After putting my quest on hold last week, I was determined to make up for lost time. So what if Saturday’s windchill hovered around zero degrees (that’s Fahrenheit, folks)! A group bird walk to Bush Terminal Park was on the schedule, and if the leader was tough enough not to cancel it, then I was tough enough to join it.
My expectations were modest. I figured we had a good shot at a Bonaparte’s gull (since everyone who is not me has been seeing them in recent weeks). If we were lucky, we might see one of the uncommon white-winged gulls (glaucous or Iceland) that have been hanging around. Maybe we’d catch a red-necked grebe.
So when did I give up even these modest expectations? Was it when we noticed the striking absence of common ducks (scaup evidently having more sense than we did)? Was in when the snow started blowing sideways? Was it when the wind knocked down one of our scopes?
All I know is that at some point (and by “some point,” I mean ten minutes into the outing), I was ready to call it a day. The company was great, but the rest of the experience was thoroughly miserable. The best I could hope for was that my suffering would become an investment in birding karma.
And perhaps it was. By Tuesday, we were back to unseasonably warm temperatures, albeit with heavy rain in the forecast. I was antsy to get out and see some birds, and the morning was supposed to be mostly dry, so I grabbed a large coffee and headed out on a Coney Island-bound F train.
I boarded in a light drizzle; I got off in a steady rain, buffeted by gusty winds.
For some reason, Coney Island beach was deserted. I saw one of the loons that often hangs out by the fishing pier, but getting a fix on the ducks farther out was challenging. The water was choppy and my glasses were splattered with rain drops, and fogged up when I held the binoculars against them. I spotted a duck flying solo and managed to follow it until it landed in the water. The key to identifying ducks, I’ve learned, is to observe where the white is on their wings, tails, bodies, heads. This one had no white, which meant it could only be one thing: a black scoter, our only all-black duck. That was a life bird for me, and while I’m confident in the identification, it wasn’t a very satisfying sighting. It’s one thing to identify a bird through a process of elimination; it’s another to really see it.
I got more pleasure from a northern gannet that made several low passes over the pier. Each time I’ve seen gannets from Coney Island beach, they’ve come a bit closer . My first view was of a squiggle on the horizon that I only knew to be a gannet on the word of a more experienced birder. The next was of a recognizable gannet-shape, shimmering white with high-contrast black wing tips, in the middle distance. And now this, close enough to see its bill and the faint buffy wash on its head.
At this rate, they’ll be perching on my shoulders by the end of March.
The rain eased off while I was standing on the pier, and I was already drenched anyhow, so I decided to continue on to Coney Island Creek. There I watched sanderlings skitter along the water’s edge, following the waves, and finally – FINALLY – saw the Bonaparte’s gulls I’d been looking for. There were three of them, two in the water dunking their heads playfully, and a third showing off its pinkish-orange legs on the shore.
Running back along the Shore Road bike path, I saw more ducks – the usual scaup, buffleheads and red-breasted mergansers, plus a trio of common goldeneye – and, wouldn’t you know it, another couple of Bonaparte’s gulls, because when it rains it pours (which is what it was doing literally as well as figuratively by then). I caught the R train in Bay Ridge and got back to Park Slope just as the monsoons moved in.
Three new birds in one outing only whetted my appetite. I was a woman possessed, and so on Wednesday, I headed to Jamaica Bay in Queens. I counted at least a dozen swans, assorted sea ducks and twenty snow geese – and that was before I exited the A train at Broad Channel, where a pair of boat-tailed grackles greeted me. Within the National Wildlife Refuge itself, I saw (among other things) a hen pheasant, vast flocks of snow geese and a tree full of cedar waxwings. (The last two weren’t new birds, but still something to behold.)
Let’s pause here to contemplate a wildlife refuge in the middle of New York City, practically butting up against John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Since I had a lunchtime meeting in Manhattan today, I ended my birding week with a quick trip up to the Bronx. There I killed two birds with one stone (just kidding! just kidding!) by activating my zoo membership and seeing the winter wren and rusty blackbirds that have been reported there all winter.
So here’s my list for the week:
92. Black scoter**
94. Bonaparte’s gull*
95. Boat-tailed grackle*
96. Ring-necked pheasant*
97. Winter wren
98. Rusty blackbird
*New York first
Just 102 to go!
You’d think bird-of-the-week honors would go to the surf scoter, the only “life” bird on the list, but my distant sighting of it was so unsatisfying that it just doesn’t feel like a bird of the week. The honor goes instead to the Bonaparte’s gull.
Gulls generally frustrate me. I know some birders who’ve made a serious study of gulls, who can speak knowledgeably about first and second winter plumages, who know the difference between primaries and secondaries. I am not one of those birders. But the Bonaparte’s gull is distinctive enough that even I can identify it confidently. It’s smaller and more delicate than the ring-billed gulls that dominate around here, and in its winter plumage, it has adorable little black earmuffs. It’s also more acrobatic, almost tern-like in its behavior.
What clinched its bird-of-the-week status, though, is the fact that after trying and failing to see one for several weeks running, I suddenly saw five birds in two separate locations in one day.
It’s a good reminder of the role that randomness, serendipity and, yes, karma plays in birding and in life.