After 2021’s kinda big Brooklyn year, I relaxed in 2022. The birds helped me. There were no redpolls picking their way through the sweetgum trees in Green-Wood last year, no siskins turning up in random places, no scoter trifectas at Coney Island. Clearly, this was not meant to be a year for the record books.
So I chased less, although I of course made exceptions for lifers. I also worked on my patience, on paying more attention to gulls, and generally being a better and more helpful birder.
And guess what? I had a lot of fun, and I saw a lot of great birds. As always, looking back at the year in birds is also about remembering the year in full, a way to mark the passage of time.
Because of other things going on in my life right now, both good and bad (good: I finished writing this post on the plane to Ecuador), I’m dividing the recap into two parts.
I had never seen a Purple Sandpiper before I moved to Park Slope, took up birding again, and began to venture outside my Prospect Park comfort zone to the wilds of south Brooklyn. They’re not rare; neither, more disappointingly, are they purple. At best, their grayish plumage is washed with the faintest of violet sheens . . . and that’s if the light is just right and you squint a little.
What makes these birds so cool – and what keeps many birders from seeing them, including, until recently, myself – isn’t their color. It’s their habitat preferences. In the winter, Purple Sandpipers hang out on rocks and jetties, the more surf-pounded, the better. These are not wimpy shorebirds, scurrying away from incoming waves like Sanderlings or, for that matter, yours truly (“Ayeeeeeeeeee, it’s COOOOOOOOLD!”). No, these birds don’t flinch when January waves come crashing down. They just shake themselves off and continue eating.
Knowing where to find Purple Sandpipers in Brooklyn is one of those bits of local knowledge that makes one feel like a real birder. And so, in the helpful spirit I cultivated in 2022, I’ll share some pointers with any readers who want to freeze their asses off looking for plump, non-purple birds with orange legs, droopy bills, and a weird indifference to getting doused with cold water.
Still with me? Great! Your two best bets are the rocks that line the breakwall along the Shore Promenade in Bay Ridge and the far western end of Coney Island, where a jetty juts out into the ocean between the public beach and the private Sea Gate enclave,
Time to catch up with the folks who skipped ahead.
The month did not begin well. Drawn by reports of a beautiful drake Eurasian Wigeon, I was running along a perfectly even and ice-free sidewalk on Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront when my foot landed lazily, dragged, and sent me flying. “What’ll it be this time?” I wondered, in that eternal fraction of a second before I hit the pavement. “A banged-up knee? A bloody elbow? Another broken arm?”
None of the above. I landed on my face, and once I had hauled myself to a sitting position – I could do that, at least, so how bad could it be? – I took inventory of the damage as best I could. There was some blood, but not a lot, oozing from somewhere. My nose and the right side of my jaw were numb. Also, something was going on with my mouth. I probed with my tongue, then spit; out came most of a front tooth.
I spent the next few weeks learning about root canals and reconstructive dentistry and feeling very grateful for face masks.
Mid-month (and also mid-dental treatment), Eric and I headed to the Adirondacks. Last winter produced a huge, even historic, influx of boreal finches to our state. Other Brooklyn birders returned from their own Adirondack trips rhapsodizing about Red Crossbills pecking contentedly along the shoulders of county roads, regaling me with tales of their lifer White-winged Crossbills.
Alas, there were no White-winged Crossbills for me. It turns out that blizzards – like the one that hit Long Lake on our Saturday – aren’t conducive to crossbill watching, not even in irruption years. We did see a Ruffed Grouse, which was cool. And we didn’t drive off the road, which was even cooler.
With a temporary crown in place, I flew to Jacksonville, Florida to spend the first week of March birding with my sister, who lives just over the Florida-Georgia line. Suzanne and I were birding buddies as kids, go for nature walks whenever and wherever we meet up, and try to arrange our schedules to both be in our native Ohio during peak spring migration. But we’d never taken a full-fledged birding trip together. For that matter, Suzanne had never taken a full-fledged birding trip – meaning: no spouse or kids to appease, no competing activities, just birds, birds, birds with a few food breaks – at all.
Over four glorious days, we covered a wide swath of the Florida panhandle and the wetlands, prairie and pine forests south of Gainesville. We saw over a hundred species, many of them life birds for one or both of us. There was that American Flamingo that’s chosen to make its home in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge; my first Swallow-tailed Kites, a species on my “want” list for pretty much forever; rascally Florida Scrub Jays, thanks to amazingly detailed directions from someone in the know; and a cute-as-buttons pair of Burrowing Owls. By the end, my U.S. life list had jumped to 499.
If I had to nominate one “bird of the trip,” it would be the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers we saw at St. Marks. I knew from eBird that they were seen regularly in the Otter Lake area of the refuge’s Panacea Unit. But Otter Lake is a big place. The closest we came to seeing them during our first foray was when I accidently hit a button on my phone that blasted their calls over Suzanne’s speakers. “That’s it!” I screamed, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that, no, it wasn’t.
So we had a nice walk, saw more Yellow-throated Warblers in a few minutes by the parking lot than I’d seen in my previous lifetime, and jumped every time we heard a woodpecker drumming. After a few hours we gave up.
But we came back at the end of the day. Many years ago, before she had kids, Suzanne volunteered with a nest-monitoring project in Mississippi. At her suggestion, we stopped looking for the birds themselves, and started looking for nest trees. She quickly spotted some of the same markers she remembered from her Starkville days – man made ones, like white paint, and bird made ones, like dripping sap. Transformed into bird detectives, we found several likely-looking groves and . . . waited. And waited. And waited some more.
A smallish woodpecker flew through the trees I was staking out, landing in every woodpecker species’ favorite habitat, namely the side of the tree away from you. I crept forward.
And there it was. Earlier I’d wondered if I’d actually recognize one when I saw it, but its white cheek and ladder-striped back were as distinctive as a basic black-and-white woodpecker can be. I gestured to Suzanne, who did that birder fast-shuffle thing, moving quickly but, one hopes, stealthily. She saw it, too, before it flew off.
Almost immediately, we began to hear others. The woods that had seemed so quiet before were suddenly full of woodpecker chatter. We counted at least three, heard and/or quickly glimpsed. But none treated us to the kind of view that first one gave us.
Eric and I ended the month in Mexico, which was as beautiful, fascinating and delicious as ever. And birdy: we spent a day in the mountains above Oaxaca with the amazing Roque Antonio Santiago (check out his website here), looking at Red Warblers and Dwarf Jays, among other birds.
With all due respect to Roque and the birds of Oaxaca, though, that sister’s birding trip at the beginning of the month remains the highlight for me.
A message went out to Brooklyn birders early one morning. It was phrased cautiously, the bird in question carefully described rather than claimed outright, but Ryan M thought they’d found a Black-throated Gray Warbler in Prospect Park.
Black-throated Gray Warblers are a western species that has no business being in Brooklyn. I was in the Lullwater, chatting with Ed C, when Ryan’s message came through. I immediately cut our conversation short and ran (literally) to the Midwood. So much for not chasing! But this was, if not a lifer, a new Brooklyn bird.
A small crowd of searchers had already joined Ryan in the area of their last sighting. We looked, straining necks not yet re-accustomed to the pursuit of small, high birds. We looked some more. We spread out. We converged. We chatted. A better birder than I spoke of the importance of learning chip calls. We looked harder. We grew weary. People with jobs to go to checked their watches. We grew even wearier. People without jobs to go to checked our watches.
“I’m done,” I told the others at last. “Good luck.”
But I wasn’t entirely done – not put-your-binoculars-away-and-run-on-home done. I kept scanning the treetops as I followed the asphalt path that leads to Center Drive, pausing just before it ended. There seemed to be a bit of activity in the understory. Common birds, to be sure, but after that long, fruitless search, I’d take anything.
Something fluttered on a sweet gum branch that arced directly over the path. Oh, sure, why not take a look? I lifted my binoculars.
It was The Bird.
Rarities always fill me with self-doubt, and I don’t even know Black-throated Gray Warblers very well, having seen them just a few times, out west and in Mexico. But I was certain enough about this one to send out an alert – “On it!!!!” – along with my best description of where I was.
As always happens, I lost track of the bird while fumbling with my phone. When the crowd arrived, I could only describe it (I was interrogated sharply, but not unkindly) and point to the spot where it had been just a minute ago.
With so many eyes, it didn’t take long to refind the warbler, and I enjoyed a fleeting moment of glory as its (very) secondary finder.
May has become the month I reconnect with my hometown. When I was 18, I couldn’t get away from it fast enough. Now, I drive past the sites that defined my childhood – some of them leveled by bulldozers, some of them merely shrunken by time – and think of the kids I played with on Sherbrooke Road and Pierce Street, their tiny black-and-white faces frozen in elementary school yearbooks like illustrations in a bad field guide. I eat lake perch and pickerel and pie. I see birds I remember from my childhood – Eastern Screech Owls, Eastern Meadowlarks – and birds I don’t – Trumpeter Swans, Soras.
And I feel love like a bruise.
My favorite sighting this year wasn’t rare or even particularly unusual. It was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo seen with Katie, on a morning when we had the entire woodlot by the dike trails at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge to ourselves. The trees and brush were practically heaving with birds – Magnolia Warblers, nowhere to be seen the day before, were everywhere – and this cuckoo was almost certainly one of the overnight arrivals. It stayed low, and let us admire its russet wings and its long, extravagantly patterned tail. I remember being amazed, as a child, that cuckoos not only existed, but existed in the ravine behind my parent’s house. Fifty years later, I still get a childlike kick out of seeing them – especially with my daughter.
I wasn’t an official Plover Ambassador on Rockaway this year, but I did go visit the Piping Plovers there for old times’ sake. But the plovers weren’t the only highlight.
As I’ve mentioned, one of my goals for the year was to become a better birder – not just more helpful, but also more patient and a more careful observer…someone who pays attention to big flocks of similar-looking birds. Breezy Point, with its flocks of gulls and small sandpipers, is an excellent place to put that into practice. Scanning the sandpipers scuttling along the water’s edge, I noticed a handful that looked larger and pointier than the others.
I looked more closely. Yes – these were definitely different. I studied them at length, making careful note of details of plumage and structure, when they rendered those subtleties unnecessary by taking flight and flashing their obvious white rumps.
It was, I think, the first time I ever picked out White-rumped Sandpipers unassisted. It felt very satisfying.
To be continued…