Both my avocations, running and birding, lend themselves to obsessive tracking of numbers: weekly mileage, race times, average pace; life lists, year lists, country, state, county and patch lists. And in both cases, those numbers – while meaningful and maybe even (slightly) interesting to other aficionados – are a good way to drive away those who don’t share your passion.
Want to make someone’s eyes glaze over? Just start telling them your marathon splits, or your county year list.
What the numbers don’t capture is the pure joy of the pursuit. In the case of birding, there’s the swoop of a northern harrier, the brilliance of a scarlet tanager, the comical determination of a white-throated sparrow to turn over every leaf in its vicinity. There’s the shifting pattern – now tightening, now loosening, elongating, turning – of a murmuration of starlings. There’s the comfort of seeing familiar birds in familiar places, and the excitement of seeing something totally unexpected. Most of all, there’s wonder at the sheer diversity of color, size, shape, habits and voice that birds exhibit.
By the numbers, 2018 was a banner birding year for me: 409 species total, 342 in the United States, 60 “life” birds (meaning, birds seen for the first time in my 45+ years of list-keeping).
I had to check my records to get those numbers just now (well, except for the 409, which was kind of a big deal for me). To come up with my year in birds, though, I only needed to check my memories.
January. Winter in New York is all about ducks – like the bizarrely-patterned harlequin ducks Eric and I saw off Point Lookout on Long Island. This was a bird I had lusted after for years, the kind of bird you see in a field guide when you’re looking up something else, and think, “Wow! Why can’t we have those around here?” While harlequin ducks are rare in New York City proper, all it took to see a whole bunch of them was a rental car and a free Saturday. They were just as wildly colorful as their advance press, and wildly noisy, too, given to squeaking and squealing. How can you not love a duck whose Latin name is histrionicus histrionicus?
Central Park mandarin duck, eat your tame little heart out.
February. OK, so I fibbed a little above. Winter in New York is also about gulls. I’m still learning gulls, and am not sure I will ever have the patience or commitment to be really good at them. So many plumages, so many subtle differences in size, head shape and wing projection, so many freaking birds – roosting with their heads frustratingly tucked, swimming with their feet concealed, whirling overhead in chaotic flocks. When, despite all this, I’m able to spot and identify an unusual gull, it’s a small triumph. Black-headed gulls may be your standard, garbage-loving gull in Europe, but here, they’re a rare and exotic visitor. It was more luck than skill or persistence that led me to zero in on a dainty gull with a pointy, dark-red bill and smudgy eyes on an otherwise crappy day on the Brooklyn waterfront – but it still made me feel like a real birder.
The fact that I’d go on to see literally hundreds more in Spain the next month didn’t make this bird any less special.
March. This was the big trip to Spain that almost didn’t happen. Grieving my father’s death, I birded in Madrid (where the starlings are spotless, which was news to me but made them life birds); I birded in Cuenca (Eurasian griffons from the window of our parador, an honest-to-goodness nightingale singing along the river); I birded in Valencia (the jewel-like flash, part emerald, part sapphire, of a kingfisher) and, with a guide, in the rice fields of Albufera (hundreds upon hundreds of egrets, glossy ibises and – wait for it – flamingos). It was all great, and beefed up both my year list and my life list considerably. My most memorable March bird wasn’t a lifer, though. It was a bird I remembered well from the two years my Dad taught in Saudi Arabia when I was a kid. Hoopoes are hard birds to forget: orangey-tan, like Donald Trump’s make-up, with an extravagant, fanned crest on top of their heads, boldly-patterned black and white wings, and a scimitar-like bill. They don’t seem quite real. They’re dream birds, make-believe birds (Hieronymus Bosch painted them), birds that insinuate themselves into your memories and then fly you somewhere else.
Such that when you see one feeding in the damp grass in a playground in Madrid Rio Park, you may believe, for just a moment, that you’re still young and your father is still young, too.
April. Spring calls for at least one warbler, and so April’s bird is the orange-crowned warbler. Despite its name, it’s a drab bird – and consequently, a favorite among serious birders, who tend to root for the less showy birds, the birds that are easy to miss and hard to identify. The “underbirds,” if you will.
Orange-crowned warblers are common in the west, but just uncommon enough in New York that even though you will probably see one at some point during the year, there’s always a non-trivial chance that you won’t, which means each eBird report of the species sparks serious birding FOMO. That’s true no matter how blase you pretend to be, or how ridiculous you know the whole thing is.
The best preventive measure is to be the first – or one of the first – in your area to see one. Which this year I was, late one afternoon in Green-Wood Cemetery. With the help of other birders, I saw plenty of more colorful and rarer warblers last spring – a lingering yellow-throated, a prothonatary that posed and preened by the Ambergill Falls, at least one, maybe two Kentucky’s – but none gave me as much satisfaction as that orange-crowned.
May. I spent a memorable long weekend in northwest Ohio birding the landscape of my childhood (you can read about it here). Warblers are generally the star of the show during the “Biggest Week in American Birding,” but my most memorable birds were sparrows, swimmers, and waders. After flying to Detroit, picking up my rental car, and arriving on the southeast edge of Toledo with just a few hours of daylight remaining, a pair of black-necked stilts in a new wetland created from an old farm was the perfect birthday present. I’d seen this species in Mexico a few years back, but never in the U.S. There were plenty of other great birds on this trip – lifer soras, a surprise pair of pelicans, trumpeter swans galore, lark and clay-colored and grasshopper sparrows, so many meadowlarks I thought for a moment it was 1970 and I was in the back seat of my parent’s Ford station wagon on a country drive – but my birthday stilts stand out.
June. A shattered elbow that required surgery sidelined me for much of the month, and I sought solace at my friend Shelley’s place on the Delaware-Maryland border (the top of her driveway is in one state, her house in the other). I knew that barred owls nested somewhere in her subdivision, and that the fledglings had been hanging out in her neighbor’s yard, but I figured they’d moved on by the time I finally made it down to visit. Sure enough, a walk at dusk and another in the pitch dark (with headlamps) turned up nada. I had a hard time sleeping that first night, partly because my arm was still somewhat painful, partly because I’d had such high hopes for owls, and partly because of the strange, mechanical hissing noises, like steam escaping, directly outside my bedroom.
The country is supposed to be quiet, goddammit, I thought as I closed the window.
We were feasting on steamed crabs the second night when I heard more strange noises – like a dog barking, or perhaps a rooster crowing – and looked out to the courtyard to see a barred owl perched on the low fence, looking directly at us. As we watched it watch us, I began to hear the same hissing that had led me to close my window the night before. It was coming from the bedroom side of the house – from just outside my bedroom, in fact – and it was a second owl, soon joined by a third.
Nothing is more healing than young owls, I decided. They can hiss outside my window all night if they want to.
July. Breezy Point, on the far west tip of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens, is one of my favorite places in NYC. Towards the end of the month, sufficiently recovered to manage my scope, I headed out to Rockaway to look for piping plovers, fancy gulls and terns, lingering shorebirds I’d missed while I was on the disabled list, and whatever else might turn up.
What turned up – after I’d walked the length of the beach, failed to see any Arctic or roseate terns, and was preparing to turn around – was a lone brown pelican, flying low and heavy in the general direction of New Jersey. A few others had been seen and reported by others over the summer, but they were basically unchaseable: there, then gone. To see one felt like a gift from the birding gods.
August. Eric’s family’s annual summer vacation/endurance test was in Colorado this year. I notched several life birds in and around Rocky Mountain National Park – American three-toed woodpecker, dusky flycatcher, Virginia’s warbler – but not the big one. So busy was I was inspecting each lichen-splotched, ptarmigan-shaped rock for signs of life that I missed the white-tailed ptarmigan my non-birding nephew and his partner, who’d continued ahead on the tundra trail, saw scampering on an outcropping. By the time our inbound and outbound paths crossed – Josh and Lauren, skipping gaily; me, gasping for air – and they casually mentioned their sighting (“Hey, we saw that bird you were talking about – it looked kinda like a chicken”), it was gone. Not “gone,” gone – but not in sight, Knowing it was still there, somewhere, and that they had seen it, but I had not, made for a long, cold, miserable lunch huddled on the rocks, scanning the landscape, not seeing ptarmigans.
After that disappointment, it was comforting to run the trail alongside the stream by our condo, perfect dipper habitat, and, yes, see an American dipper. It wasn’t a lifer, but it was there on each of my morning runs, not always in the same place (because where’s the challenge in that?), but always somewhere along the route, standing in the rushing water and bobbing: a little gray ball of encouragement.
Thank you, dipper.
September. A fall trip to some western destination has become something of a tradition, and this year it was back to New Mexico. I got a head start, leaving a few days before Eric for some intensive birding in the Bosque del Apache, where I saw many expected birds (white-faced ibis, phainopeplas, adorably top-knotted Gambel’s quail) and a few unexpected ones (greater white-fronted geese). The best bird of a trip with many great birds, though, was one I saw later, with Eric, on the edge of the Gila wilderness. A fluttering overhead caught my eye, then the fanning of a black and white tail, then a shock of bright, bright red. It was a painted redstart – a lifer for me, and the first sighting for that location (which is not saying much, as it’s not heavily birded). It was also drop-dead gorgeous. I felt about that the bird the way I felt about Katie’s twitchy left eyebrow when she was a baby: I could look at it all day.
October. Work for candidates who’d repudiate the Trump agenda, or go birding? It wasn’t always possible to do both in October. I felt the conflict most keenly when a purple gallinule was reported in Prospect Park the evening before I was committed to campaign all day in Connecticut for a good friend, and all-around great person, waging a long-shot state senate campaign against an entrenched Republican incumbent. I did the right thing and knocked on doors for Julie, and was glad I did . . . but I was also glad to get back to Brooklyn with several daylight hours to spare. I threw my bag in the apartment, put on my running shoes, raced over to Lakeside – and saw the bird.
(Just in case you were wondering, Julie won.)
November. There are two ways to see a cackling goose. One is to find a large flock of Canada geese and sort through them, carefully studying each individual in the hope of finding one that’s sufficiently small, steep-foreheaded and stumpy-billed to qualify as a separate species.
In my experience, this method never works.
The more effective way is to find a large flock of Canada geese that has a small group of excited people staring at it through binoculars. This is how I came to see a cackling goose on Thanksgiving morning, on a grassy berm by the Montrose Point marina in Chicago. It was some consolation for the common redpolls I didn’t see that morning. Also, running there and back from our hotel was good preconditioning for a lavish Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws’.
December. It’s tough to find new birds in December when you’ve been birding obsessively all year. I continued to search for redpolls in Toledo and Detroit over the Christmas holiday, and continued to not see them. Mostly, I tried to enjoy birds on their own terms – black-capped chickadees returning to the feeders in Prospect Park, a surprising influx of pine siskins, a snowy owl on a wintry beach, a lovely walk in the woods with my daughter, sister and niece. Just as I was settling into this end-of-the-year zen, I saw a Twitter report of a male evening grosbeak in Manhattan’s Riverside Park.
This is a bird I’ve always wanted to see (if you’re not familiar with it, do click on the link, and you’ll see why – they’re extraordinarily handsome). Unfortunately, at the time of the initial report on December 29, I was somewhere on I-80 in Pennsylvania.
It was the afternoon of the next day before I headed to the Upper West Side. There were bags to unpack and groceries to restock, but most of all, I think, I feared disappointment. And so I dawdled. Finally, spurred on by several tweets confirming that it was still around, I took the R to the 2 to the 1 to 125th St and walked to the area around Grant’s tomb where it had last been reported.
There I saw a Cooper’s hawk, many titmice, and a large flock of robins – but no grosbeak and only a couple of other birders. We paced back and forth, staring at treetops. Almost an hour passed. It was getting cold. I was very tired. I sat down on a bench next to a very nice Manhattan birder (and occasional birding blogger). Another fifteen minutes, I told myself, and then it’s outta here.
The third birder approached us, looking happy. She’d received a report! The bird was there! Not where we were (this was one time when patience would not have won out), but several blocks south.
I saw the cluster of birders long before I saw the bird. Getting on the bird was a challenge, in fact, and I can only hope my desperate desire to see it didn’t make me seem, well, desperate. It was roosting high up, stock still, looking very much like the dead leaves around it.
Get the bins on it, though, and wow. It wasn’t just a lifer – it was a bright and beautiful lifer, a long sought-after lifer, a fitting lifer with which to end the year.
I celebrated by taking the 31st off.