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A Bird’s Eye View: July 5, 2012

A Morning At Jamaica Bay

The spring morning is cool and the sky is mainly cloudy at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. My wife and I are here to walk its paths and watch for wildlife in its ponds. As we walk down a path, tree swallows are flitting above the trees and the air is filled with birdcalls.

Warblers, tiny migrants, are flying across the path but quickly disappear. My wife spots one in a tall bush. Another woman also has her binoculars on it but I can’t locate the bird. After it flies, my wife tells me the little bird was black and white with a yellow head. The woman identifies it as a chestnut-sided warbler. It’s uncommon here, the first migrant of the morning and I missed it!

Soon there’s a yellow warbler recessed in another bush. I can see the thin red streaks on its breast, which identify it as a male. Walking on we find two more yellow warblers which are females. Things are looking up. In a marsh, several glossy ibises glide one at a time and disappear in the grass. If the day were sunny they would probably look brick red with some black, but under a cloudy sky they appear to be a moderate brown. Add a ghostly Manhattan skyline in the background and these ibises appear mysterious-looking.

Far out in the marsh a snowy egret has just lifted into the air with its black legs and yellow feet trailing. Those yellow feet are why the bird has the nickname “golden slippers.” Nearby are several male red-winged blackbirds in trees or bushes, where they call out, announcing their territories. Oddly, we cannot see their twin red and yellow epaulets. One is repeatedly calling when suddenly the red epaulets appear. It is as if the bird’s shoulders had expanded like a bellows.

Two adult Canada geese are following their newly-minted chicks as they cross the path. Then there’s a third chick, and soon there are nine. They inspect the grass and nibble on it. As the family moves along a young human family is watching as one of the adult geese calls out. Slowly, coming out of the bushes, are three more brown and yellow fuzzlings who amble down the path with their parents and siblings. We see a few more families of Canada geese but none with a dozen chicks. There’s a lone Canada goose off the trail sitting on what appears to be a covering with dried grasses. All around the bird are bits of down. She’s probably incubating a clutch of three to eight eggs. This incubation period will last for 24-28 days. Then there will likely be another young family walking around the refuge.

There are some tree swallow nest boxes along the path that circles a small lake known as the West Pond. Two swallows are on one of them. One is a dark metallic blue with a white breast. This is breeding plumage. The other, not a breeding bird, is a drab brown. The breeding bird goes through a round hole into the box, acting like a cuckoo clock bird. Further along the path, on closely spaced stalks of dried grass that resemble corncobs, are two tree swallows. One lets me pass by rather close before flying.

Bunched up in the West Pond are 80 ducks. They are far out but I can see a dirty white cheek patch and brown sides. Looking some more I notice that a few are brick red with a white cheek patch. They are male ruddy ducks. If they were closer I might be able to see their powder blue bills and perhaps their tails, which are sometimes raised. By the shore are a number of male mallards with green heads, some of which have a purple hue, and yellow bills. Near them with only its rear sticking up is a dabbling duck with yellow legs and a small, intricately dotted black and white pattern on its side. This is a mystery bird and sends me to my battered field guide. The likely candidate is a gadwall.

Later at home, I go through a few other field guides and a gadwall checks out again. One out-of-print book offers that one of the duck’s nicknames is “speckle-belly.” A difficult identification like this one is a lot of trouble to go through for one bird’s name. However it makes it much likelier that in the future I’ll be able to identify this bird and makes me a better birder in the process.

We are done with the West Pond and my wife goes back to the car to tackle the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle while I try my luck on the less traveled east side of the refuge, which is across Cross Bay Blvd. There by Big John’s Pond I find a female red-winged blackbird calling on a cattail. She’s not black and doesn’t have red epaulets but is a rich brown with a striated breast.

Far out, at the south end of the East Pond, are a mixed group of gulls. There are some greater black-backed gulls whose dark gray backs and wings stand out. There are some herring gulls as well with their yellow bills that have a red spot on the lower mandible. And finally there are mute swans, many of whose heads are submerged as they feed on aquatic vegetation. One is closer to me than the others, paddling around nonchalantly, occasionally wagging its tail. As the shoreline is flooded I can walk no further. Looking up at the tall lush spring foliage I experience the solitude and quiet. I want to stay but I’m tired. Next time perhaps I’ll come here first and take in the calm silence. There’s just so much to see at Jamaica Bay.