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February 16th, 2008

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
American Coot Fulica atra
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Tufted Titmous Baeolophus bicolor
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis

Full trip report at Great Auk - or Greatest Auk?

February 11th, 2008

Brant Branta bernicla
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Cormorant sp.
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima *ll*
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
Merganser sp.
Greater Scaup Aythya marila
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Canada Goose Branta canadensis

Details and photos at Great Auk - or Greatest Auk?
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February 7th, 2008

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it was still raining when I got to Central Park this morning. It was a pretty light rain, though, and I entered the Ramble with hope in my heart. The usual White-throated Sparrows, a small but energetic flock of Tufted Titmice, and a very bedraggled Mourning Dove all reassured me that the birds were here, even if viewing conditions were less than ideal.

I headed down to the feeders, where things were hopping. Lots more Titmice, plus American Goldfinches, Black-Capped Chickadees, and a White-breasted Nuthatch. As a bonus, a fly-over by a hardy Great Blue Heron - my first of the year. I was prepared to just spend some time waiting and hope that a Common Redpoll showed up.

But what showed up was an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk, putting a damper on everyone else's breakfast. Were it not so serious for them, it would be hilarious the way the Titmice froze, like a find-the-hidden-picture puzzle. The Chickadees likewise froze, the Goldfinches had vanished altogether, and obviously no Redpoll in its right mind was going to choose this moment to fly in for a snack.

I spent a while studying the hawk (he had a picture-perfect square tail,) but it became clear that he was prepared to outwait me and the Titmice alike and I realized that I had to move on if I was going to see any more. Ever since the Mourning Dove Incident I've been more mindful about carelessly flushing birds when there might be a predator lurking about, so I edged past the feeders very slowly. This not only had the intended effect (all the Titmice stayed frozen) but a little further on, still moving with care, I spotted two Carolina Wrens foraging in the shelter of a fallen log and a Brown Creeper trusting to luck and hir camouflage for protection.

I proceeded around the Ramble, carefully inspected the sweetgum and locust trees, but aside from a small gang of Blue Jays nothing turned up but more of the same. Will this entire massive irruption year pass me by? Tune in next week, when we both continue to find out.

Species:
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Brown Creeper Certhia americana
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata

January 27th, 2008

Scotty!

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auk
The Union Square Scott's Oriole:



Photo by gettingshitdone. More photos, including the ones where the bird blinked, here.

Read more about my adventures with the oriole and others at Great Auk or Greatest Auk

January 25th, 2008

Pinguinus has new digs!

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auk
Check out Great Auk or Greatest Auk over at wordpress.com. I'll still post trip reports and teasers for my essays and book reviews here, but I think that my nature writing needs the space to spread its wings and swim.

246 with an asterisk

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Union Square is a hop, skip, and a jump from where I live in subway terms. So naturally, when I heard about the Scott's Oriole there, I hopped, skipped, and jumped (after cursing that it didn't get posted to the mailing list a day earlier, since I went for groceries at the farmer's market after my Prospect Park walk and knowing that the Oriole was there would have changed it from a merely very lucky day to an absurdly lucky day.)

To be honest, it was almost too easy. I got off the L train at Union Square, went up the stairs, oh look, there's a crowd of people with scopes and big-ass cameras. Walked a few yards over to join them and the bird is sitting on the ground with a couple of pigeons and sparrows. Eventually it flew up into the shrubbery, where it posed obligingly. It didn't feed while I was watching, yawned once, and spent some time with its eyes closed - I hope that it remains in good health despite the cold snap and the mass of observers (I suppose if it's been in the park since December it must already be somewhat used to crowds.) gettingshitdone got some photos, which I will post soon.

Field marks - well, it's sure as shit an oriole, primarily lemon-lime across the bulk of the body with grayish wings (two white wing bars) and back and a black bib and mask the extends to the eye. The top of the head was obviously in transition, with a scaly combination of black, grayish, and greenish feathers. The size controversy - well, the bird didn't have the good grace to sit next to a starling for a length comparison while I was there, but it seemed slighter that the nearby starlings to my eye. Of course this is rather subjective since different birds may be fluffed up to different degrees, particularly in weather like this. The bill, black with blue-gray at the base, was very very slightly decurved.

Of course, I can't really really really count this little guy until NYSARC gives the all-clear, declaring it both a Scott's Oriole and not an escapee from captivity. But given how well-documented this bird is, and the known vagabond nature of the species in question, I have high hopes that this will be bird number 246 for my life list and the first NYS first record I've participated, in however small a capacity, in.

Scott's Oriole Icterus parisorum - LL
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
House Sparrow Passer domesticus

January 23rd, 2008

Chat Amongst Yourselves

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If you live in New York, you add warblers to your life list in April and May. If you live in New York and are totally hardcore, you also add warblers to your life list in September. Only if you are ridiculously lucky do you add warblers to your life list in New York in January.

I've always been ridiculously lucky. Except in Coney Island Creek, but what ya gonna do?

The Yellow-breasted Chat who lingered, for reasons best known to hirself (Chats are among the relatively few eastern warblers that are not sexually dimorphic,) in Prospect Park when the rest of hir kind* headed for Panama is also ridiculously lucky. It's been a warmish winter, but the place is hopping with bird-eating hawks and the Chat's favored food, bugs, aren't exactly abundant right now. Still, staying here allowed the Chat to experience a pleasure this morning that probably few of its kind will ever know - namely ice-skating, as I watched it slip and slide across the frozen Binnen Waters to an open spot for a drink. If I had had a camera... well, if I had had a camera the bird probably would have stayed in the brush.

Even aside from the Chat, it was an excellent day of birding. Started slow, to be sure, but by the time I hit the lake even the sight of some idiot feeding bread to a Mute Swan that was taller than he was couldn't dampen my enjoyment (It's not that I don't understand the impulse that makes people want to cram Wonder Bread into waterfowl, but its gotten to where if you go down to the water's edge without carbs in hand, the Mute Swans start eying you like extras from The Sopranos. The Canada Geese do too, but the Canada Geese can just hurt you real bad, whereas Swans will kill you. And if I must be killed by a bird, it's fucking well not going to be an invasive species.) Especially when the scavenging flock of pigeons and gulls got busted up by Prospect Park's other overwintering superstar, the Northern Goshawk. Hot stuff.

*except that one is also attempting to overwinter in Central Park this year. Maybe they could form a support group.

American Robin Turdus migratorious
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaciensis
Brown Creeper Certhia americana
Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens *LL
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
American Coot Fulica atra
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus
Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinus
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Northern Junco Junco hyemalis
Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

January 18th, 2008

I have to admit, I'm a little jealous of the good people of Boston. I know that snow causes traffic wrecks, depression, and myriad other evils (hey, I'm from Buffalo) but within me, a cruel and seductive logic whispers that I'm not going to see my Common Redpoll unless there's at least an inch of fluffy white on the ground, plump flakes are drifting out of the sky, and all the tree branches are coated like they're posing for a Christmas card.

And that could be true, for all I know, because I sure didn't see any Redpolls today, nor Pine Grosbeaks, nor yet any Bohemian Waxwings. I found a promising flock feeding in a hawthorn tree - mostly American Robins, with a handful of House Finches - but alas, it concealed no boreal tag-alongs. It did draw the attention of a Cooper's Hawk, who made a nice low obliging fly-over and sent the Robins coursing away in a panic.

With the Cooper's Hawk, along with an assortment of usual but new-for-the-year winter ducks on the reservoir (hightlighted by a Hooded Merganser who had pulled up onto the shore with a flock of Mallards for one of those super-close, leisurely looks that I only get when I haven't got a camera) my 2008 list stands so far at 38, 31 of which count for my BGBY. This means that I'm doing better than I was this time in 2007 (21), but am still lagging badly behind my January 2006 species count (52, which to be fair included 24 species from a Brooklyn Bird Club trip to Westchester.) Hopefully, buying a new bike this weekend will help kick-start things a little bit.

White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Hooded Merganser Lophodytes cucullatus
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
American Coot Fulica atra
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Robin Turdus migratorius
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Cooper's Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula

January 10th, 2008

x-posted from teratologist

Woodcocks are tricky.

Stop snickering, for god's sake. They are not tricky because they have a name that ranks up with Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Tufted Titmouse in the competitive "Making Non-Birders Think You're Making Shit Up" sweeps. Just to make things worse, they're colloquially known as Timberdoodles, but that's still not the tricky part.

They're tricky because they're sandpipers who have forsaken the sea. Some other shorebird species have done the same - the Upland Sandpiper, to pick an obviously-named example - but they mostly go for open fields. Woodcocks, with their cousins the Snipe*, have mastered the fine art of living in damp scrubby woods and damp woody scrubs. They have an elaborate worm-catching strategy, which involves stomping the ground (as much as a five or ten ounce bird can stomp) to make the worms move, and then probing them out with a specialized, flexible bill. To work this strategy, they need soft but not flooded earth. Take a spotty second-growth grove with some little spit of a stream running through, a stream that becomes a string of grass beaded with puddles in July, something that Mallards ignore and no self-respecting Piping Plover has ever been within a mile of, and you've got prime Woodcock habitat.

Of course, that doesn't mean you'll see a Woodcock. What you'll see, most likely, is absolutely nothing. Next most likely, you'll see a feathery explosion of WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT whistling rapidly away while you put your foot down in the spot where a Woodcock was.

The only Woodcock I ever saw, I saw because I was looking for dead things. The pattern on her back, brilliant and breaking up the perceptions of people and predators with the search pattern 'bird', bore enough resemblance to a bleached ribcage partly covered in leaves that it tripped my search pattern instead. She was nestled under a crabapple bush, in last year's leaves, and it was only while I was bending down to see what kind of specimen I'd got that I realized what I was dealing with.

I'm fairly sure that she was incubating eggs, but I can't swear to it, because she never moved as I stood back up, walked around the bush, and studied her at length, and I had better manners than to prod her. With her eggs or whatever at stake, she seemed inclined to keep up the "I'm detritus" charade just as long as she could. Eventually we were at an impasse - I hate to walk away from a bird, but in this case, if I didn't I might stand there the rest of the season. And the next day I was flying to Germany, so that wasn't really feasible. I did think that if my plane crashed, she was a good life bird to go out on and I should appreciate her as much as possible, though.

I'm not sure how long I stood there, but it wasn't long enough. Especially as I've never seen another one since.

There is a slightly more fruitful way to see Woodcocks than by not looking for them, though, one that I hope to take advantage of this year - the Woodcock's mating flight (stop snickering!) Each spring, before the snow melts (well, not in January, but you know, before the snow usually melts), the male Woodcock abandons his species' usual lurking habits and begins to call. Then he flutters into the sky, spiraling up between 70 and 100 meters, with the tips of his wings making the air whistle. Then he zigzags down again, and starts over.

The temptation for some writers would be to make a tacky parallel here, either about love and chivalry or about how desire makes men stupid, depending on inclination. Happily, I'm not one of those writers. I mean, come on, they're sandpipers. And anyway, the male isn't all that stupid; he only performs at dawn and dusk and on occasional moonlit nights, when the hawks are asleep and there's still enough light to see approaching owls.

In NYC, most birders favor Floyd Bennett Field as a Woodcock observing ground, but the dance is known to occur in Central and Prospect Park, as well.

The third way to see a Woodcock is to get obscenely lucky.

*Another bird that non-birders tend to take for a joke. I'm not sure why. I'm told it has something to do with going to summer camp in New Jersey.
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January 7th, 2008

Back to the big city

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I picked up a handful of birds on my trip home (notably Wild Turkey) and my Saturday visit to the NY Botanical Garden in the Bronx (notably Northern Goshawk) but today was my first dedicated birding trip of 2008, a pleasant pre-work hour in Central Park. It's unseasonably warm today, but the birds in evidence were mostly the usual suspects:

Rock Dove Columba livia
Common (European) Starling Sturnus vulgaris
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
American Robin Turdus migratorius
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus
Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor
Blue Jay Cyanocitta cristata
Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus
American Goldfinch Carduelis tristic
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus
Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus

There were two Red-tailed Hawks, actually. The one I saw better was an immature bird, which was being watched from a distance by an adult and from rather closer range by a mob of very angry Blue Jays. It looked very harassed.
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