200 Bird Thursday – week 15 (Patagonian picnic tables)

yellow throated warbler

This little beauty graced Fort Greene Park this past week. (Photo credit: Karen O’Hearn)

The Saturday before last (as recently recounted on this blog), I raced a 10K in Central Park and ended up in the medical tent with an IV in my arm and cardiac leads on my wrists and ankles. This past Saturday, I took it easy and birded. What could possibly be a gentler, more restorative activity?


Trust me, there’s nothing gentle or restorative about birding Brooklyn’s coastal wetlands on a cold and blustery day. This was birding for the hard core. And to a person – there were five cars carrying fifteen people in our little Brooklyn Bird Club caravan – we stuck it out. Plumb Beach was cold and windy; Dead Horse Bay was colder and windier, and drizzly to boot; Floyd Bennett was cold and windy, the drizzle now interspersed with light showers; and Marine Park was cold and windy and rainy.

But the company was great (you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Deepseagangster – that’s his nom-de-plume* – do his pheasant impression), we saw some cool birds, and there was no whining. I was happy to add black-crowned night heron to my 200-birds-or-bust list (even though it wasn’t a bird I was in any danger of not seeing), and ring-necked pheasant to my Brooklyn list. I was disappointed, but not crushed, to have still not seen a snipe.

When I got home late that afternoon, I headed directly into a two-hour telephone call with my daughter, helping her navigate her taxes (being a resident of New York for part of last year and Illinois for the rest makes for some complicated returns, even for a lowly Americorps volunteer). By the time we finished, I was shivering uncontrollably. A hot shower only made me shiver harder. I wrapped myself in a comforter, crawled into bed and stayed there until the next morning, coming out only to take my temperature (102) and eat half a bowl of Colombian chicken soup.

Who’d have thought that springtime birding would be harder on a body than collapsing in a 10K race?  I was still weak and spacey (I believe “puny” is the southern expression for that feeling, and it’s a good one) on Sunday, but when I learned that a yellow-throated warbler had been spotted in Fort Greene Park, I hesitated only a little before heading out. If fresh air and sunshine didn’t revive me, perhaps the bird would.

Yellow-throated warblers are regular but rare in NYC, which is at the northern edge of their range. They’re regular in that a handful are reported every year, but rare enough that if you miss one when it blows through, you’re shit out of luck. I’ve seen them in Mexico, but never before in the U.S., much less here in Brooklyn. (There was one in Prospect Park last year, but I was out of town during its brief stay.)

It wasn’t hard to spot my bird of the week. First off, Fort Greene Park is small – just two (long) blocks by four (short) blocks.** Second off, it’s mostly open space, dotted with trees but without an understory of brush where sneaky little birds can hide.

Third off, two people with binoculars were already staring at it.

I joined them, and was eventually joined in turn by another three birders. We admired the bird’s plumage – slate gray back, black face mask, zebra-striped sides, bright gold throat – and cooed like proud parents when it caught an especially juicy bug.

God only knows what the other people in the park made of us.

But we didn’t care, because we were on a roll. In addition to the warbler, there were sapsuckers galore, and kinglets, and creepers, and wide-eyed field sparrows. Bring a bunch of birders together, even in a tiny, unprepossessing spot, and guess what – they start seeing birds.  This is where the “Patagonian picnic table” of the title comes in. It’s not a reference to the climate of the far southern tips of Chile and Argentina (though Saturday’s weather definitely qualified as Patagonian), but to a highway rest stop outside Patagonia, Arizona. Forty-five years ago, a group of birders stopped there for lunch, and happened to see an amazingly rare bird, something that had never been recorded before in North America. Other birders descended on the spot, hoping to see the original bird, and found still more super-rarities. That drew more birders, in turn, and more sightings, until a new term entered the birding lexicon: the Patagonia picnic table effect.

The other birds I saw in Fort Greene Park were all relatively common, if surprising to see in such a small patch of green in the middle of a densely developed neighborhood. But the following day, the Patagonia picnic table effect was in full force when my friends Gus (whose photos often appear here) and Kathy went off in search of the warbler and found a lark sparrow that had no business being in Brooklyn – but there it was.

I had foolishly declined to go with them, and would be kicking myself even harder if I hadn’t been lucky enough to see another errant lark sparrow, this one in Queens, back in January.

The list now stands at 141 birds seen in NYC this year:

136. Northern rough-winged swallow
137. Black-crowned night heron
138. Louisiana waterthrush
139. Yellow-throated warbler
140. Merlin
141. Barn swallow

(Many thanks to my birding friend Karen for permission to use her photo of Fort Greene’s yellow-throated warbler. Of the many pictures snapped of this creature during its 3-day visit, this one is my favorite.)

*A feeble attempt at a pun.

**If you live in New York City, that statement will make total sense. If you don’t, know that in NYC we have both long and short blocks. In general, the distance between avenues is significantly farther than the distance between regular streets.


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