Wayfaring Stranger

December 20, 4:00 AM. Thursday. The sun still two hours from breaching the horizon, I’m up and pulling myself out from sleep-warmed sheets and into the pre-dawn chill. My wife, still snuggled safely under the covers, breathes softly, oblivious to the goings-on around her. She won’t be joining this chase.

I dress quietly in the dark and head to the kitchen for a quick breakfast, waiting for my son to wake and making final preparations for the day’s adventure: a northern sprint to a little park in Portland, Maine, wherein lies the rarest bird we’ll ever see.

Aidan emerges from his room, groggy but excited. Though he’s on winter break and fiercely protective of his sleep, this trip was his idea. He is first and foremost a birder, and earliness of the hour be damned, he’s champing at the bit to go. It’s three-and-a-half hours to our destination, and the winter light is short; there will be time to rest tomorrow. We gather the last few items—binoculars, cameras, gloves, provisions for the road (even birders as obsessed as we are need to eat)—and we’re off, leaving my wife sound asleep and the cats silently questioning our sanity. Just one thing left to do: pick up Keith.

Gyrfalcon © Keith Carver

As of this writing, Keith Carver and I have known each other for exactly six years and 30 days—and I can almost pinpoint the hour. This is due not to any special powers of recollection on my part, nor because I have the date and time entered into a journal. I know this because on January 2, 2013, Keith and I met in Hadley, Massachusetts while watching a Gyrfalcon. In our area, this happens about once every 20 years, so it’s an event of some note—and a very auspicious start to a friendship that’s since included Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, Bohemian Waxwings, and one very obliging Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Keith’s a great friend and wonderful birding companion, and is always up for a chase: When I told him our plan and invited him to join us, he didn’t hesitate. He also knows Portland well, and could guide us to the very spot where, with a little luck, the bird would be waiting.

When we got to Keith’s house, he was ready for us. A quick turnaround—exchanging greetings, stowing gear—and we were back on the road, drawn automatically and inexorably towards our own Magnetic North, driven by hope, passion, and the thrill of the chase.

Three hours later, we pulled off the interstate and into Portland, our destination just to the right of the exit ramp. One slow merge and three turns later and we’d arrived: Deering Oaks Park. And there, at the last turn, was the bird—perched in a tree at the junction of Park and Deering Avenues, in the park’s southwest corner, right where it was supposed to be. We found a spot just down the road, walked back to the tree, and looked up.

There it was. And it was beautiful. At the end of the easiest chase we’d ever had was the rarest bird we’d ever seen. For a moment, none of us spoke—we just stared, letting our minds fully grasp the reality of the situation in which we now found ourselves. By all rights, the bird shouldn’t have been there—and yet it was. Standing on a corner in downtown Portland, Maine, we were looking at a Great Black Hawk.

Great Black Hawks are large raptors (similar in size to Red-tailed Hawks) native to Central and South America; until this bird, there’d never been a confirmed wild Great Black Hawk north of Mexico. Then, on April 24, 2018, a birder found and photographed a large raptor on Texas’s South Padre Island; review of the photos and subsequent observations confirmed the bird as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. But the bird vanished later that day, and despite dedicated searching was never seen again.

Fast forward to August 6. Twenty-four miles south of Portland, a birder again photographs an unusual hawk, this one soaring over the seaside town of Biddeford Pool. The photo hits the Internet and eventually lands at a FaceBook group called What’s This Bird?, where it’s identified as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. Three days later, this bird, too, disappears. On October 29, the bird appears again, this time along Portland’s East Promenade—but vanishes like smoke the next day.

Finally, on Thursday, November 29, the hawk discovers Deering Oaks Park and, without fanfare or fuss, settles in. Since that August 6 report, birders up and down the state have been on the lookout for this bird; word gets out almost from the minute it touches down, and birders begin pouring in behind it—the first trickles of water ahead of the flood. Someone manages to capture a photo of the underside of its wing, showing distinctive patterning. Comparison to underwing photos of the Texas bird come up positive: incredibly, this is the same bird that materialized over South Padre Island eight months before—and nearly 2000 miles away.

News of the hawk’s arrival in Portland spreads beyond Maine’s borders like wildfire, drawing people from across the country—Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California. It spends the next several weeks in the park, feasting on a near-endless supply of squirrels, rats, and pigeons, and tussling with the resident Red-tails. Thousands of birders come to this unlikely spot to bear witness to an event the likes of which, in a lifetime of birding, may happen once.

And thus, on the morning of December 20, did we find ourselves in the hawk’s company—the faithful, as it were, undertaking a holy pilgrimage to offer our respects and simply be in the presence of this glorious bird. We spent nearly three hours there, among a small crowd of kindred spirits celebrating the occasion and our collective good fortune to be a part of it, each of us subsuming a piece of history and in turn being subsumed by it, awed by the mysterious spectacle. Questions fell like rain. How had this hawk gotten here? How long would it stay? How was it surviving, and how long would it last? The bird, naturally, was silent to our queries, and simply went about the business of being a bird—in this case, roosting, hunting the copious and corpulent urban squirrels, and for the most part ignoring us. And that was the wonder of it. In an entirely alien environment, in the midst of its celebrity, this hawk found a way to survive, and did so with grace and relative ease. It appeared to all the world as if it belonged there—despite being 3000 miles from the familiar, from home.

And then, as difficult as it was to break away, it was time to begin our southward trip home. We parted ways with the group—these former strangers to whom we were now, through this encounter, permanently connected—silently thanked the hawk, and wished it well. For now, at least, it was healthy and it was safe. But its future, like its past, was uncertain.

The Great Black Hawk continued to delight new and repeat visitors to the park for some time. Prey was bountiful, and thus far the weather had been mild, sparing the bird the full fury of December in Maine. In the back of everyone’s mind, though, was the “What if?”. This was, after all, a bird of the tropics, not adapted to the brutal cold and punishing reality of a true New England winter. If conditions changed, if the mercury plummeted and snow and ice took hold of Deering Oaks Park, would the hawk survive?

Like everyone, I hoped for the best, but was subconsciously steeling myself against an outcome I hadn’t the courage to voice. Nature plays by her own rules though, with no regard for our feelings or desires: On January 20, winter’s hammer struck on the winds of a bitter storm that would ultimately claim the hawk’s life.

That was the scenario everyone had been watching for. Everyone knew what it might mean, and people were ready for it. The morning after the storm, someone went looking for the hawk and found it lying on the ground, unable to stand, and virtually unresponsive… yet somehow alive. That same morning, Terra Fletcher, a recent transplant to the state who we’d met on our visit and who had experience with raptors, happened to be in the park as well. She took the bird home, got it warm and safe, and then made contact with Avian Haven, a dedicated bird rehab facility in Freedom, Maine, who arranged transport for the hawk. Road conditions could hardly have been worse: the usually 90-minute trip was a harrowing four-hour ordeal, but the hawk’s condition seemed to improve along the way. When it arrived at Avian Haven, the bird was alert and active. After emergency care for frostbite to both feet and general debilitation, the staff at Avian Haven settled the Great Black Hawk into intensive care for the night.

The next morning, the hawk was standing and very hungry. A full exam revealed that the bird was stable and in good overall body condition, but the frostbite was a bit worrying. Though it didn’t appear excessive at that point, frostbite is notoriously insidious. It would be at least a few days before they’d know the full extent of the damage. In the meantime, the hawk was still eating ravenously and seemed to be gaining strength.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. Wild animals hide their injuries well; by the time something is obviously wrong, it’s often too late. Though the hawk’s appetite continued unabated and it grew feistier, the full effects of frostbite began to show: it had progressed from the bird’s feet to its lower legs. By January 29, the situation looked grim: the vets at Avian Haven were faced with the probability that the bird would lose at least two toes from each foot to frostbite. In all likelihood, it would be worse.

The next morning, the hawk’s appetite fell precipitously and it was unable to stand. Diagnostic tests showed no circulation in the feet or lower legs; when the vets removed the bandages, both feet were discolored and beginning to decompose. Avian Haven had done all they could; despite heroic efforts to save the hawk, the damage was too great. This wayward stranger’s journey had reached its end.

I, like all who’d come to know this bird, was heartbroken. It all seemed so futile—all the effort, and for what? If it was just going to die anyway, what was the point? Why? The answer, of course, is simple: because. Because to do nothing, to let the bird suffer, cold and alone, would have been morally wrong. In its need for protection, for kindness, and for care, the hawk was no different from any of us. Though the outcome was ultimately the same, in its last days, the hawk knew peace, safety, and comfort. It was shown great compassion, and in its final moments it was attended by people whose hearts had grown to encompass this incredible, bird. On some level, I’m certain it understood that people cared for it. That it was loved.

During its life, the Great Black Hawk brought joy to all who spent time with it. People who had never watched a bird before became captivated by this beautiful hawk and the story of its epic journey; many found themselves caring. For some, it awakened a sense of awe and wonder in the face of Nature, and a desire to protect Her. And there were those of us who fell in love.

Chasing birds is about the allure of the possible, the embrace of wonder. But it’s also about accepting the beauty and fragility of life, and the reality of its inevitable and sometimes tragic end. The idea of a tropical raptor finding safe haven in northern New England was ludicrous, until the Great Black Hawk found its way to a city park in Portland, Maine and changed everything. Should this have been possible? No, not really. Yet somehow, there it was. And though this hawk met its fate too early, while it lived it was magnificent. Power, beauty, grace, dignity, all given exquisite form in feather, muscle, and bone—a winged embodiment of living fire, defying all expectations of what should be, and by its presence challenging us to rethink what we know. This is how I choose to remember it.

Birds don’t exist for our benefit, but we benefit from their existence—ephemeral though it may be. Had I not spent time with the Great Black Hawk, would I have been spared the pain of its death? Of course. But I would have been robbed of something much greater: the chance to witness something spectacular and to know, even a little, the magical, the wondrous, and the beautiful life it was.

By their nature, birds are creatures of mystery, capable of things the likes of which we humans can only dream. Spend time with them—any of them—and I dare you not to become captivated, and perhaps even fall in love. But spend time with something this rare, and I dare you not to reevaluate your knowledge of what can be, not to question your idea of the possible. And I dare you to remain unchanged.

This, this is what the Great Black Hawk was. For me, the experience was worth a broken heart.

 

 

Canvasback Connection

The end of 2018 brought a rather unusual visitor to our corner of Western Massachusetts—a belated Christmas present for the local birders in the form of a beautiful male Canvasback. The duck first appeared with little fanfare on an oxbow lake off the Connecticut River in Northampton and set to feeding, unaware of the excitement he was about to generate.

In the northeast at least, Canvasbacks are cold-weather birds. They make their first appearances in late fall—on rivers, lakes, and along the coast—and stay into early spring, following the vernal winds to their breeding grounds in the north and west. These large, attractive ducks show up with some regularity in our area, but they typically bypass my Hampshire County environs for Franklin, Berkshire, and Hampden Counties to the north, west, and south—within relatively easy reach (and I have made trips to see them), but not just around the corner. And though I’m happy to go birding anywhere, there’s something satisfying about seeing birds in your own county—a feeling akin to welcoming a friend into your home.

In the case of a Canvasback, the trick was finding one. Since 1970, there have been just over a dozen reports of these ducks within the county—not a common occurrence by any means. In my 16 years of birding within Hampshire County, I’d never managed to get time, place, and Canvasback to coincide. When I heard about this one, I felt I had my chance.

First, though, I had to call Mary. Mary McKitrick’s a newfound friend and frequent birding partner, and she’d be thrilled about our uncommon guest. When I reached her, she was already en route to Northampton, but she hadn’t heard about the Canvasback, so she took a side trip to find him.

No luck. In the half-hour between when I saw the initial report and when Mary made it to the oxbow, the bird had flown. But all was not yet lost. Just to north of the oxbow lies Paradise Pond, an aquatic haven on the Smith College campus that’s frequented by a variety of waterfowl (and connected to the oxbow by the Mill River). If the bird was anywhere, we thought, that’s where he’d be. Mary made a beeline for Paradise Pond.

And that’s where she found him.

Half an hour later, my family and I were there ourselves, watching the Canvasback at turns swimming, resting, and feeding among the pond’s resident waterfowl—Canada Geese, Common Mergansers, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. A small group of birders gathered while we were there, and we all shared in the spectacle of this wonderful bird, out of place yet carrying on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. We spent about an hour with him, enjoying both his company and that of the kindred spirits—friends all—who’d assembled on the shore to watch him. Of the myriad ways to close out the year, it’s hard to top a rare bird sighting in the company of family and friends. As we left, I silently thanked the bird and wished him Godspeed, not expecting to see him again but knowing full well that I’d try.

The next day—January first—I was back. For some time now, I’ve marked the turning of the calendar with an excursion among birds. Even if it’s just a walk in the neighborhood, I find it very soul-satisfying to see each new year in on feathered wings. Given the relative rarity of the Canvasback (and my love of ducks), a visit with him felt like a perfect way to open 2019. Of course, there was no guarantee he’d be there, but I thought it was pretty likely—the weather hadn’t changed and he was finding food. Absent some other external influence, there was no reason for him to leave.

I parked the car and started down the path overlooking Paradise Pond, glancing down at the water as I walked. As hoped, there among the usual suspects was the Canvasback. He’d drawn a small crowd of very happy birders and was leisurely swimming back and forth in front of them, looking like nothing so much as a model strutting down the catwalk. I reached the edge of the water in time for a couple of passes, and then he slowly drifted away from us, settling in with a large flock of Canada Geese. The scene was serene, the Canvasback captivating. We were enthralled.

Bald Eagle © Joe Oliverio

And then everything changed. With no warning, the Canvasback exploded into motion. From a slow swim he broke into a frantic, running takeoff, webbed feet smacking against the surface of the pond, sending loud thwacks! and plumes of water into the air. It took a moment for us to identify the cause of this sudden shift in demeanor: We’d been so focused on him that we didn’t see the Bald Eagle closing in from above.

But he did.

He was airborne in no time, flying in a wide circle across our field of view, reaching full speed in seconds and racing away from his taloned assassin. The Eagle dropped in behind, huge and menacing, the duck just out of reach. The Canvasback’s timing had been impeccable: He’d known how long he’d need to get into the air and gain enough speed to outfly his pursuer; had he waited a fraction of a moment more, the Eagle would have taken him on the water. Advantage: Canvasback. The Eagle was too late.

Then we noticed the second Eagle, taking a line to cut off the fleeing duck. The first Eagle wasn’t looking for the kill, it was driving its prey into the talons of its partner—the hound to the hunter. It looked like it was all over.

But the duck picked up on this before we did, changing his own line and veering sharply away from the second bird. He had avoided the trap—but now both Eagles were in pursuit. The drama played out in virtual silence, no sound emanating from the three actors save the frenetic whistling of the duck’s wings cutting the air as he made his bid to escape.

The three birds flew out over the pond toward a distant line of trees, the Canvasback still holding his lead—barely—as they slipped out of sight. The duck’s speed gave him the edge, but it was an open question whether it would hold out against the stamina of the much larger birds. We waited through the tension, and hoped.

The question is: why? In a contest like this, the prey is in immediate danger: if it’s caught, that’s the end. However, there’s risk to the predator as well: if it misses, it goes hungry; too many misses and it falls to starvation. Intellectually, we know this: If a predator doesn’t eat, it will eventually die. So why root for the prey?

Two words: connection and transference. Consider the Canvasback again: I’d been watching him languidly cruise the pond, apparently without care or concern. All was peace and tranquility—until the first Eagle dropped out of the sky. And just like that, in a fraction of time indivisible in its brevity, what had been a relaxed encounter shifted into a life-or-death drama. In that moment, the duck was transformed. From a life one step removed, he’d become an individual to whom I was now intimately connected, obeying the instinct that undergirds all of our journeys upon this Earth, bird and human alike: survival. And through that connection I could feel, for the briefest of spans, what I imagined he felt: the fear, the desperation, and the desire, above all else, to live. Emotionally, how could I not want him to escape?

Though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, for all of us gathered there the wait stretched into interminability. We began to fear the worst for the Canvasback, that he’d met his match and contributed his life force to the Eagles, his death ensuring, for a time, their continued survival.

Bald Eagles © Chuck Stern

Then we caught motion over the distant trees—and there he was! The Canvasback flew towards us, high up and now well ahead of the two birds of prey. As the duck passed over our heads and away, the Eagles, at last, gave up, circling down to the trees and out of sight once more. For today, at least, the duck had triumphed. I congratulated him on his victory and wished him well. And I congratulated the Eagles on a valiant effort, comforting myself that they would find future meals among the pond’s waterfowl, as they had done on other days. On those days, I would be thankful for the lives that the birds sacrificed for the good of the Eagles, while also quietly mourning their passing. Such is the way of things. If you love Nature, you must love all of Her, and recognize that some days go to the prey and others to the predators—exactly as it should, it must, be. In such transactions, there is no good or bad, there simply is—an exchange of one life for another, neither one better or worse, but both equal.

In witnessing such encounters, we are reminded of the beauty and heartbreak of life, and of its sublime ephemerality. If we open ourselves to the full experience, put aside our egos, we might see ourselves as part of the life equation, like all who walk, swim, crawl, or fly upon this Earth—our home, yes, but not ours alone. We may recognize ourselves in the Canvasback’s desperate flight, or in the Eagle’s hunger. Looking deeper, we may learn to embrace life’s gorgeous transience and live, not in fear of the end, but in celebration of the now. If we let these threads entwine, we may awaken to the connectedness of all things, to the interdependence of each upon the other, and to the simultaneous inseparability and exquisite uniqueness of each individual existence. For at the source, we all, regardless of form, are lives full of vibrancy, potential, and promise.

But Can You Count It?

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Central Park © Agatha Kadar

New York’s Central Park is an extraordinary place for birds. Over the years, this 843-acre island in the heart of Manhattan’s sprawling urban expanse has hosted a dazzling avian extravaganza—more than 260 species running the gamut from waterfowl to warblers. Most of the birds you’ll find are more or less expected for the park’s location—in the Northeast and along the Atlantic flyway—and the particular season you might be birding there. Some visitors are less common than others, and some seasons are more productive. Migration, as you might imagine, is particularly good. It’s the sheer number and variety of birds that makes Central Park so special, though. Hemmed in on all sides by concrete and steel and the constant press of urban humanity, Central Park is the largest expanse of green for miles—and it beckons like a seductress, promising food, shelter, and rest to these weary winged wayfarers.

However, Olmstead’s creation is also justifiably famous for attracting vagrants from all over North America—Barnacle Goose, Painted Bunting, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-throated Gray Warbler have all put in appearances. Occasionally, circumstances will conspire to bring in a wanderer from Europe—birders finding themselves at the happy confluence of time and place have been rewarded with Tufted Ducks, Eurasian Wigeons, and European Goldfinches. Rare enough, but it does happen.

Mandarin Duck, Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy

This fall, though, a traveler from way out of town found his way here: a drake Mandarin Duck, native of East Asia and one of the showiest waterfowl anywhere, materialized out of nowhere and settled in among the park’s workaday waterfowl. How, one might ask, did this happen? How is it possible that a duck common in eastern China and Japan journeyed some 6500 miles to Central Park?

The answer is, it didn’t.

Probably.

When speaking of birds, I avoid the words “always,” “never,” and “impossible.” They invariably cause trouble, as the minute anyone utters one of them—often in a voice replete with assurance—some bird shows up to present an opposing view. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “birds have wings and they like to use them”—and I’ve witnessed enough and heard of even more to realize that, as far as birds are concerned, almost anything is possible. Still, in the case of the Central Park Mandarin, this would be extreme: Mandarin Ducks are short-distance migrants, and East Asia is a long way from New York.

So where did it come from? There are two probable sources: a nearby zoo/wildlife center or a private waterfowl collection (these ducks are very popular among collectors). Even under the most carefully controlled conditions, escapes still happen and formerly captive birds find their way into the wild. And sometimes people intentionally let birds go, because they either can’t or won’t care for them any longer.

Regardless of the bird’s origin, birders from all over have been flocking to Central Park for a glimpse of New York’s newest winged celebrity. This raises what, for many, is a question of paramount importance: can it be counted?

A brief digression for my readers not intimately familiar with the language of birding: A “countable” bird is one that can legitimately be added to your life list (a list of birds you’ve seen over your lifetime). Though the rules vary in their details from region to region, generally for a bird to be countable it has to be two things: 1) wild, and 2) a full species (not a subspecies or a hybrid). Each major birding region has its own arbiter that sets the rules (in North America, it’s the American Birding Association, or ABA), following the most recent science and research; birders then use these rules to determine which birds can be listed (a note to my experienced birders: yes, I know this is a gross oversimplification, but for the purposes of this discussion, it’ll do).

Black Swan, Cape May

That’s if you want to keep your list “official.” In practice, you can list anything you want, and many birders do. Some maintain multiple lists, keeping records of everything they’ve seen as well as the agency-approved list of countable species. Birders make life lists, year lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists, lists of birds seen while running, walking the dog, using the bathroom… there’s an endless variety. Myself, I keep track of anything I see in the wild—including hybrids and escapees. If it’s out there, I make a note of it, provenance be damned.

To be sure, there are valid and extremely important scientific reasons to determine the origin of an out-of-town arrival. Foremost is conservation—of the bird’s native habitat (has it been displaced due to loss of its former home?), the new habitat it’s chosen to reside in, the bird itself, and the native birds upon which it may have an impact (think European Starlings or House Sparrows in the United States). There’s also the issue of disease—is the bird harboring some foreign pathogen that could gain a foothold in a new area? And there’s another, more sobering, reason: as our climate continues to heat up, a bird that shows up well beyond its typical range might be warning of disruption on a massive scale, a rumble of distant thunder signaling the coming storm.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

Asking whether or not Central Park’s Mandarin Duck is countable misses the point. The real question is this: Does it matter? If you go out birding simply to keep score, if you care more about your life list than the birds that are on it, then there’s something wrong. I once heard someone say, rather loudly, that a hybrid Clapper x King Rail was worthless because he couldn’t count it. Unable to appreciate this spectacular bird or the life it represented, he angrily moved on. To him, birds existed solely for his benefit; a bird he couldn’t list had no reason for being. He’d reduced birding to a competition devoid of joy or any remnant of the spirit of wonder that drives those of us who are truly passionate about birds. I felt sorry for him.

Yes, I keep a life list. Listing is, after all, fun. But for me, a list is greater than just marks on paper. It represents a collection of experiences; reviewing it is a trip into the past, a reminder of places I’ve been, what I’ve seen there, and the times I’ve spent with friends and family among the birds that I love.

Brewster’s Warbler, Sweet Alice Conservation Area, Amherst

But there’s something larger, something far beyond the tangled threads of my own experience. For me, listing a species of uncertain provenance is a way of showing it respect, of celebrating it and acknowledging its value as an individual. Central Park’s magical Mandarin is, after all, a life—full and complete and existing on its own terms—and whether it’s an escapee or a wild vagrant, it has found a way to make a living on alien shores. It is, in every sense that matters, wild.

How did it get here? Where did it come from? And where is it going? These questions are at the heart of all of birding’s great mysteries, and exploring them leads down the paths of discovery, revelation, and wonder. Once you set out upon them, you’ll begin to ask other questions: How do these creatures live? What do they need to survive? And how can we safeguard their future? These are the questions that truly matter, the ones whose answers lead to a greater appreciation of the lives that surround us, an awakening to the connection of all things, and a realization that we, like they, have our part to play in the survival of all.

Ultimately, the question of a bird’s countability is insignificant. Worse, it distracts from a fundamental truth: There is dignity in these uncountable birds, as there is in all life. And regardless of origin, they are entitled to the same level of respect, appreciation, and love that we all deserve. By listing the birds we encounter—wild or otherwise—we acknowledge their existence and make a record of their passing, and remind ourselves that for a moment, our paths crossed and we shared a brief slice of time with something beautiful and extraordinary. If you let it, it will change your life.

That’s why we bird.

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Mandarin among the Mallards, Central Park

 

Life On The Margins

Verdin, Phoenix, AZ

A friend of mine was recently traveling through Arizona, and while waiting out a flight delay at the Tucson airport, she wandered over to a tiny park jammed in between the rental car office and pickup garage. It had picnic tables, benches, small arbors, and even a water feature—so she did what any self-respecting birder would: looked for birds. If anything, she expected those most ubiquitous of urban birds: House Sparrows (the park was, after all, surrounded by concrete and jet noise). What she found was something else entirely: two Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging in a flowering bush, and, much to her surprise, a pair of Verdins busily constructing a nest in one of this mini-park’s little trees. She spent a fair bit of time enjoying their company, amazed at their ability to find succor in this rather depleted habitat.

It’s a story I’ve heard (and experienced) many times. Different species and different locations to be sure, but the theme is always the same: birds making a living in the unlikeliest of places, on the margins between the natural and constructed worlds. Peregrine Falcons are prime examples, able to thrive in the heart of the urban jungle, substituting skyscrapers for cliff ledges and making off with whatever prey presents itself (pigeons are favorite targets, and the falcons’ preference for these birds makes them very popular with city dwellers). Red-tailed Hawks have likewise found a place among humans—in some cases, attaining celebrity status (New York City’s Pale Male being perhaps the most famous). Ducks and geese are exceptionally good at making the most of the smallest of ponds. And gulls, pigeons, House Sparrows, Crows, and Starlings have all discovered the bounty offered by the detritus of our daily lives. But there are other, less obvious stories: Yellow-breasted Chats—Cardinal-sized warblers, highly secretive—show up in postage-stamp city parks; the flowered walkways outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted a Rufous Hummingbird through one winter; and I know of an Ovenbird—a shy warbler of the forest floor—that spent part of the year in and around a city convenience store’s meager lawn.

Peregrine Falcon

These are somewhat extreme examples, but they are no means the only ones. Far from natural, many places we think of as ideal for birds are islands of habitat surrounded by harsh and inhospitable terrain. Arguably the most famous of these is Central Park, 843 acres of green set in Manhattan’s concrete core. To say that the park is good for birds is a gross understatement: on a normal day, it’s fantastic; during migration, it’s extraordinary. Warblers, orioles, blackbirds, tanagers, vireos—a host of species descend upon the park to feast on its bounty and shelter in its sylvan grounds. Birding here, it’s easy to get caught up in the extravaganza without questioning why it takes place. Take a look at a map of the city, though, and the reason is obvious: it’s one of the last, best naturescapes left in this vast metropolis. To birds exhausted by the trials of migration, Central Park offers sustenance and safety, a verdant oasis in an otherwise alien land—a margin, but on a grander scale.

Sanderlings

Grandest of all margins, though, is the one that marks the boundary between earth and ocean. Here along the coast, where the land slips into the surf, are birds who push the notion of survival to the extreme. As a group, shorebirds undergo some of the longest migratory journeys—and longest non-stop flights—in the world. Most travel tens of thousands of miles each way, and sometimes stay aloft for days at a stretch—a feat that pushes endurance far beyond the reasonable; in addition to nearly doubling their weight before setting out, some birds, like Red Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and Sanderlings, digest muscle tissue and internal organs to carry them the distance. Those who break their journeys to rest and refuel (and some don’t) do so on beaches up and down the coast. For other birds, the beach represents migration’s end: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Piping Plovers are among those who make their homes on the shore, nesting in depressions they dig out of the sand. But whether they pass through or settle down, these birds share something crucial: Beachfront property isn’t a luxury for them, it’s a necessity. And yet this narrow, vital edge is under constant siege, imperiling all who rely on it. The birds who survive here exist at a confluence of conflicts: the shifting balance between land and sea; development against conservation; political will versus ecological reality; and human want versus avian need. For now, they still persist—but they’re forced to do so on an ever-shrinking landscape, each vanishing piece taking with it another chance for the birds.

The capacity to exist on the margins, to find food and shelter on the edges of our lives, is a testament to birds’ knack for survival. But they can be pushed only so far. Every species has a breaking point past which it can no longer recover, a threshold that, once crossed, leads to a finality frightening to contemplate. Without care, sooner or later these margins may become too small to support the birds that depend on them, leading them down the path traveled by the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, Labrador Duck, and many others. Still, all is not yet lost. Birds can adapt, given adequate time to do so and enough open space to call home. But ultimately it’s up to us. Their fate is in our hands, and we must ask ourselves if we can find it in our hearts to make room for them, encourage their recovery, and champion their survival. A world rich with birds awaits us, if we only have the courage to create it and the wisdom to understand why.

Piping Plover

Reawakening: A Long Winter’s Journey Into Spring

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

Late April in New England, and the raw winter is finally breaking, its spindly, ice-crusted fingers reluctantly releasing their grip and freeing us from the season’s cold shackles. And though the vernal sun yet teases us with the promise of warmth only to retreat again behind the cover of clouds, the rush of spring is undeniably upon us: crocuses have come and gone, daffodils are in bloom, the trees’ first buds are tentatively opening, and each dawn breaks over a chorus of birds. It’s this last that gets my blood moving, that more than anything sounds winter’s death knell and affirms, on some primal level, the imminent arrival of green and pleasant days: The birds—feathered vanguards of life’s renewal—have returned.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Of course, winter is far from barren. The colder months bring a rich avian spectacle to the east: Tree Sparrows and Juncos; elegant White-throated Sparrows and diminutive Golden-crowned Kinglets; Red-breasted Nuthatches, those expert scalers of pines; Longspurs, Snow Buntings and Horned Larks, feasting on the remains of fall’s harvest; Rough-legged Hawks and Snowy Owls menacing the fields; Purple Sandpipers skittering along the rocky coast. Some years, Bohemian Waxwings and winter finches abound. And from November through mid-April, a procession of waterfowl presents a visual banquet to those intrepid souls who seek them. I delight in these birds, and take great pleasure in their company—even though the chill works deeper into my bones with each passing year. And I always mark their departure with a touch of sadness, and miss them when they go.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

Still, winter birding is hard: the days are short, the cold omnipresent, and the weather regularly defeats all but the heartiest birders. And the birds themselves, though wonderful to behold, are vocally restrained. The great singers are still warming their feathers to the south, and those who do overwinter nearby hold their voices in check until moved by vernal stirrings.

But when finally they sing, what glorious sound! A Mozart symphony or Bach concerto pales in comparison to the haunting melody of a Wood Thrush or a House Wren’s musical ramble. And what vocal virtuoso can match the skill of a Mockingbird in full-throated splendor? Music is one of humanity’s great accomplishments, and yet the song of a migrating warbler puts the grandest of our efforts to shame.

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

And then there are the colors: bold reds and blues, vibrant oranges and yellows, rich chestnuts and deep blacks—Nature’s palette displayed brilliantly on living works of art. Spring migration is an audiovisual feast, and every year I devour it greedily, like a man too long without food. Chipping Sparrows are one of the first to arrive—a personal favorite of mine, and a bird I find disarmingly enchanting. Red-winged Blackbirds follow close on their heels, announcing spring’s inception with flashy epaulettes and insistent calls. The Mockingbirds come soon after, laying claim to our yard and giving chase to any creature unwise enough to contest them. Out on the coast, Piping Plovers—charming creatures by anyone’s measure—are already pairing up and staking out suitable patches of beach sand in which to dig out their nests.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

In the coming weeks, these early travelers will be joined by the full panoply of migrants as forests, fields, and beaches come alive with the feathered pageantry of spring—warblers, tanagers, orioles, flycatchers, buntings, grosbeaks, hummingbirds… a tantalizing array, demanding to be seen.

And then, just as it began, it will be over. The birds who spend their summers in the northeast will find themselves consumed with the business of parenting, while those who use these latitudes as a refueling stop will continue their journeys onward to more northerly climes, not to be seen again until they head south on the cooling winds of autumn. And so it goes. As the seasons change, we say a reluctant goodbye to one set of friends while joyfully welcoming the return of another, the opposing twins lamentation and celebration overlapping. Such is the way of things.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

So go when you must, our winter companions. We’ll miss you, but we won’t be left alone—your spring and summer cousins are on their way to accompany us through the warmer seasons, and we’ll revel in their splendor. As the days grow colder, we’ll look for you again, and when you arrive, we’ll welcome you back with open arms. Until then, farewell.

For now, and at last, bring on the migrants!

The Texas Two-Step: Spring Birding, Lone-Star Style

American Avocet, Bolivar Peninsula

American Avocet, Bolivar Peninsula

April 18, 2014. The Bolivar Peninsula. Friday morning. It’s our first day in Texas, and we’re surrounded. My mother, my son and I have come, not for music, Texas barbeque, or large hats and longhorns, but for the birds. And they do not disappoint: Terns, gulls, pelicans, sandpipers and plovers, herons and oystercatchers—thousands of birds, spread out in a panoply before us. To our left, a flock of Black Skimmers take to the air; dead ahead, a hundred or more American Avocets work the shallows; on our right, Marbled Godwits probe the sandy bottom, searching for a meal with bills long as a lover’s kiss. Between the Avocets and us, a dozen Least Terns sit restlessly on the sand, accompanied by a trio of Black Terns—a bird I’d previously come across only in field guides. And over it all, a constant stream of Gull-billed, Forster’s, Sandwich, and Royal Terns sail effortlessly by on outstretched wings. It’s birding by complete immersion, like sipping from a fire hose. And this is just the beginning. Examining fields, waterways, ditches, and stands of palm trees scattered throughout revealed further delights—Long-billed Curlews, American Golden Plovers, and Loggerhead Shrikes among them. Even the roadside fences had something on display, giving us great looks at the marvelous and engaging Scissor-tailed Flycatcher—a striking bird no matter how often we encountered it.

Indigo Bunting, High Island

Indigo Bunting, High Island

After exploring the peninsula, we headed out to High Island, and the sanctuaries of Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks. High Island is arguably one of the most inaccurately named areas of the country, as it’s neither high nor an island. It is, however, fantastic for birds. It sits on the northwestern edge of the Gulf of Mexico and offers glorious respite to northbound migrants—a lush, verdant haven for birds exhausted from their non-stop flight across the Gulf’s open expanse. Indigo Buntings, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, warblers, thrushes and vireos, all break their journeys here to gather strength before pressing onward. An active rookery at Smith Oaks also serves as a critical nesting ground for Roseate Spoonbills, Neotropic Cormorants, and a variety of other wading and water birds—and provided us with unparalleled, intimate views of these spectacular creatures.

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks Rookery

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks Rookery

We could easily have spent a week getting deep into the wonders of High Island, but we had an engagement to keep with the birds of south Texas. Hard as it was to take our leave, after two days, we ventured to birding mecca: the valley of the Rio Grande.

The Rio Grande Valley—or RGV, to those in the know—is one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the country. Desert landscapes, wetlands, coastal shorelines, riparian woods, tropic zones, salt marshes, and palm forests all exist within its confines, and provide refuge to an astonishing array of birds, many of which are found nowhere else in the country. There are close to 90 parks, wildlife refuges, and birding hotspots across the region, and you could spend months exploring them. We hit six during our too-short visit: Estero Llano Grande, South Padre Island, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Quinta Mazatlan, Bentsen-Rio Grande, and Falcon State Park. Every park had wonders to discover, and even the roads to them held surprises, including Harris’ Hawk and Crested Caracara (two of my target birds for the trip, and both of which forced abrupt highway maneuvers).

Crested Caracaras

Crested Caracaras

At Bentsen-Rio Grande, we caught up with the elusive Elf Owl, a nesting Gray Hawk, and the charming and diminutive Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (a south Texas endemic). Falcon State Park held desert specialties like Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, and Pyrrhuloxia. We had great looks at Curve-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrows at Quinta, and Green Jays, Black-crested Titmice and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds at Sabal Palm. The highlights for me, though, were Estero Llano Grande and South Padre Island.

Estero is a marvel to behold. It’s a relatively small refuge, and easily managed, but it features the greatest habitat diversity for a single park in the RGV—and consequently plays host to perhaps the widest range of bird species. One of our first sightings was a pair of beautiful Fulvous Whistling Ducks—a life bird for all three of us, and an excellent portent for the day. This was followed by a procession of shorebirds: Stilt Sandpipers, Killdeer, a single Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Avocets and Black-necked Stilts—the epitome of elegance in long legs and sharp contrasts, and utterly captivating. Across the deck, and just behind the park office, Plain Chachalacas, White-winged Doves, Green Jays, and the scaly-feathered Inca Doves were among the visitors to one of the park’s few feeding stations. And crossing the pond along the boardwalk, we were greeted in most un-rail-like fashion by a Virginia Rail and a Sora, both out in the open and exposed, completely out of character for these usually skittish and secretive birds. Incredulous as we were, we still took full advantage, watching and photographing them as they scoured the mudflats 10 feet in front of us. We spent the rest of the day in a constant state of ecstatic delirium as Estero revealed its wonders: Great Kiskadees by the handful, Common Pauraques, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a pair of courting White-tailed Kites arcing and dipping gracefully above the treetops.

Black-necked Stilt, Estero Llano Grande

Black-necked Stilt, Estero Llano Grande

We rounded out the visit watching an electric-orange Altamira Oriole tend to its pendulous nest, and catching a glimpse of an Eastern Screech Owl taking the last of its daily rest before foraging for the evening’s repast.

South Padre Island provides a different flavor of birding spectacle. Situated in the Gulf of Mexico just across from Port Isabel, South Padre is almost entirely developed. The little open space left is focused primarily around two sites: the South Padre Island Convention Center and the Birding and Nature Center. These two areas are migratory magnets, drawing birds in and concentrating them—sometimes in breathtaking numbers. Even on a slow day, though, the birds are nothing short of spellbinding. Wandering the Convention Center grounds, we had Blackburnian, Blackpoll, Magnolia, and Tennessee Warblers mere feet from us, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Eurasian Collared Doves resting above our heads, an extralimital Red-headed Woodpecker (which caused quite a stir), a flock of two-dozen Dicksissel, and, in one view, a Painted Bunting, a Blue Grosbeak, and at least 17 Indigo Buntings drenching us in color and song. We were even graced with visits from both Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, South Padre

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, South Padre Island

After drinking in the songbirds at the Convention Center, we headed next door to connect with waterfowl and waders along the Birding and Nature Center’s boardwalk loop through the marsh. Almost immediately, we were greeted by what is certainly one of the region’s most iconic and familiar birds, and has become a personal favorite: the beautifully plumed Black-bellied Whistling Duck, whose gentle face, bold eye ring, and vibrant orange/pink stick-on bill lend it a humorous, quizzical expression. We’d seen them all over Texas, but they were here by the dozens. So, too, were the big waders: herons and egrets. All gave us fantastic looks, but the standouts were a Reddish Egret dancing for dinner just off the boardwalk, and a Tri-colored Heron catching small fish with its arrestingly blue bill.

Tri-colored Heron, South Padre Island

Tri-colored Heron, South Padre Island

We spent the better part of six days birding the Rio Grande Valley (including a second stop at Estero) before heading northward again, towards Huston and our final park: Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is one of the last stands of southeast Texas’ once vast expanse of coastal prairie, and is home to Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, a critically endangered subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken. There are so few of these birds left in the wild that several years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established seven captive breeding sites to help save them. Today, the birds seem headed for recovery, but FWS is incredibly protective. The only way for the public to see them is to reserve a seat on an FWS van and get driven out over several miles of bumpy dirt road closed to all but sanctioned personnel—and there’s no guarantee that the Prairie Chickens will be there when you are. We were fortunate, though, and arrived on the scene in time to watch seven of them, including several males decked out in full breeding regalia and putting on quite a show for the ladies. I don’t know how long we spent watching them, but everyone in the van sat reverently enchanted by the display, sharing the moment with perfect strangers, latching on to the wildness and grasping, if only fleetingly, the thread that binds us all, human and avian alike, to each other.

This is what birding is truly about. It’s more than just reveling in a show of feathers or finding solace in the company of birds. At its heart, birding reawakens our ancestral memory and re-ignites the ancient spark of connection between ourselves and the natural world. It reminds us that we are indescribably yet intimately linked to the creatures around us, that we share a future, that we are kin. We are not above Nature, we are part of it, as dependent on the planet’s biological support systems as all other life on Earth. For better or worse, we are the caretakers of this planet, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that we, the birds—indeed all of Earth’s “endless forms most beautiful”—have a home here, and a chance to live their lives with dignity and respect, and free from the possibility that a single species, through carelessness and lack of vision, seals an unkind  fate for all.