peering at the many bobbing dots, I said to Chrissy, "Wouldn't it be funny if the tide came in and we didn't notice?" I peered at dots for a few more minutes and turned around to see that the way I had come out to this sandbar was now separated from the other high areas by a ten foot channel of three inch deep water. Good work. We splashed our way back inland and made our way along the beach, past several abandoned boats, to the other side of the beach that faces Dead Horse Bay. From there with my binocs I had a great view of the biggest group of buffleheads I've seen to date - probably 20. I invented a dance to celebrate.

Turning my attentions away from the sea, I noticed a large white bird relocating within the grasses. I resolved to find it later. Soon I found a bird tormenting a little silvery fish in a marshy pool. It had long, yellow legs, a long, dark, pointy bill, a light body with brownish speckling on head, neck and chest, and a clean whitish belly. My best guess, after consulting Mr. Sibley, is that I saw a lesser yellowlegs.

After navigating more carefully through the grasses than last year, I found a place where I could see the white bird. Long necked, yellow-billed, and sporting graceful breeding plumes on its behind, the great egret seemed to be playing a game of peekaboo with me - ducking down below grass level, popping up, ducking down, popping up somewhere else. It reminded me of that old gag where someone makes it look like he's walking down stairs where we all know there aren't any. That one's a classic.

I also spent a few minutes in Prospect Park today, killing time before work. I only had time to make a circuit around the pools, and didn't see much. One pair of mallards and one pair of ring-necked ducks, a robin, a cardinal, and a bunch of tufted titmice were my haul for that ten-minute period.

We're off to Rhode Island for a few days to attend a family gathering. We'll probably do a letterbox series on the way there tomorrow, and I'll let you know if I see any cool birds. (All birds are cool.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

First Day with New Binocs

I had checked the weather forecast on Tuesday and found that Thursday would be perfect birding weather. Also I didn't have to start work until 2:30 or so, so Chrissy and I had plenty of time to head to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. I couldn't wait to test-drive my new optics. And lucky for me, birds were out in full force. For the first time in my experience, there were actually ospreys on the nest on the pole by the West Pond. Two large black and white birds of prey sat atop the nest, with one occasionally flying down to the ground. I wonder if they've got eggs in there yet.

Next we came to some tree swallow boxes, and those are inhabited now, too! It was my first time seeing tree swallows, and I've come to realize I think they're my favorite flyers. They swoop and glide so gracefully, their blue-green feathers shimmering in the sunlight. I was glad to finally see the bird from the story of Thumbelina. It really seemed to be flying for the fun of it; I admit I got a little jealous. The swallows looked so carefree and playful, and that's how I feel on the inside. I just wish I could express that in such an obvious and joyful way as flying.

Lots of birds on the pond - Canada geese, mallards, scaup, and cormorants in large numbers. I also saw a beautiful pair of northern pintails and a single common goldeneye.

As we came around back toward the visitor center (the part of the walk that feels longest), a pair of Canada geese brazenly blocked our path. I've seen territorial displays and heard nightmare stories about these guys, so I didn't want to take any chances. One of the geese had his neck extended to full height and was tipping his head up and down in a "get out of here" gesture. We tried to advance, but received more warning behavior. Not wanting to disturb them, we backed off a few feet and waited. A few minutes later they had moved mostly off the path and we decided to make a break for it - after all, I didn't want to be late for work. Holding hands, we shot off down the path to the sound of much honking, and turned around to see that we were not being pursued. We laughed at ourselves all the way until we came upon another goose in the path, but this time we ducked into the woodsy paths to leave the goose in peace.

I looked up at the sun with my sunglasses on, and noticed a large ring around the sun which couldn't be seen without the sunglasses. I don't know what it is. I've seen something like that around the moon on a winter's night, but never around the sun.

Eventually I went to work, worked, and got out early - while it was still daylight! So I packed up quickly and headed out to Prospect Park to see if I could find the pair of wood ducks I heard have been hanging out in the Lower Pool. It was about 6:55 p.m. or maybe a little later when I got there, and the light was just beginning to fail. But I raised my new binocs to my eyes and was AMAZED at how much more light those lenses gather than my own two peepers do. Anyway, I walked over to the dog beach where I sometimes feed plain popcorn to ducks, when what to my wondering eyes appears? A pair of wood ducks! I almost clapped I was so happy. I watched them swim off together, and when the male turned his head to glance back at me, I gasped. It was as beautiful as I always hoped (and somehow never believed) it would be. The female was pretty cute too, with that white patch around her eye. I can see why the male would stick with her.

So, all in all, a very successful day of birding - with four or five new life list birds. I'm glad I had a chance to try out my new binocs and that they are so awesome. Comfortable in my hands, light enough, comfy strap, bright and clear and steady. A new phase of birdwatching has begun!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Here I am!

Welcome to Bluebird of Friendliness, a place to read about and live second-hand my exploits as a novice birder. I use the term "novice" in the same way it refers to new nuns; I have decided to devote my sincerest attentions to my birdlove. Whether I'll go so far as to become an ornithologist, who knows? But I certainly foresee a deep and meaningful relationship blooming between something in my soul and the act of taking time to appreciate birds.

A little about me: I'm twenty-four years old, married almost four years to my best friend and love. We live in Brooklyn, NY, and frequently visit our homeland of distant, exotic Rhode Island to see our loved ones. I work as a nanny here in Brooklyn. I love nothing more than finding and creating adventure, and birdwatching is my newest addition to a growing list of eclectic hobbies - most notably, letterboxing. I have found that the two (birdwatching and letterboxing) are impossible to combine, so I've got to make time for both. I have a degree in writing, literature, and publishing from Emerson College in Boston. I focused my studies there on children's literature and continue to explore the genre as part of my pleasure reading.

A little about my birding origins: When pressed, I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I suddenly loved birds more than I did in the previous moment. When relaxed, I often remember fondly the first time I saw the bright wing patches of a red-winged blackbird in flight at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston when I was in college.

I have always been interested in animals and the natural world, having been the kind of child to check out books on bees or weather patterns from the library, but I can't think of a factor, a moment, or an event that turned me, irrevocably, into a birdwatcher. As I look back on the stamps we collected while letterboxing in 2007, I find myself saying, "I remember I noticed birds that day," more frequently. I think the change happened sometime in late June or early July, because I remember deciding that I wanted a pair of binoculars for my birthday in September. So I did receive a pair of Eddie Bauer 10x25s from my loving and wonderful mother-in-law, which I used faithfully until my tax rebate arrived this weekend. I just upgraded (thank heavens) to a pair of 8x42s from Minox. I feel like I am birding with new eyes. While my starter pair were light and portable, the Minox are bright and clear. I am looking forward to better birdwatching!

I'm slowly building a library of bird-related materials. The guide I carry is The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, but I also consult the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America. I actively seek out new bird knowledge in the form of books available through the public library. I carry a small notebook for species lists and observations, and later write entries on each new bird in the National Geographic Birder's Journal my husband gave me for Christmas. I'm also enjoying Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song, and Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City.

I do most of my birding in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, but I've always got eyes to the skies, whether walking from home to the train or from work to pick up the kids at school. I also try to get out to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge at least once a month.

My biggest downfall as a birdwatcher? I don't get up early. My job only starts at 1:00 p.m., so I sleep as late as I want.

My biggest asset as a watcher of birds? I would say my openness. I want to learn, to see, to have my breath taken away by God's green earth and all its weird and wonderful beauties.

So, again, welcome! And I hope this record proves an interesting exercise for us both.