2022 in Birds – Part 2

This is how I closed the year

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. 


2022 in Birds – Part 1

March’s sisters trip to Florida yielded this Tri-colored (but uni-legged) Heron

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.

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Marathon Sunday, 2022

The first Sunday in November, when tens of thousands of runners course through Brooklyn, is one of my favorite days of the year. Yes, it starts on Staten Island and eventually detours through Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Manhattan again – but the best part of the New York City Marathon is right here in Brooklyn.

That’s an entirely objective fact.

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Street Art Sunday: Saint John, NB

Saint John – the “Saint” in the New Brunswick city is spelled out, and the “John” is singular and non-possessive – was to be a quick first stop on our driving tour of Atlantic Canada. Instead, it became the only stop. With the remnants of Hurricane Fiona slamming into Nova Scotia the day we’d hoped to arrive, we headed back stateside and watched the news with horror.

But our one day in Saint John was delightful. As we stood on the corner across from our hotel, debating whether to head to the City Market, the Jewish Museum, or simply wander the Uptown district, not one, but two kind people offered to give us directions.

We’re not lost, we explained, just indecisive.

I was struck by the number of Syrian restaurants in Saint John – not vaguely “Mediterranean” or generically “Middle Eastern,” but specifically Syrian – and by the number of women wearing hijab. That inspired me to do a little googling, which confirmed that this small city has welcomed more Syrian refugees per capita than almost anywhere else in Canada. (And far more, needless to say, than anywhere in the U.S.)

Less consequential and arguably less admirable, but also noticeable: Saint John punches far above its weight in the use of Edison bulbs, which seemed to be everywhere. Their warm, retro glow suits the Port City’s vaguely steampunk esthetic.

And, of course, there’s the city’s street art. A small sampling follows.

Sending heartfelt sympathy to all the Canadians affected by this weekend’s devastating storm.

Taco Tuesday: Sundays in the park

For all the time I spend in Sunset Park – buying groceries, doing bakery runs, grabbing lunch – the existence of a full-blown Mexican tianguis in the neighborhood’s eponymous park escaped me until three weeks ago.

Plaza Tonatiuh has been running strong since 2021, at least in the more temperate months of the year. It began as an effort to fight back against the harassment of individual vendors, while providing a pandemic-ravaged community with economic opportunities and, not least, joy.

The food is delicious, too.

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Eating 8th Avenue: Lucky Vegetarian

My friend Andy, a long-time reader of this blog, knows how to express criticism in the kindest and most constructive way. For example:

“Don’t take this wrong, but all the bird stuff is a little boring. I wish you’d write more about food.”

When I do write about food, he provides positive re-enforcement. And when I go a long time between food posts – like this past month, say – what does he do? Why, he organizes a food outing.

That’s how Eric and I ended up with Andy, his wife Priscilla, and a few other friends in the basement of a Buddhist temple on Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue this past Sunday. The “Lucky Vegetarian” is part business – you enter, you sit down, you eat and you pay, like any other restaurant – but also part of a longstanding religious practice and cultural tradition. Priscilla, whose relationship to Buddhism sounds similar to Eric’s relationship to Judaism, spoke of going to eat vegetarian temple food on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month. It’s good luck, supposedly, and more to the point – it just makes you feel good.

Open the (extensive) menu, and you may be surprised to see a wide range of meat dishes, from hot and spicy whole fish to Peking-style spare ribs and Kung Pao chicken. They are, of course, not really meat. This is understood by the restaurant’s usual patrons – hence, no need to describe them as “mock” – but a bit jarring should you just stumble in from the street. (Though I doubt its bare-bones sign will inspire many casual passersby to descend the steep stairs that lead to the subterranean dining room.)

I should confess up front that I am not a fan of mock meats, so my heart sank a little when I saw the extent to which they dominated the menu. I’ve always thought vegetarian food should have the courage of its convictions. I scoured the menu for “real” vegetarian options, and settled on the clay pot eggplant, which I more-or-less-insisted we order.

Other than that, Andy and Priscilla did most of the ordering. We had to get the lettuce wraps, and the roast pork (“it really does taste like pork,” Andy promised). And how about crispy noodles? Sara requested a mushroom dish, so mushrooms with three cup sauce it was. And mahogany fried rice, at Priscilla’s suggestion (“will it taste like wood?” Melissa wanted to know; “it must be the color, right?” I opined, wrongly). Oh, and dumplings, of course.

It was a lot of food. The dumplings didn’t pretend to be anything other than delicious vegetarian dumplings. The lettuce wraps, with a finely-chopped fake meat filling, were tasty, as advertised. The fake roast pork did in fact both look and taste remarkably like pork. The crispy noodles were great. The mushrooms included tender slices that were easy to identify as mushrooms, along with chewier, fried nuggets that were maybe mushrooms? maybe more of that good, good fake meat? and indubitably delicious. But the sleeper hit of the spread was the mahogany fried rice with egg. It did not taste like wood, nor was it mahogany brown. It was in fact pale green from the young leaves of Chinese Mahogany (Toona sinensis), which gave it a hauntingly complex flavor, mixing herbs with onions. Priscilla buys prepared Toona paste to flavor soups and stew, and now maybe I will, too.

The least interesting dish? Why, my clay pot eggplant, of course.

We did not eat in true Buddhist monk fashion, which as Matthew, a former Buddhist monk, explained, involves shoveling down one’s food as quickly as possible, in silence – and then rinsing off the dishes with warm water or tea and drinking the rinsing liquid so that nothing goes to waste. We did shovel it down, but in a convivially greedy fashion, savoring every bit. And while we left our plates clean, they were not quite tea-rinsed clean.

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Lucky Vegetarian, 5101 8th Avenue, Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Street Art Sunday: Motor City edition

We were in Detroit last weekend for a family wedding, and I went for a run and took some pictures. Here’s a sampling.

Full disclosure: the picture at the top of this post was actually taken last summer, but it was too cool not to include here. In fact, I’d say it’s a contender for “most Detroit street art” ever – though so is this piece, also from last year. At first I was unhappy that I was unable to capture the art without all the cars parked in front of it, and then it dawned on me. It’s Detroit, the cars are the point.

Taco Tuesday: Bushwick

My first Bushwick taqueria

I knew, in a general way, that there were a lot of taquerias in Bushwick, and that you could find freshly-made tortillas there, as well. But living so close to Sunset Park has spoiled me for choices, and Bushwick is kind of out of my way, and I wasn’t sure which streets had the taquerias and which the annoyingly young, beautiful and hip people . . . and so I procrastinated.

Until last week.

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Street Art Sunday: A peek at Bushwick

This, I’ve decided, is the summer that I’m going to get to know Bushwick a little better. Its reputation for coolness has scared me away in the past, along with the convoluted subway connections between here and there. On the other hand, it has fantastic street art and abundant Mexican and Ecuadorian food choices. It also turns out to be easy to bike to, with Citibike stations aplenty.

What this means, among other things, is that you can expect more food posts in the near future. In the meantime, feast your eyes on these works, illuminating the side of a wholesale meat market on Stockholm Street at Myrtle Avenue.

Back to Ba Xuyen

Ba Xuyen, a modest storefront on Sunset Park’s 8th Avenue, was a favorite of the old Outer Boroughs crowd at Chowhound (the plug has been mercifully pulled on the sad remnants of that site), which became a personal favorite when I moved to Brooklyn. Katie shared my enthusiasm – to the extent that in the waning days of her college semester in Spain, she had just one request. When we picked her up at JFK, could we please bring a grilled pork banh mi and a honeydew milk tea from Ba Xuyen?

We obliged, of course.

And yet, for various reasons that didn’t amount to much individually, but slowly added up, several years had gone by since my last visit. There was the time I was craving a banh mi, but for some reason couldn’t find the storefront (it’s nothing if not unobtrusive) and settled for sesame pancakes from the dumpling place instead. Then the pandemic grounded me. When my Sunset Park visits resumed, I generally headed for the southern end of the 8th Avenue strip, drawn by the markets there, and only worked my way as far north as Yun Nan Flavour Garden or Wong Wong Noodle Soup.

In other words, I was overdue for the banh mi that has forever ruined all other banh mi’s for me.

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