After ticking off dozens of common winter birds in week 1, I knew this week’s total would be much lower – and, of course, it was. But it includes three (count ’em) “life” birds, a few birds I’ve seen before that still take my breath away, and a grand finale.
Here they are, all seen within the five boroughs of New York City, listed in the order in which I saw them:
61. Hairy woodpecker
62. Cooper’s hawk
63. Carolina wren
64. Pied-billed grebe
65. Bald eagle
66. Great cormorant
67. Pine warbler
68. Lark sparrow**
69. Clay-colored sparrow**
70. Cackling goose**
71. Peregrine falcon
72. Snow goose
73. Fish crow
74. American tree sparrow
75. Field sparrow
76. Snowy owl*
Just 124 to go!
*New York first
I had to work for these birds. I ran to Prospect Park late one afternoon in hopes of seeing a lesser black-backed gull, missed it, but did catch a hairy woodpecker and Cooper’s hawk (I got a good look at its rounded tail, so I’m confident of the ID vs. its near-identical sharp-shinned cousin). A return visit to Coney Island, including a detour to Coney Island Creek, yielded more loons, better views of northern gannets, and another kestrel, but nothing new. A Brooklyn Bird Club trip to Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx (scheduled) and to Flushing Meadows in Queens (an impromptu add-on) got me most of the rest of the week’s birds. Others came from solo trips within Brooklyn (I’m being intentionally vague here because of concerns about the snowy owl – I’ll explain the “owl code” in another post).
I said I worked for these birds, but as with so many other things in life, I benefited from the skill and generosity of others. At Pelham Bay, Tom spotted a pair of bald eagles far off in the distance, while Louis noticed that one of a group of three double-crested cormorants (yawn) was actually a great cormorant (check). A listserv posting by a guy named Ed led to a detour to Flushing Meadows in Queens and a CSI-worthy search for a couple of rare sparrows; we knew from our tipster that our quarry were associating with a flock of juncos and some pine warblers, and so we fanned out from the old New York State Pavilion, looking for the juncos’ white tail flashes (though the real giveaway was a man with binoculars and a two-foot camera lens, standing stock still in front of a scrubby tree). I got the pine warblers, and eventually the lark sparrow, but I needed help – which Kathy cheerfully provided – spotting the clay-colored sparrow. The small bird is precisely the bleached-out color of dry winter grass, endowing it with invisibility even when your binoculars are focused on it.
Pure, dumb luck played a role as well. The full group of us (two carfuls from Brooklyn, plus a bunch of folks from the Bronx and a few from Manhattan) spent a long time standing on a high rocky outcropping, exposed to the wind and cold, straining to see Tom’s bald eagles (and feeling very grateful for the opportunity). Later, in Flushing Meadows, a large, dark bird flew low over the Unisphere toward our much-reduced group. I hesitated to call it, concerned that looking at juncos for two hours had addled my sense of scale. What if it was nothing but a crow? No, definitely too big, and its wing beats were too slow, too heavy. Maybe a raven? No, even bigger. I lifted my binoculars:
holy fuck, another bald eagle!
It was also by pure, dumb look that I looked up at just the right time in just the right place this afternoon and saw only the second snowy owl of my life.
Three bald eagles, two new sparrows, unseasonable warblers, a snowy owl . . . all strong “Bird of the Week” candidates, but I have to give the nod to the cackling goose.
Two years ago, I had never heard of a cackling goose. A year ago, I was still not convinced it was a real bird. It is not listed in either of my North American field guides (the old one, and the even older one). Although I’m credulous by nature, dealing with employers and politicians over many years as a union researcher honed my skepticism. I wondered if the “cackling goose” wasn’t a hoax perpetrated on novice birders, a kind of ornithological hazing. Send the newbies out to survey flocks of Canada geese, with instructions to look for some that are smaller and have smaller bills. Do this on a cold and windy day, if possible. Then lean back, sip your hot chocolate and . . . cackle.
Google assures me that the cackling goose is indeed a thing and has been since 2004, officially distinguished from the Canada goose by its size, shape, subtle plumage differences and preference for breeding on tundra over golf courses. If you want to know what really convinced me, though, it was Tom’s indefatigable determination to see the bird. Tom is certainly no newbie, so if he was willing to carry his scope through Flushing Meadows in the waning January daylight in search of cackling geese, then I was willing to go along.
Besides, I’d come in his car. (The rest of the Brooklyn group left after the sparrows.)
If Tom or the other three of us were daunted by the task of sorting through hundreds of geese squeezed into what was once the World Fair’s Pool of Industry, we didn’t let on. Instead, we gamely (or crazily, if you will) inspected them. One. By. One. Every so often, one of us would call out a candidate (“over there, that one, it’s a little small, but I’m not sure about the bill”) and a consultation would follow, and then the conclusion: no, not cackling. Mostly, though, we worked in silence . . . slightly sullen silence, on my part. I was getting cold and hungry.
We had been joined by another guy, Ed (the same Ed, as it happens, who’d posted the alert that brought us here in the first place). He was soft-spoken and almost apologetic when he approached us and suggested that we might possibly want to take a closer look at a group of four birds standing on the ice just on the other side of that small patch of open water in front of us. There, see them?
We looked. And suddenly it was blazingly obvious, and how on earth had we not noticed before: two of these geese were not like the others. (For Ed’s account, including some great photos, check out his blog post. The whole thing is very much worth reading, but if you mainly want to see cackling geese, scroll down to the end.)
I’m now a cackling goose believer.