Late summer birding update: bird and food pairings

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Pairs well with cafe bombon. (Photo credit: Gus Keri)

I’m all too aware that many of the folks who enjoy my posts on running or food (or both – there’s a substantial overlap between the two) are less than enamored with my birding updates. Try as I might to spread the love I feel for skulking sparrows and soaring seabirds, it’s proving to be a hard sell.

But, you know, I started this 200 Bird Challenge, and I’m going to finish it. With the better part of four months yet to go, and fall migration just beginning, you can count on more birding posts to come.

Sorry about that.

But birders, like runners, need to eat. And so I’m adopting a new approach in this update; if it’s popular, I may extend it to future updates as well. Besides tallying up birds and doing my best to describe them – their beauty, their peculiarities, the threats they face, why non-birders should care about them – I’ll try to couple each sighting with a food review from the same outing.

So here goes. My count of birds seen in the five boroughs of NYC this year now stands at 233, with twelve additions since my July update:

#222. Bobolink, seen at the Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park. As I wrote at the time, I paired this bird with a pastrami sandwich from Jay & Lloyd’s Kosher Deli and a package of Turkish simit from the bakery next door to take home for later.

bobolink

This bobolink wishes it could have a simit, too. (Photo credit: Gus Keri)

#223. White-rumped sandpiper, seen at the East Pond in the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge. You have not lived until you have donned your grungiest superannuated running shoes and trekked through the silty mud banks surrounding the south end of the East Pond on a sultry August day, swatting away biting flies as you study large flocks of migrating shorebirds that, just for fun, periodically take flight and reshuffle themselves, forcing you to study them All. Over. Again. I missed the pectoral sandpiper that everyone else had seen (its turn would come), and the stilt sandpipers (theirs, too) and the western sandpiper (still need to get that one). But finally – finally! – I spotted a trio of birds that just seemed “off” from the others around them . . . a bit larger, a bit pointier, a bit streakier down the sides. When they took flight, their rumps seemed white, but amidst the flashing of so many wings and tails, it was hard to be sure. I relocated them, they took off again, I relocated them again, they took off again. Finally, a look that was good enough to make the call.

I find that white-rumped sandpipers pair well a heaping container of stew oxtails, rice and peas, steamed cabbage and ripe plantains, picked up from a random Jamaican take-out place during a quick detour off the A train at Nostrand Avenue. Heavy food for a hot day, but I’d earned it.

#224. Golden-winged warbler, a life bird, seen in Prospect Park. One or more of this threatened species also came through the park in the spring, but I was consistently late to the party. I’d see a report, rush to the location, and find a crowd of birders but no bird. “It was just here,” I’d be told. “We saw it five, maybe ten minutes ago.” This time, the birder who’d originally spotted it helped me refind it. I have no pairing to suggest for golden-winged warblers, but really, none is required. The bird’s beauty as it dangled from tree leaves at the scrubby edge of Lookout Hill was more than enough.

#225, Pectoral sandpiper; #226, Stilt sandpiper; #227, Red knot, all seen over the course of a day-long Brooklyn Bird Club outing that took me back to Jamaica Bay. My old running shoes served me well once again. Everyone else was properly-shod in high boots, but with the water level artificially lowered by the refuge’s management to uncover more of the mudflats migrating shorebirds love so much, I did just fine. The important thing – and whether you are wearing ragged sneakers or proper boots is really immaterial here – is to avoid the quicksand.

Yes, quicksand. As in, loose silt that will suck you in deep, then suck you in even deeper as you struggle to free yourself. Should you step in quicksand, the important thing is to stay calm while your companions (God help you if you’re birding the pond alone!) run to find a sturdy board to gain purchase. My niece recently commented that when she was little, she worried about the wrong things – and cited quicksand as an example. To which I say: Sarah, you are right to worry about police violence and privatization and access to clean water . . . but please don’t discount the dangers of quicksand, OK?

At any rate, migrating shorebirds pair well with Russ & Daughters’ smoked trout mousse and wasabi flying fish roe on a pretzel bagel. This was admittedly not the smartest thing to leave in the car for hours on a hot day, but I survived.

The roe, sans wasabi, would probably have appealed to the birds as well.

#228. Yellow-bellied flycatcher, seen in Prospect Park. This bird pairs well with random leftovers eaten standing in front of the fridge in the late afternoon, because you’ve been spending so much time birding that lunchtime has come and gone.

#229. Red-breasted nuthatch, seen in Green-Wood Cemetery. These birds are wanderers with an unpredictable range that, this past winter, did not extend to Brooklyn or NYC generally. As reports of scattered sightings began to trickle in over the past month (one was in Owls Head Park on a day I was in Prospect; another was in Prospect on a day I stayed home), I was desperate to see one. Green-Wood Cemetery has a large number of mature pine trees, this bird’s favorite habitat, and so one Sunday I set out vowing not to return until I’d snagged a nuthatch. It took a while, but I finally saw one – and then another in the same group of trees – and then, I’ll be damned, a third. Since then, I’ve seen one or more nearly every day. We seem to be in the midst of a red-breasted nuthatch irruption (the technical term for a sudden upsurge in numbers).

The first nuthatches of the season pair well with a café bombón (equal parts espresso and sweetened condensed milk, totally delicious and guaranteed to heighten your senses for an extended bird walk) and a house-made doughnut sliced and slathered with vanilla cream, both from Lopez Bakery. (The bakery, on Fifth Avenue between 18th and 19th, also makes fabulous challah – the owner used to work for Eli Zabar. I find that their breakfasts pair well with most birds.)

#230. Olive-sided flycatcher, seen in Prospect Park. I had finished birding, and was heading to Smorgasburg to meet up with running buddies – binoculars slung casually over one shoulder in hopes this would make me look slightly less nerdy – when I saw a bird perched at the very top of a dead tree on Breeze Hill, right at the entrance to Smorgasburg. Hipster foodies be damned: I unslung my binoculars, removed the lens caps, and took a good, long look as men with extravagant facial hair and women in loose summer dresses swirled around me. The bird was drab, mostly, except for its white underside (as though it had unbuttoned an olive-drab vest) and a peculiar white tuft projecting from its wing. I was ecstatic. I’d missed olive-sided flycatchers in the spring, and here one was, served up like artisanal fusion food from a street cart.

From among all of Smorgasburg’s many offerings, I find that olive-sided flycatchers pair especially well with takoyaki (fried balls of octopus brushed with teriyaki sauce and sprinkled with shredded nori and bonito flakes, no mayo).

#231. Connecticut warbler (another life bird), seen in Central Park. Despite their name, Connecticut warblers are Midwestern birds – and yet, like their human counterparts, young and confused individuals turn up here regularly in the fall. Last year, one strutted its stuff for several days in the cemetery of Trinity church. This one was more typical of the species: a skulker. Alerted by a tweet, I spent the better part of two hours looking for the bird in the ground cover by the Pilgrim statue close to the park’s E. 72nd St. entrance. Someone had spotted it (or believed they’d spotted it) shortly before I arrived, but it quickly disappeared. An hour later, it reemerged onto a rock that just happened to be shielded from my view by drooping foliage. (The observers to my left and right had unobstructed views and left shortly afterwards, mission accomplished.) Before I could reposition myself for a better look, it disappeared again. After another 30 minutes of fruitless searching, I gave up in disgust and went for a walk in the Ramble.

But the siren call of a potential lifer drew me back. The people who’d been there earlier were gone now (some in triumph, some in despair). but a new birding couple had arrived, and I joined them. After a few false alarms – “no, sorry, just a common yellowthroat” – the man saw it.

“There! On the path! A clear look!”

“Where? Where?” his partner and I cried. I got there first, and kind of sort of thought I maybe saw it before it disappeared yet again – but it wasn’t a good enough look to feel I could honestly claim it. The woman saw nothing, and seemed on the verge of tears.

“Gotta get back to work,” the man said, leaving me with his distraught partner. (I would have punched him if I were her.)

Another birder soon joined us, and we circled the area for the umpteenth time, binoculars at the ready, pretending not to be totally dispirited. And then: a drab bird quickly flew up to a branch, and then, just as quickly, returned to the ground. It landed at the very edge of the overgrown area, and I could see it. Drab brownish olive upper parts. Dull yellow underparts. Shaded throat. White eye-ring. 

“I’ve got it,” I stage-whispered to my colleagues.

“Where?”

“Right by the path. You can see it moving in the cover. I think it’s going to cross the path. There! It’s coming out!”

“Where??”

“On the path, moving right.”

“WHERE???” Their urgency and despair were palpable.

“On the path, about halfway down, it’s moving, just look for the movement.” But the thing is, the bird’s back was the exact color of a fallen leaf, and it was creeping so slowly, that it was all but impossible to see until – once again – it disappeared into the weeds.

“It’s back in the ground cover. But I’m sure it’ll come out again.”

And then – like a jerk – I wished them luck and left.

With what does one pair a Connecticut warbler? All that work had me craving a jelly doughnut, and so I headed across the park to Orwashers’ (“New York’s Original Artisanal Bakery, Since 1916”) new outpost on Amsterdam Avenue. Ordering a doughnut at Orwashers is surprisingly complicated: did I want sugar or chocolate? and what kind of jelly, raspberry, blueberry, strawberry or sour cherry?

The real surprise was when the woman behind the counter took out a giant syringe of sour cherry preserves and injected it into my sugar-dusted doughnut. Because don’t you just hate it when you’re fresh from seeing a Connecticut warbler, and are forced to eat a doughnut that’s been sitting around, already jellied, for hours?

Gimmicky or not, the doughnut was delicious (as, for $4.25, it damn well better be).

#232. Acadian flycatcher (life bird), seen in Prospect Park. There is a class of flycatchers in the genus empidonax, known familiarly as “empids,” that are notoriously difficult to distinguish. Some birders take that as a challenge, studying subtle differences (how far do the wings project? how wide is the bill? how big is the head in proportion to the body? is the drab grayish-brownish-olivish plumage more olive-drab or more brown-drab or more gray-drab?) and memorizing their calls. Others just throw up their hands. I’m mostly in the latter camp, and though I’ve gotten a little better – I can now recognize the “fitz-bew” call of the willow flycatcher – I still lean on others for IDs. And so it was with this bird. I spotted it on a Brooklyn Bird Club walk (I was on a flycatcher-spotting tear that morning), and someone else identified it. He confidently cited field marks I hadn’t known to look for (him:”did you see how wide its bill was?” me:”uh, sure”), and so I am including it on my list. It feels unsatisfying, though, and maybe even a little like cheating.

Like many birds seen on Brooklyn Bird Club walks – which tend to meander over to the east side of the park in the early afternoon, leaving yours truly (who, unlike others, always forgets to bring energy bars) tired and famished – this Acadian flycatcher paired well with a Trini vegetarian platter of rice and peas, callaloo, pumpkin and plantains.

Unlike the sighting, the food was very satisfying.

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Pairs well with empids.

#233. Philadelphia vireo, seen this past Tuesday in Prospect Park on yet another Brooklyn Bird Club walk. We’d been at it for four hours when one of our number spotted something in a low tree. “I’ve got something,” she said, in a hushed voice, trembling with excitement. “I think it’s a Philadelphia vireo.”

This was one of the birds we were all hoping to see. They’re regular in Brooklyn in the fall, but rare, and you can’t count on seeing one no matter how many hours you spend in the park and how hard you look; luck is also required. And luck was with us. We saw not one, but two Philly vireos keeping company with one another. Drab olive green on their backs, eyes lined with white, washed with yellow on their chest and belly – check and check.

What pairs well with Philadelphia vireos? In my experience, the long search for this bird is associated with emergency trips to the Park Slope Food Coop where – because it’s already afternoon by the time you finally get there – the aisles are jammed with cartons and carts and and overabundance of Coop workers stocking shelves. And so you rush through, because you know you’re about to lose it, and totally forget to pick up something from the prepared food section, or anything for lunch, really, because you’ve been too bird-obsessed to shop for groceries and so the important thing is to stock up on essentials for dinner, because you can’t in good conscience suggest pizza or Peruvian chicken yet again, and so you find yourself back at the apartment slicing Spanish “mont bru oriol” (“similar to garrotxa”) cheese onto crackers and polishing off the remaining figs and still feeling hungry.

Seeing the bird is worth it, though.

 

 

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