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Winter Birds of the NYC Area - Jan. 2020

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

First-winter Painted Bunting by Deborah Allen, at Jones Beach State Park (Long Island), Thursday January 2, 2020

Bird Notes: Our bird walks remain in "slow-mo" mode for another week, allowing us to catch up on solar power installation on our house. Look for us on Sunday mornings - and the next owl walk will be on the Sunday night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day - that would be Sunday evening, 19 January at Inwood Hill Park in upper Manhattan (probably starting about 5:30pm).

January 2020 is proving to be one of the mildest ones we have experienced in recent years, and the birds in our area (or the lack thereof) shows it: try and find an American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse or Black-capped Chickadee in Central Park. In most years at least American Goldfinches should be common...Each of these three species is abundant just north of NYC, and if we get a several day cold snap in the next few weeks, we could yet get these winter seed eaters to come south into the park. On the other hand, some southern species are common this year including several Painted Buntings - see Deborah's photo above of a young one from Long Island in early January 2020.

In this week's Historical Notes we present just one excerpt from the 1984 book, The Falconer of Central Park by Donald Knowler. Here he writes about the birds seen in January 1982 in Central Park. I'll just name a few birds that come up: Tufted Duck, Lesser Scaup, Canvasback...and he gets mugged. It is difficult to explain the difference in birding Central Park in the last 40 years or so - but Knowler presents a park most people would not recognize today. If you want to purchase Donald Knowler's book, you can find it used for less than $10 (check Amazon).

Harlequin Duck (male) at Barnegat Lighthouse Jetty in New Jersey in March 2014

Harlequin Duck (male) at Barnegat Lighthouse Jetty in New Jersey in March 2014


(below) Dunlin by Deborah Allen, at Nickerson Beach (Long Island), Saturday December 28, 2020

Dunlin by Deborah Allen, at Nickerson Beach (Long Island), Saturday December 28, 2020


Good! The Bird Walks for mid-January:

All Walks @ $10/person

All walks in Central Park except the Owl Walk on the night of 19 January.

  1. Sunday, 12 January 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive

  2. Sunday, 19 January 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive

  3. Sunday evening, 19 January - 5:30pm (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:

The Indian Road Cafe is a wonderful small restaurant with nice, clean bathrooms for all to use. The Cafe/park is easy to reach via subway / #1 Train to 215th street / or car: if driving allow 30 min. to find a parking spot.

Dress Warm; bring binoculars; we will have plenty of light...$10 for owls and fun

Any questions? Call us (718-828-8262/home) or email us

Adult Male Red-tailed Hawk "Pale Male" by Deborah Allen near Alice in Wonderland statue (Central Park), Sunday January 5, 2020

Adult Male Red-tailed Hawk "Pale Male" by Deborah Allen near Alice in Wonderland statue (Central Park) Sunday, January 5, 2020


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 keep an eye on the Saturday schedule: we might also have no Saturday walks on some weekends in December-January.

Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (= 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.

Carolina Wren by Deborah Allen, Shakespeare Garden (Central Park), Sunday January 5, 2020

Carolina Wren by Deborah Allen, Shakespeare Garden (Central Park), Sunday January 5, 2020


Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Sunday, 5 January 2020 (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am)

I remember wind, and cold. I don't remember many birds...I remember other people finding the good ones though: Brown Thrasher at Shakespeare Garden; one pair of Carolina Wrens there as well; Fox Sparrows near the "Riviera" (just west of the "Oven"). Cooper's Hawk in the Ramble...and swooping Red-bellied Woodpecker in the Maintenance Field....a White-breasted Nuthatch Eastern Towhee there. It is winter folks - I wish I could waive a magic wand and summon birds from somewhere...

Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey in March 2014

Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey in March 2014



The Falconer of Central Park

January 1982

by Donald Knowler

A kestrel stood guard over the Loch. From his perch in an elm he could see along the untidy streets of Harlem to the north. The reservoir in Central Park lay to the south with the skyscrapers of Fifty-ninth Street and beyond half lost in mist. A gentle rain and low pewter cloud blurred the gauntness of the trees. But the kestrel's vision was on the mark. About two hundred yards away he saw a chickadee working its way up the Loch, surprising sleeping bugs from the bark of oaks. The kestrel, the drizzle giving a spiked appearance to its rufous plumage, chose his prey carefully as the chickadee fluttered closer. The kestrel tilted forward on his twig high in the tree, arched his wings and quietly, without a flap, started to swoop. Within seconds the wings were thrown back to act as a brake. The raptor hit the tiny chickadee with a smack. The blow carried the kestrel and the chickadee down into the dip before the kestrel gained control again, with the screaming chickadee in its talons. Slow, powerful flaps were employed now as the kestrel and chickadee rose through a gap in the branches. The other chickadees in the Loch had fallen silent and the bird of prey, out in the clear sky, slowly lowered his head. With precise, hooked beak, he bit into the neck of the chickadee, severing its cervical vertebrae.

Ring-billed Gull eating crab-apples on 17 December 2017 at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx

Ring-billed Gull eating crab-apples on 17 December 2017 at Pelham Bay Park (Bronx)


It was January 1 in the Loch and a clear stream tumbled over two waterfalls between oak, elm and red maple. Only the rising wail of a police car siren and the rumble of subway trains under Central Park West fixed a time in history. And where once the black bear, the indigenous American and then the European trapper tiptoed in pursuit of deer, the mugger and the wildlife enthusiast tiptoed now.

The presence of the kestrel, and the rain, had washed all signs of life from the Loch. I tramped the stream where blue jays bathe in winter and cottontail rabbits come to drink in spring, climbing above a waterfall near the west section of the park's circular drive. A bedraggled gray squirrel shook rain from its back and scampered over the roots of an oak on the far side of the road.

Someone was following me, but I did not see who.

I headed for the reservoir to the south in the hope of seeing something unusual or unexpected on the sheet of water, some rare species of gull or duck, knowing that at least the familiar wintering ducks would be there. Sure enough, a flotilla of about three hundred lesser scaups was spread out alongside the west wall of the reservoir, with a smattering of canvasbacks and ruddy ducks among them. The three species of duck, traveling thousands of miles to the very center of New York City, had two things in common. They had escaped the biting winter that gripped their breeding grounds to the north and, grouped together, they also felt safety in numbers just in case a predator-like a man with a gun, or the gyrfalcon -- should happen by.

I had an uneasy feeling I was not alone. I glanced behind me. No one there. Central Park, the most popular and democratic space in New York City, had become my best friend in the few lonely months I had lived in Manhattan, and I shrugged off warnings of its dangers. It held no menace, but then neither did the streets of the city. I had yet to develop an urban instinct for survival, which New Yorkers call "the smarts," or being "street wise."

As rain spotted the water the ducks were not to know a cold front from the Arctic would reach over them in the coming weeks, freezing the surface of the reservoir and forcing them farther south. The blue, glossy heads of the male scaups were tucked into the fluffy gray feathers of their backs. The canvasbacks also slept, but some of the ruddy ducks chose to dive, scraping algae and other plant life from the bed of the reservoir.

My eyes pressed into binoculars and my body pressed against the wire mesh of the reservoir fence, I did not notice my own predators. I felt something sharp between my shoulder blades, and I turned wildly, like the chickadee when it realized the kestrel was upon it. A man stood with a knife. "Give," he said nervously, a sodden felt hat hiding his face. He was joined by another man, who showed me the central spine of an umbrella, sharp and jagged where it had been snapped in two. I looked about me without moving my head, fearing the slightest movement, the slightest twitch, would signal resistance and get me stabbed. There was no one else in sight, no rescuer, and no point in delaying the surrender of my wallet. So I held it out, and the mugger wearing the felt hat snatched it and ran.

It was pouring with rain now. A storm, which had not stopped a New Year fireworks display in the park, or halted a midnight marathon around the six-mile circular drive, had emptied the park of all but the birds and squirrels by mid­-afternoon.

The heavy cumulus clouds lifted on the second day of the year, and the sun drew purple-blue iridescence from the blue jay' s plumage. But the temperature was dropping rap­ idly from the forties of the previous wet twenty-four hours, and ice formed in glassy, uneven layers on wet rocks and footpaths. Despite the cold, the sun produced song from the winter residents of the park. A starling, looking for hibernating grubs, croaked as he turned dead leaves on the Great Lawn. He was chased off by a blue jay. With skeletal trees bare of summer leaves, it was easy to observe the other birds that inhabit the park at this time of the year. A male downy woodpecker darted from bough to bough, finally homing in on an oak and sticking tight to its bark as if drawn there by a magnet. A white-breasted nuthatch walked upside down under a thick limb, probing under the peeling bark with its long beak.

Black-headed Gulls in Mumbai, India in December 2016

Black-headed Gulls in Mumbai, India in December 2016


Central Park is a backyard for three million New Yorkers, and I was wandering in its 843 acres during those first days in January to pull my thoughts together. I had come to New York in search of something I could not define, to take stock, to find not a new beginning, but an adjustment of course, another avenue. If there had been a constant in my life it had been a casual interest in wildlife and now, for reasons I did not know, I was paying more attention to birds than anything else, drawing irresistible parallels between them and the people using the park.

A New York newspaper reported there was a "straggler" from Europe in the park, and I thought wryly it was a reference to me. I had arrived in New York at short notice, with little preparation, from my native Britain.

The "straggler" was a tufted duck, a very rare bird for North America, and I was keen to see it because I remembered it as a familiar sight in London's parks during my childhood. I was standing against the reservoir fence on the year's second day, a little warier now. The lesser scaups were frozen in the same pose and place as the day before. A male, blinking, raised his head momentarily. A canvasback, his red eye standing out against the rusty color of his head, gave a sleeping female a passing glance as a gust of wind caught him side on and pushed him to the edge of the reservoir. Quickly, he paddled back to join the flock.

The tufted duck did not appear, but I was not particularly concerned that I had missed the species. If the bird had been seen once during the winter there was a good chance it would return, probably from feeding forays farther east or to the Hudson River. On the third day a freezing wind was blowing off the reservoir from the north, and I wrapped a scarf tight around my face as I walked the water's southern rim to the west side where the ducks had been all winter. In front of me, pushing into the reservoir fence so it bulged around him, was a white-haired man, wrapped in concentration. He wore a heavy winter coat, pointed woolen hat, and conical beard-a gnome of a man. He held binoculars to a weathered face, and for a good fifteen minutes he did not move. I cruised by twice, attempting to make conversation, but the bird watcher either did not hear me or was not interested in talking. Finally, and loudly, I uttered the bird watchers' identification call: "Anything about?" The gnome, his white beard showing yellow nicotine stains above the upper lip, mumbled that there was a female ring-necked duck to the north, at the top end of the reservoir a quarter of a mile away. I got the impression he did not want to be disturbed because not once did he lower his binoculars."I suppose the report of the tufted duck was just wishful thinking," I said, proceeding to stroll north.

"No, I think I'm looking at a female," said the bird watcher, lowering his binoculars to rest his eyes. I felt a little disappointed that it was only the dull, brown female and not the striking black and white male. The female tufted duck is almost identical to the female scaup, and I could appreciate why the birder did not want to lose sight of it unless he absolutely had to. The duck was sleeping but after a while she raised her head, revealing a slight tuft of brown feathers. "See," said the birder, and in celebration of finding the bird he pulled an unfiltered cigarette from deep inside his coat. He then pointed to the raft of five hundred male and female scaups and declared that a second tufted duck was among them somewhere, and he would find it. I stayed, too-feet frozen, talking of birds.

The birder's name was Lambert and he said he lived in the neighborhood a few blocks from the park. For forty years he had been coming to the park, and he reckoned he had seen more than two hundred species there but had stopped counting. He said that if I had an hour to spare he would show me a book in which the park's regular birders listed the species they had seen. Walking across the Great Lawn, past hooded figures out jogging in the dim light and watching for late afternoon muggers, Lambert told me more about the birds of the park, and the animals, reptiles, and insects. He mentioned the pair of raccoons living under the rotting, disused boats at the Loeb Boathouse. Also the bullfrogs, turtles, and yellow perch in the boating lake, and the strutting killdeers that rest during migration on the Great Lawn. The bird register was contained in a loose-leaf binder chained to the counter of the boathouse cafeteria. The entry recording the tufted duck was in navy blue ink and signed the "Mob." (I later discovered this meant "many old birders.") Someone else claimed to have seen a bald eagle sailing over Broadway in December ("honestly, I did. . ."); and squeezed between the duck and eagle entries were details of a mugging. Incidents of robberies and descriptions of muggers were faithfully recorded in navy blue ink along with the birds.

Early in January the population of wintering ducks reached its peak. I counted up to six hundred lesser scaups, twenty of their bigger cousins, greater scaups, forty ruddy ducks and about thirty canvasbacks. With ice creeping over other ponds and lakes in the park, there were more refugees at the reservoir: fifty mallards. These non-diving, dabbling ducks were finding just enough food at the reservoir's edge to sustain them. I quickly learned to pick out the female tufted duck because she would invariably be out of synchronization with the flock of scaups. The tufted duck faced north, say, when the scaups were facing south. Even in the center of the flock she was distinct from it: a foreigner, three thousand miles off-course. Sometimes a male scaup would stab out at her with his blunt bill. I was watching the ducks when a husband-and-wife pair of joggers with Christmas present track suits stopped to ask if they could look through my binoculars. "Look at the lovely ducks," panted the husband. "Harvey, they're crapping in our drinking water," said his breathless wife.

Horned Lark at Van Cortlandt Park (Bronx) on 31 December 2017

Horned Lark at Van Cortlandt Park (Bronx) on 31 December 2017


The first snow flurries of the winter, followed by freezing rain, arrived on January 9. Water lapping at the cemented stone sides of the reservoir turned into ice coral as it gripped stems of grass and reeds. The temperature dropped to well below freezing point the following day. Vast tracts of ice formed at the north end of the reservoir and hundreds of ducks had chosen to leave on a journey south to find ice-free wintering areas. Instinct would dictate that a duck move now, while reserves of energy were still strong, in case long flights were necessary.

Most of the United States was undergoing the coldest weather of the century. My hands froze through two pairs of gloves, and somewhere in my heavy boots I had lost my feet. I could not believe New York could get colder than this. But it did the next day-the thermometer at the Central Park weather observatory reading only five degrees Fahrenheit. Mist rose from the rapidly freezing water of the reservoir; air warmed by the sun formed "sea smoke" as it came into contact with the freezing water, the great swirls of moisture meandering in steamy streams. It was beautiful but so cold. Only a handful of lesser and greater scaups hung in now, with three male greater scaups standing out nobly as the sun caught their rounded green heads. The canvasbacks had departed and ten ruddy ducks continued to dive for food in areas of the reservoir which were free of ice. The cold front which had moved in from Russia via the Arctic was dubbed the "Siberian Express" by weathermen and within five days the reservoir had completely frozen over. Giant chunks of ice in different shades of grey formed in strata against the reservoir wall and a low, black cloud fore­ warned of a six-inch snowfall.

The blizzard arrived during the night, and I was up early to look for raccoon tracks around the boathouse. For an hour I hunted, only to find furrows made by squirrels who were burrowing for food supplies hidden in fall. The squirrels bury more nuts and seeds than they will find and are an important tool in the process of reforestation. The food they do locate is invariably stolen by blue jays, once the cache has been revealed. The jays, not appreciating how deep the snow lay, were submerged momentarily as they pounced on acorns and beechnuts exposed by the squirrels. Emerging, they shook the snow off their beaks with rapid, indignant flicks of the head.

If there is an equivalent in the animal world for a human mugger, I suppose it has to be the blue jay. But the blue jay stops short of outright violence. He is a hustler, a bully but rarely a killer and is usually the first bird to warn others of danger in the woods. The blue jay would be the type of mugger who takes your wallet but leaves you with enough money to take a taxi home, or lets you keep your laundry receipts. A newspaper in the first weeks of January had run a story about a Broadway mugger who gave an out-of-town couple their theater tickets back. He would have been a blue jay mugger.

Abandoning my search for raccoons, I walked past skiers on the circular drive and more blue jays, and headed in the direction of the Ramble, a favorite location for birders. The Ramble forms a thirty-acre sanctuary of woods and glades at the heart of the park and a coating of snow, undulating over low shrubs and smooth rocks, made it a cliché of picture postcard beauty. Virgin snow, with only my footprints in it, I was an ungainly intrusion; slipping and sliding, scarring the white surface, wobbling with arms rigid at my sides like a giant penguin. Around me, the common ground-feeding birds such as the dark-eyed junco, and both the fox and white-throated sparrows barged through the wall of snow, which towered above rotund but small bodies. Smart birds, they gathered under a craggy sourgum, from which bird ­feed is suspended during the winter months, and picked up splinters of nuts, lumps of bread and suet, dropped by the birds feeding above them. A plastic soda bottle, with two large holes drilled in the sides, served as a nut dispenser. A blue jay -- far too large to squeeze through the holes -- flew clumsily into the bottle and tried to grip its smooth sides. The jay, spitting the language of a city taxi driver who does not get a tip, slithered down the container and soon found himself lunging in mid-air, tumbling and crashing into a holly in a spray of powder. The jays were also unsuccessful at two other feeder containers, one a mesh sock holding thistle seed and the other a small wire cage housing suet. The suet swayed tantalizingly, but the jays could not perfect a landing technique, and the cage went spinning on the wire supporting it. The starlings did better, and for once they were not second in line to feed in the winter pecking order. The starling, smaller than a blue jay, but just as aggressive, is an immigrant to the United States. A batch of sixty birds was released in Central Park in 1890 by a well-meaning gentleman who wanted the birds of William Shakespeare's works around him. The bard's birds have been a problem since. They started breeding immediately and have now spread across virtually the entire country. Like immigrants anywhere, they are earnest and industrious and have created a niche of their own in American avian society at the expense of indigenous species as diverse as the flicker and the Eastern bluebird. In the park it is the flicker that suffers most. The resident starlings seize suitable tree-hole nesting sites before the flickers have arrived from wintering areas in the South. Starlings that have failed to find sites wait for the flickers, members of the woodpecker family, to dig holes in dead trees for their own nests. Once this task is completed the starlings make their move to fight and dispossess the flickers, sometimes hurling flickers' young to the ground. When spring arrived I would see many such battles. The starlings always won.

The wind swirled snow in the Central Park Zoo while a polar bear called Skandy paced up and down in his small cage, agitated. In the snow and cold, the bear looked one degree saner than he would appear in the high humidity of summer, when he seemed quite mad. A child leaned over the outer rail of the bear's cage and Skandy rushed at the bars, banging his head so a smudge of red showed on the ivory of his fur. Protective of his space, the giant carnivore had where humans live up to seventy-three thousand per square mile, and the lonely and frightened lock themselves voluntarily in their own cages.

Harlequin Duck (male) at Barnegat Lighthouse, NJ on 10 March 2016

Harlequin Duck (male) at Barnegat Lighthouse, NJ on 10 March 2016


There was panic in the Ramble. The blue jays' call of alarm sounded through the trees as a kestrel came in low and fast with a swoosh of wings. The sun reflecting off the snow dazzled me, but I could see two titmice scattering-the kestrel swerving around the sourgum holding the food containers, his head swinging from left to right to assess the situation. Then the kestrel saw me. He spread his pointed wings to give him lift and, using the momentum of his speed, brought himself clear of a red maple beyond the sourgum. Flapping hard, the raptor headed south, from where he had come, without looking back. I followed the kestrel through binoculars until he was a speck against the skyscrapers a mile away: the titmice, the chickadees, the nuthatches and the downy woodpeckers returned to feed.

It was seventeen days since I had seen the kestrel take the chickadee, and he had now learned there were easy pickings around the sourgum. It was a convenient place for me to observe a bird of prey going about his brutal business, and, keeping myself concealed, I saw both him and his much larger mate many times after that.

I did not have to see the dogs' urine freezing on Fifth Avenue to know the temperature had hit zero. The high­ powered pooches of that neighborhood sported winter coats; some were made of leather and lined with fur, others were wool, depending on the owner's degree of affection and affluence. An elderly woman with gray hairs among the blue pulled a tissue from the pocket of her mink coat and bent to wipe her dachshund's backside, and on Dog Hill, off Fifth Avenue at Seventy-ninth Street, a poodle gamboled in the snow, ignoring his owner's command to start heading for home. The poodle's bright red coat was so large the dog looked more like a turtle. And creeping like a turtle, he would return to his owner and that human place outside the boundary of the park.

Two long lines of fifty Canada geese, the lines meeting at a point and the geese honking far off in the blue sky, passed over Dog Hill, heading farther south from a north­westerly direction. The geese were looking for fresh feeding grounds of grass and other vegetation not buried deep in snow. Most of the honking appeared to be coming from the leader of the flock and replies came from down the line. A few days later I saw another arrow of eighty geese. This time the leader changed position with another goose. The front-runner cuts through head winds and creates a slipstream to conserve the energy of birds flying behind him. Being out in front, though, is tiring work, and I surmised the noisy goose I had seen previously was complaining that it was someone else's turn to take over. It was tough where the geese had come from but the park's birds were constantly reminding me it was tough there, too.

In the area around the feeder tree, the birds were becoming incredibly tame. The cheekier titmice and chickadees were not alone in begging for food. A male cardinal came so close on an overhanging branch that I could have touched him. But, unlike the others, he refused to take a peanut from my outstretched palm. He simply jerked his black-chinned head downward, instructing me to throw the nut to the ground, but close to him so the blue jays would not steal it. I followed his instructions and with a "cheep" that was barely audible, the cardinal dropped into the snow to retrieve the nut. Two females gave me the same instruction, and all the while the chickadees and titmice tried to attract my attention by dropping level with my head before flying back to an adjacent branch.

The bond between man and the wild creatures sharing his immediate environment is cemented in that simple act of feeding a bird by hand. The birds, even if desperate for food, must be trusting and confident that this giant figure bearing gifts is also bearing good will. It is a thrilling, moving experience for the benefactor. The bird homes in so fast you flinch, thinking it will not stop and will career into you. Before you are fully aware of it, the bird is gripping your fingers with tiny, sharp claws. The chickadees usually grab the nut and fly off immediately but their relatives, the titmice, with crests erect in curiosity, pause for a moment to look you in the face.

Laughing Gull on 27 June 2015 at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx

Laughing Gull on 27 June 2015 at Pelham Bay Park (Bronx)


The six species of gulls commonly seen on the reservoir during the course of the year are difficult to study. The gulls either swim in the center of the expanse of water, a good quarter of a mile from any vantage point, or, when the water is low, roost on a pipeline that stretches from a pumphouse at the northern end to one at the south. With the reservoir frozen over now, the gulls were beginning to gather in the hundreds near an open pool at the north end where fresh water arrives from holding reservoirs inland. As they bathed, the gulls were only about forty feet from the foot­ path, and I decided this would be a good time to try to identify two of the less common winter gulls, the Iceland and glaucous species, which migrate from the far north of Canada and Greenland to winter on the eastern seaboard. During the next two months gull watching became my preoccupation because I was determined to at least see the commoner Iceland species.

Two weeks after the arrival of the "Siberian Express" a slight rise in temperature caused the ice on the reservoir to thaw in places. Water surged from black cracks and the gull community scattered away from the pumphouse vantage point, making it difficult to observe them and dashing my hopes of seeing an Iceland gull that winter. Fifteen mallards were sheltering in the open space of water at the north end, coming and going from a feeding ground some­ where outside Central Park. A lone canvasback male slept on the edge of the ice on January 25. When the gulls called excitedly, as they often did flying overhead, the canvasback did not bother to raise his head to look up. The duck had traces of oil on his underbelly and was in distress.

Although the reservoir ice was slowly thawing, temperatures barely climbed above freezing point for the rest of January and snow continued to coat the park. In the Ramble, squirrels begged for food after losing their hoards to the blue jays. They would stand on hind legs, front paws tucked into furry stomachs; and in the feeder area a squirrel accustomed to a daily handout came up to me and prodded my boots with his nose. It was while I fed the squirrel that the fabled yellow-bellied sapsucker came into view.

If the sapsucker did not exist the people who satirize bird watchers would invent it. The bird's quaint name is synonymous with stout boots and binoculars, with super-enthusiasts who appear out of step with a fast-paced world beyond the gyr of the falcon, beyond parks' boundaries. The sapsucker was the first I had seen and I thought he deserved better than ridicule, although I cannot say the same for all bird watchers. The bird embodied a subtle beauty-a yellow wash to his belly and a splash of red on his black and white patterned head. The species is easy to observe because it is not as active as other woodpeckers. Instead of darting from tree to tree, it prefers to stay put to drill neat lines of holes. As its name suggests, it will return later to drink the sap oozing from the holes and to eat insects attracted to it. This particular bird spent forty minutes drilling a pine, all the time sending Hakes of bark and wood to the ground, like falling snow.

The oiled canvasback looked in dreadful shape twenty-four hours after I had first seen him. Forlornly, he paddled through the water, his plumage without its usual sheen. At the edge of the ice a black-backed gull dipped its head to drink as the canvasback struggled to climb out of the water. The drake pushed its chest onto the ice, tried to cock up its left leg, slipped and plunged backward into the water. After several attempts the canvasback waddled ashore, a patch of oily, matted feathers visible. While in the water the duck had tilted its body to try to preen himself but he soon gave this up.

Canvasbacks, being estuarine ducks, spend much time out in New York City's bays, often falling victim to oil spills from coastal tankers. It was clear the oiled drake on the reservoir was dying, but life was going on about him. The three commonest gulls, the herring, the ring-billed, and the great black-backed, dunked their heads in the water, splashing and slurping. Suddenly they would leap from their bathing spot on strong wings, shake off the excess water while in mid-air and then come to a slippery halt on the ice. After a bout of preening, causing the ice to become coated with spent feathers, they would be off, clean and sparkling and ready for the filth and muck of the city's sewage outlets and garbage disposal sites.

The sun was warm, and I left the gulls to stroll down the east drive, to Dog Hill to look for an owl that had been making visits to the park. Beyond the hill was the frozen Conservatory Pond, known to many New Yorkers as the model boat pond, and on it a girl skated: a teenage girl in fawn beret and blue jersey and slacks, beautiful and willowy as she cut through the ice, twirling and jumping clear of the surface. Hans Christian Andersen, in bronze statue form, looked on, ignoring a squirrel running across his open bronze book. Nearby a bag lady slouched on a green wooden bench. She was the first bag person I had seen in the park during the month, although evidence of their encampments could be seen in hidden corners of the woods. The bag lady, a frown distorting her tanned, hairy face, wore a quilted coat over bulging woolens to keep out the cold. Layers of socks forced their way out of holes in the sides of her sneakers. The woman, surrounded by a suitcase and three shopping bags, started to swear at the girl who was skating, but the skater did not look up.

I climbed to the Point, a rocky promontory nudging into the boating lake, and for once felt claustrophobic in the park. The sharp early morning sunshine from over the East River cast the buildings all around in vertical lines of light and shadow, and this made them loom larger than they really were. From the Point, which faces due south, I could see the park in relation to the city: a narrow, fertile strip resisting concrete and glass. The air was clear and winter­ fresh, seeming to draw the buildings even closer, their fine detail intensifying the newer skyscrapers like black and gold cigarette lighters standing on a rough-hewed table of oak.

Black-capped Chickadee in Michigan by Doug Leffler, December 2019

Black-capped Chickadee in Michigan by Doug Leffler, December 2019


The lone male canvasback which was coated with oil was dead within two days. His body had been dragged about forty yards by the gulls and now a greater black-backed gull was feeding on the carcass. The carelessness of someone handling oil meant the canvasback would not make it back to his breeding ground more than two thousand miles to the northwest. The gulls continued to stab at the carcass, and I knew it would not be the last oiled duck I would see during the year, nor the last carcass. The gulls also showed traces of oil pollution. Smudges of brown oil were evident on their bellies and underwings. I lingered at the reservoir, pondering how many ducks must be out in the bays and on the Atlantic Ocean suffering because of oil slicks, and thinking of the pure white beauty of the Iceland gull.

The bird watcher who had been so frosty at our first meeting seemed pleased to see me when we met, frequently now, on the reservoir footpath. Lambert and I constituted our own safety in numbers, even if that number was only two; and the ducks would have understood. Lambert had seen Iceland gulls on several occasions in January; his presence at the reservoir, his experience in identifying birds in flight, increased my chances of seeing the species. Many times we watched the arrival and departure, and the bathing ritual, of possibly a thousand gulls. It was gull traffic with a routine similar to the passage of aircraft arriving at LaGuardia Airport, planes I could see constantly over the north end of the park. Because there was only a small patch of open water, the incoming gulls would wait in a holding pattern before spiraling down from great heights to make a perfect landing.

In late January, concerned that I was developing an obsession with gulls but still determined to see the Iceland species, I decided to spend one more complete afternoon at the reservoir. If I did not see an Iceland gull at this attempt I would give up searching for it, I told myself. I now had Lambert's telephone number and arranged to meet him on the reservoir footpath during the early afternoon of January 28.

I saw Lambert from a quarter of a mile away and recognized his profile immediately-hunched and squat like a patient heron at the reservoir's edge. Drawing closer along the path I could see the white beard running wild and wispy over the lower half of his face. Long white hair also flowed from under his hat so that it lapped at his collar, and the occasional puff of blue cigarette smoke ballooned above his head and sat momentarily in the heavy winter air. When I finally reached him, Lambert had bad news for me. He said he had been watching an Iceland gull for twenty minutes but it had taken off in the direction of the East River moments before I arrived. Again I laboriously checked the flock of gulls and could not tire of looking at them, or of seeing the dramatic spiral landing that brought the promise each time that the incoming bird might be an Iceland gull.

Lambert and I stayed all afternoon until a tired and tarnished sunset sent a blade of amber light across the frozen reservoir, blunt and cold.

In the final days of January the number of gulls built up dramatically. One morning I estimated two thousand gulls were spread across the ice, and they were joined by two black ducks - - close relatives of the mallard - - who were, no doubt, struggling to find food like all the other dabbling waterfowl.

The winter-white crispness of the year's first snowfall had given way to a trampled, soiled coating of gray ice. Footpaths formed a jagged terrain of hardened slush, but frozen footprints, filling with water when the ice melted, provided bathing tubs for the smaller birds.

On the last Saturday of January a white-throated sparrow took a footprint bath on the reservoir path and children rushed by on their way to a winter carnival on the Great Lawn. The children were lured by blaring music, which featured snow-bells, and the downscale tinkle of the xylo-­ phone creating a ripple effect that suggested falling snow. A thousand pairs of cross-country skis, along with boots and poles, had been laid down for the carnival. Around in circles went a thousand pairs of feet to the rhythm of the music. The children who were not skiing lingered at the site of an ice sculpture contest; carved in compacted snow were a female nude, a frog, and an alligator. Only the Iceland gull was missing.


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Eurasian Wigeon in December 2018

Harlequin Duck (juvenile) at Barnegat Lighthouse, NJ on 10 March 2016


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