2021 in birds

It’s time – past time, honestly, but who among us isn’t mired in the deep lethargy of another pandemic winter? – for a look back at the last year in birds. It was a great year for them. Northern finches descended on Brooklyn in abundance, for reasons I won’t go into here, but which folks who study such things will cheerfully explain if you’re at all interested, or even if you aren’t. So, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me, did seagoing ducks. Plus the usual suspects, and a few breathtakingly unusual ones. Above all, with human time either frozen or stuck on repeat, the progress of the avian calendar – migration, courtship, babies, migration again – was reassuringly normal. It’s OK, the birds seemed to be saying. You’ll get through this.

January
Without much else to do, I set a silly New Year challenge for myself: to see a hundred birds in Brooklyn in January. (My previous “best” was 85.) After a week of manic birding – Prospect Park, Green-Wood, Coney Island, Canarsie, the long expanse of waterfront between the soaring Verrazzano Bridge and the earth-bound parking lot of the Caesar’s Bay shopping center – I’d racked up 82 species.

That included a Glaucous Gull – massive, silvery white, more expected in the arctic or far off-shore than loafing comfortably on a decrepit Sanitation Department pier. It was a life bird for me, and I saw it in good company – the awesome pandemic birding trio of Alan B, Michelle T and Crystal T – from a frigid Bush Terminal Park.

(Afterwards, Michelle and Crystal and I retreated to the restroom to thaw our extremities under the hand dryers.)

Another ten days, another life bird – a Dovekie, a tiny and adorable auklet, shaped more or less like a toddler-sized nerf football with wings. This was one of an odd flight of these pelagic birds that strayed into the channel between the Rockaways and Brooklyn. It was not the one struck and killed by a Peregrine Falcon, something my friends who’d posted up on the other side of the Gil Hodges Bridge witnessed, but I did not. My own group’s incidental sighting was a roosting Snowy Owl.

The Dovekie, falcon and owl brought my count to 96.

A week later, a Razorbill far off the Coney Island fishing pier and seen only with the assistance (and scope) of Bobbi M and Dennis H was a worthy 100. (If you don’t know what a Razorbill looks like, look again at the photo at the top of this post.)

I ended the month a bit tired, having seen 105 species.

February
What a relief to have no goals! I continued to bird, of course – what else was there to do, while we awaited our vaccine eligibility dates? – but in a more relaxed and, frankly, enjoyably way.

The month’s highlight was a Short-eared Owl seen, unexpectedly, in the dunes at the far tip of Plumb Beach. I was looking for Redpolls and other finches in the scrubby growth when I accidentally flushed it: a soft whoosh of wings, a big round head, a glimpse in flight before it disappeared behind another dune. I felt too guilty about my clumsy disturbance to try to relocate it.

Fortunately, Mike Y also saw the bird from a different part of the beach and documented it for posterity.

March
One of the great natural spectacles of New York City is the massing of Northern Gannets visible from south Brooklyn, Rockaway and Staten Island. Each year, in the very late winter/very early spring, many thousands of these giant seabirds stream past, bringing their wildness to our archipelago of glass and concrete. The big numbers tend to stay far off shore, where the gleaming white of their six-foot wings allows even a duffer who left her scope at home to pick them out. But the real show comes from the many hundreds that take a break from purposeful flight to indulge in feeding frenzies close to the beach. To stand on the pier at Coney Island and watch these birds tuck those six-foot wings close to their bodies and plunge into the sea, detonating explosions of waves like a volley of cannonballs, is, well, words fail me. You just have to see it.

The fact that you can – right here in New York City – never ceases to blow me away.

Northern Gannets are big and flashy and reliably present in huge flocks every year. The other northern bird that made my month was their opposite in pretty much every respect. That would be the Northern Shrike that turned up in Floyd Bennett Field for a single day. I can’t remember who first found it, but word spread quickly, and by the time I hopped off the Q35 bus and ran to the edge of the North 40, there was already an amiable group of birders tracking its movement through the sparse woods. More rolled up every few minutes, and I believe just about everyone among the early-arrivers got to see it.

While I’d seen their Loggerhead cousins before, this shrike was a life bird for me. It was smaller than I’d expected – essentially the same size and shape as the shrikes that perch on wires all over the south – and less fearsome, unless of course you’re a small bird or rodent. Or, for that matter, the pesky mockingbird the shrike chased away in a flurry of gray, black and white.

The shrike eventually flew deeper into the woods and was not refound. Birds!

April
April brought an almost inconceivably rare bird to my almost-backyard. Among the swooping flocks of newly-arrived swallows over Prospect Park lake, Doug G – whose knowledge and observational skills are almost frightening – spotted one that was just a little different. Its shape and color distinguished it from the surrounding Tree Swallows, its size and certain subtle markings from a Purple Martin (which would be noteworthy in Brooklyn in its own right).

After much discussion and close inspection of photographs taken from all angles – the accommodating bird lingered for several days and was seen by scores of observers – opinions converged on a Gray-breasted Martin . . . a conclusion that was eventually ratified by the arbiters of such things. Normally found in Central and South America, there were only two previous records of Gray-breasted Martins in the U.S., both from the Rio Grande Valley in the (wait for it) 1880s. For one to show up in the middle of Brooklyn in 2021? Such things shouldn’t happen, and yet, with birds, they do. And if you’re very lucky, someone who doesn’t dismiss that funny-looking bird as a transitioning juvenile or female that’s slightly worse for wear – or just sigh, as I have so many times, and let it go – will see it.

But to be entirely honest, this mega-rarity wasn’t nearly as satisfying as finally conquering my Brooklyn nemesis bird. A nemesis bird, for the uninitiated, is a species that persistently eludes you for no good reason, just bad luck (yours) and pure cussedness (the bird’s). It has to be rare enough to be a worthy challenge, yet common enough for other birders’ sightings to taunt you.

My personal nemesis was the Black Vulture, a bird I’ve seen many times in my life – including on Staten Island, only a few minutes of drifting flight away – but never in Brooklyn. They’re rare(ish) here, but regular; to see them, you just have to look up at the right moment. As the month progressed, other people seemed to do exactly that – my eBird alerts were replete with sightings – but not me.

Then, one afternoon in Green-Wood Cemetery that I remember being a little slow and disappointing, I saw a large shadow cross the avenue in front of me, and looked up to see what was casting it. It was a vulture . . .

. . . a Turkey Vulture, of course.

Another large bird drifted into view, another Turkey Vulture. And then another . . . wait. The third bird was thicker and squatter in silhouette than the others, the tips of its wings frosted silvery-white: my nemesis no more.

Sure enough, over the next week, I saw several more Black Vultures over Brooklyn. Each was a thrill, but you know what? I kind of miss having a nemesis.

May
The first half of May is peak migration, bringing waves of new birds to Brooklyn. Many are fast and fluttery and eye-catchingly colorful, and that’s wonderful. Other are sedentary and cryptic, masters of camouflage – and that can be even more wonderful.

On the first day of the month, Akilah L – a Feminist Bird Club member from Queens, in Prospect Park for the day – looked down and saw a rotting log covered with dead leaves, except it wasn’t a rotting log covered with dead leaves. It was a Chuck-will’s-widow hiding in plain sight just off a heavily-trafficked path above the Wellhouse. If you’re unfamiliar with the species, do yourself a favor and click on the link to see images of these bizarre birds, which look (in my daughter Katie’s words) like owls that someone dropped a dictionary on. Their equally bizarre name is a fanciful rendering of their call.

I have absolutely no idea how Akilah spotted it. Dozens of other birders, including myself, had walked that path earlier in the day and seen nothing. She was giddy with excitement and attributed her sighting to luck, but it takes a special kind of luck to see something that’s just a bit “off” and know to pay more attention to it. Call it luck, call it keen eyesight, call it skill: we were the grateful beneficiaries. It was a life bird for many in the park that day, including me.

Leaving Brooklyn for even a day during peak migration is fraught with FOMO, but I have a special relationship with May in northwest Ohio, where I was born (in May, natch) and raised. A week, or at least a long weekend, of birding and family spanning my birthday and Mother’s Day is a longstanding tradition. I missed it deeply last year. This year, fully vaccinated, Eric and I booked a rental car and headed west.

How could I have ever found Ohio boring?

“The Biggest Week in American Birding” festival was held virtually, some hotspots had limited access, accommodations were bare-bones, the weather was cold, and the flocks of colorful warblers that are the usual headliners were strikingly sparse – but I loved it nonetheless. I can see warblers aplenty in Brooklyn, but Lark Sparrows displaying and even fucking? Not so much. Katie came in from Chicago and my sister from Georgia, and the three of us birded the hell out of Oak Openings metropark, which hosts breeding Lark Sparrows and other grassland birds. I didn’t know whether to feel pride or dismay at Katie’s ability to hear three Grasshopper Sparrow songs for every one I managed to make out, and to instantly home in on a Henslow’s Sparrow. Young ears . . .

My favorite of many great (non-warbler) sightings was the small flock of Black Terns swooping and diving over the causeway that leads to my grandfather’s old fishing grounds at Metzger Marsh. I love terns of all varieties for their graceful aerial acrobatics, but the delicacy and dramatic plumage of Black Terns – coal black heads and breasts, silvery gray wings – is special. I’ve seen one or two in the past, but never a flock like this. Katie and I counted two, three, was that a fourth? . . . and then stopped counting and just enjoyed them.

June
The only thing I hate more than hot, sticky weather? Mosquitoes. Being outdoors in the mid-Atlantic region in June means confronting both those scourges, but I was on a birding roll, and I wasn’t going to let the temperature or a few bug bites stop me.

So when a Clay-colored Sparrow was reported at the Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park, I put on my skimpy shorts and a running T and headed out. An elderly volunteer was leaving the park as I arrived, and we stood and chatted a bit near the small garden at the entrance: she, delighted to talk about the park; me, sweating, and growing itchier by the second as mosquitoes swarmed my naked arms and legs.

After what I hoped was a decent interval, I interrupted her. “I’m sorry,” I blurted out, “these bugs are eating me alive, I really have to move.” With that, I fled. Farther down the path, I paused to mist myself with the bug spray I’d tucked into my pack – I wasn’t entirely unprepared – but the mosquitoes scoffed and continued their assault. If anything, they redoubled it, their appetites sharpened by the slight tang of DEET.

Near the site where the sparrow had been reported, I ran into Joshua M, who was also there for the bird. He was shrouded head-to-toe in what appeared to be a beekeeper’s protective gear. Josh took in my exposed skin with horror and pity, but all he said was, “the sparrow’s still here . . . you can hear it.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what a Clay-colored Sparrow sounded like (did that make me feel sheepish? yes, of course it did), but I held my breath and tried to focus and eventually picked up on a faint, insect-like buzz.

“That? Just now?” I asked Josh.

Yes, that, just now. And again.

“Cool!” I said. “See you later.” I turned tail and bolted out of the park.

Josh and others who’d come dressed appropriately actually saw the bird, but after weighing the pleasure of seeing a sweet little sparrow against another fifty mosquito bites, I settled for that snippet of song. (Fortunately, I’d get good looks at other Clay-colored Sparrows in the fall.)

June’s real highlight, though, was on the (mostly mosquito-free) beaches of Fort Tilden and Breezy Point, where I volunteered for the NYC Plover Project. It was a trek to get out there via public transportation, and – worse – meant forgoing a day of Brooklyn birding, but oh, it was worth it. I’d arrive around mid-morning, clad in my light blue Plover Project t-shirt and toting as many frozen water bottles as I could stuff in my bag and still have room for binoculars, sun screen, and snacks. Then I’d spend the day walking the beach, on the look out for dogs and kites and beachgoers in need of education, but mainly looking at Piping Plovers and American Oystercatchers and, of course, terns.

It was pretty much my idea of heaven.

July
At some point in late May or early June, I realized that despite missing eight days of peak spring migration to go to Ohio and spending a day a week on the beaches of Queens, I was still on track for a big Brooklyn year. Not a capital B, capital Y Big Year – that’s for birders who are more skilled, dedicated and mobile than I am – but a personal one. The first year of the pandemic, with its restrictions on travel, had propelled me to 241 species in Kings County, which I reckoned was a unique, never-to-be-replicated achievement.

But somehow, by the end of June, my county list for 2021 was already at 232.

The danger of list-obsession, of course, is that it can suck the spontaneity and joy out of birding. While there are birds that will always lead me to stop and gaze for a good long while, birds that fill me with happiness no matter how many times I’ve seen them – Cedar Waxwings, the aforementioned terns, a handful of others – I’m often guilty of impatiently lowering my binoculars and moving on when I realize the bird I focused on with such high hopes is not in fact something new or rare. And when one’s list-obsession is geographically-bounded – by Brooklyn, in my case – it can lead a person to trudge through the same patches day after day, when one of the great things about birding in NYC is the breadth and variety of destinations available to us. I regret to say I did a lot of trudging in 2021.

So take it as a flash of sanity – or as an indication of the bird’s magnetism – or as a tribute to what a fun person she is – but when Michelle T (a different Michelle T from January’s mention) kindly offered me a ride to Long Island to look for the Roseate Spoonbill being seen in Suffolk County, I jumped at the chance.

It was a lovely day, lovely company, a lovely drive to Cold Spring Harbor, a lovely walk around the spoonbill-less pond behind the lovely St. John’s Church – and then, after a death-defying dash across Route 25A, a gasp as my scope focused on a big, pink bird on the other side of the Inner Harbor.

That distant view would have been enough, but we eventually made our way around the harbor to the small state park, where we joined other birders for an extended session of close-up spoonbill admiration.

It was enough to make me forget my Brooklyn list for a day.

August
When various local birders reported Wilson’s Storm-Petrels visible from the Coney Island fishing pier, I didn’t have high hopes that I’d see them on my own. My scope is pretty low-end, and my experience with pelagic birds is even lower-end – beginning and ending with a single boat trip that included a fair amount of heaving over the side. Besides, I was uncharacteristically busy with non-bird things at the beginning of the month. A few days passed, but the storm-petrel reports kept trickling in, and I finally decided to give it a go.

My best shot, I figured, was to take advantage of someone else’s keener eyes and better scope. So I was dismayed when I got to the pier on a fine Saturday morning and saw only fishermen, but I gamely set up my scope and began to scan. Nothing. I listened to the fishermen kid one another (at least someone is having a good time) and to their trash talk about what someone had or had not caught on this or some other occasion.

If they were nonplused by this woman standing on the pier staring at the water through a telescope, or annoyed that they had to be a little more careful casting out their lines, they did an excellent job hiding it.

Meanwhile, I saw pigeons. I saw Laughing Gulls. I saw Ring-billed Gulls. I saw Herring Gulls. I saw Double-crested Cormorants. I got a momentary thrill from some Common Terns (have I mentioned I love terns?).

And then I saw something small and slightly fluttery out over the water that was maybe a pigeon, don’t get your hopes up, what’s a pigeon doing that far out over the water? well, it’s not actually all that far out, just try to get the scope on it, oh shit, where did it go? it was just a weird pigeon, never mind.

Then I saw it again, or maybe it was something else. This time I did get it in the scope, and I could see that it was small and dark and flashing a white rump, skimming the surface, even momentarily alighting on it. Then there was another, and the two criss-crossed in flight, disappearing from view but not hard to re-find. Were there just two? I suspect there were more, but two were the most I was able to separate with any confidence.

I was so thrilled to have spotted Wilson’s Storm-Petrels on my own that I tried to share my excitement with the fishermen. They gamely pretended to be happy for me, but I’m pretty sure they were even happier when I left and they could fish in peace.

Back home, I stuffed my scope back onto the top shelf of the closet – and heard a sickening crash as it fell to the hardwood floor. It took over a month to replace it.

Goddamn pandemic supply chain issues, messing with late summer shorebird migration. .

September
The highlight of the month was an excessively planned and much-anticipated visit to southeast Arizona, my first (and so far only) airplane trip since March 2020. Here in Brooklyn, it seemed as though nature was as impatient for western birds as I was. Why else send a Townsend’s Warbler to Green-Wood Cemetery? Or a Red-necked Phalarope to Prospect Park? (The latter aren’t western birds per se, but inland sightings seem to be more common there.)

Arizona itself was extraordinary. I added more than 30 birds to my U.S. life list, including the Pyrrhuloxias that have fascinated me since childhood (they look like cardinals reimagined by Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro) and oversized Cactus Wrens (I love wrens almost as much as I love terns). Both those species were expected; not so the lone Sabine’s Gull floating contentedly on a recharge pond outside Phoenix. (My replacement scope arrived just before our trip, so I was able to get great views.)

There was a slew of hummingbirds too, of course – Rivoli’s and Lucifer and Violet-crowned and White-eared – but just between us, I think hummingbirds are over-rated. They’re too small, too fast, their vaunted iridescence too dependent on the light. People think they’re colorful, and for a millisecond they can be, but mostly they’re just indistinguishable dark blurs. Plus, the way they swarm feeders is creepy.

I’m kind of glad we only have one species in Brooklyn; it means I don’t have to worry about them.

But enough about hummingbirds! Focusing on moments rather than birds, one stands out. In the waning light of a long day that had begun in Patagonia and taken us to various canyons in the Huachuca Mountains and then up to Kartchner Caverns, we stopped at what appeared to be the only Sonoita winery open past 5pm. The tasting room was set up outside, with Adirondack chairs (or their southwestern equivalent) arranged in twos and threes, looking out over expansive grasslands and distant peaks. As storm clouds rolled through the mountains, first one rainbow, then two, arced across the sky. I smiled at Eric over our wine glasses. He deserves this for being such a good sport about my birding obsession, I thought.

Under the smooth jazz discreetly piped in from unseen speakers, I heard something else, something that was definitely avian, and definitely not something I’d heard before. It was one mixed-up song: a jangly series of notes followed by a high, fast trill.

Wine forgotten, I jumped up and moved to the edge of the tasting area to listen more closely. Phone held in my outstretched hand, microphone activated, I went through the possibilities. Definitely not a Grasshopper Sparrow, I know what they sound like. Cassin’s? No, no way.

“There are freaking Botteri’s Sparrows out there!” is a totally normal reaction to this view

“Oh my god,” I gasped to Eric, still enjoying his wine, or trying to. “It’s a Botteri’s Sparrow! There are freaking Botteri’s Sparrows out there! Can you believe it? I can’t believe we’re just sitting here and . . . blah blah . . . life bird . . . blah blah . . . ”

Eric nodded patiently, I calmed down, and we celebrated with another glass of wine. Rune’s Petite Sirah is excellent, by the way.

. . .

Just as western birds gave me a send-off, they also welcomed me home. A Blue Grosbeak in Green-Wood Cemetery was Brooklyn year bird #249. My 2020 pandemic birding year record had fallen back at the start of the month (thanks to a Black-billed Cuckoo in Prospect Park’s Butterfly Meadow, found by Ryan M) and I was now gunning for 250 or (a girl can dream) 260.

October
Brooklyn year bird #250 came quickly, and it was a worthy one: Saltmarsh Sparrow, seen at Plumb Beach. Normally, these birds are hard to spot among the marsh grasses. This was one of those charmed mornings when normally skulky birds fly to and fro to catch your eye, then perch openly to show off their orange faces. We’re not talking Baltimore Oriole orange here, but a subtle shade that coordinates well with the rest of their streaky brown and buff and cream plumage. Bonus: Nelson’s Sparrows were also present, offering a tutorial in telling the two species – which used to be lumped together as one – apart. I’m sure I didn’t score 100% on the pop quiz, but I did OK.

The fall birds that gratified me the most, though, were American Pipits. Pipits aren’t the showiest birds. In fact, they’re not showy at all. They often fly over without bothering to stop, impervious to Brooklyn’s charms. When they do drop down to stay awhile in some sad field, they are the exact color of dead grass. They’re one of those species, in other words, whose vocalizations it pays to learn. So I listened to recordings and listened to recordings some more, such that when a handful flew over one of the runways at Floyd, I was ready.

It made me feel like like a real, grown-up birder. (Of course, my aural retention being what it is, I’ll have to study up again next year.)

I ended the month with 255 Brooklyn species.

November
For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, November often brings vagrant rarities to our region. This year it didn’t – until it did. Not to Brooklyn, alas, where the only addition to my year list was an American Bittern (#256), but to Staten Island, where a pair of birders visiting from Illinois discovered a Gray Kingbird at Great Kills Park on November 29.

This was another of those “holy shit” moments. Gray Kingbirds are a Caribbean species – I’ve seen them in Puerto Rico, including in street art (see below), but in the mainland U.S., they’re pretty much limited to Florida. How did one find its way to Staten Island at the end of November? I desperately wanted to see this bird that was so far from home.

For a car-less Brooklynite, birding Staten Island demands patience and a lot of time on the R train and various buses. As I surveyed unlovely Hylan Blvd from my perch on the S79-SBS, I realized with a start that it was the first time I’d made the trip since the “before” times – that is to say, since January 2020. It had been so long, in fact, that I’d forgotten my transit connections and stayed on the R until 95th St instead of getting off at 86th.

I’d also forgotten how much I love birding Staten Island. The kingbird was lying low when I got there and remained elusive for the better part of an hour, but I didn’t mind. It gave me time to jog to Crooke’s Point, looking for perched kingbirds, of course, but also counting the ridiculous number of Yellow-rumped Warblers omnipresent in the brush, admiring a few Northern Flickers, and wondering where all the friends of that lone Cedar Waxwing had gone. When the cry went up that the kingbird had been found, I ran back and watched it fly from small tree to signpost to small tree, occasionally flapping about on the ground. Then I watched a small flock of Horned Larks, and a feeding frenzy of Northern Gannets – the first I’d seen since March – out in the Lower Bay. On my way out of the park, I was admiring the bright russet cap of an American Tree Sparrow – hard to find in Brooklyn, easy to find here – when not one, but two local birders rolled by offering to direct me to the kingbird. If there’s a group of people more welcoming and helpful than Brooklyn birders, it could only be Staten Island birders.

Gray Kingbird within its normal range

December
The local rarities that skipped November showed up in December instead – a pretty little Henslow’s Sparrow in Green-Wood Cemetery, an accommodating Ash-throated Flycatcher at Owl’s Head Park, a Short-billed Gull meandering along the waterfront. I saw the first two, bringing my Brooklyn year list to 258 species – good for me, but nothing compared to the Big Years of other Brooklyn birders, several of whom smashed the county record. The Manhattan record also fell; I’m not sure about the other boroughs. For all the ways in which it sucked, 2021 was a very good year to bird New York City.

But I don’t want to end this look back with lists. While they’re fun, and while they certainly appeal to the large obsessive component of my personality, they’re not the point.

I’ll end instead in a rental car on the outskirts of Toledo, late on a late-December afternoon. Christmas and post-Christmas celebrations were over, we’d dropped Katie off at the bus station for her trip back to Chicago, and we were getting a jump start on our own return to Brooklyn. The plan was to break for the night in Cleveland after hitting a few birding hotspots off Route 2 – until the birdable drizzle turned to an unbirdable downpour. Eric was driving, I was looking out the window and thinking, sadly, about birds. Just before the turn into the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge – where we would not be stopping after all – we passed a farmer’s field washed with white.

The white was a flock of Tundra Swans. Not just a few, not just a few dozen or even a few hundred, but acres of them, blanketing the otherwise bare field. I thought: you can plan trips around birds, you can pore over other birders’ sightings, you can make yourself crazy chasing them – but in the end, they have wings, and they’ll use them to go wherever they damn well please.

We pulled onto a side road and sat for a few minutes, taking in the spectacle. And then we drove on, toward home and another year.

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