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A Bird’s Eye View: October 15, 2010

Following the Fall Migration

In September I watched the annual fall migration in three different places on the Island and Queens: a marsh, a hawk observation platform and a wildlife refuge. This is how that busy week unfolded.

Tuesday, Stony Brook

The Discovery Wetlands Cruise leaves from picturesque Stony Brook harbor. On some pilings are several migrating Forster’s terns while a large sooty gull floats majestically on the morning air. As we go out into the wetlands on a 35-seat pontoon boat, the salt marsh grass is green and tall, the breeze delightful. Hidden in the recesses of a tree is a black-crowned night heron. In the shade, its crown looks dull gray and its body washed out. The heron calmly looks directly at us through amber eyes.

On a gnarled gray tree is a great egret. The big white bird points its yellow javelin-like bill in one direction then another as it stands sentinel. Its smaller cousin, a snowy egret, is standing in another tree. The snowy is nicknamed “golden slippers” because it has black legs that end in large yellow feet, which are used to stir up muck and raise fish. This one’s feet look enormous, probably because I’m used to seeing them only in shallow water.

A great blue heron in the shadow of a large tree is hard to see with the naked eye.  As we get closer it moves toward the tree, perhaps to avoid us. On the way back we pass a sand spit on which there are some black-bellied plovers. Only one appears to have an obvious black belly as they lose them this time of year, morphing into winter plumage.  While these birds breed in the Arctic, they winter on the east coast from Massachusetts and as far south as Argentina and Chile. Where’s this group going?

Thursday, Fire Island

At the Fire Island Hawk Watch, there are some birders with extremely high birding acumen. Today’s a day where there are a large number of migrating hawks, and a number of these birders are present. Watching streaking merlins, slender winged kestrels and passing ospreys, you can learn a lot about raptors. And about other birds. There’s a streaking black silhouette high in the early morning sky. I’ve no idea what it is. It’s no raptor but a chimney swift, which has been likened to a “flying cigar.” These birds winter in eastern Peru and feed on insects in the air. Bon voyage.

Over a dune called “the dish” come a group of small birds. “It’s a flock of passerines,” someone yells. At first the birds appear only as dots, then they take the form of a flock of brown birds that disappear into a tree. I can only guess at their identity. Others standing near me recognize that they are cedar waxwings. These 7.25-inch birds have distinctive black “Cleopatra eyes.” They also have a yellow band near the edge of their tails which one birder recognizes. Another notes their flight pattern. Impressive. Less than ten minutes later they are in a different tree and a third observer has them in his birding scope. Looking through it, I’m surprised that one’s face, neck and body is a combination rouge/sand. Someone else remarks that they’re immature. Before, I’d only seen mature ones whose main color is brown.

Later in the afternoon another birder with a professorial bent tells us to look at a lesser black-backed gull. “It’s in good light now.” The gull’s wings are slender in comparison to the thicker ones of the great black-backed gull, which he soon locates. A little while later I twice see black-backed gulls and identify them as greats by the wing thickness and the thin white lines at the edges. Before this afternoon I could only identify this bird as black-backed, not knowing which one. Today, the hawk watch is an advanced birding class.

Saturday, Jamaica Bay

On a cloudless warm afternoon at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge my wife and I have walked the West Pond. While she tackles the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle I go to the East Pond where by the water there’s a million dollar breeze. Three photographers are getting pictures of the migrating birds. There are seven migrating snowy egrets in the water with a great egret among them. The snowys have black legs that end in large yellow feet. The legs on some of these are greenish, which indicates that they are juveniles. Above, slowly circling, a snowy’s extended wings show clearly defined separations of many of its feathers. The wings look light at one edge and dark at the other. There’s something ethereal about this bird as if it were an emissary from heaven. Soon all the snowys have gone, possibly continuing south to the Gulf Coast and Florida.

A jumbo jet taking off from nearby Kennedy Airport rises just above the tree line at the far end of the pond. Only because of it, I notice that in the trees are a number of great egrets, transforming them into temporary condos on their stopover. Closer, in the water, are two immature mute swans. Unlike their adult parents they are a light brown, but almost as big. The feathers on their necks seem rough and one has a long piece of dark green weed trailing from the side of its mouth. Interesting. I’ve never before seen immature mute swans. There are a number of terns flying just above the water. One plunges in like a stone. A few others abort dives. I’d like a closer look but I don’t have rubber muck boots and won’t risk the overgrown path at the edge of the pond without them. With no place to go, it’s time to leave. It’s been some week.