200 Bird Thursday – week 20 (my Big Day)

laughing see gulls (2)

The Laughing See Gulls at the end of our Big Day (photo credit: random playground woman)


#200 came almost too easily. It was standing tall, in clear view, the breeze ruffling its feathers on a sunny Saturday morning.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. This past Saturday was my longest and most intense day of birding ever – a genuine Big Day. I joined with five other Brooklyn birders to celebrate International Migratory Bird Day (and to raise money for habitat restoration at Floyd Bennett Field) by waking up in the dark, getting to Prospect Park before 5:30 in the morning, and then birding for 13 straight hours in locations all over Brooklyn, strategically chosen and then ordered to maximize birdiness subject to a time-spent-in-traffic constraint.

Which sounds intense, I realize. Crazy, even. But in fact, it was a blast. I knew the Laughing See Gulls would be a good fit as soon as I was informed of the team rules:

Rule #1: If you see a laughing gull, you must say, “hahahaha.”

Rule #2: If you see a tern or other diving bird hit the water, you must say, “bam!”

Rule #3: You must don a red clown nose for the official team photo.


The start of our Big Day

I’ve been in Prospect Park early in the morning (last summer’s marathon training group sessions started at 6 am), but never this early. And while I don’t plan to make a habit of it, it was pretty magical. When we entered the park at Greenwood Ave, birds were singing in every tree and a light mist covered the lake. We began ticking off common birds – house sparrow, starling, robin – as we walked to the west shore for a quick survey. Red-winged blackbirds called from the phragmites – got ’em – while chimney swifts chittered and skittered overhead. But before Chris could add the swifts to our list, Nina called out:

“Common nighthawk!”

It took the rest of us a while to get on it (Nina was the youngest and keenest-eyed of us all), but eventually, there it was – with the swifts but not of them, slicing through the sky like  a giant capital “M.” This was not a bird we expected to see – none had been reported in the park yet this year – and we had it. Hands were slapped, congratulations exchanged, and our birding pride fairly burst. We were bad-ass birders.

(Pretty much everyone in the park would get that bird that day, but we didn’t know that at the time, and seeing an unexpected bird so quickly – it wasn’t even 5:30 yet – was better than a double espresso.)

We climbed up Lookout Hill, claiming birds all the way – yellow rump! common yellowthroat! Wilson’t warbler! house wren! By the time we headed back down, a little over an hour later, we had tallied 46 species.

Thanks to the nighthawk, my “200 bird challenge” count was now at 199.

little blue heron

NYC bird #200 (photo credit: Gus Keri)

Back at Karen’s house, we piled into our cars and caravaned to Jamaica Bay. While the bulk of the refuge is in Queens, a portion of the West Pond crosses into Brooklyn (which is why so many Brooklyn birders refer to “Terrapin Point” instead of “Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge” . . . not that we’re obsessed with our Kings County lists or anything, you understand). It was there, at around 8:00 in the morning that I saw #200. Flanked by a couple of snowy egrets, a little blue heron – no, wait, make that two little blue herons – stood in a shallow pool of water surrounded by marsh grasses.  I’ve seen little blue herons before, but not many and not often and only in the South. Until this year, I didn’t even know we had them in Brooklyn.

By the time we left Jamaica Bay, around an hour and a half later, I’d picked up #201 (ruddy turnstone) and #202 (semipalmated sandpiper), and our day list had grown to 76 birds. Fueled by great handfuls of Chris’s patented trail mix, it was on to the Salt Marsh Nature Center (clapper rail, kildeer and savannah sparrow, but no kestrel), then to Floyd Bennett (turkey vulture, yellow-billed cuckoo, brown thrashers, a false alarm on a purple finch and, finally, a kestrel), and then, backtracking a bit, to Plumb Beach (black skimmers, red-throated loon).

The birding got harder as the day went on, not only because we were tired, but because we’d done such a bang-up job in the morning that there were simply fewer new birds to be seen. Lunch was eaten quickly, sitting side-by-side on dusty benches facing the Belt Parkway bike path. I won’t say we were glum, exactly (how could we be, with a steady stream of laughing gulls overhead, each eliciting a “hahahaha” from one or more of us?), but there was a new urgency to the discussion of our itinerary for the rest of the afternoon. Should we go to Green-Wood cemetery, or back to the park? What could we expect to get at Green-Wood (besides the parrots, of course)? What time did we really need to be back in the park, and what spots should we hit, and in what order? And do you think it’s really going to rain?

We did go to Green-Wood, picking up a northern rough-winged swallow in addition to the parrots that live in the turrets of the grand entrance. The trade-off was that it was late – approaching 4 pm – by the time we got to the park. We did a quick march through the Lullwater, checked out the Lily Pond (both front and back), then walked the ravine (gray-cheeked thrush, #203) to Rick’s Place and the pools, obsessing over common birds that we had somehow managed not to see. Even at our most grimly focused, though, we still took time to admire a male rose-breasted grosbeak (a bird that was already on our list) and breathe a collective “awwww” over the baby wood ducks.

Around 5:30, as we headed toward Lookout for one last push, the wind began to pick up. The dangling oak catkins that been full of warblers in the morning were empty now, raining down on us, getting in our eyes, clumping together into swirling tumbleweeds at our feet. I don’t think we saw a single new bird in our last 45 minutes in the park.


Our meticulously-kept tally

But no matter. As a group, we’d seen or heard a grand total of 115 species (I missed a few, for a personal total of 108). I’d met the 200-bird challenge I set for myself at the beginning of the year. We’d all learned some new jokes and called out “hahahaha” and “bam!” scores of times.

And soon we’d be kicking back with beers at Karen’s house.

First, though, we needed a group photo. At the Vanderbilt playground, we found a friendly young mother who agreed to snap a picture of us with Chris’s iPhone. Noses on, we grinned, and SNAP. Our big day was officially over.

. . .    

You might think that after such a day, I’d ease back on the birding. Take a little break. Read the paper, catch up on the New Yorker backlog, go for a bike ride with Eric.

You might think that, but you would be wrong. My big day only fueled my addiction, sending me off on a birding bender for the rest of the week. It started innocently enough, with an an easy “hair of the dog” Sunday morning walk in the park (where I naturally saw multiple Canada and chestnut-sided  warblers, birds that had eluded us the day before). But I ended up racing back to the park that afternoon to see the least bittern (#204) roosting on a tree behind the Rose Garden. Monday, I simply had to go to Green-Wood to check out reports of a summer tanager (#205) and find the magical beech tree that had been full of warblers, including a mourning warbler, the day before (the magic held – the mourning warbler was #206). Tuesday, I joined one of the last scheduled Brooklyn Bird Clubs spring migration walks and finally got a bay-breasted warbler (#207). Wednesday I fleshed out my Brooklyn-specific list with dunlin and a short-billed dowitcher at Plumb Beach.

It was all too much, and I knew it was all too much, and so I’d vowed to take today off. But when I heard that a Kentucky warbler had been sighted in Prospect Park, I just had to go and . . . three hours later, I finally saw it (#208).

Tomorrow, I’ll rest. Really. I also need to think about some new goals. As recently as the beginning of the month, I thought that 200 birds in Kings County would be a worthy additional goal – but with my county list now up to 198 and a few soft targets still winging their way northward, that’s not much of a challenge at all. I guess I’ll continue birding, see what I see, and post updates occasionally (no more regularly-scheduled “200-Bird Thursdays”).

Oh, and Saturday I’m running the Brooklyn Half – an opportunity to see how all this birding has affected my training. I’ll post a race report early next week.

The list, four and a half months into my 200-bird year:

198. Blackpoll warbler
199. Common nighthawk
200. Little blue heron*
201. Ruddy turnstone*
202. Semipalmated sandpiper*
203. Gray-cheeked thrush
204. Least bittern**
205. Summer tanager*
206. Mourning warbler**
207. Bay-breasted warbler
208. Kentucky warbler**

*My first for New York
**Life bird

Who knew New York City was such a birdy place?


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