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A Bird’s Eye View: May 14, 2010

Spring Birding on Long Island

In April. when the first green buds appear on bare trees, the Long Island landscape begins to resemble an impressionist painting in progress. That, and migrating spring birds make it my favorite time of year to bird. Last spring, my friend Walter and I went to three places on two successive weekends to observe the annual spring migration. In each locale there were scenes that looked like paintings and migrant birds heading north.

A little after 7 a.m. at Massapequa Park, the rising sun is partially hidden by pebbly clouds. On a bare branch of a tall tree there’s a large semi silhouetted shape that doesn’t look like a nest or bunched leaves. In my scope, the mass is a furry raccoon with one black eye open that is looking down at two-legged “early birds” that may have disturbed its sleep. Several bright red male cardinals and a sedate female quickly cross the road and disappear into a bush.

Dim light makes the water of the park’s large pond look molten. In it four mallards appear dark and oddly silver/gray. Nearby are two smaller ducks with brick red heads and what appear to be triangular areas of blue around their eyes. The blue is actually green and Walter identifies these ducks as green-wing teal. The scene is surreal. Several lemon yellow American goldfinches with jet-black wings fly by beneath a patch of blue sky. A flock of fast flying cormorants is in an almost perfect V formation.

There are reflections of cattails in the still water. A small fallen tree with its root system exposed lies in shallow water, its bare branches graced by a few small white feathers. Tranquility. A male red-winged blackbird, its red and yellow epaulets visible, lands on a cattail, bending it close to the water. There’s an all-pervading calmness to the moment.

Just after 10 a.m., we are at the Marine Nature Study Area, a 52-acre preserve in Oceanside. We are on a low boardwalk around a salt marsh under a gray sky. A glossy ibis lands on dried grass, opens its overly long, down-curved bill and walks around. Nearby, a snowy egret lifts its black legs out of the water and flies a short distance. It lands softly on yellow feet, which give it the nickname “golden slippers.” This white fish eater uses those feet to stir the muck in the water attempting to scare up prey. Yellow legs are the name given to large sandpipers because of the color of their legs. One walks like its feet are partly stuck in the mud of a wind-whipped pond. This guy or gal, its back a richly speckled brown and white, is decked out for the breeding season.

In a nest on a pole are an adult osprey and a large youngster. A camera transmits a live picture of the birds to a monitor in a small interpretive center. Under a cloud an incoming osprey circles the nest, adjusts its tail while gliding, and lands in the nest- an early spring moment. There’s a great egret with breeding plumes looking at three guys who are photographing it with their flashes going off. Oddly the bird doesn’t appear to mind them. In an attempt not to disturb the egret we move to the far side of the path as we pass by. The bird however opens its bill, turns and flies. Unmoving persons using technology are apparently not threatening, but two moving ones represent a threat.

The next week, before dawn, Walter and I are at Betty Allen Twin Ponds Nature Park in Centerport awaiting other birders for a dawn birding walk. As we wait, gray light appears slowly and other birders trickle in. Suddenly there’s the high-pitched call of a fast rising Canada goose. Some grackles appear on the ground and in trees. Iridescent hues of purple and green dance on their black bodies. On the smooth-as-glass harbor water a tall and stately mute swan paddles, while near and in back of it is a mallard. The proximity of the mallard to the swan makes it look like a tugboat pushing an ocean liner. Two other mute swans, long necks extended, fly toward the end of the harbor, turn in a curve and follow the shoreline back out. There are seven black-backed gulls by some tall trees that are showing the first green buds of spring. As the mist begins to clear, a cormorant stands on the mast of a little yellow sailboat and a lone duck paddles on the water leaving a thin trailing V.

Crossing the road we find a dead, red morph, Eastern-screech owl. Its rust colored body is unmarked by any signs of a collision. The sight of death repels me but simultaneously it is hard not to admire the small owl’s beauty. Walter spreads out the long wings, which once allowed it to sail almost silently through the air towards prey, and gently leaves it on the wide stump of a tree looking almost like a museum exhibit.

On the ground near another pond is a lush green plant, skunk cabbage, growing in clusters. The lush green plant, spreading out everywhere, is striking in comparison to the misty morning. In the pond a huge mute swan flies just above the water’s surface chasing three Canada geese. The rush of air from its great flapping wings and the splashing water pierce the morning’s stillness. Why the chase? At the edge of the pond in the bushes sits a female swan on their nest.

Nearby a great blue heron stands motionless, looking drab as the surrounding bare trees for twenty minutes, and then flies. Too soon, the sun burns off the haze, taking the magic of early morning with it. Walter and I go to a nearby diner for breakfast and to talk about everything and nothing, which I enjoy immensely.

It’s part of the ritual of spring birding on Long Island.