The Case of the Disappearing Phoebes
Updated: Feb 28
24 April 2019
Bird Notes: Migration is on! For the next week, 8-12 warbler species should be the norm on our bird walks - otherwise we double your money back. For those interested in timing their visit to Central Park, the best window to visit is from approx. 24 April-20 May, but if you really want to narrow it down to the best best time: anytime from 3 May to 12 May there will be a couple of occasions we will have 20+ warbler species per day. Please keep an eye on the Schedule page of this web site for possible cancellation notices due to rain, etc. - for example, this Friday (26 April) is not looking good for a bird walk. Finally, Sandra Critelli started her evening bird walks (every Tue and Thu at 6pm) meeting at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe...with great success! Try a bird walk after work - a great way to relax and see the park in a different light with a famous Italian designer (direct from the Lake Como district).
Central Park is not only a great place to go birding, but some of the finest philosophers of the endeavor have wandered, often aimlessly, right here in our midst. Not to be distracted by the occasional absence of birds, writers have used the opportunity to launch into the unknown. So with Historical Notes, we present a spring 2003 article by Howard Stillman: The Case of the Disappearing Phoebes in which Mr. Stillman tries to explain the social milieu of birding Central Park...In the essay, you will see that the Phoebes did not disappear via migration to the north, but rather morphed into something else. That is where the trouble begins. Mr. Stillman's conclusions will be particularly helpful to new birders in Central Park as he provides an Aristotelian explanation for the mano-a-mano style birding that is not uncommon here. Immediately following the short essay is a 2003 article from the New York Times about Howard (and his wife Anita) Stillman...our friends for many years, now sadly both deceased. But you can see them in a photo taken in October 2006 while they were birding on Bow Bridge - see below.
adult male Ruddy Duck on 21 April 2019 by Deborah Allen
Good! Here are the bird walks for Late April
All Bird Walks in Central Park - $10
Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8
1. Thursday, 25 April at 9am - meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond (78th st. Mid-Park)
2. Thursday, 25 April at 6pm - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park (Sandra Critelli)
3. Friday, 26 April at 9am - meet at Conservatory Garden (105th st./5Ave)
4.***Saturday, 27 April at 7:30am/9:30am - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park 5.***Sunday, 28 April at 7:30am/9:30am - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park
6.***Monday, 29 April at 8am/9:00am - Imagine Mosaic at STRAWBERRY FIELDS (72nd st)
7. Tuesday, 30 April at 6pm - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park (Sandra Critelli)
*** On mornings when two walks are scheduled, you can do both walks for $10/person. So you get two for one. OR you can do either the early walk or the second walk for $10/person.
Any questions send them our way: firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 718-828-8262 (home)
Black-throated Blue Warbler by Doug Leffler
The fine print: On Saturdays and Sundays, our walks meet at 7:30am and again at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!. On Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Avenue - walk down the steps and walk straight ahead for the far side. If worried, ask someone to direct you to the men's restroom - we meet 10 meters from that location. On Mondays we are at Strawberry Fields - meet at the Imagine Mosaic - that is approx. 72nd street about 40 meters inside the park from Central Park West. On Thursdays we meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond - for all of these meeting locations check this web site - there is a full page devoted to meeting locations! Evening walks (Tuesday and Thursday nights from 23 April through and including Thursday, 16 May) meet at 6pm at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe. These evening walks are led by Sandra Critelli.
Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (email@example.com). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient! If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk! We end all our walks (except Fridays) at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.
Eastern Phoebe in Central Park (Maintenance Field) by Deborah Allen on 6 April 2019
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Friday, 19 April (Conservatory Garden at 9:00am) - we began the bird walk week with a non-bang (sort of a poof) with a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Yellow-rumped Warbler or two. Really today we were treading time waiting for a wave of migrants to show: we had to make due with the last of the early spring migrants: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Northern Flicker, Black-crowned Night Heron...and we missed the Hooded Warbler on the east side of the Great Hill despite a lot of searching...
Saturday, 20 April (Boathouse Restaurant Cafe at 7:30am/9:30am) - RAIN! and more Rain...no bird walk today - everybody stayed home, hopefully. On the other hand, for those who visited the Ramble in the afternoon, the Coyote was seen in and around Azalea Pond hunting squirrels.
Sunday, 21 April (Boathouse 7:30am/9:30am) - the rain ended, it got warmer...and the Point (at the south end of the Ramble) was the place to be. Indeed we should never have left the Point...birds seen here included Blue-headed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher...and the ubiquitous Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Later we would add a Red-breasted Nuthatch along the south side of Turtle Pond.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 21 April: https://tinyurl.com/yxg9c9q9
Monday, 22 April (Strawberry Fields at 8am/9am) - another non-day for birding...we looked high and low for the White-eyed Vireo but missed. On the other hand, we did get such sought after birds as Northern Cardinal, Downy Woodpecker...Flicker etc. Late in the day a Prothonotary Warbler was discovered toward the south end of the park (Gapstow Bridge at the northeast end of the 59th street pond). As you are reading this about 5-7 warbler species have been found on Wednesday, 24 April - so we guarantee great birds for the coming four weeks. Case close.
The Bird Log kept in the Boathouse in late March 2009 along with an article about our bird walks. If you look closely that's Marlys Ray with her back to the camera, and Jacob Drucker to her right in the light blue shirt
The Case of the Disappearing Phoebes
Now we've done it, really done it. You think you're alone? You'll have to find a place for us somewhere in Israel to hide out. Make it somewhere in the southeast, near the Dead Sea. As long as they sell Coca Cola nearby.
It's a long story. But before I begin I'll insist on my complete innocence. First of all, I wasn't even carrying binoculars that day--that fateful day. And you know me. I've always made it a point not to talk to anyone in Central Park if I can help it. Over the years--I told you this a hundred times--as a squirrel feeder, I learned to avoid people, to hide behind shrubs rather than pass people on the path. So, you'd think my wife would have learned a thing or two, but no....Let me begin at the beginning. The rain had finally stopped, the sun came out, there was a fine mist stretching over Turtle Pond. "Let's see if the Cedar Waxwings are still nesting in the newly planted Black Willow near the Turtle Pond," my wife said, as we sat tossing a peanut or two to the squirrels near Azalea Pond.
"Naw," I responded, "Let's sit here for a while." It was two in the afternoon, the temperature already in the nineties, why leave, why seek out trouble? My wife insisted and we began our trek up this hill, past that Elm, around the Polish statue, past newly planted shadbushes in full fruit, stopped for a moment at the water to look at the almost mature goslings. I hesitated, already with premonitions, bad vibes.
Now here things really started going bad. My wife, perversely, inexplicably, began speaking to this oversized fellow with a beard, who was carrying a camera with a telephoto lens ten feet long. It looked like he knew what he was doing, but as a former photographer I noticed that he was always pointing the camera in the wrong direction; for instance if there was a mallard in the water, the lens of the camera was pointing at the flagpole atop the Castle. You would think that my wife would have realized that she was dealing with the usual sort of Central Park nut case, but you know Anita, always giving a person the benefit of the doubt.
Now I don't know what they were talking about, so what I'm relating here is really second hand stuff. This fellow--we'll call him Richard (why? Because that's his real name) sees these six birds on a bare branch across the water, in some oak tree. It turns out he knows nothing about birds--he's some sort of stock broker or financier, the usual sort of bird watcher. He's saying this, my wife is shrugging her shoulders, he's saying something else. In the meantime I'm looking at all this from a safe distance, nibbling some of the white mulberries from the tree overhanging the water. You know the tree.
"What was that all about?" I asked my wife as she approached. She was wondering what the birds on the branch were. Phoebes, Flycatchers, African loons, something else? "Probably," I said, noncommittal. After all, it costs nothing to agree. "What does that fellow with the beard say?" He was still trying to take a picture of the mallard, but now was hopelessly entangled in camera straps and lens caps. My wife didn't know. She admitted she had only spoken to this guy out of compassion. She KNEW she had been confronting some sort of crazy person.
END OF PART ONE Simple enough? The next morning there is this announcement in our email from ebirdsnyc: "Six phoebes flying over Turtle Pond. A sight not to be missed! Come one, come all. Signed, Richard X." "I guess they were Phoebes after all," my wife innocently concluded. "After all, when ebirdsnyc says it's a phoebe, it must be a phoebe." Do you believe such innocence? "I agree," I murmured. Now things really went sour. We could have stayed in bed. After all, the temperature was nearing a hundred, the squirrels wouldn't come out of hiding anyway, but there we found ourselves within two hours approaching Turtle Pond around eleven. Bob, what can I say? Evidently, we got caught up in the excitement of the moment. And there they were, dozens of people pushing this way and that. "Is that the phoebe?" "I don't see any phoebes. Is that a swallow?" "No it's a hawk..." "Wait until I get my hands on that Richard fellow from ebirdsnyc." "Those aren't phoebes, those are rough-wing swallows..." Richard X was standing there in the middle of a crowd. He was being shoved this way and that. "So you're Richard, huh? Where are the phoebes, huh? You're going to pull them out of your beard, huh?" In fact, one guy was pulling at his beard, another was roughly inspecting his camera. Richard lifted his eyes, and after he spied us, he lifted his finger, accusingly, in our direction, was about to say something, but someone already had a thumb in his mouth... My wife and I made our escape. "Let's go home," I said." It was too hot to look at the birds that day, anyway. And I think the Yankees were playing the Mets that afternoon. The next day this announcement appeared in ebird: "Ben Cacace, the leader of this board wants to profusely apologize to the members of ebirdsnyc. He stupidly took the word of some bearded crazy person who claimed that he had listened to the opinions of an old couple obviously suffering from acute senility that there were six phoebes in the pin oak at the edge of Turtle Pond. We, who really appreciate the finer points of identifying birds, now know what was seen were six rough-wing swallows, etc. etc. Signed, BC...."
END OF PART TWO You would think that's the end of the story. Hardly. Last night we received a telephone call. It's difficult to relate what was actually said because the person who called spoke half English, half Japanese. She identified herself as a Miss Yamomoto or something. Now this Yamomoto is certainly no stranger to the Park or the bird watchers: we've seen her lurking behind the mock oranges from time to time and when Anita questioned her, she knew the locations of all the Lady's rooms on the upper end of the park, even the one in the 102nd Street playground on Firth Avenue (I didn't even know that!). Now we don't know precisely who or what this Yamomoto is; she's either Ben Cacace's friend or lawyer or some other sort of intermediary. It's apparent she wants to make a name for herself among the bird watcher clan--believe me she actually does. (You know more about this stuff than we.) First she wanted our humble thanks for her and Ben's not putting our names "Mrs. and Mr. XXXXXXX -- culprits!!" in the retraction that Ben wrote. Then she warned us, then she threatened us. I haven't the slightest idea what she, or rather Ben, wanted. A bribe, a public apology, our taking the blame for Ben's stupidity for his putting that nutty note on ebirdsnyc? Who knows? She begged, insisted that we call Ben and explain our behavior. Mercifully, the conversation ended, "Sayronara." We were in tears; my wife's excellent shrimp scampi tasted lousy in our mouth. Of course, Ms. Yamomoto had to call us at dinner time. I had told my wife not to answer the phone, that it was trouble--but no, the perversity persisted... Now this was yesterday. I can't imagine what will be in ebirdsnyc this morning. I know that from now on, unless we adopt your fortitude, your special form of masochism, my wife and I will have do our birding in Prospect Park, where we can start over, with a clean slate, as it were. Yes Bob, this Saga of the Disappearing Phoebes has become the big thing around here. You're not free either, by any means. When they find out my wife and I used to go walking with you, by association, you'll....
Anyway, what's to be learned from all this?
1) To put it in Aristotelian terms, the bullshit around Central Park is not "accidental," it's essential. In other words these things do not happen accidentally--the troubles you had here were not by accident, not even by design; they are built into the very form and function of the bird watching experience. No bullshit, no bird watching. The bullshit is the essential cause, the actual spotting of birds only the final cause. What I'm saying is that the people here who claim to come here to watch birds, actually are here on a totally different agenda, one of which even they are unaware. I really need tell you this?
2) The sentimentality, the sometimes almost regretful tone in your letters about Central Park and New York is entirely inappropriate and misplaced. Why you indicate that you may one day return to this place remains a mystery to me. Unless we accept Freud's observation about a different matter: "Some couples remain together because they haven't finished exhausting their revenge on one another." Maybe you feel that you haven't finished squashing these bugs around here. I can't imagine what Deborah sees about this place, if anything, and why she insists on staying. You'll explain it to me someday, after she explains it to you. Don't believe it! The goings-on around here are really painful; worse, it's embarrassing.
3) The lesson is: never deal with amateurs. If you're not dealing with professionals, this type of nonsense grows out of the walls. After all how long can you look at the markings of a Common Yellowthroat before your insides begin looking for other forms of excitement?
4) Never speak to anyone on the phone who claims to speak Japanese. She probably speaks perfect English but is using her accent as some sort of cover....
Anyway my wife and I have to go now. We haven't finished this morning listening to the CD on bird calls. Did you know that the Downy call is a pek, while the Hairy's a peek? Wait until I put that up Ben Cacace's nose!
XXXX and XXXXX
Howard and Anita Stillman October 2006 on Bow Bridge
New York Times for 26 August 2001
Metropolitan Section - page 4
Sitter Wanted: Must Supply Nuts
Every morning at 9 a.m., Howard and Anita Stillman leave their York Avenue apartment wearing safari-style hats and a five-pound satchel of peanuts, walnuts and Brazil nuts. Their destination is always Central Park; their mission, feeding squirrels.
Mr. Stillman, 66, a retired history professor, and his wife, 65, a retired nurse, spend five hours a day and $75 a week on squirrels which sometimes climb onto their laps and eat from their hands.
The Stillmans call a few by silly pet names and characteristics like Sit on Fencie, Hang Aroundy, Myopie (who is blind), and the trio Poolie, Doolie and Foolie. Prince is their favorite, an Eastern gray whom they met four years ago by the Shakespeare statue and who now loiters at Summit Rock. "Prince is such a gigolo," Mr. Stillman said. "We see him with girls all the time."
Theirs is a missionary zeal, and they know that few people in the park share their calling. Mr. Stillman often says he has a mayoral mandate going back to a school field trip made at age 8 with Fiorello H. La Guardia. "One thing I'll always remember was him saying to always bring a bag of peanuts to the park for the squirrels," he said.
The Stillmans cannot keep it up much longer, however, and it worries them. They are moving west this winter to be closer to their children, and last week they had yet to find a squirrel feeding successor.
Recently, they took a candidate on a trial run. Upon seeing Mrs. Stillman surrounded by squirrels, the friend got hysterical and ran off. They later told the friend they understood.
"It's not for everyone," Mr. Stillman said, "but this is a long tradition that we have, and after we go who knows?"
Maintenance Field view (east side looking west) in mid-April 2016
The San Remo apartments rising above the Manhattan schist bedrock as seen on one of the Monday walks starting at nearby Strawberry Fields...note that on the right (near) tower, Red-tailed Hawks have been trying to nest again - you will see them bringing sticks to an alcove. They have never raised young at this building...in approx. 10 years of trying. Why not?