Picking up where the last post left off . . .
What would U.S. bird #500 be? With the clan gathered in Detroit for a family wedding, Katie and I talked about our upcoming trip to Maine and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, scheduled for mid-August. We’d see a beautiful part of the country, where she’d never been, and I’d get another chance at the White-winged Crossbills and other boreal birds that had eluded me in the Adirondacks in February. Wouldn’t it be fun to see #500 together?
In the meantime, July’s birding highlight was supposed to be a visit with my friend Shelley, whose yard Barred Owls enjoy hanging out in almost as much as I do. The plan was for Eric and me to take the long way home from Detroit, breaking our trip with a night at Shelley’s house on the Maryland-Delaware border.
We were just a few hours away when the text came: several members of the bridal party had come down with Covid. We called Shelley, discussed our collective comfort levels, and made the decision to cancel.
So what socially-distanced thing could we do with a rental car and a free day? My sense of the geography of the eastern seaboard remains vague, but applying the transitive property, I reasoned that if we were close to Shelley and Shelley was close to Philadelphia, which is close to southern New Jersey, we couldn’t be that far from the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.
And at Forsythe, there was a Ruff.
Eric knows nothing of shorebirds and cares less, but he was patient and game, as always. So we adjusted course slightly and headed for the refuge.
I knew from eBird that the Ruff favored a lagoon toward the end of the refuge’s famous wildlife drive, which snakes its way around a network of channels and lagoons. So I wasn’t too anxious when the first half of the drive was Ruff-less. But why were we seeing virtually no shorebirds of any kind?
When we finally arrived at the marker that heralded the Ruff spot, I discovered where the missing shorebirds were. They were all there, hundreds of them, because why not? What’s good enough for European visitors is good enough for our domestic yellowlegs and dowitchers.
My desire to be a better birder, one who systematically sorts through vast flocks while being swarmed by biting insects, was clashing with my desire to be a better partner, one who doesn’t abuse the patience of the nonbirder they love. Which would win?
“We can go ahead,” I told Eric. Yes, love won.
And then, 45 seconds later, I screamed, “Stop!” There was something about the small group of birds, separate from the rest, that drew my attention, They were close enough to see from the road with just binoculars.
And one of them was the Ruff. It was a worthy #500.
Would Katie forgive me for jumping the gun on #500? Yes, of course. In fact, if she’s smart (and she is), she’s thanking her lucky stars that I was not list-obsessing during our road trip through Portland, the Mahoosuc Range and Moose Bog. As delightful as it was to eat, drink and hike together, it was kind of a bust in the bird department, and I’m glad I could afford to be relaxed. We took pleasure in the Common Loons that called eerily from Island Pond, but from my boreal targets, we heard not a peep.
And for what it’s worth, the food at Hobo’s Cafe in Island Pond, VT is the bomb.
September brought another New England trip, this time with Eric, this time continuing on into Atlantic Canada. Another chance to see Boreal Chickadees, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Spruce Grouse! Maybe even one of those elusive White-winged Crossbills! eBird’s bar charts looked promising indeed.
What we actually saw was a lot of rain. Our planned arrival in Nova Scotia coincided with that of Hurricane Fiona and so we turned around, having made it only as far as Saint John, New Brunswick, where it rained buckets.
In tiny Lubec, Maine, we did see Black-legged Kittiwakes (members of the genus of “cute gulls”). It rained there, too. Other places it rained: Camden, Bangor, Bethel and Portland. I love rainy, wind-swept landscapes and seascapes, but even I have my limits.
After my third failed attempt to see specialty birds of the boreal forest. I’m becoming convinced that I have not just a nemesis bird, but an entire class of them.
Fall migration is about slow birding, or at least it is for me. The birds aren’t as rushed as they are in the spring, so birders don’t have to be, either. I stuck to my “no chasing” vow, by and large, even refusing to turn around when Michael S found a Connecticut Warbler in Green-Wood not 15 minutes after he and I had chatted about them. But in that case I had a point to prove, having just declared Connecticut Warblers the most overrated U.S. warbler. I never did see one this year, and that’s OK.
At the end of the month, once the days had cooled and the mosquitos abated, I made the trek to Floyd Bennett, where I finally saw the Northern Red Bishop that had been fraternizing with the House Sparrows at the community garden for several months. I felt a bit sheepish putting even minimal effort into seeing an escaped cage bird, and even more sheepish reporting it here, but c’mon! These birds are spectacular, with their orange ruffs and high-contrast black and orange plumage. They look like sparrows in a jack-o-lantern costume – what could be a more appropriate Halloween bird?
We rented a car and drove to Toledo and Chicago for Thanksgiving – with a detour through an industrial area of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to see a Brown Booby that had been hanging out on a particular channel marker for the some weeks. “It’s barely out of the way,” I told Eric, which was not quite a lie…I just hadn’t studied the map closely. “It won’t take much time at all.” How was I to know that the bird was only visible from the far side of the scruffy park tucked between the harbor and a warehouse complex, a long walk from the nearest parking?
But I saw it, and it made me happy. And unlike the folks who saw it from Staten Island, I didn’t have to talk my way in to a fenced-off industrial lot, which would have made Eric unhappy.
December was a difficult month, for reasons I won’t go into here. I birded relatively little, except for the day of the Christmas Bird Count, when I birded a lot.
But on the morning of New Year’s Eve, someone found a pair of Pink-footed Geese on Staten Island. I hesitated, but only briefly. Sure, it was foggy and rainy and Staten Island is a pain to get to via public transit, but these were in a part of Staten Island that’s relatively accessible – especially for a runner, and god knows I needed to put in some miles after all those holiday treats. Plus, we were talking about Pink-motherfucking-footed Geese! An ABA region rarity, a lifer, and the subject of some of the finest recent eBird narratives I have ever read.
And so I took the R train to Bay Ridge and the S79 bus, and the S79 bus over the Verrazzano and along Hylan Blvd to Seaview, where it’s an easy jog, past the Wild Turkey-infested Staten Island University Hospital campus, to the ball fields where the geese were.
As I entered the park, I saw a dozen or so geese fly from the general direction of the fields and disappear into the fog. I was certain the Pink-footed ones were among them, because isn’t that how it goes?
My expectations suitably lowered, I continued on to the ball fields – a soccer game was going on in one, was that where the geese had been? – until I finally saw a bunch of Canada Geese. I stopped and began to scan the flock. Canadas, Canadas and more Canadas. Finally, I clapped my bins – not on the Pink-footed Geese, that was too much to expect – on another birder. It was my fellow Brooklynite, Richard F.
Well, I thought, this expedition has produced at least one good thing; Richard and I can chat a bit. I approached, prepared to commiserate (his bins and camera were down, as though he’d given up the search), and said something dumb, like, “how’s the goose chase going?”
“Oh,” he said, with the casual air of someone who’d seen a Pink-legged Goose on Long Island just a few weeks ago, “they’re right over there.”
And there they were, in the general direction of Richard’s gesture. Smaller and browner than the Canadas, they were much easier to pick out in real life than in the bad picture at the top of this post.
Richard offered me a lift back to Brooklyn, which I gladly accepted, and we’d barely cleared out space in the front passenger seat when our phones pinged simultaneously with word of a Harlequin Duck at the far west end of Coney Island. Was I game to go? Of course I was.
So on the last day of the year I saw a life bird; a rare-in-Brooklyn duck; and, on the jetty, a Purple Sandpiper – the bird with which Part 1 of this post began.
It seemed a fitting conclusion to 2022.