By Keith Michael
I’m hurrying down Perry Street to meet up with friends for a day’s outing at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens hoping to see thousands of shorebirds stopping there on their fall migration. Between parked cars across the street, I see a small yellow bird on the sidewalk. Maybe I’ll be a little late. I slowly cross over.
September is one of the busiest months of the year for New York City bird watching. The hint of cooler weather and shorter days kicks off the colorful pageantry of warblers and other songbirds heading south. The air show of raptors through our skies will be revving up soon. Shorebirds started coming through weeks ago but now is the season for the fresh youngsters making their first instinctual migration over thousands of miles unaccompanied by parents to show them the way. How do they do it?
The sidewalk bird is not all yellow. The blue-gray of his head and back blends neatly into his wings folded tidily by his sides. His yellow breast is adorned with a black feather necklace with ebony pendants. He seems to be wearing spectacles—bright rings around his eyes connected by a yellow band over his bill. He’s a Canada Warbler.
In my July article, I professed my affinity for shorebirds. Though warblers are arguably more brightly colored, the endless subtleties of shorebirds’ feathers and the long-distance complications of their lives captivate me. This is the time of year when I’m in search of Dunlins and Whimbrels, Dowitchers and Godwits, sounding like mythical creatures from the tomes of alchemy.
But right now, this Canada Warbler has my attention. A still-bright comma of blood on the sidewalk belies the obvious: yet another victim of a window strike, this fellow is no longer alive. Identical seemingly random happenstances may be playing out hundreds or even thousands of times throughout the city this morning. During migration season, the number of birds passing through New York who DON’T “make it there” is staggering. I always want to get out chalk and draw a tiny crime scene outline around the downed bird’s body. Instead, I pick it up carefully in a tissue, and carry it as I walk along. His body is still warm.
With each somber step, I contemplate an impossible “what if” scenario. I saw one Canada Warbler in Central Park in May. (His photo accompanies this article.) I heard a Canada Warbler singing in the forest during a June visit to the Adirondacks. Now I’m holding a Canada Warbler in my hand in August. What if each of these visitations were, in fact, by the same individual? What has his life been like?
Well, first of all, this small bird, weighing the equivalent of two quarters, likely wintered on the northwest coast of South America, maybe in Columbia, Ecuador, or Peru, a mere 3,000 or so miles away. That in itself seems like an impossible scenario. He flew 3,000 miles to eat bugs in a tree in Central Park at 103rd Street, while catching his breath in between feasting to sing his cheerful burbling song. After fattening up in Central Park, perhaps doubling his weight, he only had a few more hundred miles to go to the Adirondacks, where, again, he sang and sang and sang, until a female Canada Warbler (who had also flown the more than 3,000 miles from South America) heard him and sang back. It’s as though all their lives are in a hurry. They date, they mate, they build a nest, eggs are laid and eggs hatch, baby birds are fed, they grow feathers, they fledge, and in several weeks, the family is off for the 3,000-mile flight back to South America. But Dad isn’t going to be there this year.
I take one more look at this improbable handful. Once more, I note his near weightlessness, savor his bright colors, wrap the tissue carefully, and leave him in a secluded spot along the way.
Onward. I pick up the pace to meet my friends to collectively ponder the fragile lives of Sandpipers and Plovers, Avocets and Phalaropes on a mudflat in Queens.
If you find a dead bird, please visit dBird.org to make an important contribution to bird mortality research by filing a report. Visit wildbirdfund.org to learn what you can do if you find a stunned or injured bird this fall.