By Keith Michael
After shaking out my umbrella, I slide the patio door closed with a shudder. Surprise, surprise, for this spring, it’s raining! The outside drain was clogged once again with leaves (as well as with pink flowers from a neighbor’s garden on the roof), collecting a wading pool of spring showers.
Millie is staring at me. She hates rain. I think she thinks that I must be daft to go out by choice to get this drenched. She is much more accomplished than I am at shaking off (when she absolutely must get wet), before rubbing her corgi nose against the carpet to dry that final offending dampness.
An unexpectedly wet weekend afternoon is a good excuse to catch up on that indoor part of birding: keeping species sighting lists up to date (and keeping a glass filled with wine). I still haven’t logged my latest superstar rare bird, a Kirtland’s Warbler, into eBird. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed this site for birders from all over the world to keep track of their avian sightings. Not only for birders’ own competitive pleasure, this mass of list-keeping over time has become an invaluable trove of research data. Oh, and it’s easy and fun. Go to the site sometime to just look around. Though a warning: you might get hooked.
But back to that Kirtland’s Warbler! On Friday, May 11th, posted at 4:42 p.m., a birder named Kevin Topping, made this surprising find at 91st Street between Central Park West and the Reservoir. Never before seen in Central Park, this largish yellow-and-gray warbler, with stripy sides and a habit of bobbing its tail, is a rare bird, no matter where you are. In the 70s, the Kirtland’s Warbler was on the brink of extinction. Though coaxed back from fewer than 500 individuals to, now, more than 5,000, this traveler still primarily nests only in Ontario and a few counties in the southern peninsula of Michigan after wintering in the Bahamas. Whether this bright fellow got blown off course while on his way to Michigan, or, perhaps, was an adventuring colonist setting out to homestead in new territories, he certainly caused a ruffle of birder activity here in NYC. By the time I got to see “the Kirtland’s,” still hanging around on Saturday, several hundred aficionados and rubberneckers had already gotten the chance to ogle him with their collective tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars of high-end optics in tow. This is what I like to call the New York Birders Circus!
Not only a “way uptown in Central Park” phenomenon, the West Village had its own spotlighted, celebrity bird debut the day after Christmas 2014 (after several secretive weeks of previews). It was a Couch’s Kingbird, a bright yellow charmer whose usual territory is in the environs of southern Texas and Mexico, that then stunned the local avian-erati for an additional several weeks, holding court, flitting between Abingdon Square and a balcony at Jane and Washington Streets. During the height of its visitation, I spoke to someone who had driven all night from Maine to add this bird to his life list.
Another “downtown” rarity, a Scott’s Oriole, also most likely seen in the southwest, displayed himself for several days in January 2008 near the Gandhi statue at the southwest corner of Union Square. At the time, I still had no idea how to ponder the complexity of the happenstance that might have brought this yellow and black-headed wayfarer to this urban oasis.
Checking my eBird records, the first rare bird that I actually “chased” was a Western Reef-Heron that showed up in Dreier Offerman Park in Brooklyn (north of Coney Island) in August 2007. I had just started birding, and the adventure of a bird from west Africa showing up in Brooklyn, and then¸ the adventure of figuring out how to get there to see the bird, was just the sort of excitement that lured me into the clutches of this new obsession. I wasn’t taking photos at the time, not even with my flip cell phone, but there, stalking along the ruins of a 19th century barge, sunk along the shore, was this statuesque slaty-grey heron with a white throat. How had it arrived in Brooklyn? Did it fly non-stop from Africa? Had it island-hopped across the Atlantic or hitchhiked a ride on a cargo ship? Or had it merely escaped from a private collection in Connecticut?
Some of my other favorite superstar birds were a plush-toy Dovekie that amusingly kept birders jogging back and forth for the perfect view along an iced-in harbor in Great River, Long Island in January 2010; a European Hooded Crow styling at Crookes Point in Great Kills Park, Staten Island in June 2011; and in July that same year, a Gray-hooded Gull, usually seen in Argentina, gracing us with its presence along the Coney Island boardwalk. Another Central Park superstar (okay, it’s “a brown, dull bird” as a non-birder friend told me after seeing a photo) was the Swainson’s Warbler in April 2016—a one-day wonder that was quite cooperative, skulking under bushes along the West 72nd Street entrance to the park, enticing dozens of birders to lie elbow-to-elbow on the roadway to get “the shot”!
Easily for me, the spectacular ambassador bird-of-the-decade was the Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Painted Bunting that reliably generated his own Instagram postings for six weeks in December 2015 through the New Year. This coloring-book bird, a festival of red, blue, green, and purple, is a fantasy bird come true. Tens of thousands of park-goers made the pilgrimage to the green roof at the LeFrak Center to see this technicolor beauty.
Along with the thrill of seeing these Where’s Waldo? birds, rare birds hidden in plain sight (until someone sees them), there comes the melancholia of thinking about the arduous, probably lonely, journeys these wayfarers have made so far, and the likelihood of their ill-fated wanderings yet to come.
Ah, I’ll have another sip of wine with Millie at my feet, watch the rain come down, and continue to ponder the infinite.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow Instagram @newyorkcitywild