200 Bird Thursday – week 19 (almost there)

yellow billed cuckoo

Brooklyn cuckoo (photo credit: Peter Paul III)

Back in January, when I embarked on this “200 bird challenge,” seeing 200 species of birds in the state of New York over the course of a year seemed like a pretty ambitious goal. When I told more experienced Brooklyn birders about it, they were less than impressed. And as my count quickly grew, I came to understand why. Well, then, how about limiting the challenge to the five boroughs of New York City?

More experienced Brooklyn birders bit their tongues.

So here it is, not quite halfway through May, and my 2016 NYC count stands at 197. With spring migration still in progress and a “big day” on the calendar for Saturday (I’m checking the weather forecast nervously), I anticipate hitting the big 2-0-0 this weekend.

After that . . . well, that can wait until we’re actually there. In the meantime, a few words about my favorite sighting – actually, sightings – of the week.

I’ve been birding in Prospect Park pretty seriously since 2014, and I’ve never seen a cuckoo there. In fact, I haven’t seen a cuckoo in the U.S. since I was a kid playing naturalist in the wooded ravine behind my parent’s house. I knew they passed through the park – I’d seen reports on the Prospect Sightings blog – but they always eluded me.

Until Tuesday, that is, when a large bird flew from one tree to another above me and I got it in my binoculars. It had hunched shoulders, a long, curved bill, white belly, dramatically spotted tail (except I couldn’t remember which cuckoo it is that has the tail spots, yellow-billed or black-billed), and (I saw once I had positioned myself where the light was better) a yellow bill.

That clinched it – a yellow-billed cuckoo, #194 on my list.

I’m not sure how “cuckoo” came to be synonymous with wild and crazy, because cuckoos are very mellow birds. After spending the last few weeks chasing flittering warblers and skittering shorebirds, it was a relief to focus on a bird that, by and large, just sat there looking exotic. Every so often it would fly to another nearby tree and sit there instead. And then to another. And so on, until finally it flew into a leafier tree and I lost it. (In truth, I was ready to move on.)

The next day, in a different part of the park, I happened to glance at a large bird perched in a tree to the side of the path. Maybe a kingbird. Through binoculars, the kingbird resolved into a cuckoo . . . only this time, its tail looked as though someone had painted a watercolor of yesterday’s cuckoo’s crisply spotted tail and then swiped it with a wet brush so that the colors blurred.

Plus, its bill was black. Black-billed cuckoo, #195.

Two species of cuckoos in two days! A short-billed dowitcher (not just a life bird, but a life bird that’s fun to say)! A pair of sopping wet seaside sparrows in a Manhattan mini-park! A second cerulean warbler encounter! A Wilson’s warbler, a.k.a “the Jewish warbler” for its little black kippa!

And finally, this morning, a trio of black skimmers appearing and then disappearing and then appearing again, at Plumb Beach.

This whole “200 bird challenge” is a little silly; the concept of a “big year,” arguably even sillier. But I know that if I hadn’t set this challenge, I wouldn’t be spending nearly this much time out in nature – mucking up my running shoes, rescuing horseshoe crabs, learning stuff, and watching cuckoos. All in all, it’s been pretty great.

This week’s additions to the list:

184. Short-billed dowitcher**
185. Ruby-throated hummingbird
186. Seaside sparrow**
187. Magnolia warbler
188. Cape May warbler
189. Red-eyed vireo
190. Indigo bunting
191. Chestnut-sided warbler
192. Canada warbler
193. Nashville warbler
194. Yellow-billed cuckoo*
195. Black-billed cuckoo**
196. Wilson’s warbler
197. Black skimmer*

*First for me in New York
**Life bird




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