The One With the Chat

“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!”

Photo by Jim Conrad. Licensed under Public Domain via Wiki Commons

Yellow-breasted chat. Photo by Jim Conrad. Licensed under Public Domain via Wiki Commons

“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.

A female American redstart.  Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons by The Lilac Breasted Roller

A female American redstart — not red. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Male American redstart. Quite a difference, no?  Photo by Dennis Jarvis  Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -

Male American redstart. Quite a difference, no?
Photo by Dennis Jarvis Licensed under CC.

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.

“Yes!”

“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.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Image via Wikicommons.

The inappropriately named red-bellied woodpecker. Image via Wikicommons.

Have you seen any interesting birds in your area? Have a great weekend, everyone! 

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22 comments

  1. Hi Jackie. Great post. Strangely enough (because I’m not a birder), I did see a vulture recently when I was in Florida 2 weeks ago. My sister who is a birder was pointing out birds to me. She told me we’d see vultures. We didn’t see any…until we were heading for the parking lot. There, perched near a dumpster, were 2 of the ugliest birds I have ever seen. Only its mother could love that face.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As you know, I love watching birds and I live about a ten minute walk from Central Park. But I also like to power sleep on weekends so I content myself with watching pigeons. But, when The Grind was located in Tribeca, every so often mourning doves would perch on the sill. Seeing them outside my window was always a thrill, however cheap. I’m so glad you saw that woodpecker! Too bad that you couldn’t conclude the post with a Jackie-made Kodak moment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I could have gotten a nice shot of that woodpecker. To get a good photo, you have to have a sophisticated camera (I don’t) and a steady hand (not before coffee). All of my photos came out like your snap of Wes Anderson. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this post, Jackie! If you haven’t watched it yet, there’s a terrific documentary on birdwatching in Central Park. You might recognize some of the folks in it now that you’re a part of the NYC birding scene. Keep up the great work! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I admire birders, and increasing my bird-identification skills is on my “to do” list. We’re fortunate to have lots of birds here, but beyond the fairly obvious dozen or so, I haven’t learned their names and calls. It’s great to know that folks in NYC have the opportunity to see so many birds. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s amazing how birders can recognize between breeding and non-breeding plumage and between juveniles and adults. They can look quite different! It must take a lot of time in the field to get so familiar with the birds in this way.

      Good luck getting to know the birds in your area. You might be able to see some purple martins. 🙂

      Like

    1. How lucky you are to live in an area where you can see hummingbirds regularly. They are fascinating creatures. I just learned that a hummingbird’s pectoral muscles are 30% stronger (for their size) than any other animal on earth. It takes a lot to keep those wings going. 🙂

      Like

  5. Wow, that male American redstart! I love this post, probably because I have wished so often that I could identify all the birds hanging around my house. A male cardinal actually attached himself to my window screen briefly earlier this week. Cardinals and blue jays are pretty routine, and I’ve been lucky enough to photograph hummingbirds (not clearly) and my favorite, the great blue heron.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Birding Bob and the Intrepid Birders” — It could be a band name.

    My backyard is a bird sanctuary. Pet ducks and chickens abound. Mallards and Canadian geese visit regularly. We have seen hummingbirds, blue jays, cardinals, robins, crows, goldfinch, and turkey vultures. A hungry heron comes around sometimes and tries to snack on the koi. Several hawks have made nests in the trees and terrorize the lot of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would be a great name for a band! Or Birding Bob and the Chats. 🙂

      It sounds like a wonderful oasis in your backyard. The turkey vultures, while gorgeous in flight, must look quite ominous to the other animals.

      I hope next spring I will get to see a female loon carrying her ducklings on her back.

      Like

  7. I love birds too, but the thing I’ve noticed is the more beautiful the bird, the more elusive. I’ve tried to photograph a gorgeous goldfinch that frequents our bird bath, but he flies away before I can even think to grab my camera. Same with bluebirds. Happy birdwatching!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good observation, Carole! When I was with these birders, we did see quite a few of the plainer birds, but the ones with the spectacular plumage were much harder to find.

      I bet you get a wide variety of species where you live — all year long!

      Like

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