2020 in birds

This has become an annual post. In an ordinary year, it’s a nice way to remember where and with whom I saw which birds, and to try to explain why that particular bird, in those particular circumstances, warrants “bird of the month” honors.

Of course, 2020 was not an ordinary year. Most of my birding was done within a 5-mile radius of my Brooklyn home. Despite that constraint, or perhaps because of it, I birded even more obsessively than usual. By late November, I’d already seen more species in Brooklyn than I’d ever managed before.

This was also the year when scores, maybe hundreds, of Brooklynites took up birding for the first time. It was fun seeing them in Prospect Park (at first) and then (as we all started feeling safer traveling a bit farther afield) in places like Fort Tilden, Jamaica Bay and Plumb Beach. Their enthusiasm was a welcome reminder of just how purely, stupidly joyful the pursuit and observation of birds can be.

A year’s worth of idiosyncratically-chosen birds follows. A few were rarities, some of them lifers. Others were birds I see every year, but that took on new meaning in 2020.

A year ago, it wasn’t a big deal to travel over an hour on multiple subway trains for the entirely nonessential purpose of seeing a bird. Or more specifically: to take the R to the 2/3 to the 1 to see a Greater White-fronted Goose in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. There, I was the crazy woman staring at the flock of Canada Geese in the middle of the Parade Ground, trying and failing to find the one that wasn’t like the others. I took a break, ran some of the park’s trails, and berated myself for never having made the trek to Van Cortlandt before. Not only is the park sacred ground for cross country runners – probably the most famous venue in the U.S. – it’s also beautiful, with deep woods and rugged schist outcroppings.

I sorted through sparrows, looked at the ducks on the lake, struck up a conversation with a local realtor (who still sends me occasional listings, just in case I change my mind about moving to the Bronx), and then returned to the Parade Ground. The goose flock had grown over the last hour or so, and I joined a few other birders looking for the rarity. Again, we came up empty. They left, I stayed; one slow walk around the flock, I told myself, and I could leave too. It had been a long morning, and there was still that long train ride home.

About three-quarters of the way around, I saw it. While the different angle no doubt helped, it also became clear that I’d been looking at the wrong thing – I was focused on plumage when I should have been looking at feet. A pair of bright orange legs amid the scrum made the bird glaringly obvious.

How on earth had I missed it before?

Rumblings about a dangerous new respiratory virus were growing louder, but our celebration of February and March birthdays took place in Detroit as usual at the end of the month. Katie and I took one morning to sneak off to Kensington Metropark on Detroit’s far exurban fringe. We rounded the lake by car, with a few jogging breaks. It was bittersweet to think of all the training runs I’d done there, back when I was more fit and less distracted by birds.

I’m not sure where we saw our first Sandhill Cranes of the outing. Perhaps we heard them first – their vocalizations are varied, but all of them are strange and LOUD. When at last we saw them, I was struck, as always, by how much they resemble grazing mammals rather than birds. There’s something about their height and shaggy heft that brings deer or antelope or even elk to mind.

They can be menacing, too, as Katie found out a few years ago when one chased her into the car. Evidently other park visitors had been disregarding the many signs warning them not to feed the cranes. This time the cranes left us alone . . . though I was stalked by a persistent, impressively chest-bearded Wild Turkey by the visitors center.

In the fall of 2019, I started planning a trip to Mexico. The idea was to introduce Katie to Mexico City, where we’d spend a mother-daughter week eating and exploring and improving our Spanish. Then Eric would fly in, Katie would fly home, and Eric and I would continue on to Oaxaca and Puebla to see more of the country.

It didn’t quite work out that way. I did make it to Mexico City, and Katie did join me there. After she arrived, we had a few days to eat and drink and explore and inflict our bad Spanish on others more or less normally. As the virus situation worsened – not as rapidly in Mexico as back home, though news broadcasts from an empty Times Square contributed to an ominous sense of inevitability – museums began to close, and markets and restaurants took on a desolate air. Katie flew home as planned, but Eric canceled his flight.

What to do in a gradually shuttering metropolis? Why, bird of course.

I saw many great birds in Mexico, with Katie and on my own (before her arrival, after her departure, and while she slept in). But I have to pick just one, and so I’m going with the Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercer. Because, honestly, that name! And that crazy hooked bill! It’s a common bird, but it had eluded me on my previous trip. This time, in contrast, I saw them effortlessly. Perhaps that was just luck; perhaps I’d become a more skillful birder (ha!); or perhaps it reflects this trip’s slower pace. At any rate, I saw Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers as I walked to the Metro. I saw them in parks. I saw them as I ate fruit on the terrace of our apartment, refreshing the headlines on my phone again and again (the term “doomscrolling” was not yet in widespread use).

When I returned to NYC a week early, it was to a city on lockdown.

My world shrank to our apartment, Prospect Park and Green-Wood. And yet the birds flew north as though nothing had changed: the expected gnatcatchers and warblers and swallows and swifts arrived – or passed through – in numbers. So did a handful of rarities. One of them, a Yellow-throated Warbler, drew me to Green-Wood Cemetery on a miserably cold morning. I entered near what’s called the “Hill of Graves” and hurried, shoulders hunched to make myself as small as possible against the wind and rain, toward the Sylvan Water.

From somewhere in the tall grass on my left, a chunky bird flushed into flight. It had a long bill – was it a woodcock? – and a white belly. What does a woodcock look like from below, anyhow? Could it have been a snipe? Fingers numb, trying my best to shield my phone from the rain, I looked up images on line and posted a note to other birders.

The shared conclusion: it was a Wilson’s Snipe. They’re not an easy bird, uncommon and so inconspicuous that, on one occasion, I struggled to see a pair nestled on the edge of a creek even as another birder patiently pointed them out to me. They were all of ten feet away. Finding one on my own in this unexpected place was a small personal triumph.

It almost made up for the fact that by the time I got to the Sylvan Water – where the Yellow-throated Warbler had been posing adorably on monuments – I was shivering so hard that I could barely hold my binoculars. I gave it ten minutes, then left. The sun would come out soon, and the warbler would be seen again, but not by me. When I returned the following day, it had flown on.

Hybrids are strange. Brewster’s Warbler, for example, occupies a liminal space between the Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers. It has a name, it’s depicted in field guides, and it occurs regularly, but it doesn’t “count” toward one’s life list.

When a bird is this lovely, though, who cares? Brewster’s favors the Golden-winged side of its family in its pearly gray and white and yellow color scheme, but with the Blue-winged’s dab hand with black eyeliner. I thought I was hearing a Blue-winged Warbler when this one sang, was excited when I saw what I thought at first was the (much rarer) Golden-winged, and thrilled when I realized it was neither.

During the frenzy of spring migration, the urge to add warbler species to one’s “year list” can be almost desperately strong. Seeing a Brewster’s Warbler for the first time is a reminder that lists aren’t the be-all and end-all. Sometimes, you just need to admire something that’s beautiful and a bit mysterious.

May also brought Christian Cooper’s racially-charged encounter with a white woman dog owner in Central Park, an incident that shook many birders and sparked Black Birders Week the following month. (I believe the bird Christian was looking for at the time was a Mourning Warbler.)

I celebrated the easing of New York City’s stay-at-home order by taking public transit to Rockaway’s Fort Tilden and Breezy Point, the wildest and most beautiful stretch of beach in New York City. I’d been longing to walk along the ocean, craving a fix of sand and surf and oystercatchers and terns.

And, of course, plovers. If there’s a bird more adorable than the Piping Plover, I don’t know what it is. The exact color of dry sand, tiny and stumpy-billed with short, orange legs, they scuttle across the beach like wind-up toys. Piping Plovers nest in shallow indentations just above the high tide line, leaving them at the mercy of habitat destruction by developers and disturbance by beachgoers. At Fort Tilden, loosely roped off areas (sometimes respected, sometimes not) serve as stark reminders of these birds’ vulnerability.

Seeing piping plovers in the Rockaways is always a source of pleasure and hope. This year, it also represented a bit of normalcy.

Time for a road trip! Feeling confined within the city, Eric and I rented a car for a few days to take short trips around the area. One was up the Hudson to the Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve written before about the scarcity of grassland habitats in our area. Like Floyd Bennett, Shawangunk is a former airfield. Unlike Floyd, its almost 600 acres of waving grasses and brushy growth are set aside entirely for wildlife. You’ll find no campsites here, no kiddie farms, no snack bar, no radio-controlled model airplanes, no sanitation department trainees, no police helicopters buzzing low overhead. Just grass, a few trees, and distant hills. A raised platform offers expansive views, while trails allow you to walk through a portion of the protected area.

As we walked, Turkey Vultures soared overhead, and Tree and Barn swallows swooped every which way. In the grasses we saw Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Eastern Meadowlarks. Seeing that last species at Shawangunk was bittersweet. I remember passing them by the dozen on childhood drives through the flat northwestern Ohio countryside, never imagining that seeing one would someday be a big deal. They’re one of the birds I most look forward to on my annual May trip back home.

That trip didn’t happen this year, for obvious reasons. But at least I got to see the birds.

The Brooklyn Bird Club suspended its regular program of migration walks and field trips at the beginning of the pandemic. In August, cautiously, they resumed. The first official activity was a pop-up nighthawk watch in Prospect Park’s Nethermead.

Common Nighthawks were another childhood favorite. Perhaps they’re more common in the Midwest than they are here, or perhaps, like meadowlarks and so many other birds, their population has declined over the last 40 or 50 years. I associate them with summer evenings at my grandparents’ house in a not-so-good neighborhood of Toledo (the reason they had such a big back yard, I now understand, is that the house behind them had been abandoned and torn down, just as their house has since been). To escape the heat, we spent a lot of time in the breezeway (my grandfather had built a screened passage between the garage and the side door to their kitchen, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever), or sitting on lawn chairs (the kind with metal frames and mesh webbing) in their driveway. Look up when the sky began to lose its light, and you’d see birds shaped like the letter “M,” flying high and fast, white racing stripes on their wings.

Those, I understood, were nighthawks.

Seeing nighthawks in Brooklyn takes a bit more planning and effort. The Nethermead in late August is the best place and time, but I never feel 100 percent confident the birds will show up. Since I was a co-host of the event, I got there early to scout. A lone nighthawk made a quick pass over the field, then disappeared. A good sign, or a warning the evening might fizzle?

People began to gather. We were masked, of course, and with so many new pandemic birders, many of us didn’t know one another and wouldn’t have recognized faces anyhow. But our worries about the group finding one another turned out to be unwarranted: amid all the blankets and picnics and couples canoodling, we were the ones standing, binoculars slung around our necks. I doubt a flashing neon sign would have made us any more obvious.

It was one of the new birders who spotted the first official nighthawk of the evening. More followed, singly and in twos and threes. We talked about the birds (no, they’re not actually hawks), their bug-eating prowess, how to distinguish them from the swifts they share the evening sky with.

Until we’d all gathered there, I hadn’t fully appreciated the camaraderie that exists among birders, how much it meant to me, how much I’d learned from others along the way, and how much all of us – especially those who’d just started birding during the pandemic – had missed during our months of birding separately.

I’ve made many bad choices in my life. One of them came on a Saturday afternoon in mid-September, when I headed to Jamaica Bay with hopes of seeing the Wilson’s Phalarope that had spent the previous few days hanging out on the East Pond.

I was on the G train around Smith-9th St when I got an alert that a Red-necked Phalarope was being seen on the Manhattan side of the East River, in Stuyvesant Cove Park. Both are great birds; phalaropes are cool for a number of reasons, two of them being the colorful plumage of female birds (much more striking than the males) and their habit of sitting and spinning in the water. Neither species would be a life bird for me, but the Wilson’s would be a state bird.

On that basis – plus the fact I was carting my scope and muck boots, which would just be excess baggage in Manhattan – I decided to stick with my original plan. I had already changed to a Far Rockaway-bound A train when I saw the correction. The Manhattan bird was actually a Red Phalarope.

I’ve never seen a Red Phalarope.

So there was a life bird, floating and foraging close to shore, even as the train I was on carried me farther and farther from the East River. Nostrand Avenue, Utica Avenue . . . if I changed to the L at Broadway Junction and doubled back, I could get off at First Avenue, trudge half a mile, and look for the crowd of Manhattan birders no doubt gathering on the promenade.

Screw it.

And so I continued on to Jamaica Bay, where I spotted the Wilson’s almost immediately – it was the nondescript shorebird with the needle-thin bill sitting and spinning in the water until I grew dizzy watching it – and a friend helped me get on a bonus Stilt Sandpiper (a bird I’d have a hard time picking out of a line-up on my own).

I considered detouring on my way back to try for a double-phalarope day, but decided against it. There’s always tomorrow.

But while there’s always tomorrow, there’s not always a Red Phalarope tomorrow. By the next day, it had flown away, or succumbed to the elements, or been picked off by a predator. The Wilson’s Phalarope at Jamaica Bay, in contrast, continued to sit and spin for another few days.

In terms of maximizing my life list, heading to Jamaica Bay was definitely a Bad Choice. But honestly, and unlike my other bad life choices, I feel pretty good about the time I spent with a handful of other birders watching that Wilson’s Phalarope spin its heart out.

(Addendum: yes, this month’s Wilson’s Phalarope and April’s Wilson’s Snipe were named after the same person, the early Scottish-American poet and naturalist Alexander Wilson. In 2020, efforts to replace often-problematic honorifics – more often than not honoring white male colonialists – with indigenous or descriptive names gained force and notched a victory: the longspur species once named for a Confederate general has been officially renamed the Thick-billed Longspur. Hopefully, we can look forward to more “Bird Names for Birds” in 2021.)

The bird of the month – and of the year, possibly of the decade – was the Painted Redstart found by one of my fellow Brooklyn birders at Floyd Bennett one mild Sunday afternoon. .

Painted Redstarts are gorgeous neotropical birds whose range barely extends into pockets of the southwestern United States. I’ve seen one in my life, in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness. Unfortunately, I didn’t see this one. I decided against a special trip that afternoon, and by the next morning, it was gone.

But I did see plenty of Pine Siskins. Sweet, streaky finches with distinctive zeeeeeeeeeeeee-up calls, siskins occupied the vanguard of a winter finch irruption that would later bring Evening Grosbeaks (briefly), Red Crossbills and Common Redpolls to Brooklyn. All of these are birds that may or may not show up in our area at all, and if they do, are most often seen as calling flyovers by birders more skilled than myself – not engaging in mass aerial acrobatics or feasting on fallen sweet-gum seeds, as this year’s siskins have been doing.

The arrival of the Pine Siskins – and the return of chickadees and titmice after a long absence – heralded a season of avian abundance. If only the virus hadn’t been returning as well . . .

Fall migration along our piece of the east coast is mostly over by November, but for reasons I don’t claim to understand – winds and weather patterns, I guess – the month often brings an influx of rarities from the west.

Sure enough, a Western Tanager showed up in Green-Wood Cemetery, followed by an Ash-throated Flycatcher. (The latter species gets a call-out in David Fincher’s Mank, which in my opinion is the best thing about the movie.) I got excellent looks at both, but was even more excited to see a King Eider for the first time. Because November isn’t just about western vagrants; it’s also the start of weird duck season, and there are few ducks as weird as the King Eider.

The one I saw was a young male, lacking the striking colors and bulbous orange bill of adult birds, and it kept disappearing into the chop of the waters by the Breezy Point jetty – but it was still a life bird. What’s more, it drew me to the mostly-deserted beach on an unseasonably warm day, gifting me with a pod of dolphins frolicking in the surf close to shore.

There’s only one possible bird with which to wrap up 2020. I had seen a handful of Red Crossbills in November – a small flock during a morning flight watch from Fort Tilden’s Battery Harris, a lone bird perched atop a towering spruce in Green-Wood – but not the way I saw them at Jones Beach as the year drew to a close. Eric and I customarily rent a car in late December to drive to Toledo and Detroit for the holidays. With the virus resurgent here, there and everywhere in between, we canceled the trip but not the car.

That’s how we came to be out on Long Island the Monday after Christmas. I knew that crossbills were being seen regularly in the median of Bay Parkway. As I stood there, listening to loud and persistent twittering and wondering how best to look for birds in an area not really meant for walking, a flock of – a dozen? two dozen? three dozen? – flew into the pine tree directly by me. Crossbills in every crossbill color, from greenish yellow to yellowish orange to brick red, dangled decoratively from branches and cones, feeding voraciously.

They looked like living Christmas ornaments, and if you’re asking yourself why crossbills aren’t featured on more Christmas cards, that is a very good question – all the more given the only somewhat gruesome religious legend surrounding the birds’ color and distinctive bills. Imagine a humble brown bird trying to extract the nails from Christ on the cross, struggling until its bill was twisted out of alignment and its feathers drenched in blood, and you’ll get the idea. Brooklyn birder Ryan Mandelbaum, a talented writer who’s obsessed with crossbills, and Cornell finch expert Matt Young elaborate on the topic here.

I wasn’t familiar with the legend until I read their piece, but after seeing those birds at Jones Beach I’m definitely enlisting in the “Crossbills for Christmas” campaign.

. . .

I already have a strong candidate for January’s bird in next year’s recap, but no spoilers here. Wishing everyone a bird-filled 2021!


2 thoughts on “2020 in birds

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