“It’s the chat! It’s the chat! We got the chat!”
The excitement was building in Bob’s voice with every word so that I found myself getting excited even though I couldn’t see a thing. We were a group of ten or so standing in a thicket in Central Park, binoculars trained on the trees. We had been stalking a bird the size of a grapefruit like it was Mick Jagger on tour. The bird, oblivious to us, had been flitting among the branches for twenty or thirty minutes, searching for food.
Finally it flew from tree to tree and that’s when everyone in our group got a good look. That is, everyone except me.
“Oh, isn’t he beautiful!”
“What a gorgeous yellow!”
“Where? Where?” I moved my binoculars around aimlessly, but I couldn’t zero in on it.
A woman took pity on me. “It’s riiiiight over….. oh, wait, it’s gone.”
Last year at this time if you had told me I would get up before dawn on a Saturday, charge through herds of joggers in Central Park, and squint into a pair of cloudy binoculars just to see the tail feathers of a bird as it flies away, I would have said you were crazy. Actually, if you had told me there were birds besides pigeons in New York City, I would have said you were crazy.
What started me on this birdbrain idea? A kestrel landed on my neighbor’s ledge. I’d seen them on nature shows—North America’s smallest falcon—and I wondered what other kinds of feathered neighbors lurked in the urban jungle.
Turns out, plenty. More than 300 species of birds either live in New York City or pit stop here during migration. I thought fall migration was what elderly people did on their way to Florida, but I soon learned these times of the year are to birders what a television camera is to a Kardashian. During spring migration, the birds head north to breed. This is when they put on quite a show with special plumage and beautiful songs to attract mates. Things are quieter during fall migration, but there was still plenty to see, or so I was told.
The currently elusive yellow-breasted chat would be headed to Central America in a few weeks as the days got shorter and the berries became scarcer. This small bird that could fit in the palm of my hand flies about 4,000 miles (twice a year!), This fact makes me want to lie down for a nap.
But here I was with Birding Bob and the group of intrepid birders skulking through the park. They were an impressive bunch, often identifying a bird as it dashed through the leaves fifty feet away. Even more impressive, they knew the difference between the male and female of the species and non-breeding season plumage. After a couple hours, they had seen several red-eyed vireos, an American redstart, a tufted titmouse, and an ovenbird. (Who names these birds?) I had seen none of these.
I asked Birding Bob for some advice. “If you’re ever in trouble in Central Park, don’t yell ‘Help.’ You should yell, ‘Prothonotary warbler!’ Birders will come running from everywhere. That’s a rare sight!” Not exactly the kind of advice I had in mind, but I stored it for future reference nonetheless.
Several hours later, just as I decided to pack it in, I saw a flash of red on a tree trunk. I grabbed my binoculars and shouted to the group. “It’s a woodpecker!”
“Does it have barred wings?” Birding Bob asked.
“It’s a red-bellied woodpecker.”
“No, it has a red head.”
“I know. It’s a red-bellied woodpecker.”
Inappropriately named or not, I’d spotted it, so I wrote it down in my notebook just as I’d seen the others do. The first entry of what I hope is many more to come.
Have you seen any interesting birds in your area? Have a great weekend, everyone!