2019 in birds

varied thrush (2)

Varied Thrushes (January’s bird of the month)

I saw lots of birds last year. Seriously, lots. To be precise, I observed 470 species worldwide (which, last year, meant the U.S., Mexico and Spain), and 380 in the U.S. alone. Rattling off these numbers makes me feel a little sheepish. I know that listing is silly, even a bit tacky. It’s much cooler to ignore those totals that eBird makes so easy to track, and simply enjoy the birds you’re lucky enough to see.

On the other hand, reviewing my list provides a mini-review of my year.  This is the second time I’ve done a “year in birds” post, and both times I’ve been surprised by the intensity of the memories the exercise provoked.

So here it is: 2019 in birds.

(By the way, the illustrations that accompany this post are drawn from John James Audubon’s magisterial Birds of America, which are in the public domain and which the National Audubon Society generously shares through its website. The Audubon Society gallery is a boon to camera-less birders who want pictures for their blogs, and reading Audubon’s wonderful and wondrous descriptions is a pleasure in itself.)

January. I set a mini-challenge for myself to bird all five boroughs in the first week of the year. (January 7 was my one-and-only birding trip to the Bronx in 2019; I hereby resolve to do better in 2020.) Thanks to that and to general obsessiveness, I ended the month with 111 species seen in and around New York City.

The best of those 111? A lifer Varied Thrush that somehow made its way from the Pacific Northwest to Staten Island’s Clove Lake Park. Think of a sportier version of a robin, with a racing stripe over its eye and a “V” emblazoned across its chest, and you’ll get the idea.

February. Eric and I spent a memorable week in Mexico City (you can read about it here), and though it was primarily a food and culture trip, birds also figured prominently. Continuing on the robin theme, February’s bird is the Rufous-backed Robin. Over the course of the week, I saw many birds that were flashier or less common, but this is the species I most associate with Mexico City. I saw them each morning in the Viveros de Coyoacán – if memory serves, that was the only place I saw them – and they remain interwoven with my memories of the place and of the pleasures of my morning routine there (scent of eucalyptus in the air, crunch of gravel underfoot, good coffee and a sumptuous breakfast waiting for me back at our guest house). They were different enough from American Robins, with which they shared the Viveros lawns, that I could confidently identify them – but similar enough that they made me look at American Robins in a new way. Being forced to pay attention to familiar birds is good for one’s birding soul, so thank you, Rufous-backed Robins.

March. This one is pure nostalgia: the Ring-necked Pheasant I saw standing sentry along busy Jefferson Avenue during a quick visit to Detroit. These lovely, exotic birds (introduced to the U.S. for the pleasure of sportsmen) are scarce around New York City, but in Detroit, they thrive democratically, in abandoned city lots and lushly planted suburban yards alike. I miss seeing them regularly.

prothonotary warbler (2)

April – Prothonotary Warbler

April. April marks the arrival of migrating warblers to Brooklyn, including a yolk-yellow Prothonotary Warbler by the Prospect Park boathouse. It was so bright that I thought at first it was a discarded junk food wrapper, because what in nature could possibly be that color? Then it fluttered its wings. I was thrilled to see it, even more thrilled to be able to share it with other birders. (And after misspelling its name in the alert I sent out, I’ve finally learned how to spell it . . . I think.)

May.  This is the toughest month to make a choice. I divided peak migration between my new home turf in Brooklyn and my birthplace in northwest Ohio before ending the month with my first serious birding trip to northern California, racking up more than a dozen life birds along the way. I joined a flash mob of birders around a Kirtland’s Warbler on a residential street outside Toledo. I demonstrated my insanity by running the Brooklyn Half Marathon, biking/limping to Prospect Park afterwards to see a skulky Mourning Warbler, then hopping on multiple trains and a bus to glimpse a vagrant Sage Thrasher at Jamaica Bay. In California, I thrilled at Long-billed Curlews (when they say “long,” they mean it), vast colonies of penguin-like Common Murres, and humble Wrentits. But if I were forced to pick one bird – as I am indeed forcing myself with this post – it would be the King Rail I saw at Ohio’s Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge. I found this lifer on my own (always more satisfying than following the crowd) and was even able to share it with another birder (who would rather have been looking at orioles, but whatever). Rails are secretive and hard to spot, so to have this big orange guy emerge from the marsh grasses to peck around not ten yards away from where I was standing was something special.

black guillemot (2)

June – Black Guillemot

June. I headed to Maine for a bit of a vacation, followed by a week at Hog Island Audubon (aka Bird Nerd Camp). I had a blast, I ate really well (so did the mosquitoes), and we saw puffins. But for June’s bird, I’m going with the Black Guillemot for its sleekness, its cuteness and its accessibility. You don’t need to shell out big bucks for a boat trip to see this alcid – they paddle and dive close to shore. The Audubon Society’s Nick Lund, aka “The Birdist,” has labeled it “the People’s Puffin,” and what self-respecting socialist birder could resist that? (Just don’t make the mistake I did and pronounce it “guee-MOH,” because you will sound like a pretentious tool and people will giggle. It’s “GUILL-a-mott.” See, even the name registers as working class.)

least tern (2)

July – Least Terns

July. This was the only month in which I didn’t add to my year list. I used the lull to enjoy familiar birds for what they are, and the birds I enjoyed the most were the acrobatic Least Terns that nest in the Rockaways and regularly visit Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach.

Audubon also enjoyed the birds he called “Lesser Terns.” In fact, one of the pleasures of browsing the Audubon Society’s on-line gallery of his work is to discover that while he’s remembered as an artist, he was no slouch as a writer. Here’s his description of the terns:

“Nothing can exceed the lightness of the flight of this bird, which seems to me to be among water-fowls, the analogue of the Humming-bird. They move with great swiftness at times, at others balance themselves like Hawks over their prey, then dart with the velocity of thought to procure the tiny fry beneath the surface of the waters. When you invade their breeding place, they will sometimes sweep far away, and suddenly return, coming so near as almost to strike you. While travelling, their light but firm flight is wonderfully sustained; and on hearing and seeing them on such occasions, one is tempted to believe them to be the happiest of the happy. They seem as if marshalled and proceeding to a merry-making, so gaily do they dance along, as if to the music of their own lively cries. Now you see the whole group suddenly check their onward speed, hover over a deep eddy supplied with numberless shrimps, and dash headlong on their prey. Up rises the little thing with the shrimp in its bill, and again down it plunges; and its movements are so light and graceful that you look on with pleasure, and are in no haste to depart.”

“Look on with pleasure, no haste to depart” . . . that describes July mornings at Plumb Beach perfectly.

limpkin aka scolopaceous courlan (2)

August – Limpkin

August. I know people who have fought their way through inaccessible, mosquito-infested swamps in remote sections of Florida or Louisiana to see Limpkins. I saw mine on a visit to my sister in Valdosta, Georgia. One of these normally elusive birds spent the entire summer hanging out in the small lake in her subdivision, plucking snails from the bottom and ignoring passersby.

Audubon called the Limpkin “Scolopaceous Courlan” – one of many instances in which 19th Century bird names (or Audubon’s 19th Century bird names, at any rate) differ from the common names in use today. Such were his artistry and powers of observation, though, that it wasn’t hard at all to pick out the Limpkin from the alphabetical line-up in the Audubon Society gallery. (The habitat he depicted is a bit off, however.)

September. September spanned fall migration in Brooklyn; my maiden pelagic voyage (written about here); a quick Chicago visit; and the first few days of an impromptu (“oh my god, look at those fares, we can’t afford not to go”) trip to Spain (where we arrived pre-dawn and passed our first slightly dazed and very jet-lagged morning in the Jardines de Sabatini, because by the time we’d had churros and chocolate at San Ginés – the night clerk at our hostal wasn’t responding to the buzzer, so where else were we to go? – and finally stowed our luggage with the newly-roused, rather grumpy, night clerk – perhaps she was grumpy because a couple of American assholes had been ringing the buzzer as she tried to sleep in a back room – it was still too early, and we were much too tired, to do anything other than find a pretty place to sit and, in my case, look at Eurasian Magpies and Coal Tits and those giant Wood Pigeons they have there). Which is to say, it’s almost as hard to choose September’s bird as it was May’s, but choose I must, and my choice is the Golden-winged Warbler for its general loveliness and relative rarity. I’d seen this species only once before, several years ago. This year I found one in Prospect Park, with a bonus sighting in Chicago a week later.

October. Spain! I saw great birds in Madrid, but the birdy part of our trip came later, in Extremadura. My favorite bird was one of the most common – the Iberian Magpie. They’re handsome birds, with black caps and sky blue wings and tails, and they travel the countryside of southwestern Spain in large, gregarious flocks. I was always glad to see them. They’re also a bit of a mystery. In appearance, they’re near-identical to the Azure-winged Magpie of East Asia, and the two were formerly considered to be co-specific – raising the question of how one bird wound up in two such widely-separated parts of the globe – but fossils suggest and DNA confirms that they are two entirely separate species. That, of course, presents its own mysteries. Tall (well, long), handsome, mysterious: what’s not to like about these birds?

November. I piggybacked on Eric’s union convention in Texas to visit the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in search of endangered Whooping Cranes (you can read about the trip in my previous post).  My first glimpse, at the refuge, was thrilling but distant. How was I to know that they regularly visit the field just down the road from the cottage where I was staying? I saw – and, just as impressively, heard – seven on my last morning there, and it was awesome.

Audubon, by the way, called this bird the “Hooping Crane,” and so do people in Texas today.

harlequin duck (2)

December – Harlequin Duck

December. I ended the year with a trip to Nassau County’s Point Lookout, via the Long Island Railroad and my running shoes. I’m happy to report that this hotspot is indeed accessible for a car-less birder, and even happier that Harlequin Ducks were hanging out in their usual spots by the rocky jetties. I’m not sure how I feel about these birds, though. I’m as susceptible as anyone to the lure of bright and bizarre plumage, but aren’t Harlequins a little, well, gaudy? I think I prefer the understated elegance of the Gadwall, but it’s still a treat to see these guys, and they were my 470th year bird, so it would be churlish to criticize their appearance.

. . . 

2019 was also the year that Science published a study documenting the loss of nearly 3 billion U.S. and Canadian birds – more than a quarter of the avian population – since 1970. That’s right around the time an awkward girl in Toledo, Ohio sought solace in birds, and developed what would turn out to be a lifelong fascination with them. The report (available for download here) is a sobering reminder of the damage we’ve done, and continue to do, to our planet. It lends poignancy to year lists, urgency to habitat preservation and the fight against climate change and mass extinction.

I don’t want “See ’em before they’re gone” to be my birding motto. My daughter recently started birding, and I want her to see great birds, too; plus, I may have grandchildren one day, and I’d very much like to show them some of the birds I’ve written about here. The kernel of hope in the generally bleak Science report is that some groups of birds have bucked the general decline, whether through public policies like the Endangered Species Act (now being gutted by the Trump Administration) or collective conservation efforts (a special shout-out to America’s duck hunters).

It’s late, but hopefully it’s not too late. Here’s to many more years in birds.

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