Friday, April 09, 2004

Natural history notes: stalking the Least Bittern

Being off from work today, I had a chance for a stroll in Prospect Park. My goal: to get in a little birding. It's been quite a while since I've done some serious birdwatching, and I was feeling pretty rusty.

I managed to get out of the house shortly before 9 a.m. local time and the sun was already high in the east. It was warm, feeling more like spring than ever. Now is a prime time to see migrating birds. They pass this way up the Atlantic coast, and stop for a bit of rest and nourishment in our green islands amidst the urban sprawl. Some even grace us with their presence all season long.

I hadn't gotten far into the woods at the top of the park when a man standing at the top of Sullivan Hill in the woods called out to me: "Are you a birder?" he asked. I looked at him in the typical New York suspicious way. "Yes," I replied cautiously. "Come round over here," he replied; "there's a Least Bittern in a tree up here."

I wasn't really sure I wanted to join him. He could've been some kind of nut. We have plenty of those around here. But he looked harmless enough, he had the identifying field marks of a birdwatcher (big pair of binoculars around his neck), and deeming that it would be impolite to brush him off, I made my way around the fence to the prominence where he was standing.

Sure enough, he pointed out to me the Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), high in a wild black cherry tree, some 30 or 40 feet above the ground. These small heron relatives are pretty rare in our area. The birder (he told me his name, but now I've forgotten) was pretty excited and was calling everyone he knew. (The wonders of cell-phone technology!) This man was certainly a member of that distinctive sub-species of Homo sapiens known as the hard-core birder. Pretty soon, another of this subspecies arrived with one of the biggest camera lenses I've ever seen. While I and the photographer, whose name I do remember (Shawn), stood guard over our wary prey, the first birder hastened down to the parks office to find another of his friends, Peter. Soon they returned with yet another birder in tow and there were five binocular-clad birders gazing fondly at the little Least Bittern.

Peter, who seemed quite the expert on birds in Prospect Park, stated authoritatively that the last confirmed sighting of a Least Bittern in the Park was May 15, 1939. I don't know how he knew that factoid so precisely.

The object of our attentions, the little Least Bittern, quite obligingly sat and turned and posed up in his tree. This isn't where one would expect to find a Bittern. Perhaps he had a concussion and was a bit confused. He had a black back with light side stripes and a beautiful rust to buff side and belly. The front top of his head was also in black. A long heron bill and stripes on the throat completed the picture. When alarmed, the Bittern tries to hide himself by pointing his beak straight up -- in imitation of the reeds in which he is normally found. He's small -- this one no more than 12 inches long, I judged.

I left the birders there gazing up at the prize, and wandered off to see what else I could find. There's a big Red-tailed Hawk's nest right near there, high in the crotch of a tulip tree. I didn't see it's occupants until later, when I saw one of the hawks soaring high above Quaker Hill. There were a lot of woodpeckers about: Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, which look just about the same except in size, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Flicker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. I watched a cute little Downy Woodpecker rat-a-tat-tat on an old tree trunk for a while. Phoebes -- little gray flycatchers -- were abundant, as were some Slate-colored Juncos. The Phoebes like to nest on human structures -- such as the undersides of bridges. The Juncos will probably be heading north to nest. They spend the winters here. I found a little warbler which I think was a White-eyed Vireo, although I'm not entirely certain of that. Warblers and their kin are extremely active and usually colorful birds. They never sit still for very long, flitting from branch to branch in search of insect prey. Some call them the "butterflies of the bird world."

I also got a good look at a Hermit Thrush (very shy) and a White-throated Sparrow, both ground foragers. I heard plenty of Tufted Titmice although I didn't get a good look at one. They nest in the park and are pretty common. There were the usual European Starlings, Blue Jays and American Robins sporting about. The Starlings amused me with their silly swooping calls and burbling, non-sensical songs. The Jays remind me somehow of a scolding schoolmarm rapping you when you've dozed off, saying "pay attention!" On the Lullwater by the boathouse I saw an American Coot (yes, there really is such a thing!), and what I'm pretty sure was a Pie-billed Grebe. The Grebe is like a duck with a skinny chicken neck and no obvious tail. He dives, which is what gave him away.

All in all, a pretty good catch for a few hours' walk, especially considering how rusty I am. The park is slowly "greening up." The forsythia have been out for a few weeks now, and some of the other woody plants are beginning to leaf. The red maples and other maples are in bloom, as are a few of the other trees. The grassy leaves of Star of Bethelem and wild onion were everywhere poking out from the leaf litter. Eastern Grey Squirrels frolicked and gamboled. A beautiful day.

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