From now until the beginning of spring migration, this is how it will be: new birds added in dribs and drabs (and then just in dribs), a measly return on hours invested tromping through cold and desolate landscapes.
But, you know, it’s at least as fun (and far less painful) than marathon training. And just as long training runs became a way to explore my new city, this year’s bird quest is taking me to parts of Brooklyn I’d barely heard of, much less set foot in, before. (On a related note, look for a new food series on the cuisines of Avenue U to start soon.)
Here are this week’s new birds, all seen in Brooklyn and Manhattan in locales reached with a Metrocard and some well-worn running shoes:
77. Yellow-rumped warbler
78. Swamp sparrow
79. Savannah sparrow
80. Northern flicker
81. Eurasian wigeon
82. Horned lark*
83. Common grackle
84. Orange-crowned warbler
85. Yellow-bellied sapsucker
Just 115 to go!
*New York first
I birded in Prospect Park, of course, and also spent a couple of hours in Central Park this afternoon (where I saw an over-wintering orange-crowned warbler on my very first try – we have one in Prospect Park, too, or so every birder in Brooklyn tells me, but it hides whenever it hears I’m coming). Mostly, though, my approach was to put on my running gear, stuff a small backpack with binoculars, a field guide, lunch money and additional warm layers, and then hop on a B/Q train to either Avenue U or Sheepshead Bay. From there, I’d run to one or more birding destinations in Brooklyn’s southern wilds.
I’ve discovered that it’s a pleasant run of a little over a mile from the Sheepshead Bay B/Q stop along Emmons Avenue to Plumb Beach, and another couple of miles from there to Floyd Bennett Field. I’ve also discovered that Avenue U is imminently runnable (if you can resist peeking in bakery windows and browsing restaurant menus), and that it’s not too hard to combine the Salt Marsh Nature Center with Floyd Bennett in one running/birding outing.
Floyd Bennett Field – an abandoned airport converted to parkland – figures heavily in this post because it has it all. History. Decaying buildings. A variety of habitats, including grasslands like no others in Brooklyn. And miles and miles to run. I may have been there to look for birds, but I couldn’t resist running the runways. It was a serious kick.
Oh, and there are cricket fields there, too.
I was hoping for another snowy owl sighting, but no luck. Airports – even working airports – look a lot like tundra if you’re an owl. When I lived in Massachusetts as a graduate student, the Boston Globe had a regular “bird sightings” column, and Logan generated a lot of snowy owl reports. An abandoned airport can only be better.
As for this week’s BOTW (which, if you’ve been paying attention, you know is “Bird of the Week”) – it’s another tough call. The Eurasian wigeon was my rarest sighting – they’re an Old World species that really shouldn’t be here, and yet, every year, a handful show up and stick around. (I saw one several times at Bush Terminal last year. This one was dabbling with a bunch of mallards and Canada geese right by the viewing platform at the Salt Marsh Nature Center.) Orange-crowned warblers are scarce even during migration, and for them to stick around through January is pretty unusual.
The bird that excited me the most, though, was the horned lark. I’d seen these as a kid (or so the tick mark in my vintage Golden guide to the birds of North America tells me), so it wasn’t a “life” bird, but after 40+ years, it might just as well have been. I knew there was at least one flock of them at Floyd Bennett, and so I’d gone there with the express hope of seeing them.
Going somewhere with the express hope of seeing a particular bird is often an invitation to frustration. Birds are unpredictable; they can fly away. An hour after my first giddy runway run, I was tired and cold and overwhelmed by the vastness of the place and the utter futility of trying to find a group of small feathered creatures within it.
“Look by the cricket fields,” my birding friend Gus had advised me. When I finally found a map that showed the cricket fields, I realized they were at the western edge of the airport, close to Flatbush Avenue. I was, by then, at the far eastern edge of the airport, close to Jamaica Bay.
I backtracked and found the cricket fields (or are they “pitches”?), but no horned larks. I jogged on and paused in another barren, larkless field to consider what to do next.
Suddenly: a high-pitched twittering overhead, and 20 or 30 birds came wheeling out of nowhere, swerving and dipping in unison before they disappeared behind a cluster of trees and some fencing.
I speedwalked over to where they seemed to have been headed (the expanse of dirt and weedy grass pictured at the top of this post), and saw nothing, at first. Then a little bit of movement. Then a lot of movement. I raised my binoculars and edged closer, and there they were, easily 30 of them. They’re pretty birds, with black bibs, rakish black masks, yellow faces and (barely visible in the photo here) two black “horns” on either side of their heads. I stared at them through the binoculars until a flyover peregrine falcon flushed them and sent them, twittering and swerving and dipping, to another field.
Seeing them brought back memories. Or rather, it brought back a vague sense that I should be remembering something until, by a chain of association, I did. So though I don’t actually remember when or where or how often I saw horned larks as a child, they still remind me of long summer driving trips through the Plains states, of checking the station wagon’s grill each night to see what interesting insects were caught in it, of sleeping in some dusty campground in the little pop-up camper we towed behind us, or as a rare and special treat, checking into a motel with a pool. We saw pronghorn antelope on one of those trips, I remember clearly, big herds of them. Did we see horned larks too? I don’t remember, but . . . I remember.