This is a time of year when we are encouraged to focus on the positives in our lives and show appreciation for the good stuff. It’s definitely not easy, but I do think it’s worth it! Sometimes you just need to take a moment to slow down, look around, and make the most of the current situation. My number one hobby is a constant reminder of this necessity, and I often wonder what I’d do without this beneficial influence. I’ve taken more than my fair share of lumps recently, but my connection to the natural world has helped me keep things in perspective through it all. In this season of thanks giving, I am thankful for birding.
Don’t get me wrong, being a birder comes with its own unique set of headaches and, occasionally, heartbreaks. Missing out on experiencing a new lifer despite your best efforts can be infuriating, and news of the recent Corn Crake’s demise honestly messed me up more than I’m comfortable admitting. Investing so much time and work into exploring nature can enhance the sting of negative moments, but it also makes for a deeply personal experience with incredibly rewarding highlights.
After celebrating the holiday proper with my family, I set out to try my luck at another annual tradition on Friday morning. Thanksgiving vacation usually coincides with the arrival of Snowy Owls in southern New York, and this year is shaping up as a potential whopper of an invasion. Miriam and I headed down to the coast to search for Arctic visitors, and it wasn’t long before we located an owl resting atop a dune. I’m always grateful for an opportunity to enjoy the company of my favorite animal, and Miriam was happy with her greatly improved looks compared to her previous encounter.
These endlessly popular birds typically draw a lot of attention, and I was disappointed to learn that this individual had already been pressured into flight several times that day. Snowy mania hits hard, and some folks are so obsessed with getting the best views and pictures that they don’t consider the personal space of the animals. Debates over how to mitigate the undue stress on these conspicuous, charismatic predators rage with fiery intensity whenever they visit our shores. The NY Birders group recently banned Snowy Owl images after a particularly fierce series of arguments between birders, photographers, and all nature enthusiasts in between. These quarrels will never lessen my love for Bubo scandiacus. It’s easy to see why people get so excited about these magical birds, but it should be equally easy to understand how important it is to give them the respect they deserve.
On Saturday, I took a leftovers delivery to my grandfather’s house as an excuse to drop by the scene of a local rarity discovery. A Western Tanager had been hanging around by the Alley Pond Environmental Center, a frequent haunt of mine back in my kindergarten days. I eventually got a brief glimpse of the bird when it flew across the path away from the stakeout spot where I stood with several other hopeful watchers. Even this subpar sighting brought me joy, although this was not my first-ever Western Tanager or even my first one this year. It was, however, my first encounter with the species in my home state. That a seconds-long look at a bird that I’ve seen in several different circumstances can still provide a spark of excitement as a new experience is something worth celebrating. It’s very difficult to stay bored for long when you’re an active birder. I did try for another look on Sunday, though, after some casual Queens county tallying with Brendan. The tanager remained determined to stay hidden, offering only a series of calls from the brush to confirm its continuing presence. Still counts!
The best surprise of the week came in a very nondescript package: a tiny, fluffy, grayish bird that was sighted in Central Park. Expert sleuths determined its identity as a Hammond’s Flycatcher surprisingly quickly considering the variety of notoriously similar-looking options in the genus Empidonax. Perhaps the prompt resolution of the mystery shouldn’t be a surprise, since New Yorkers have some experience sorting out vagrant flycatchers. This is only the third record of occurrence for Hammond’s in New York, and my one and only meeting with the species was on a Rocky Mountain ranger walk so long ago that I had nearly forgotten seeing it. I happily took an opportunity to scoot into the city to search for the wayward western wanderer, and I was able to relocate it as it fluttered through the Ramble in search of food. Even though it’s easy to write Empids off with “seen one, seen ’em all” dismissal, they are rather cute. Any new state bird is a welcome one in my book, especially when it produces a solidly improved encounter with a barely-remembered lifer.
Birding isn’t just about chasing mega rarities. Seasonal irregularities, infrequent regional guests, and even dirt-common local residents can deliver the observant individual from the humdrum routine of everyday life. I got a little bit of each before wrapping up my explorations for the week. The Hammond’s Flycatcher was accompanied by a bright male Wilson’s Warbler, one of several late migrants lingering in the Island and City area. When I returned to Nassau, I found that the pair of Cackling Geese remains at Hendrickson Park, with both birds showing off and posing nicely for photos. I also enjoyed an extended session with some nearby Ring-billed Gulls. Even our most pedestrian neighbors have their charms, and there’s always something worth observing if you simply think to look.
At the close of November, with just one month to go before 2018 comes calling, I’ve found myself reflecting on the ups and downs of the past year a lot more frequently. It has certainly been a hell of a ride, and I get the sense that the excitement isn’t over yet. Let’s see what December has to offer before the final curtain call!
Year List Update, December 1 – 403 Species (+ Hammond’s Flycatcher)