Autumn Migration Peaking: Mid-September in Central Park
Updated: Feb 28
11 September 2019
Bird Notes: Last week our group saw 18 warbler species on the bird walks (including five Cape May Warblers on one walk) easily the best of any group or individual in the park. If you want to see diversity and number of warblers on migration, the upcoming two weeks are the best bet.
In this week's Historical Notes, we present: (1) a summary of the weather in Manhattan for August 2019 by Rob Frydlewicz on his NYC Weather Blog (https://tinyurl.com/y5stc7nt); (2) an excerpt from Donald Knowler's wonderful book, The Falconer of Central Park. Here we present the first installment of September 1982 in Central Park that recounts stories of the Bank Robber Birder and migration in the park in that month some thirty-seven years ago.
We'd like to call your attention to a newly published book by our friend Roger Pasquier: Birds in Winter, published by Princeton University Press (https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13668.html). Roger is a long-time birder in the park (since the 1950s) and one of the park's best. He has written much about Central Park through the year's - do a google search for him.
American Lady, Conservatory Garden (Central Park), Monday 26 August 2019 by Deborah Allen
Good! The Bird Walks for mid-September 2019
All Walks @ $10/person
Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8
a. Thursday Evening, 12 September at 6pm Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Park) - with Sandra Critelli [SandraCritelli@gmail.com] - 1.5 hours at dusk in the Ramble for birds, bats.
1. Friday, 13 Sept. at 9:00am Conservatory Garden; 105th st. and 5th Avenue (Central Park)
2.***Saturday, 14 Sept. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Park)
3.***Sunday, 15 September 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Dr. (Central Pk)
4.***Monday, 16 Sept. at 8:00am/9:00am Strawberry Fields at West 72nd Street and Central Park West - meet at the "Imagine" Mosaic (Central Park).
***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)
Cape May Warbler in Shakespeare Garden by Deborah Allen on 8 September 2019
The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30am and again at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through November. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we are uptown at 9am only (Conservatory Garden at 105th street and 5th Avenue; nice bathrooms there); on Mondays at the Imagine Mosaic of Strawberry Fields (west 72nd street about 75 meters inside the park from Central Park West; no bathrooms here but we will pass bathrooms by 10am or so).
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 Central Park 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.
Pearl Crescents, Grassy Knoll (north Central Park), Monday 26 August 2019 by Deborah Allen
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Thursday Night, 5 Sept (6pm in Central Park [Meet at Boathouse] with Sandra Critelli) - Sandra reports seeing five American Redstarts (two adult males); a Canada Warbler; Red Bellied Woodpeckers; an Eastern Wood Peewee catching insects; and a Veery. There were many Chimney Swift above, as well as three low flying Red Bats. Finally, "two very cute raccoons checking us as much as we were looking at them."
Friday, 6 September (9am at Conservatory Garden/105th st and 5th Ave): it was an overcast morning with the gusty winds of Hurricane Dorian swaying the trees back and forth above us. Once again we had a little luck along the Loch, but the best birds and number were higher up near the Blockhouse. The best birds were the two Blue-winged Warblers along the Loch; and then seven (or more) Yellow Warblers that came flying across the Harlem Meer from the small island to look down at us from the Willow tree on the shore. Thirteen Warbler species today...but it would get better in the ensuing few days.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Friday, 6 Sept: https://tinyurl.com/y5y6uenm
Saturday, 7 September (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - wow: lots of birds today. When I arrived at Central Park (5:45am), and then crossed Fifth Avenue to enter the park (6:05am), I was struck by the number of Common Yellowthroats and Veerys on the park's paved paths. We saw lots of these two species today, though by about 7:30am, many of the Veerys were up in the fruit trees (Hackberry and Cherry mostly) eating away and not easily seen. As for warblers, we had an easy 15 species with multiples of each; oddly the rarest one was Northern Parula - a species that should be common in the park! The best bird of the morning was an Olive-sided Flycatcher at the dead snags in the Ramble just east of Azalea Pond at 7am...later found and photographed at Strawberry Fields. Karen Evans, our resident professor of aesthetics and ethics, was in fine form finding evil Worm-eating and Blackburnian Warblers at the Gill Overlook; and multiple Blue-winged Warblers always make for a good day. We have to ask Karen, if a bad person finds a good bird using unethical means, is it OK to count the bird or should one cover one's eyes and also shame the nearby evil birder [Bob]? What is more ethical to do: Not looking at the ill begotten bird, or shaming the evildoer [Bob]? Does one get extra points by doing both?
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 7 Sept: https://tinyurl.com/y3uu9k54
Blackburnian Warbler in Michigan in Autumn 2018 by Doug Leffler
Sunday, 8 September (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - of the past three days, today we saw the fewest number of birds. However, just going by species we saw, today was quite good. It was the only day of the week that had Tennessee Warbler, Mourning Warbler and multiple Cape Mays (5) - the area, particularly the conifers, between Belvedere Castle and lower Shakespeare Garden were superb. There was about a 45 minute span when it became an amazing bird day...on a otherwise slow one. Everyone was spinning round and round on the Shakespeare Deck trying to see the close Prairie Warbler, or the Magnolia Warblers and the Cape Mays...I was using a different call than my usual ones at this point with wonderful results. Overall, we had 14 warblers species on the walk, but many in ones and twos only. Numbers of Pewees, Great Crested Flycatchers and Veerys were also low today...Saturday being the best day for numbers of these birds. All was not amazing though: we missed on the Yellow-breasted Chat at Sparrow Rock, and our own Sandra Critelli found two more warblers after the walk (Northern Waterthrush and Black-throated Green).
I'll just note something here: there were at least two other bird walks today in the park. One from National Audubon (they saw six warbler species) and another by some person that leads walks occasionally for NYC Audubon (they saw perhaps seven warbler species). We kicked their butts...had a lot more fun - and it was our people finding the birds! It demonstrates again that the technique we use (using "chip" calls from my cell phone) is easily the best way to get the most species and numbers of individuals to appear in front of everyone. One day the other groups will catch up to us. Hopefully not to lecture me about ethics...the bottom line is that if you want to see birds, you will see more with us - and pay much less as well. See for yourself: go to Ebird and examine checklists of birds seen for Sat/Sun/Mon of this past week: we had the most warbler species seen of anyone (individual or group), and by far and away the most individuals of each species as well.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 8 September: https://tinyurl.com/y2qvwuyb
Monday, 9 September (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - right out of the box we had warblers dancing over us on the south side of Strawberry Fields: Magnolia; Black-and-white; American Redstart; Chestnut-sided; as well as Red-eyed Vireo and three Carolina Wrens. Nowhere we traveled to in the park this morning had as much excitement, but it was quite good in places. Highlights included: Yellow-billed Cuckoo well seen by all as it came in above us via the tape at Wagner Cove; Spotted Sandpiper and Belted Kingfisher along the Lake; Cape May Warbler at the English Oak on the west side of Belvedere Castle; four circling Ospreys overhead of the Ramble towards the end of the walk. Overall 13 warbler species with an uptick in the number of Common Yellowthroats and American Redstarts compared to Sunday, as well as more Veerys and Red-eyed Vireos too.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Monday, 9 September: https://tinyurl.com/y3mylbfs
Juvenile Magnolia Warbler in Michigan in August 2019 by Doug Leffler
Weather, Manhattan AUGUST 2019
One Word Sums Up New York's Weather in August 2019: 'Uninspiring'
From the NYC Weather Blog written by Rob Frydlewicz
August, much like June, had close to average temperatures (+0.3 degree F.). Perhaps the most interesting story during this month of uneventful conditions was the twelve-day period from Aug. 17 thru 28 in which the first six days were very warm (average high/low of 89f/73f, including the month's three days in the 90s) followed by six days that were pleasantly cool (high/low of 75f/64f). The month's three days in the 90s went no higher than 90F (something which has occurred just once before, in August 2014). Finally, this was the sixth consecutive August with no readings in the 50s.
The month had somewhat below average rainfall. The 3.70" that was measured was the least precipitation since February's 3.14". Much of it fell on three days: 1.18" on 8/7, 0.64" on 8/18 and 1.01" on 8/22. (Although August 2019 had less than average rainfall there were six drier Augusts in the 2010s.) There were ten thunderstorms or brief periods of heavy rain in the three weeks between 8/3 and 8/22. They occurred mostly in the afternoon and evening and were responsible for the day's lows occurring in the evening rather than at around daybreak. Without these cool downs there would have been five days with lows of 75° or warmer rather than one.
Bald Eagle photographed at State Line Lookout above the Hudson River on the NJ side of the Palisades on 10 September 2019
Falconer of Central Park [September 1982].
by Donald Knowler: https://tinyurl.com/y4h96jxe
Humid on the first day of September , a greasy, perspiration-pulling humidity, which New York City had escaped for much of the cool summer. In the sheltered gullies of the park the air hung thick like damp laundry. The insects appeared to be suspended and trapped in moisture, and the warblers dropped in slow flight, wing and tail feathers outstretched, to snap at the midges and mosquitoes as they passed. Parula, Canada, and black-and-white warblers, and redstarts shared a tight space where the stream in the Indian Cave melts into the boating lake. The warblers adopted the same routine during the downward journey, seeking safety in numbers during the uncertain, tortuous course of migration, knowing instinctively that the birds of prey were also on the move, just behind them.
The migration of bird watchers to the park was very much like the movement of birds at this time of the year -- casual, not as prolific as in April and May. During spring birders had taken "sick" days from work so they could spend time in the park, or the more honest ones had made an arrangement to arrive later at the office or the workshop. The "hooky" syndrome, that feeling of elation derived from cheating the system to do something you really want to do, illicitly, was absent and, as a result, bird watching became more of a sober affair. It takes more skill and stamina to bird watch in the fall; this might explain the drop in numbers of people birding. Most birds have lost their spring mating plumage, and the warblers become confusing-a group of them are technically referred to as "confusing fall warblers" because females, moulting males and juveniles of many species look similar. One birder who did not lose any enthusiasm was Lambert, who now carried a flicker's feather of yellow-gold in his hat. But he was torn between his twin passions of birds and butterflies.
female Black-throated Blue Warbler in Michigan, August 2019 by Doug Leffler
The hardcore Central Park birding fraternity numbers about fifty. There is no stereotype, or composite picture of a birder, although people who regard bird watching as an eccentricity like to believe there is. Among the birders is a man who talks loudly because he spent his working life in a railroad switching yard, a viola player with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra who has an ear for birdsong, and a used car salesman who frequently warned me about "lemons." Another birder, until he retired, was a policeman and another, until he became deceased, a bank robber.
The bank robber story, a favorite for rainy days when the bird watchers are confined to the boathouse: the bank robber carried a little black book in his back pocket in which was recorded his life list of birds spotted. He told other bird watchers he was a writer and for long periods he was not seen in the park. He was traveling for research purposes, he said. Then one day a birder saw a news item in a newspaper about a man shot dead in the process of robbing a bank in San Francisco. The San Francisco police, so the story goes, returned the robber's life list to the boathouse+++.
It is raining. The bank robber story is finished and now comes a second favorite: a tale about the policeman birder who, when he was wearing his uniform, was one of the most popular people in the park. Once the Emperor of Japan paid a visit to Central Park, for reasons which are obscure now. But his visit coincided with the bird migration and the policeman birder went on duty with his binoculars, commandeered a rowboat and, from the center of the boating lake, spent the afternoon scanning willows for warblers. One of the top officers of the New York force saw the policeman birder and later commended him for his "initiative." The officer thought the policeman was looking for snipers.
One more bird watching story, this time my own. It is mid-morning and the retired couple who linger at the boathouse waiting for an escort of birders have accompanied me into the Ramble. I explain that I have limited time because I must be at work within a couple of hours.
"You're lucky," says the wife. "You could be retired."
[+++ Roger Pasquier, who has been birding in the park since the 1950s, sent me this info: "I do remember the birding police officer in the 1970s, a nice fellow, but I can’t recall his name. The viola player was Bob Benjamin, there in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The others, I might not have met, because I never hung around the boathouse — or had an interest in long stories while I focused on birds."]
A blue jay in the lower branches of a plane tree on Fifth A venue screamed at people sitting in temporary bleachers erected on the sidewalk. The jay had been trying to feed on acorns on the other side of the park's wall, but people climbing the wall to reach the rear entrance of the bleachers were disturbing the bird, a juvenile from this year's brood, who believed it owned the park.
The crowd had gathered between East Sixty-second and Sixty-third Streets to see the finish of the Fifth Avenue Mile on September 4. A voice boomed over loudspeakers that the runners were "off'' at Eighty-second Street. The crowd fell silent but the blue jay started up again. The spectators ignored it and craned their necks to look along the street. Two police motorcycles, blue lights flashing, appeared in the distance. One hundred yards behind them was the thin line of some of the fastest milers in the world. Lanky, muscled legs pounded tar, which had been warmed by an afternoon of sunshine, and a block from the finish Tom Byers of the United States kicked clear of the rest of the field. Shoulder length blond hair coursing behind him, Byers clocked 3 minutes, 51.35 seconds to win the straight mile. "He'd have run faster if he got his hair cut," said a New York cop holding back the spectators. Watching the race, and the television circus that accompanies such a sporting event, I was not to know a rare Connecticut warbler was working its way through the low bushes that surround the west side of the Point Lobe. A mourning warbler, equally rare, was seen in the same location. The television cables running along Fifth Avenue to a central control point in the park were being wound in when I finally wandered to the boathouse to check the bird register. My heart raced like Tom Byers's at the mile's finish when I saw the entry for the two species. I scoured the shrubbery around the Point Lobe for an hour without success. The Connecticut and Mourning warblers would come to represent a frustrating fall and my good fortune of the spring would not be repeated. Although I had been in the park virtually every day since mid-July-with only a week's break in August-vital birds, which I needed to make the one hundred fifty target, eluded me. Bad luck stalked me for the entire month, and the only new species for September was a Philadelphia warbler [Vireo!!] - my first new bird since I recorded the cedar waxwings in May.
The waxwings were now common on the Point where the two thousand fruit trees planted during the winter were rich with berries. The waxwings and the robins swallowed the berries whole, but I noticed the warblers - I counted eight species on September 4 - merely pierced the skins and sucked out the juices. Although warblers are basically insect eaters, they supplement their diet with other available food in the fall. The flickers also enjoyed the fruit. Ungainly, they waded across clusters of berries. The flickers, the biggest members of the woodpecker family represented in the park, are built and balanced to cling to tree trunks. They looked ill at ease amid the fruit and appeared in danger of toppling out of the branches at any moment. In contrast, the chickadees were masters of the berry-eating technique. A chickadee hung upside down from a clump of berries, picked one and then fell with the berry in its beak before righting itself in mid-air and landing on a nearby branch. The bird then gripped the berry in its feet and stabbed at it with needle bill. At the tip of the Point an Empidonax flycatcher had left the trees to perch on a rock jutting into the water. The flycatcher flitted across the lake to catch mosquitoes hovering a few inches above the surface, and then the bird plunged into vegetation behind the rock to spear a cabbage white butterfly. There are five species of Empidonax flycatcher, and they are virtually identical in appearance, song being the only reliable guide to identification. Although I had a willow flycatcher pointed out for me in the spring I did not put it on my list because I was not satisfied I could identify the species myself. Now in the fall, the flycatchers did not sing, and this one on the Point would elude identification.
It was a balmy, pleasant early evening, and I lingered in the park. Hundreds of people had gathered around the Belvedere Lake to watch the folk dancing in front of the King Jagiello statue or to be entertained by mime artists and buskers. The cold, gray granite of the newly restored Belvedere Castle loomed over the lake, a romantic ghost from the days of the park's construction. The backdrop of setting sun highlighted the castle's turrets and battlements, and town pigeons arrived to roost in crevices in the outcrop of rock on which the castle is built. A barn owl had once used this roost for a winter, but pigeons unable to forget their roots had taken it over as a nesting site in spring and a roost in the other seasons-in the same way that their ancestors colonize rocky sites in Europe.
The start of the hawk migration was signaled by two majestic ospreys during the first two days of September but I missed the birds. On September 5 I decided to spend the whole afternoon watching for hawks and, at the same time, get on line for tickets to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the last performance of the summer at the Delacorte Theater. The performances are free but an all-afternoon wait is necessary to obtain tickets. On my way to the theater I had passed a green heron, standing on a floating plank of wood, jealously guarding his fishing ground in the Upper Lobe, and now I guarded my place in a line of theater-goers, which stretched around the whole of the Great Lawn. I had a bottle of French red wine, a picnic lunch, a book and binoculars for hawk watching, and I could not think of a better way to spend an afternoon. More than one thousand people, all waiting for tickets, were camped out on the Great Lawn; all afternoon they were pestered by vendors selling soda, beer, hot dogs, marijuana joints, and cocaine. Among these was a fat man with odd socks, a dirty vest, and shorts. He carried a cardboard box tied with a string handle so that it resembled a suitcase, and he carefully placed this on the grass when he stopped at each group of theater enthusiasts.
"I'm a poet," he said through a white beard that followed the line of his round face and then stopped abruptly at his bronzed bald head. "If you buy one of my poems it'll bring you luck." When the poet sensed he had not caught the customers' attention, he added quickly: "Luck, and two years' immunity from herpes."
Fiery Skippers, Grassy Knoll (Central Park North) on 26 August 2019
The vagrant who knows all about unemployment had found a day-old New York Times in a trash bin near the boathouse. He was reading it on one of the wooden benches outside the cafeteria and he called to me as I walked past.
"See what I told you about when you said 'Go find a job.' " The finance pages recorded that unemployment was well over ten million, or nine percent of the country's workforce.
During infrequent encounters with the vagrant, who told me his name was Chuck, I had learned more about him than I knew of Lambert, my friend. Chuck had come to New York from a steel town in Pennsylvania, searching for work. The steel mill in a town he did not identify had closed, and he shed Pennsylvania and a wife and two children to come to "the big apple."
"Actually, drink was also something to do with it," he once said when he took me to see a night heron he believed was building a nest. He said he had a brother in New York who sometimes helped him out when times got tough, but he had done a couple of odd jobs during the spring and summer to keep him in food.
"The idea is to get an apartment but I can't get enough for a deposit. Once I get a regular job I'll be settled.''
Regular jobs, however, were few and far between. "I don't want to be nosy," I said on the morning we surveyed the financial pages of The New York Times. "But why do you live in the park? Why don't you go to a shelter?" There was a contemplative silence. " 'Cause I got pride and respect for m'self. I served in Nam and I can look after m'self and I ain't afraid of the wild, the open. 'Cause that's what I want .... "
With that the conversation ended.
Strong northeasterly winds and a clear night followed by a sunny day brought another wave day on September 7. Traditionally, the migration peaks around mid-September, but it appeared the cold weather in Canada in late August had spurred an early movement. Highlights of the day were the first of the fall's red-breasted nuthatches and a scarlet tanager. The tanager, a female in dull-green plumage with blackish wings, gorged herself on black cherry fruit in the Indian Cave. The first male black-throated blue warbler also arrived, along with twelve other species of warbler. Later I would find the Turkey oaks near the reservoir alive with black-throated blues, some of them sweeping down to pick up insects that had landed on the warm cinder path surrounding the water. These birds, realizing the joggers were a nuisance but not a threat to them, perched on the reservoir fence and timed their dives for insects between the passing of runners. I do not think there is a more striking bird than this black, blue, gray, and white warbler. When I see one I am reminded of a story Lambert tells of a birder who was so besotted with the species that he had his car sprayed in the same color scheme.
A survey of Central Park conducted during 1982 by a group of urban forestry students revealed there were 24,595 trees whose trunks were more than six inches in diameter, the biggest being an English elm planted by the Prince of Wales in 1860 and the oldest a bur oak dating back two hundred and fifty or three hundred years. Many of these six hundred species of trees were now shedding their fruits of berries and nuts, and in certain places the ground-feeding birds like robins and mourning doves were joined by flickers. Sometimes the ground was alive with the three species;the robins and doves perfectly matched in placid temperament, but the flickers agitated and active, quicker to fly. I suppose the flickers, although often seen digging in and feeding on the ground, felt vulnerable out of the trees.
Gentle northeasterly winds had blown for three continuous days by September 8 and again two ospreys soared high in thermals at noon. One of the birders telephoned me at my office on Times Square to tell me about the fish-eating raptors. Immediately I looked into the sky over midtown Manhattan, directly to the south of the park, but I could not see the birds. I had last seen a majestic osprey, a bird not unlike a bald eagle, in the Central African country of Malawi, so cosmopolitan are the birds. The osprey in Africa had hovered for a few seconds when it sighted a fish, its legs dangling, before dropping to the water, disappearing in a cloud of spray. On rising, with the fish carried head forward, the osprey had shaken the water off its plumage while in flight, then flown to an exposed branch where it consumed its catch. Seeing the osprey fishing had been one of my most thrilling sights in nature, and I could not believe such a bird, with a six-foot wingspan, was flying commonly over New York City.
I went to the park after work hoping to see an osprey before sunset. All I found was a grackle making the most of the rapidly disappearing number of insects. The grackle perched in the willows over the Upper Lobe and casually picked off the butterflies and moths fluttering in the hot, stagnant air caught in this steeply sided corner of the boat lake. A big, juicy-bodied cabbage-white butterfly went by and the grackle lunged at it, flycatcher-like. But before he could return to his perch he dropped the insect. With shattered wing, the butterfly tumbled down and down and the grackle swooped after it, trying desperately to grab the insect before it hit the water. The grackle was slow and the cabbage-white settled on a bed of aquatic vegetation covering the lobe, flapping painfully. The grackle, raising its feathers in anger, stood on a log at the water's edge, croaking loudly as the butterfly started to sink below the weeds. The commotion attracted a male scarlet tanager, now back in lime-green plumage after summer transformation to red, and the tanager stayed on to take advantage of the supply of insects discovered by the grackle.
A red maple at the circular route was turning to a color of bright red not unlike the scarlet tanager's summer plumage. The color change, speeded by a dry spell in August and early September, started in the lowest branches of the tree. On the branches overhanging the road, however, the leaves were withered and crinkled like a thousand tightly clenched fists. The leaves were being poisoned by auto exhaust fumes. Already I had seen evidence of New York's pollution by studying the obelisk called Cleopatra's Needle erected in the park near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For three thousand years the obelisk had stood relatively unharmed in the dry desert climate of Egypt but now deterioration by both chemical and natural weathering made its hieroglyphics indecipherable in places. The erosion of the needle was particularly noticeable from the southwest side where, I assume, most of the wind bringing particles of dust and harmful chemical pollutants came from. But the needle was not living and did not emit a feeling of distress and pain as the maple did. The maple was crippled down one side, layers of contorted, dry leaves giving shape to the invisible poison that rises from thousands of vehicles passing daily under the tree's branches.
male Cape May Warbler in spring 2019 in Michigan by Doug Leffler
Shadows were growing longer by mid-afternoon; the gradual closing in of daylight, which lets you know summer is ending and soon it will be cold and dark by 4:30 P.M., and when you wake up next morning it will still be dark. The prolific movement of birds through the park would drop off dramatically; Billy would have to go farther and farther for food, increasing the risk of being caught in the cat-catcher's trap, of eating poison laid for the rats or of being killed by an automobile on the circular drive. I feared someday finding his body by the roadside. I knew he sometimes wandered across the circular drive because I had seen him a few times on the east side of the park. I had called his name on these occasions but he did not respond. I think he only associated me with the Ramble and was shy of approaching someone who could be a stranger.
Mist covered the park on September 13 but I made out the shape of a male belted kingfisher hurrying through the tulip trees edging the boating lake. A well-fed woodchuck ran across the path leading to the Point, and I wondered whether it was the same animal I had seen in the Indian Cave at the end of April. It must have been, I suppose, and now the woodchuck had moved to a clump of rocks on the Point where Chuck, the vagrant from Pennsylvania, had built a home of cardboard. Chuck told me that park rangers had evicted him from the bird sanctuary when he had tried to build a temporary home there, ready for the winter. His new house was hidden under an overhanging rock and shielded by a black cherry. I had stumbled on it by accident and promised Chuck I would not point out its location to the rangers.
I found Chuck most mornings sitting under the willows at the Point Lobe, a short distance from his home, and when he was not reading discarded newspapers with yesterday's unemployment figures he stared at the water. He pretended not to notice me after I had discovered his home so I honored his privacy. He also lost interest in the birds that came to drink and feed at the lobe, and he would not bother to look up at the noisy blue jays frequently mobbing night and green herons in the willow.
Sitting on my favorite park bench I thought about many things in 1982, but my thoughts were mainly taken up with two subjects: retracing the course of my life and the topic of evolution. Contemplating evolution, especially, took up much of my time when I was not actually chasing birds. Sometimes I could watch birds from the bench and ponder evolution at the same time, as I did one Saturday afternoon in September when I observed a mad-eyed thrasher under a copper beech. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution seemed so obvious now, and I wondered how I would have felt about creation one hundred and fifty years ago when Darwin was ferreting about the Galapagos Islands and most other people still believed all creatures great and small were created as is, plain and simple, by God.
I am watching a thrasher, thinking this bird could have evolved just to feed and reproduce in the fall, so perfectly does its warm brown plumage, its brown-speckled chest on buff, merge with the freshly fallen leaves. Later, on the Point, I find the three members of the thrasher family-the thrasher, the mockingbird, and the catbird-in one location, and I now start to think about coexistence and harmony: the mockingbird feeding on berries in a black cherry, the catbird crunching a moth larva it had prised from a dead knotweed stem under the tree, and a thrasher turning leaves on the ground. Perhaps Olmsted and Vaux had studied the "mocker" trio, diverse in plumage but sharing lovely songs, when they drew up their plan for the park. They named the plan Greensward and set out to cater to different levels of human activity and recreation in the same space, the bridle paths, footpaths, and carriage ways all going to the same place, sharing the same locations, but never clashing, never crossing each other on the same level. But the bridges and embankments to make this concept possible had been created with humans in mind; the animal kingdom of the park had evolved over millions of years to acquiesce in nature's architecture.
With the bulk of migrating passerines, or perching birds, already past, the birders were anticipating the next phase of the migration: the arrival of the waterfowl. Throughout the third week of September numbers of mallards and black ducks had built up on the Belvedere Lake bringing the promise of other species. The mallards reaching more than one hundred in number on some days - found unexpected competition. A group of model boat enthusiasts had abandoned the Conservatory Pond for the lake, and a Second World War battleship one afternoon declared hostilities against a small group of ducks.
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
Harlem Meer in Infra-Red Black-and-White on 14 April 2011