The birders are coming, the birders are coming! Tall birders, round birders, old birders learning new tricks. Birders knee-high-to-a-mailbox, with binoculars already weighing them down. Curmudgeonly “I’m just listing the birds” birders. Amiable birders, who conversationally use words like frugivorous and greater primary-coverts, as a way to draw novices into their adoring circle. Birders from down the block (some that I didn’t realize were birders until seeing them, binocular-clad, with the sky-scanning mobs,) and birders who have driven all-night from Maine to arrive in the winter afternoon glow of Abingdon Square. There may be birders who have flown in from the Midwest for the occasion, but I haven’t talked to them yet.
I’m in Abingdon Square too at the corner of Bank Street and Bleecker with Millie pacing at the end of her leash, sitting, scratching, yawning, sneezing—at least not barking if I talk to someone—and no one, no one, is noting her corgi-ness or paying any attention to her whatsoever. This is not her day. It is the day of the Rare Bird.
I’m watching the Bird. And watching the birders watching the Bird. And wondering if the Bird is wondering why I’m watching the birders watching the Bird rather than just watching “the Bird.”
Oh, the Bird. The Bird is a Couch’s Kingbird (repeated over and over around the corner: “Couch’s Kingbird, yes, Couch, like a sofa.”) This bird is supposed to be in southern Texas and Mexico. This is the first record of this species in New York State. The very first. It’s big news. This Couch’s Kingbird is way out of its range from where it’s supposed to be. No one knows how it got here or why it’s staying. It’s a flycatcher (which means it lives on catching flying insects out of the air). Surely the bugs were more numerous and tastier somewhere between Texas and the West Village. Yet here it is. Yes, it’s right here in the Village. Look up. Right there. Bright yellow breast, white throat, large black bill, long notched brownish tail. It follows the sun. It has visited several regular places: Washington and Jane Streets, around Hudson and Bleecker, and at the corner of West 11th and West 4th.The sun warms up the bugs. See there, it’s picking insects right off of the bricks. What will happen to it if it gets colder? The winter’s been so mild so far. Maybe it will take a tutorial from the neighborhood robins and cardinals who brunch on the callery pears.
For several weeks before, someone had been noticing a “pretty yellow bird” visiting their fire escape and finally mentioned it to a birding friend who was immediately curious! Yellow? At this time of year? Did you get photos? Apparently it’s very similar to another rare species: the Tropical Kingbird (but the Tropical speaks a slightly different patois) so the bird had to be heard and the experts who know these things debated. And then, Christmas night the word got out on the listservs and Twitter and e-mails and texts and (even)phone calls and actual conversations on the street, “There’s a Couch’s Kingbird in the West Village of Manhattan!”
The birders’ law was thence proclaimed:“Lay down all that ye hath previously been doing. Pack your binoculars and tripod and telescope and the longest possible lens for your camera (be ye certain that your lens is longer than the lens of your fellow inferior birders). The West Village might be quite rough, so khakis and camouflage may be needed. The Bird might not show, so bring sandwiches and possibly expect to camp out waiting for it to reappear in the Manhattan wilderness.”Today, dozens of birders performed this time-worn ritual—eventually birders numbering in the triple-digits will probably participate.
Yes, I’ve chased quite a few rare birds, though certainly not as many as some. There was the Western Reef-Heron from South Africa (Calvert Vaux Park, Brooklyn),the Gray-headed Gull possibly from Chile (Coney Island) and the post-Hurricane Sandy Virginia’s Warbler (Alley Pond Park, Queens). I missed the dual whammy from Siberia of the Red-necked Stint/Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay. (These are all New York birder conversation starters.) My favorite was the Dovekie at Great River, Long Island. This robin-sized penguin-shaped bird is rarely seen from the shore, but this one turned up at an ice-free winter-heated harbor—dozens of birders, with their ‘scopes and long-lens cameras of course, ran hither and yon along the harbor edge trying to get a good look at this “underwater-flying” charmer! Now that was a New Yorker cartoon begging a caption.
Millie is bored. None of this excitement has anything to do with her. All eyes are looking upwards—not at her zaftig corgi figure or her movie star smile. All conversations are angled up toward the bright yellow celebrity doing reconnaissance from one sunlit branch to another.
Birders are rare birds. And I’m one of them.
(By the way, the Couch’s Kingbird was my West Village Bird #103.)
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