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A Bird's Eye View: June 7, 2013

The Outer Edge Of Nowhere

Alley Pond Park in Queens has 655,294 acres of trees, paths and kettle ponds in which to see the migration of spring birds. One morning, this spring, I found a section of the park that I couldn’t recall being in since I started walking it in 1959.

At the edge of a pond with cattails, an industrious robin gathers drying mud in its bill, then flies. It is likely his pickup will become part of the bird’s cup-shaped nest that will be built five to 20 feet off the ground. Another robin takes a bath, flapping its wings and dipping its head. With droplets of water on its back, the robin goes to a rock to dry.

A male red-winged blackbird holds onto a reed, its red and yellow epaulets not yet a rich red. A grackle in a tree glides down to the pond, landing on a reed near the red-winged male. The red-wing retreats into the reeds but appears again when the grackle flies. A female red-wing walks slowly among the reeds. She is a rich brown with light striations on her breast: a subtle beauty. There have been numerous gurgling calls, which are the sounds of red-bellied woodpeckers One partially shows its head and red cap, as the bird scours a tree for insects.

By a small stone building, two mourning doves, so named for their mournful cry, are in a tree. One is in the crook of a branch while the other is out on a limb, barely visible to the untrained eye. The dove’s soft tan color and long slender body blends with the branch. I focus my binoculars on the bird’s eye, which has a light aqua colored eye ring. Its a nice color contrast to the body.

At a secluded pond, there is a white-throated sparrow with a telltale white throat and three white streaks on its head, that is digging its way through damp leaves on a slope. It works its way up the slope to a patch of green vegetation, made bright by the sunlight that falls upon it. There it meets another white-throat that has also been digging. It is a quiet pond, upon whose still water lies a layer of green pollen. Nearby is a very steep set of stairs leading to a part of the park in which that I did not remember. Without making a conscious decision, my feet start walking toward the unknown.

At the bottom is a long  quiet pond. However, water attracts birds. Sometimes the trick in birding is that if you’re at the right place at the wrong time, wait. I do. The right time comes in a few minutes. A rusty blackbird appears on a branch. It’s a thrill as this bird has undergone a precipitous decline in recent decades. The blackbird has a brown upper back and a pale yellow eye. The Rusty is slightly opening and closing its thin bill. Is it calling faintly or is it hungry? Two more fly in silently and land, but they don’t wait long. The only  place I’ve ever seen these birds is at one of these ponds. This area is getting to be a special place.

 No one is here and there is silence, except for the calls of birds. A small bird flies in on a wide tree directly in front of me and comes into view, showing itself to be a black and white warbler. It looks like an exotic piece of licorice.  The 5.25 inch, 0.37 ounce bird winds its way around the tree, looking for insects, disappearing,  then returning to view again, as it goes from tree to tree. It works its way from the outer perimeter of trees to the ones closer to the water, disappearing for a while and coming back again, sometimes tantalizingly close. Like all warblers, it barely stays still.

At the same time, I notice a bird on a branch that has an olive breast with striations. While I’m wondering if it’s a flycatcher, the warbler appears winding its way up another tree. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse a large bird on the pond water’s gray surface. It’s a male mallard with a dark green head and yellow bill. It is lazily paddling and I want a picture. I barely begin to get my camera ready, when the mallard takes flight, lumbering between the trees and branches. An airbus compared to the mercurial, turn-on-a-dime warbler.

The black and white is now going tree to tree. I follow it, hoping for a picture. Suddenly it seems to be falling from a tree toward the water, a tiny wounded warrior. But it merely lands and quickly flies off to another promising tree. Putting my camera away, I hear something like a beeping or a thumping. I can practically feel the vibration. It’s not my camera. Looking around, I can’t locate the sound. Is this a ground tremor? Then I see the source of the sound. It’s a female hairy or downy woodpecker, vigorously whacking away at the bark of a nearby tree.

After a while, the warbler is no longer visible. I have no idea how long I’ve been here, forty minutes, an hour? A total of three people have come by. The black and white warbler has made my morning. I’ve been lost in a long moment of wonder comprised of the bird, the light, and spring at the outer edge of nowhere in Alley Pond Park, a place that can be discovered endlessly.