May is a migration month when birds fly north using big wooded parks and preserves to pause and refresh on their northern journeys, filling them with avian life not ordinarily seen. A birdathon is a day when groups of serious birders fill those same places going from one birding "hot spot" to another viewing the new arrivals. Starting early and ending late, it's a cross between a semiannual convention and a master class. One Saturday last May the Huntington Audubon Society held a birdathon that went to three Queens "hot spots": Alley Pond Park, Forest Park and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The day formally began at 7 a.m. in Alley Pond Park because birds are active early. However, well before the scheduled time, a number of birders were there as the sun was rising.
At Alley Pond the tone was set when a bright red male scarlet tanager gave us a long look at its dark gray wings and bill. This bird is not seen often here. Neither is the tiny ruby-throated humming bird, which I'm having difficulty seeing because a large dead tree trunk camouflages it. The bird's long bill comes into view, then the red spot on the throat and finally the satiny green body looking oddly like that of a fish. The juxtaposition of the bird and the gnarled dead tree is a scene waiting for an artist's brush. Someone calls out "towhee in the open." On top of a sapling is a rufous-sided towhee showing its black/white and rust colored body, its wings spread like a vegetable steamer. The bird's thin bill opens as it lets out a call into the cool morning air.
At a shaded vernal pool someone else calls out "yellow," meaning a female common yellowthroat. At the same time a northern waterthrush is sighted. A month before I wouldn't have been able to identify a waterthrush. Now at a pond, I stop to enjoy it, watching the little striated brown bird with the light yellow breast and belly, hopping from one small island to another.
In Forest Park, where I've never birded, someone has sighted a Swainson's thrush, which is another new bird for me. I note the light white circle around the eye and listen to the discussion going on about its characteristics and that of a similar species. Someone else has found a female common yellowthroat that I get a good look at, unlike the one at Alley Pond. Up until now the only common yellowthroats I've seen have been males. The female, as often happens with birds, is much drabber. On the way out of the park there is an excellent view of a parula warbler, which I've also not seen before. This suede gray bird has two sets of white bars on its wings and a paprika-colored mark across the yellow neck and breast. The bird spreads its tail as it clings to a thin branch directly above the still water of a pond.
What I best remember about the park was an unusual view, which happened while we were crossing some railroad tracks. A low flying oriole seemed to be coming out of a curve above the tracks. Departing the direction of the rails it was headed right at me. Closer and closer it came, its black and yellow becoming bolder. Near-at-hand, it veered off leaving me staring.
At Jamaica Bay a friend and I decide to go off on our own. Improbably we remain in one spot over an hour because of an abundance of birds. The spot is near a big pond where we are greeted by a male red-winged blackbird with brilliant red epaulets on its shoulders while two tree swallows, in breeding plumage, chase each other. The bay water is being whipped under a darkening sky. In the grasses is a yellow-crowned night heron. It has a trailing black breeding plumes and its wind-ruffled gray feathers look like they are made of clay with ruts carved between them. The yellow-crown has droplets of water forming on its javelin bill and is moving side to side, seemingly looking for prey. The head plunges downward with lightning-like speed and the heron comes up with a wriggling crab. The bird works the crab, whose legs are wriggling back and forth in its bill. I'm certain it won't be able to swallow the crab but impossibly the heron downs it! Seemingly satiated, the heron lifts off and languidly flies to a nearby mud and grassy area.
A novice couple, with bird identification questions, has joined us. There is a group of laughing gulls on one of the mud banks. True to their aggressive nature some are chasing after others that have just flown in. Some are flapping their wings and preening themselves. Scanning the gulls' heads with my scope I see two in the throes of mating. Others nearby are walking around like it's another day at the office.
The sky is darkening; a few drops of rain are coming down and there's a delightful breeze. A small group of shorebirds takes off over the water, makes a half circle and flies in our direction. The moment is exquisite. Even though we've been birding more than nine hours we have no plans to quit but the rain is coming harder and we reluctantly begin to pack up. I'm a better birder this afternoon than I was this morning, richer for the experience. I make a mental note for next May: Go on as many birdathons as possible. Hungry, we head off to a diner to savor not only a meal but also the day's best moments. The birdathon isn't quite over yet.