Updated: Feb 28, 2020
Bird Notes: We are now home from New Zealand! This Saturday (21 December) we feature a 9am bird walk at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx; Sunday morning back in Central Park (Boathouse at 9:30am). There is also a Sunday night OWL walk for Eastern Screech-owls at Inwood Hill Park (4:30pm start): Details in this Newsletter and on our web site. THANK YOU to Sandra Critelli and Jeff Ward who led the bird walks in our absence.
As you read this we are home in the Bronx! We were in New Zealand to see pelagic birds, some of which we present in our photos herein.
We have lots of upcoming bird walks by day and OWL walks by night - do check the schedule. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah to all: we have bird walks on those mornings (and owl walks on those nights).
In this week's Historical Notes we present only one article, the December 1982 Central Park BIRDING observations excerpted from Donlad Knowler's wonderful book,The Falconer of Central Park (available on Amazon for less than $10). Look for Christmas Count results that December, and an odd assemblage of ducks on the reservoir including lots of Lesser Scaup.
Australasian Gannet at the Muriwai Nesting Colony near Auckland (New Zealand on North Island) on 15 December 2019
Australasian Gannets at the Muriwai Nest Colony on the North Island (New Zealand) on 16 December 2019. An amazing place...free parking; great viewing areas (free) and a 30 minute drive from downtown Auckland.
Good! The Bird Walks for Late December 2019
All Walks @ $10/person - Note Meeting Locations (some walks not in Central Park)
1. Saturday, 21 Dec. at 9:00am (New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx)
This Saturday at 9:05am, we meet at the MOSHOLU GATE (= Main Gate) of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx (free admission 9am-10am). The best way to NYBG from Manhattan is via MetroNorth: from Grand Central Station take the 8:16am train (Track 32) of the Harlem Line - arriving at 8:50am (20-30 min) at the NYBG station (three stops from Grand Central). Walk 5-7 minutes across the street (follow signs/very safe) to the Mosholu Gate of NYBG. We will be at the ticket booths (free admission) about 30 meters inside the gate (just walk straight ahead). Our Bird Walk is only $10...we will be out from 9:10m or so until 12 noon or so. There is a nice cafe (expensive) for lunch or just coffee. The Christmas Show at NYBG is also wonderful... Any questions? Call us (718-828-8262/home) or email us firstname.lastname@example.org Web Site of NYBG (click on this link) = NYBG Web Site You can park on the street (free) on Kazimiroff Boulevard (outside Fordham University) or in the NYBG lot ($18). If parking on the street, it is a five minute walk from the entrance at that gate (called the Fordham Gate) to the Mosholu Gate (easy walk and direct).
2. Sunday, 22 December at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive
3. Sunday, 22 December at 4:30pm (Eastern Screech-owls at Night)
INWOOD HILL PARK in Upper Manhattan - Meet at Indian Road Cafe at 600 West 218th street @ Indian Road New York, NY 10034. For Directions: https://tinyurl.com/qnfodb6
Any questions? Call us (718-828-8262/home) or email us email@example.com
Dress Warm; bring binoculars; we will have plenty of light...$10 for owls and fun
4. Wednesday, 25 December (Christmas Day) at 9:30am - Meet at the
Boathouse Cafe; 74th street at the East Drive (in Central Park)
5. Wednesday, 25 December - 4:30pm (Eastern Screech-owls)
INWOOD HILL PARK in Upper Manhattan - Meet at Indian Road Cafe at 600 West 218th street @ Indian Road New York, NY 10034. For Directions: https://tinyurl.com/qnfodb6
Any questions? Call us (718-828-8262/home) or email us firstname.lastname@example.org
Dress Warm; bring binoculars; we will have plenty of light...$10 for owls and fun
Any questions send them our way: email@example.com or call: 718-828-8262 (home)
Australasian Gannet (note tail pattern) at the Muriwai Nest Colony on the North Island on 16 December 2019
The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through early January 2020. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!
Please note that on SATURDAYS we may meet at other locations than Central Park. For example, on 21 December (Saturday) we will be at NYBG in the Bronx...so keep an eye on the Saturday schedule: we might also have no Saturday walks on some weekends in January.
Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
Cape Gannet (note tail pattern and compare to Australasian Gannet above) at the Muriwai Nest Colony on the North Island on 16 December 2019. The Cape Gannet is a very rare visitor to New Zealand that has bred here
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Saturday, 7 December (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am)
Sandra Critelli led today's walk and here is her summary:
Giornata splendida ma gelida, ma nonostante questo e` stata produttiva. Nella zona dei Feeders abbiamo visto Downy Woodpecker , White-breasted Nuthatch, Goldfinches e House Finches.
Continuando a camminare nel Ramble abbiamo incontrato approssimativamente 11 Red-bellied Woodpeckers , molto attivi tra loro. Abbiamo trovato 2 Fox Sparrow vicino a Oven e 1 Brown Creeper.
Nella zono di Shakespeare Garden c`era una femmina di Eastern Towee e altri Goldfinches. Nella parte sud di Great Lawn e anche nel Ramble abbiamo visto un gruppo numeroso di Dark-eye Junkos, insieme con Golfinches e inoltre 2 Chipping Sparrow. Arrivati al Dock di Turtle Pond, ci aspettava un giovane Great Blue Heron, posato su una roccia a godersi I raggi di sole. Con la loro chiamata siamo riusciti a fare avvicinare le 3 Hooded Merganser per vederle piu` da vicino. Intanto in cielo volavano 3 Red-Tailed Hawks e 1 Turkey Vulture. C`erano tanti White Throated Sparrow come alsolito nel parco, 1 Procione e 1 Cooper Hawk avvistata nel primo pomeriggio.
Australasian Gannets at the Muriwai Nest Colony on the North Island on 16 December 2019 - about 30 minute drive from downtown Auckland - Can you find the lone Black-backed Gull in the photo?
Sunday, 8 December (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am)
Sandra Critelli led today's walk and here is her summary:
Iniziando come al solito nella zona di feeders, abbiamo visto Downy Woodpecker, House Finches maschi e femmine, 2 White-breasted Nuthatch. In direzione verso Oven la nostra attenzione e` stata rivolta verso un giovane Cooper Hawk molto cooperativo, passando da un ramo a un altro, in ottima vista, cercando di attaccare uno scoiattolo o facendo pratica probabilmente per imparare a cacciare prede . Scoiattoli sono troppo grossi x Cooper Hawk, per cui presumo sia stata piu` pratica che caccia. Verso Bow Bridge abbiamo avvistato un Great Blue Heron in ottima vista e ottima luce per la gioia di birdwatchers e fotografi. Nella zono di Azalea Pond, un Northern Flicker rispondeva benissimo alle chiamate con il mio speaker. A Oack Bridge c`erano una decina di Goldfinches.
Turtle Pond era tutto ghiacchiato per cui Hooded Merganser non erano piu` li`. A nord del Delacorte theatre, un Eastern Bluebird e` apparso e scomparso velocemente. Le altre solite specie erano sempre presenti come al solito: 3 Robins, a few Northen Cardinal, many Blue Jays….
Saturday, 14 December (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am)
Sandra Critelli led today's walk and here is her summary:
Oggi ero sola, non si e` presentato nessuno, probabilmente viste le previsioni del tempo che prevedevano pioggia.
In realtà era poi una giornata nuvolosa ma niente pioggia fino alle 2 pm e molto mite con temperature intorno a 55F
Ad Azalea Pond un adulto di Red Tailed Hawk faceva il bagno solo a 3 metri da me, per poi posarsi sul ramo dello stesso albero su cui era posata gia` una Cooper`s Hawk. Nel Ramble ho poi avvistato 1 Brown Creeper, 18-20 Goldfinches, 5 Dark-eye Junkos . A Turtle Pond 2 femmine e un maschio di Hooded Merganser. A Pinetum cerano 3 Hermit Trush e 2 Red-bellied Woodpeckers.
Proseguendo al Reservoir, ho osservato molte Ruddy Ducks, Shovelers, 2 Gadwall, e almeno 10 Bufflehead.
A Sparrow Rock, dopo aver incontrato Jaqueline, lei ha avvistato 2 Carolina Wrens, molto cooperativi. Usando speaker con il loro canto, I due Carolina Wren rispondevano cantando e ci sono venuti molto vicini numerose volte. Come al solito cerano tanti White-Throated Sparrow.
Nel pond della 59th street, cera un Great Blue Heron.
Sunday, 15 December (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am):
Oggi era una giornata splendida, nonostante sia stato freddo e ventilato.
Abbiamo iniziato con una Cooper`s Hawk che posava per noi in ottima luce, zona Oven, dopo aver fatto colazione da Armando. Armando e `un uomo tanto gentile che porta cibo per uccellini tutti I giorni e quando passo mi da notizie dei falchi in zona. Settimana scorsa , Coopers Hawk ha mangiato un Downy, il giorno dopo un tuo e stamattina un topo.
Nella zona dei feeder c`erano Molte House Finches, 3 Downy, molti White-Throated Sparrow come al solito. Dirigendoci verso al Summer House abbiamo avvistato 1 Fox Sparrow, 2 White-breasted nuthatch, altri Downy, 3 Red-bellied Woodpecker. Un Great Blue Heron a Upper Lobe aveva appena preso un bel pesce e lo abbiamo osservato mentre lo mangiava.A Shakespeare Garden abbiamo avvistato 2 Brown Creepers. La presenza di 2 Red-tailed Hawks, 2 in cielo e 2 posate su un ramo ( 1 a nord del teatro Delacorte e una nella zona Pinetum ) era annunciata da assenza di uccelli e chiamata d allarme di scoiattoli nella zona. Il Reservoir oggi era pieno con varie specie di ducks con una luce meravigliosa. Cerano molti Shovelers, Ruddy Duck, 4 Bufflehead, 1 Gadwall, Canada Geese e Mallards, Hering Gulls e 1 Black-backed Gull. A Turtle Pond erano Hoode Merganser erano ancora present per il piacere di tutti, 2 maschi e 2 femmine.
Australasian Gannet at the Muriwai Nest Colony on 16 December 2019
DECEMBER 1982 - Birding in Central Park
The Falconer of Central Park [Published 1984].
More than a hundred years ago sculptors working on a stone relief at the Bethesda Fountain plaza sent to the market for the plumpest, meatiest birds the messengers could find. Flowers and fruits had to be splendid, too, because they, like the birds, were to be used as models for some of the most interesting and carefully executed sculpture in the park. The intertwining motifs of birds in their viney and leafy environment were finished in time for the plaza's opening in 1873, and it now evokes an age when nature's gifts to man were bountiful and, apparently, inexhaustible. The sculptors made the edible birds fleshier and more rotund than they really were, the fruits were bigger and more juicy, and everyone believed the plunder of the wild could go on forever.
The steps leading to the fountain have fallen into disrepair, like so much of the park. And someone has carefully, deliberately, and recklessly taken a blunt instrument to lop off the heads of all the sculptured birds.
New Zealand Pigeon on Stewart Island on 1 December 2019
This species is the second largest pigeon in the world
The willows in the Upper Lobe had capitulated, their leaves turning yellow and dropping into the boating lake. But a giant willow in the more sheltered Point Lobe retained slender ribbon leaves of lime green. The tree formed an obvious hiding and roosting place for an owl and, peering into its branches during the first few days of December, I imagined for a moment I had been transported back to summer. The temperature was way above normal, and rising, and on December 4 it hit a record high, seventy-two degrees, for the month. Air-conditioning units droned on Fifth Avenue and the hundreds of lesser scaups, building up in number to spend winter on the reservoir, looked uncomfortable in the heat, constantly rolling and immersing their bodies in the cool water. The sky was clear but the humidity took the edge off the sun, low in its winter arc. A horsewoman, a ponytail hanging from her black-velvet riding cap, led a group of little girls in a riding lesson around the bridle path, and they were watched by the lonely man standing under the pin oak near the West Seventies.
Chuck from Pennsylvania was sitting on a big rock which protrudes from the Azalea Pond. It was early but the sun was up over the Point, and Chuck shaved a three-day beard with a rusty, blunt razor he had found in a garbage sack on Fifth Avenue. He was not using soap and the shaven portion of his face was red and sore. I asked him if he had a job interview later that day. He thought I was being facetious. I tried to correct this misunderstanding by offering to buy him a pack of disposable razors, but he saw that as another insult to his self-esteem. 'Tm just trying to be friends," I said, joining him on the rock.
He concentrated on shaving, finding difficulty without the use of a mirror, and as I was leaving he said without looking up, "You just be friends with that there cat."
Yellowhammer at Kaikoura, New Zealand (South Island) on 10 December 2019
A trench-digger entered the Ramble on the morning of December 7, and its mechanical grunting and groaning and roar, when it released a shovelful of mud, attracted a feline spectator. An inquisitive Billy had left the area around his lair and looked down on the activity at the Gill from a boulder near the Indian Cave. Billy, who was nervous and would not come to me when I called, was not the only spectator. Groups of birders visited the Gill during the day to ensure that the Parks Department was adhering to its promise not to destroy any trees in a new phase of the park's restoration program, which would see the muddy and silted-up Gill dredged and returned to its original concept as a clear-water stream. Permission for the dredging had been granted after the Landmarks Commission hearing in June, but this decision had been largely overlooked by the birders because of their preoccupation with the tree-cutting issue. All year divisions within the bird watching community had been evident over the degree of tree cutting that was tolerable and the dredging of the Gill, which would only necessitate trees being cut to allow the trench-digger access, finally divided the birders into what can be termed extremist and moderate camps. Lambert had placed himself on the moderate side, arguing that the benefits of the tree-planting program and the general sprucing up of the park outweighed the detrimental effects of the cutting. Many of the birders were not talking to each other and for a time Lambert found himself ostracized by some of the extremists. But the divisions in the birding community did not detract from bird watching itself, and the sight of any interesting or new species would give the birders a common purpose again, and relegate differences to another place and another time.
Tui on Stewart Island, New Zealand (South Island) on 29 November 2019
Policemen and women had now become a common sight in the park and it occurred to me one day, from the park bench of my meditation, that they had come equipped to fight a war. Under the bulky blue uniforms, or attached to them, were the tools of their trade: service revolver, ammunition, heavy torch, truncheon, handcuffs, and bulletproof vest. I got to thinking that next time the United States was confronted by a conflict anywhere it should forget about the Marines and just send in the New York police. It was such a brilliant idea that Lambert, drawing slowly on an untipped cigarette, said he thought I should write to the President about it. "The President of the United States, that is," he added. "Not the president of the city council."
White-fronted Tern at Bluff, New Zealand (South Island) on 28 November 2019
Central Park is probably the most closely watched and monitored 843 acres on earth. The debate among nature lovers about what is good for the park is only one aspect of a larger, ongoing negotiation between all interested parties and the park authorities. The parties range from roller skaters, to model sailboat enthusiasts, to botanists and birders, to cyclists and joggers. They all want to extract the maximum benefit to themselves and somewhere there must be a compromise, although the birders, in the main, maintain that nature has been compromised enough in the park, in the city, in the state, and in the country.
Central Park was undoubtedly designed for people, but if Olmsted and Vaux were alive today they might also view the park as a microcosm of the global environmental crisis. They might agree with the birders who see the park as a symbolic last battleground on which man and his natural environment must settle their differences and reach an accommodation with each other that ensures both of survival. A great horned owl, popularly called the "cat owl" be cause of its feline facial features of alert eyes and spiked ears, roosted all day in the willow of the Point Lobe on December 8. The owl is about the size of a domestic cat, the biggest owl to be found in the park, and rarely seen. Two birders triumphantly recorded the bird in the sightings register and, after hearing about it, I rushed to the spot at first light next day. The owl had gone.
Two other park residents about to move on were Skandy the killer polar bear and Caroline the aging gorilla. A truck from the Bronx Zoo arrived and it took eight men to roll the tranquilized Skandy into a traveling cage. The forty-five year-old Caroline (the oldest female gorilla in captivity), came quietly. Zoo officials feared she was too old to be tranquilized safely; they had placed her traveling cage inside the main cage a few days previously, so that she could climb into it, inspect it and satisfy herself there was nothing to fear.
The two animals would stay at the Bronx Zoo until another home was found for them. But even a temporary home had not been found for Tina, the ill-tempered elephant.
Winter was not due to start officially until December 21, but the weather during the year had already proven it did not adhere strictly to a timetable. Winter was firmly entrenched and the maximum number of lesser scaups usually seen on the reservoir - about six hundred - had been reached as the last of the waterfowl came south. Ice gripped the stems of reeds at the reservoir's edge and a huddle of ring-billed gulls stood closely together on a patch of ice in the middle of the boating lake.
Swirls of snow on December 9, and now a grating and slurring of shovels scraping snow from the sidewalk came from Fifth Avenue, instead of the hum of air-conditioning units. The snowfall thickened in the succeeding day, and suddenly the birds of the park had the winter look of desperation about them as they searched for food where the coating of snow was at its thinnest. As in the previous winter, the titmice and white-throated sparrows became incredibly tame and refused to budge from the reservoir footpath, where a sharp northerly wind, a natural snowplow, blew the snow from the path. I looked for raccoon tracks again, this time around a hillock on the east side of the boating lake, where Lambert had seen a group of blue jays mobbing a raccoon a few months previously. Lambert had told me a raccoon's five long claws gave its print the appearance of a human hand pressed in the snow, very different from the rounded paw print of a dog or cat. I found evidence of the steady, trotting walk of a raccoon on a footpath which climbed up the hillock. The prints led to the base of a mature black cherry where snow had been disturbed from crevices in the tree's bark. There was a hole about ten feet up the tree -- a raccoon was probably asleep inside, although I could not see it.
In about two inches of snow I also found the oblong prints of the Eastern cottontail on the Point and could clearly make out the tracks of a bounding gray squirrel, which was escaping from a dog. Later I saw a gray squirrel hunched next to a life-size statue of a mountain lion on a rock overhanging the circular drive. The lion had snow on its bronze shoulders and his friend the squirrel spat and growled at a barking dog. The dog backed away.
The blizzard prompted Bill Edgar, who feeds the birds in winter, to commence his feeding program, and I decided I would keep Billy fed on a daily basis throughout the worst months. The feeder area was changed to a location closer to the boathouse. This was fortunate because Billy's lair was near the previous site, and I did not want him to draw the wrath of birders when he caught the occasional chickadee or titmouse. His daily handout from me would make it unnecessary for him to go hunting for birds, and I hoped that before winter had ended I might find a home for him, somewhere in the suburbs but ideally on a farm where he would be a working, rat-catching independent cat.
Variable Oystercatcher at Kaikoura Bay (South Island [East Coast] New Zealand) on 22 November 2019
"Let's be friends," I said to Chuck, the last time I saw him. "There's been a lot of misunderstanding. You got the wrong idea about me."
Chuck had built himself another home after the snow, and he thought about what I had said for a while. "All right. But I got something to say first. It's you foreigners what got the jobs. This city's full of foreigners.”
A fire was burning outside the cardboard home, which was situated again under the hidden rock at the Point. There was food cooking in a battered old pot and it smelled good. The fire was a big one; I threw on a stick and Chuck hauled it off quickly. "There you go again. You gonna make smoke and a ranger will come and give me a hard time. I'm moving out this week," he said. "Got money for the fare to Philly. That's nearer my people, my kin. This place is full of foreigners. You gotta be foreign to get a job."
I said nothing.
"I suppose you want feeding, you've come over here because you want feeding."
I shook my head.
"Well you're wise," he said, smiling now. "It's squirrel."
Bar-tailed Godwit at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, New Zealand (North Island) on 11 December 2019
Ribbons of snow, slushy and transparent at its edges, lingered for a few days until a northwesterly wind brought heavy rain to wash its last traces away. Riding on the winds came interesting, if not rare, birds, and in the third week of December excitement increased in anticipation of the birders' main social engagement of the year, the Central Park Christmas bird count. Countrywide, the National Audubon Society conducts a bird census in winter, and this has come to be associated with the Christmas period (Central Park forming one of the zones in the New York City bird-count area).
The snow was doing the best that it could to squeeze itself from a gray-black sky as about forty birders made their way to the reservoir for the census, on December 19. A fine powder had settled in the cracks in the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. The snow was not consistent or persistent enough to form a blanket, and the birders were happy. A blizzard would have driven birds out of the park and the object of this exercise was to see and record as many as possible. With military precision the park had been divided into quarters, with the Ramble and the reservoir forming fifth and sixth sectors. The general marshaling his troops this day was Dick Sichel, a long-standing park birder, who had sounded out volunteers for this campaign a month previously.
With so many birders vying and trying to outdo each other with birds spotted and identified and counted, Lambert described the event as "the day of the long knives." But he was there all the same and was in charge of monitoring the reservoir. I had been assigned to a party heading to the southwest corner of the park and envied the teams going to the two northern fronts, the high-risk areas of Harlem Meer, the Loch and the Pool where birders do not usually go. In my party was another rookie, the musician with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and we were determined to do well in this our first bird count outing. Our first bird was a tufted titmouse, then ten starlings, then twenty town pigeons, two screaming blue jays, and a titmouse again. It went on like that until the viola player, Dawn, found a red headed woodpecker, and we realized there might be three of these rare birds in the park. Two territories had already been determined; now we invaded another bird-count sector adjacent to ours to see the other two birds and confirm that we were not counting one bird twice. There were, as we suspected, three birds; their territories bordered on each other. They were juveniles, and someone speculated they were from the same brood, possibly raised in the park.
A flicker gave us another species of woodpecker and within two hours we had run out of space and birds to count. Then someone remembered a vague report of a yellow-breasted chat being seen near the Pond at Fifty-ninth Street in previous days, so we doubled back there, because the location given fell within our sector.
Although the chat had been listed on New York's phone-in rare bird alert, it had escaped the notice of most of the park's regular birders. The alert gives sighting reports of any rare species in the New York area, and I could only recall the tufted duck of the previous winter being Central Park's contribution during the year.
We found the chat hiding under a wall which marks the park's southern boundary. It darted into the thick undergrowth that covers a slope leading from the wall to the footpath on the southern edge of the Pond. Chasing the chat, I disturbed a hobo sleeping in a large cardboard box; he leapt up in surprise, blinking and rubbing his eyes. The chat proved elusive, and I had difficulty getting a "handle" on him-focusing on him long enough so that I could study every detail of his yellow and green-brown plumage. Then a man, who had already accosted me to explain he was an internationally renowned architect, buttonholed me again to ask me what was the most beautiful bird to live in American cities. "I'd say the blue jay," I said impatiently and the middle-aged man, smiling, said his next project, a one hundred-story skyscraper, would incorporate the colors of the jay. I did not ask him what an internationally renowned architect, the Sunday newspaper bundled under his arm and an eagerness to talk to anyone who would listen, was doing roaming Central Park on a bitterly cold Sunday morning when he should have been at home in a penthouse reading Architectural Digest. I played along with the man's fantasy, missing a second chance to observe the chat.
Outside the boathouse the snow had stopped falling and inside, Dick Sichel sat at a table, making notes on a yellow writing pad. The boathouse was crowded with cyclists and joggers and people who had been out walking, and the birders. The air was stuffy and smoky with the cooking of breakfast now going into hamburgers and greasy french fries.
"Anyone see a flicker?" shouted Dick and two groups, including our own, said yes. This procedure continued until the names of all the birds known to winter in the park were exhausted. "Anything else?" he shouted above orders for hamburgers and coffee, and one of our group mentioned the chat. Immediately the boathouse emptied of birders, who scurried in the direction of Central Park South and the chat. Dick did not notice the rapid exodus. He was busy totaling the forty-two species seen that day, the second highest ever (forty-four being the record, in 1975). Six species of woodpecker were recorded for the first time and among these was the hairy woodpecker, which the Central Park birders have come to use as a barometer of species that are declining in the park.
It is accepted that the bird count cannot be considered a scientific evaluation of species or of numbers of birds, which may be decreasing, or even increasing in some cases, but the high count brought a sense of optimism to the birders. During 1977, for example, only thirty-five species were recorded, and Dick noted that some birds regarded as regular to the park had possibly been overlooked this year. The American kestrel had not been on the list nor had any species of owl frequently seen in the park: barn, saw-whet and long-eared.
Lambert, the Central Park sage, tugged at his beard as he studied the bird count figures a week later. True, they were encouraging but one important point had to be taken into consideration: more people were taking part in the survey than at any time in the past and, with more people counting, it was difficult to make comparisons with previous years.
Paradise Shelduck (female) on Stewart Island, New Zealand on 8 December 2019
A statue called the Falconer had been in storage for as long as park users could remember. The nine-foot-high statue depicted a figure who could have stepped from an Elizabethan play: tunic and skin tight pants, soft leather boots and toes that curled up at the end, and a noble falcon, stylized in an aura of romanticism, larger and fiercer and bolder than any falcon would appear in the wild.
During 1982 the Parks Department decided to rescue the Falconer from the stale dankness of the warehouse and put him where he belonged. That was on a plinth overlooking Olmsted Way in the south of the park. In early December a crane lifted the Falconer into place on his plinth, which had been sand-blasted clean of graffiti. The Falconer and his bird were polished and shining and the blue jays began to bypass this corner of the park, believing the raptor was about to launch into the air and fly wild and free.
I had my own ideas about where the statue should be positioned and that was on the stretch of Fifth Avenue paralleling Central Park, officially called Museum Mile. The city council had other masterpieces in mind when the gently undulating stretch of tar was given this name, in recognition of New York's status as one of the greatest repositories of art in the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art steals a few acres from the park on the west side of Museum Mile and in the 1,760 yards is also the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
I saw all the galleries and museums in my first few months in New York and found them an anticlimax. I thought they were overshadowed in that location by a bigger and more glorious work of art, born of New York's sweat and ingenuity and not imported from Egypt, India or Greece. The masterpiece is, of course, Central Park; and the fact that silt from its eroding surface clogs drains on the Museum Mile says much for the city's priorities and values.
In 1982 a Central Park renaissance began in earnest to correct some of the devastation of the 1970's when New York was on the verge of bankruptcy. The restoration program would cost $100 million over ten years, over and above the annual running costs, and Central Park administrator Elizabeth Barlow admitted the city would not be in a position to meet this cost. Much of the money would have to come from private or corporate sources, channeled through the park's main fund-raising body, the Central Park Conservancy, if the work was to be completed.
New Zealand Dotterel on 11 December 2019 near the Miranda Shorebird Reserve, New Zealand (North Island)
A little black girl with long hair in wiry pigtails sang "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" from a bench in the shadow of the Simon Bolivar statue at Central Park South and the Avenue of the Americas. Five youths selling drugs stood at the top of the flight of steps leading from the park to the street, and I pushed my way past them in pursuit of the yellow-breasted chat again. Five days had gone by since I had seen the bird on the Christmas count, and I was curious to establish whether it was still in the park. I only had to wait ten minutes, nervously eyed by the drug-sellers, who thought I was a cop, before I found the chat. I was standing on the street, looking down on the tangle of bushes, which were laden with berries and home to the man in the cardboard box. A passerby threw bread for the pigeons into the dip and the chat came for this, carrying off chunks of it. I had always believed chats were insect-eaters but the bread and, I suppose, the berries supplemented a winter diet of hibernating bugs. Two wood ducks, a male and female, had been seen on the same day at the Pond, but I could not find them myself. I moved on to the zoo and was in time to see Tina, the bad-tempered elephant, being fed like a condemned prisoner, in a cell of yellow tiles and blue-gray bars. Four loaves of bread and two basins of mixed vegetables were emptied through the bars and Tina, calm and relaxed, rolled whole lettuces in her trunk and tossed them into her mouth. She also gathered three carrots at a time, balancing them in the hairy lip of her trunk, and tossed these after the whole lettuces. A sign in an adjacent, glassed-in enclosure said the resident Indian python had been moved to the Bronx Zoo; there was still no home for Tina and a home would not be found by the year's end.
I scouted a farm in Orange County, New York State, for a home for Billy. The farm was owned by a business acquaintance but there were two cats there already, fierce and fighting, and I knew Billy would want to be master of his own environment. I was confident Billy could dominate the cats finally, but there was a chance he might run away in the transition to his new surroundings. I did not want to take that chance.
I asked Lambert if he knew of anyone who might want a cat. He came up with the name of a shop owner on Lexington Avenue, who had a daughter living in Southampton on Long Island. I went to see the shop owner and, by coincidence, his daughter was in New York on a shopping trip. She had a big property, away from main roads, and she also had a mouse problem in some outbuildings. But she was reluctant to take Billy at first, until we both agreed on a trial period. This was acceptable, and I noted a softening of attitude when I took the drugstore owner's daughter to see Billy one afternoon in December.
Billy, of no fixed address in Central Park, was to become a Long Island fat cat.
Red-billed Gull at Kaikoura (South Island) on 21 November 2019
Christmas Day in Central Park. Joggers jogged in new track suits, which were still creased from being wrapped as Christmas parcels, and little boys rode new bicycles that had not yet been scarred and scratched, by the curb. The patch of worn ground under the pin oak where the lonely man had stood all year was deserted; the pin oak appeared exposed and forlorn without its companion. I was happy for the lonely man because he obviously had somewhere to go for Christmas, friends and kin other than his pin oak. But there were people in the park without friends, no one to share Christmas gifts with and with no gifts to take back to the shop next day to be exchanged for something a little bit smaller, or something a different color, or something else. A woman of about forty, who looked fifty in a pale, lined face, stood on a rock in the boating lake where black-crowned night herons had stood in the early morning in spring. She was wearing a fake fur coat although the temperature, at sixty-four degrees, equaled a record high set in 1889. Slowly she bent and scooped a handful of dirty water with cupped hands and then wiped her coat with a brushing motion. She started on her hair, as scraggy and spiky as the fake hair of her long fake coat.
A red-bellied woodpecker stole my attention as it flashed black-and-white-and-red through the trees. I followed the woodpecker north, through the Ramble, through Wildflower Meadow, beyond that, to Muggers' Wood, without looking back at the woman washing her hair.
The lonely man was back under his pin oak the day after Christmas, presents were being exchanged in shops removing their Christmas decorations, and a male wood duck slept on a branch ten feet above a batch of roosting mallards on the Fifty-ninth Street Pond. But I was not paying much attention to the goings on in the park. I was worried about Billy again. I had not seen him for four days, and now I searched the Ramble, calling his name, moving in widening circles until I had covered the whole of the bottom end of the park and the Boston scrod was beginning to smell in my pack.
I had a sleepless night, after dreaming Billy was four blocks away in the park, dying in a storm drain on the circular road. By morning I had convinced myself I was being unduly sentimental about this animal. It was only a cat after all, its immediate fate out of my hands, so why should I worry and care? I headed north through the park, defying muggers, and I told myself the reason for this excursion, with the whole day to myself, was to find the remains of fortifications from the war of 1812-relics I had overlooked during the year. That is what I told myself, but when I reached the stone-walled Blockhouse, the most important historical site in the park, I did not bother to squeeze through the narrow door into the pebbled courtyard inside. Instead, my eyes followed the winding circular drive from where it left an old Manhattan coach route at McGowan's Pass. I was looking for Billy. In the first curl, the snaking road swept around the hilly site of Fort Fish, crossed the lower end of the Loch and then came around the Blockhouse in what was virtually a complete circle. Below me, a machine for smoothing ice worked in tight circles on the man-made ice of the Loula D. Lasker Pool as I left the Blockhouse to walk back along the west side circular drive. Under a beech near 101st Street I counted five juncos, the first I had seen in weeks, and there, five feet away from the road, I saw the body of Billy.
Billy's coat is rich and shiny. I cannot see any obvious sign of injury and I will never know how he died. I can only surmise he was hit by a car and do not question why his body is lying away from the road, in a quiet, sheltered place under the beeches. I don't want to think of him crawling there to die or of someone picking him up on the road and placing him on a soft bed of crinkled leaves. I find myself a stick and dig as deep as I can, through layers of compacted leaves, the leaves darkening into a gray, pungent tar as I dig a foot down, and I hit the roots of the beech and can dig no farther. Carefully, I lift Billy and place him in the hole, tucking his black and white face, like the one in the Tom Cat advertisements of yesteryear, under his left paw so it hides his eyes. I kick dirt on top of him, trampling it down and walk away briskly. After about ten paces I realize I am running, and it stays that way until I enter the city beyond the reservoir and I have had enough of the park.
Southern Black Backed Gull (Kelp Gull) at Kaikoura (South Island) on 21 November 2019
There is nothing like the smell of Boston scrod, not spoiled yet but about to get that way if it is carried around in a pack any longer, for attracting the attention of a raccoon. The day after finding Billy dead I had been about to empty my refrigerator of a pound of scrod when I remembered the raccoon living in the black cherry near the boathouse. Late that afternoon I went to the spot and laid out the scrod a little way from the base of the tree. The squirrels avoided it, but a crow showed an interest before I chased him off. Strangely, the weather was humid for this time of the year-with an other record high-and I could smell the scrod from fifteen feet away. The raccoon, however, was not stirring. I waited half an hour, and when I saw the staff of the boathouse cafeteria pass nearby I began to get nervous. The cafeteria had closed, darkness was falling, and the park looked dangerous. I was about to leave when I saw a movement some where deep in the hole in the cherry tree. I could see hairs just behind the rim of the hole and then two eyes, glistening and catching the light from a street lamp on the circular drive. And then a full, round head and a masked face with an inquisitive, twitching nose. The raccoon gripped the rounded edge of the hole with its five-clawed paws and hauled its head up, but seeing me it dropped inside again. After a minute or so the raccoon, nose still twitching, leaned out of the hole to see where the smell was coming from, but it would not leave the safety of its hiding place while I was there. I even tried backing off about twenty yards, but the raccoon was too nervous to climb down the tree. It was nearly dark now and I left the park, and the raccoon to the scrod.
Within two weeks of its discovery, the drug-sellers at Central Park South become experts on the yellow-breasted chat, its feeding habits and its location at any given time. The peddlers, who usually numbered five thin youths, sought out people carrying binoculars and asked politely whether they were looking for the bird.
"It was on the left side of the path leading to the Pond," one of the youths, a gangly black kid of about nineteen, told me on December 31. He reminded me, politely, that he had "coke and the golden smoke" just in case the sight of the chat did not give me a sufficient high.
I had been wary of the drug-sellers at first, thinking they might be muggers, but I now regarded them merely as businessmen, and I felt secure with them around, because I knew they would not allow a mugger onto their lucrative patch.
The chat looked set to stay for winter and so did the pair of wood ducks on the Pond. Like the chat, the drake and his mate had also taken to eating bread thrown for the park's avian residents.
The wood ducks' acceptance of handouts of bread filled me with a bleakness, a despair, a realization that what man-kind offered with one hand was taken back with the other. The wood duck and chat were not to know that the very habitat they need for survival - at both ends of their migration range - was being snatched from them. Warblers, orioles, tanagers, flycatchers, and thrushes were arriving in the Caribbean and in Central and South America to find tropical forest turned to farmland. Ducks were also losing wetlands. An article on migration in Smithsonian magazine late in the year had said tropical rain forest from Mexico to Amazonia was being cleared at the rate of 100,000 to 250,000 acres annually, possibly affecting the long-term survival of many species of migrants. There could be a time when the birds I had seen during the year no longer came through the park. The wood duck and other species of waterfowl that do not leave the United States have more serious problems. In this country alone, half the 215 mill ion acres of wetlands that once existed have disappeared, and I read of a recent study indicating that nearly half a million acres were now being lost annually through land being drained for agricultural uses and housing development.
The light faded at 4:30 P.M. and I had just enough time to see one of the red-headed woodpeckers, the last bird I would seek out in 1982. Since the Christmas count twelve days previously, the birds had acquired much of the red plumage on their heads, and they would be looking beautiful by mid-January. The red feathers would form the shape of a roman gladiator's helmet and, as I watched one of the birds along the Mall, I thought they should have been named helmeted woodpeckers. A helmet might also come in handy when it was time to open their store of acorns in late winter, and defend the stock against an army of hungry blue jays.
The red-headed woodpecker had been my one hundred thirty-first bird when I first saw the species in November and that would remain my total at year's end.
At the stroke of midnight the sky over Central Park exploded in a thousand fireballs of white, yellow, green, and red. The blast startled a flock of ruddy ducks into flight at the reservoir and a carriage horse, carrying revelers on a trip around the circular drive, bolted out of control. The horse and carriage careered into the tightly packed vanguard of nearly three thousand runners in an annual midnight marathon. Some of the runners were wearing tuxedos and top hats, some were dressed in animal costumes and historic fancy dress. There was panic and screams as the athletes fell under the flaying hooves of the horse and the high, spoked wheels of the carriage. The horse, unharmed, was brought to a halt a few hundred yards along the road and ambulances were called for the thirteen people who lay injured.
The race continued, as relentlessly as the coming of 1983.
The fireworks gave stroboscopic illumination to the skeletal branches of the park, to the apartment cliffs of Fifth Avenue, and to Central Park South and West for five minutes. Then there was an explosion of gold stars, packed together, taking the shape of a giant oak in thick leaf, smoke trails forming the contours of its bark and trunk. A doorman stuck his head from the entrance canopy of a Fifth Avenue apartment block. He had witnessed the fireworks more times than he wanted to remember; when he saw the golden oak in the black sky he waited for a last spray to rise above the fireball tree and a last ear-shattering explosion, which cracked and thundered across the east and west side of the city.
And he said: "That's it."
• • •
Lambert found some white-footed mice, not in Central Park but farther afield, on Staten Island, and he drew a crayon and ink picture of the indigenous rodents.
"When you get past the traffic, buildings, and turmoil the real world remains," he wrote in his first letter of the New Year, "there is not a great deal left but enough to let us retain our optimism."
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
Australasian Gannets at the Muriwai Nest Colony on 16 December 2019 (near downtown Auckland, North Island)