Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A bird in the bush

When Marie Winn wrote about the redtailed hawk nicknamed Pale Male in "Red-Tails In Love" she showcased birding in Central Park, a place that was coming through bad times along with the City of New York.

Central Park couldn't have had better press agents than Marie Winn and Pale Male.

When I got her book from the library I discovered almanac data in the back - what birds have been reported at particular times of year, for instance - and maps of the park. Maps were the key to getting me, and particularly my husband (MH, for short), into the park. I bought the book in paperback and one day MH and I came in from NJ to bird Central Park.

It is a big park, stretching from 59th Street north to 110th Street and from Fifth Ave. on the east to Eighth Ave. on the west. You can walk in anywhere and immediately get lost unless you can keep the tops of the old apartment towers in sight (and sometimes you get lost anyway). Despite its natural beauty, every single thing in the park - the trees, the rocks, the flowers - were trucked in and placed as per the design of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux.

About the only things not placed there by man are the birds passing through, drawn by an island of green in the middle of the concrete city after a long flight. Most of those flights are by night, but some birds fly by day. One time MH and I were walking south on 6th Ave. as night was coming on and a black-crowned night-heron was flying north on 6th Ave., obviously headed for some body of water within the park.

We've also found oddities, such as this male wood duck I photographed swimming with the mallards at the Pond in the southern end of the park. Two males spent this past winter here, even when much of the water was iced over.

Marie's book also identified the places where warblers could be found within the wooded area known as the Ramble.

Warblers are a post unto themselves. In spring they flit in the highest parts of the leafing trees or skulk under bushes. Many are brightly colored, having yellow somewhere, and the males look distinctly different from females (not the case in the fall, which presents its own identification challenges).

Warblers bring out the birders in droves, particularly in Central Park. When an unusual warbler shows up in the park, that number goes up exponentially.

A few years ago one of those vistors was a bright yellow bird with a big dark eye and solid gray wings, a prothonotary warbler. When we were in Florida we saw them in the swamps as often as we see white-breasted nuthatches in the backyard. In Central Park it was a big deal.

I don't fly across the country when a rarity is seen but if I am in the area anyway, I'll check it out. A warm spring weekend day was my excuse for the prothonotary.

This one had been seen along the western shore of a body of water known as the Lake, which one passes on the way to one of the entrances to the Ramble. The prothonotary was seen. It was sorta seen. It had just been missed, according to the birding lists. A little golden needle in a big green haystack.

So we weren't expecting much, being new birders. We walked along the water's edge and down to one of the rustic benches. We looked to the north and suddenly the bird flew out of the bushes on the shoreline and onto a rock jutting into the water, almost daring us to take a picture. Of course we had no cameras with us (or even a cellphone with a camera).

Wow, that was easy, MH said. Are they all that easy?

As we now know, no way. But I admit to some pleasure that day when another birder rushed up while we were birding in the Ramble and asked if we'd seen the prothonotary, rushing away when we said we had, and where. He'd sought it for hours. We saw it in minutes.

Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

What was your easiest bird sighting? Let me know at

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I have a little list

When I was growing up in Brooklyn and then living in Queens with my husband, New York's Central Park did not have a good reputation - muggers behind every tree, bicyclists and wallets stolen at gunpoint, homeless men and women sleeping (and doing lord knows what else) on park benches.

That was particularly bad in the 1980s when the city had devastating fiscal problems and police couldn't keep up with simple crime like graffiti on subway cars, much less murder.

Things changed as the economy improved and, for better or worse, Rudy Giuliani became mayor in the early 1990s on a platform of, among other things, fighting crime and encouraging tourism. More police were hired and hit the streets as well as Central Park and, slowly, more people started to feel safe going in there.

In the late 1990s, a Wall Street Journal reporter named Marie Winn collected her writings about a particularly light redtailed hawk who'd improbably made a nest on an upper 5th Avenue building facade facing Central Park. The book was "Red-Tails In Love." It not only put the focus on the redtail nicknamed Pale Male (inspiring two movies and at least one song, by Steve Earle) but on Central Park in general and the birders who'd never stopped going there even during the bad times in particular.

I have never met Marie Winn but she is a wonderful email correspondent. Thanks to her website,, you can find Central Park nature notes and information about Pale Male's story and her other books.

But what I found most valuable about her site when I first went to it was her publicizing the New York City Bird Report. Unfortunately, the site no longer posts active sightings and is now a historical database. But between 2003 and 2007 it told you what visiting birds were in different New York City parks every day.

A correspondent to this list was Tom Fiore, also featured in Marie's book, whose detailed reports were a major reason I (and no doubt others) started birding Central Park more often.

When ended active reporting, Marie mentioned other interesting sites including ebirdsnyc ( and the NY Birding List, part of, a service that provides lists of bird sightings by state and by rarity.

One recent mention on the New Jersey list, for instance, sent hundreds of birders from across the state and beyond to a small private lake in Washington Township (Bergen County), NJ, for a sight of a rare pinkfooted goose. Based on subsequent list comments, township residents didn't know what hit them when the birders flew into town. Such is the power of the list.

I enjoy reading the lists, and those who wish to subscribe can post their own sightings and comments. These list services are great when you want to bird beyond your backyard, so check them out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It started with a woodpecker...

Most likely it was a downy, like this one, but the first entry in my first bird notebook only says "woodpecker." We'd gotten the house-type feeder in the picture above from a relative a month or so before and, after buying some millet, put it in an apple tree outside our screened porch and waited to see what would happen.
First came that woodpecker and then a little gray bird with a crest. Looking it up, I learned to identify the tufted titmouse. That was over a decade ago.
After the birds came the books - we already had Peterson and a Reader's Digest book I called the "idiot's guide" for its simplicity covering the broad swath of nature. Then came, among others, Kaufman, Sibley, Stokes. The more books we got, the more I wanted to see the birds in them. We started buying more feeders, including the suet feeder that drew the downy in the picture. I stopped using millet and started using sunflower seeds. More birds came. I was hooked.
So what started with a woodpecker in the backyard has grown into a fascination with birds across the US. The areas I know best are New York and New Jersey where I've lived and worked, and New England where my husband's family lives. Little by little we have visited different regions including coastal and interior North Carolina and the Florida gulf coast town of Apalachicola and nearby St. George's island. When I visited California for a family party I added 10 new birds just at one place, Ballona Creek at Playa del Rey.
But birding for me is not about numbers, it is about seeing something new and unexpected. A large form in a tree along a highway that turns out to be a redtailed hawk. A bird flying low over a marsh you suddenly realize is a short-eared owl. Your first male bluebird in spring. This is why I enjoy birding, although sometimes the chase makes a fine story.
So as time goes on I'll be writing about the birds, places and what I hope will be interesting stuff. I hope you come along for the ride.
What was your first bird and where did you see it? Let me know at