Tag Archives: New York

Snowy Birding

There’s no such thing as too many layers when it’s 20 degrees out and snow blowing sideways. Three was the magic number – three layers of pants, three layers of tops, and wishing I’d had 3 layers of socks rather than 2. Not sure I could have fit three layers of socks in my shoes, but one is tempted by such thoughts when your toes transition from pretty cold to one notch short of painful.


Photo by author, Long Island. 2017. Gulls on a pond, including an unusual black-headed gull, visiting from Europe – presumably with his papers in order.

But, it was a beautiful day for birds!


Photo by author, Long Island, 2017. 

I saw several species for the first time – common eider, horned lark, purple sandpiper, ruddy turnstones, and the highlight, 3 male harlequin ducks bobbing placidly in the icy gray waters. (There was a female harlequin duck too, but in the duck world, it’s the males that are the real showstoppers. Even the 4 harbor seals we saw barely deserve a mention compared to the stunning male harlequin ducks.)

I have been aching to see these improbable creatures. I even had a dream the night before that I had seen a huge group of harlequin ducks, and I woke up super excited to share my birding adventure before realizing that I had been tricked by my subconscious and still had to venture out into the frosty morning.

At the beach, I disbelievingly stared through the rapidly-fogging binoculars as long as I could as they dove down and popped back up in the whitecaps. The only good thing about leaving the snowy beach was that the feeling gradually returned to my abused feet. While we saw other notable birds after that part of the trip, my mind was filled with visions of harlequin ducks. I was also quickly preoccupied with figuring out who among my friends and family could be tricked into joining me in future snowy beach birding.

If reincarnation is real, I want to come back as a male harlequin duck gifted with self-awareness, so that I can revel in being the most beautiful bird around.


copyright Glenn Bartley, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, November 2009

Falcons, Egrets, and a Surprise Osprey


Sunset view on NYC Audubon Summer Eco Cruise. Photo by author July 2016.

Today was a good day. But Wednesday was a great day, because the waters of New York City offered up an antidote for the news cycle.

En route to the Brothers Islands via NYC Water Taxi, I saw my first, second, and third peregrine falcon arcing over the United Nations. Tumbling and swerving, these fierce birds of prey were training one of their offspring in the ways of pigeon hunting.

These formerly (at least somewhat), famously polluted waters host egret and heron roosts. Cormorants are also relatively common and begin to feel ordinary while on the water.

It is quite incongruous to see elegant white birds gliding against a golden-bright pink sunset while being within sight of Rikers Island. I learned that snowy egrets, in addition to being smaller than great egrets, fly in groups and have yellow feet.

My trick for remembering those distinguishing traits?

Yellow snow. Snowy egrets have yellow feet.


Old buildings hosting an osprey nest on South Brothers Island. Photo by author July 2016.

I saw my fourth peregrine falcon harassing three osprey (again assuming two parents and one juvenile), chimney swifts earning their moniker, and a veteran naturalist jumping up and down with excitement at finding a previously unreported osprey nest.

It was a great day.


Up Close & Animal

This weekend was a nature whirlwind, from the Jersey shore to Delaware’s National Park to  New York State parks.

Friday we drove down to Sandy Hook and took a great walk with the American Littoral Society to see the horseshoe crabs coming ashore for their mating season. The females are impressive and agile even with their bulk. The naturalist showed us the oodles of slippershells that attach to their bodies–a miniature ecosystem filled with reproductive dramas hitching a ride on a stoic horseshoe crab.

While the highlight for me was seeing a tree filled with ten or so cedar waxwings, there was also a personal reminder of how different viewing wildlife on our terms, from a safe and controlled experience, is from encountering them unbidden. Two raccoons were eager to share a delicious dinner with us. I heard crackling and saw shaking bushes while I was preparing to cook, as the raccoon believed she/he was invited to dinner. Feeling like a fool, but also being raised in a place where raccoons could be rabid and definitely attacked chickens and rabbits, I shouted and beat the bushes with a piece of firewood. I was only intimidating enough to make the raccoon go a whole six feet further into the trees. They continued to make forays, even with our food closely guarded during the cooking process. I was twitchy the whole time while eating and packing up food. As it turned out, the bear boxes were really meant to keep raccoons out of food; although, based on their behavior, I’m guessing they are successful in snatching sustenance more often than not. While we were packing up for the night, the bold critter hopped up on the picnic table to helpfully ensure that our clean plates and utensils really were clean. This time, he/she was scared off with a shout and the sweep of the flashlight.

The next morning was a rainy BioBlitz in the First State National Historical Park, my first. From sweeping the vegetation with nets–and being scolded for being too gentle with the invertebrates we collected!–I identified my first orchard orb weavers, nearly stepped on a leopard frog, and learned about wetlands identification. The real highlight was stumbling upon a nook in the river, with tree swallows winging around like fighter jets. They were so unconcerned with our appearance that they continued to streak by, so fast that you barely tell if the metallic color was purple blue green, the white breast just a blur. They fought over spots on the branches, but not over the insects rising off the stream.


A fuzzy iPhoto in Delaware, on a magical portion of the Brandywine. Tree swallows barely visible on the branches. Photo by author, 2016.

Lastly, the weekend ended with a game of inches. Pulling invasive species out of a state park, hoping to remove a barely-established invasive in order to be able to later on remove a thriving invasive. Raises the question of where to draw the line, what baseline we want to use for a native ecosystem, what the best use of resources is, which are all lovely questions to ponder but really what you end up thinking about is how badly your office worker back and quads are going to hurt the next day from actually engaging in honest physical labor. Later all you are thinking about is how to remove that diminutive tick from the underside of your knee, but in the meantime, you did something to ameliorate the human tendency to upend the order of things that allows biodiversity to thrive.

A Tribute to the Dodo


Photo by author of dodo replica at AMNH, March 2016.

In the midst of an enthralling exhibit about the evolutionary pathways that led to birds at the American Museum of Natural History, there was a tribute to the much-maligned dodo.

The placard was simply titled, “Not dumb.” After the species name, they continued, “This model depicts a bird, the Dodo, whose name has entered the popular culture as a symbol of stupidity. But many birds are intelligent, as–it seems–were many non-bird dinosaurs. Dodos were ill-equipped to escape introduced predators, but that doesn’t equal stupidity…Humans hunted dodos to extinction within about 90 years after the first Dutch ship made landfall [in Mauritius].” (American Museum of Natural History, Dinosaurs among Us exhibit, March 2016)

Wise words from a museum that also houses a letter from Teddy Roosevelt lamenting the loss of the passenger and the Carolina parakeet–two species that are not accused of being dumb but who were shoved into the black hole of extinction nonetheless.

It was a remarkable exhibit, and I hope the reproaching gaze of the dodo is noted by most visitors. Blaming a species for its own demise is a twisted way to rationalize all of the destruction engendered by human hands.

Tiny Ducks with Big Names

I know animals should be valued for more than their charisma and appeal to humans. Yet, I can’t resist enthusing to everyone about how adorable buffleheads are. I love the iridescent heads of the males and the understated white stripe on the females.

Yesterday was a gift of a warm, upper 50’s day, improved vastly by the fact that the water was so clear and the buffleheads so close to the edge that I could track the male underwater after his bob-and-dive, his webbed feet and propelling him through the water.


Photo by author in Central Park, March 2016, of a male bufflehead duck motoring towards his mate, who’s out of sight. 

Kudos to my patient friend for letting me watch this guy and his mate hunt underwater for a while, and retroactive gratitude to Olmsted (among many) for planning such a beautiful park with all sorts of buoyant visitors.

Ducks in the Hudson

This winter has been terrific for seeing all sorts of ducks in the Hudson Bay–today I saw a red-throated loon (what a misnomer for winter identification), two mergansers, a bobbing male bufflehead about 20 feet from shore, and a flock of Brant geese. I can never get enough of watching their miniature parabolas upward before disappearing beneath the water.

This picture is of a different duck, the Labrador Duck, extinct from the New Jersey area since the late 1800’s. Presumably it also spent the winters bobbing along the coastline in between dives for mollusks.

Hopefully the diving and dabbling ducks we have now won’t be artistically posed in a display for their curtain call.


Three Labrador ducks, front one presumably in breeding plumage, at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by author, 2016.


Anytime I see a newt, I think of the newt scene from Matilda. It is definitely not a snake (sorry Ms. Trunchbull), and if in doubt, can be distinguished by the fact that it has legs.

Came across this old photo, with its splash of color, to counteract the mounds of grimy snow that frame the landscape. I think it’s from wandering around in the Adirondacks late one July, and can’t wait to look for salamanders and newts (order Urodela) in the spring. Meanwhile, there’s the Great Backyard Bird Count to hold me over.

Red Eft, Juvenile Eastern Newt

Red Eft, Juvenile Eastern Newt, author photo from 2013