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