That’s my final count of bird species seen in the five boroughs of New York City over the course of the last year. Number 1 was monk parakeet, a flock of which were squawking in the tree across the street when I opened the front door last New Year’s Day and officially launched my biggish year. Number 249 was white-winged scoter, seen from the beach at Fort Tilden, Queens, yesterday morning.
In between, there were cliff swallows in the Bronx (nesting in the eaves of the derelict bathhouse at Orchard Beach); grasshopper sparrows on Staten Island (during a sneak preview of Freshkills Park); and a western tanager in Manhattan (hanging out by City Hall). While Brooklyn was my primary and most productive birding turf – 225 species – every borough offered up at least one unique bird.
32 of these were “life” birds, completely new to me. Many others were first-time New York sightings. And a few were birds I remembered from my childhood, birds of nostalgia. (How many years had it been since I’d seen a meadowlark? I have no idea, but I was grateful for a quick, in-flight glimpse over the grasslands at Floyd Bennett Field.)
There were some frustrating misses, of course. I was unable to identify an Iceland, glaucous or lesser black-backed gull to save my life. (I think I’m going to need both a scope and a gull mentor to get those.) An American bittern made a one-day visit to Prospect Park on a day I was elsewhere; same with the evening grosbeak that breezed through Green-Wood Cemetery. And my snipe hunt continues. Despite repeated visits to grassy, marshy (and, I would later learn, quicksandy) places, I never managed to see one.
In my search for birds, I did a fair number of fairly stupid things. My zeal to see a Wilson’s snipe led me to a maze of dirt roads deep in the phragmites in Spring Creek Park, close to where a young woman would later be murdered. (I have not gone back.) I sacrificed running shoes to salt marsh muck. I picked ticks off the back of my neck. And, on one memorable fall afternoon, I joined half a dozen other birders in industrial Greenpoint as we squeezed, one by one, through a narrow hole in the chain link fence that encircles the future site of Bushwick Inlet Park. (The fence was the easy part; it was the tangle of barbed wire and razor wire on the other side that was dicey.) Hipsters at the brewery across the street kept right on drinking their beer, couples strolled past us, a skinny woman struck a bored pose against the fence while a skinny photographer shot away, and we birders got our errant ash-throated flycatcher. (The cops shut down this new birding hot spot the next day.)
Along the way, I also got a little smarter about birding. I’m not the greatest ear birder, and probably never will be, but I’ve learned the importance of listening. I can tell fish crows from American crows, and can identify a willow flycatcher with reasonable confidence – even though it looks pretty much identical to other small, olivish-grayish flycatchers, its “FITZ-bew” call is distinctive enough to make me wonder why I never noticed it before.
Which is what birding is really all about: noticing things. I’d like to think it’s a skill that carries over into other parts of life.
So, what was my bird of the year? I saw some rarities – the painted bunting that kindly lingered through last January 1 for calendar-obsessed birders; the least bittern that showed up in a tree in the slightly creepy woods beyond the Vale of Cashmere in Prospect Park; the black-bellied whistling ducks that paid a quick visit to the Salt Marsh Nature Center; the western tanager in City Hall Park – but most of these felt like cheating. Receive a tweet or rare bird alert; head out; spot a cluster of people with binoculars; look at what they’re looking at; and leave, feeling vaguely dissatisfied.
I think the single most memorable bird of this past year was a solitary sighting back in January. I’d gone to Plumb Beach for only the second or third time, and had seen mostly sparrows and some over-wintering yellow-rumped warblers. I was cold – I’d run there from the Sheepshead Bay Q train and so my clothes were wet with sweat and now the wind was picking up – and a little discouraged. I was still learning to identify sea ducks, and the choppy water wasn’t making that any easier. So I was focusing on gulls instead (one of many unsuccessful attempts to see a white-winged species) when something big and white swooped in low over the dunes.
“Glaucous gull” was my first thought, but it was all wrong for a gull, with broad wings and a round, oversized face. Was it a . . . snowy owl?
Yes, it was. It made another low pass over the grasses and then landed on a sandy shoal on the other side of the inlet. There it sat, and there I stood and watched it. To see something so wild and mysterious in Brooklyn was nothing short of magical.
So there it is: my year in birds. I plan to blog less about birds in 2017, but I’m not giving up the topic entirely. You can expect periodic ornithological musings, as well as posts on the corners of Brooklyn my birding leads me to, and what I find there (besides birds).
Here, for the list keepers (meaning, primarily, me) are the new birds seen since my last update back in September:
#234. Virginia rail (Prospect Park)
#235. Tennessee warbler (Prospect Park)
#236. Purple finch (Brooklyn Botanic Garden)
#237. Cattle egret (Floyd Bennett Field)
#238. Nelson’s sparrow (Plumb Beach)
#239. Vesper sparrow (Bush Terminal Piers Park)
#240. Eastern meadowlark (Floyd Bennett Field)
#241. Yellow-breasted chat (Central Park)
#242. Eastern bluebird (Prospect Park)
#243. Ash-throated flycatcher (Bushwick inlet)
#244. Red-headed woodpecker (Marine Park)
#245. Western tanager (City Hall Park)
#246. Wild turkey (Staten Island University Hospital campus)
#247. Dickcissel (Midland Beach)
#248. Northern saw-whet owl (undisclosed secure location in Brooklyn)
#249. White-winged scoter (Fort Tilden)
While an even 250 would have been nice (and doable – I’m kicking myself for leaving Floyd Bennett prematurely yesterday and missing an uncommon common eider), there’s a certain appropriateness in that dangling, uneven number. It’s a reminder that much of our business – in birding, politics, life – is unfinished.