By Louis Tucker, Field Trip Leader

Swallow-tailed KitE
Swallow-tailed Kite, Photo by Andy Morffew

Growing up in southern Westchester County, New York, in the 1950's and 1960's was a very interesting time for a young, curious, introverted boy. Right outside of White Plains, NY, there is this sleepy, but, very large town called Greenburgh. Greenburgh didn't have a postal address, so the postal address the town was assigned to was White Plains, because Greenburgh proper was unincorporated. Greenburgh had within its large borders villages such as Scarsdale, Hartsdale, Elmsford, Valhalla, Ardsley and a few more, which escape me at the moment. These villages, however had post offices; which is probably why you may have heard of them. White Plains was the county seat of Westchester County and is a city which has grown enormously since I was a kid. Actually everything in Westchester has grown enormously and is major suburbia, USA.

But, in Greenburgh in those middle 20th century years, one of the wonderful things about it was that it was wooded, and had ponds and streams and vast fields to explore. It was also incredibly safe. None of the late twentieth century, twenty-first century horrors and fears faced families with children in this rather diverse town. This allowed yours truly, the introverted, and independent boy to roam and explore the natural realm; completely without fear or hesitation. No one in my family or any of my friends were interested in this exploration. Consequently, I did it alone. Birds attracted me like a moth to a flame. And, when my mother had errands, shopping to do, or take my siblings to the doctor, I would always ask her to drop me by one of the big ponds which the Bronx River would form around White Plains, Hartsdale or Scarsdale. The ducks and geese would just mesmerize me. The variety was actually pretty limited: mostly Canada Geese, Mallards, Black Ducks, Gadwalls and an occaisional Pintail. It didn't matter, I would just sit and observe their behavior. It fascinated me, even at five years old.

Fast forwarding several decades, after school, college and during a marriage, having gone to college for vocal performance and theater, I got my first professional job, having gone through a series of auditions for a new Broadway show. I got cast and got my Equity card. It was a show based on the big fifties musical KISMET, but it was given an African theme with much of the same music to an African beat, called TIMBUKTU. It was directed by Geoffrey Holder, known at the time for some James Bond movies and Seven-up commercials. It starred another African-American, who had been brought back to perform after being "black-balled" by the Johnson administration during the Vietnam era in the sixties, for a bit of a scandal that practically no one ever heard of: Eartha Kitt, who had made a sensation during the fifties as one of the bright stars of the entertainment business.

The show opened at the Mark Hellinger Theater, on Broadway and 49th Street. It was pretty exciting to be in that element, with that being your first professional job. Yikes! We were on Broadway for almost a year, and did a national tour in 1979. The first stop was south Florida. Being "on the road" could drive one crazy when you're in strange cities, with your days free and only having to be at the theater by 7:30 at night most days. I work out a lot, however, being on the road and maybe not near a gym, I took to running to stay in shape. Being near water, I would play imaginary tag with Laughing Gulls, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls and my favorite: a couple of Ospreys. All of them would be on light posts and as I would run by they would go to the next available one until I would run near and they would fly and repeat the sequence.

This got me a little "antsy". My thought: How can you be in Miami Beach and not want to go down to the Everglades? So I tried to get a few people interested in this idea. I could only muster up the show's music director and the assistant stage manager - who were fun by the way. None of the cast folks wanted to go. Most of them partied all night and wanted to sleep the day away. I wasn't much for the party scene and basically went back to the hotel and was asleep by 11:30 pm. So, we rented a car and took off to the Everglades. We didn't have binoculars or any of the bird/nature watching paraphernalia. I didn't, at the time, know what went into this thing which actually at the time wasn't a hobby yet. But, most of the creatures to see were incredibly close along the walkway: Anhingas, Great Blue Herons, American and Snowy Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, Gulls, Black Vultures and Ospreys. And, sunning themselves, the American Aligator. Seeing one of these dinosaurs for the first time, was filled with curiosity and wonder; because you hear of all of the horror tales about this reptile, and this big guy was just sunning himself out on the lawn right off of the path. And, we could get really close, without incident — or with a lot of stupidity.

We really just barely skimmed the surface of this magical place before we realized we had to return north. Leaving this park was when I was struck by the flight and nest building habits of a species that was so incredibly splendid - I got hooked. In this very tall tree was a pair of birds of prey that just took my breath away. Swallow-tailed Kites! Right then and there, I made the decision that I was going to bird watch, especially on this tour, when we had almost a year to go and many places to visit. The elegance of this pair, the lilting flight, and the meticulous way they were preparing this nest was fascinating. The beauty of them, as well, was astounding at first sight. What is so striking is that it is basically a two-colored bird: white and blue-black. The head, belly, nape, under-wing coverts and under-tail coverts are white. The back, mantle, wings - primaries and secondaries, and tail are blue-black. It's a beautiful, stunning, elegant sight to see; and it grabbed me huge.

I can't go through the show's itinerary, although we went to some fantastic cities in this country. I really got to see the U.S of A and so much of its beauty. And, I tried to get out to as many wild places as I could; seeing Wood Duck at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, in Round Oak, Georgia, south of Atlanta. I saw Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in Texas. But, the bird watching buffet that was waiting for me was in the San Francisco Baylands, in Palo Alto, California. I was still totally green about bird ID's but, at the refuge there were some really knowledgeable people who helped. It was December and the highest tide of the year, so there were critters being flushed out into the open which normally try to stay hidden. Little did I know that there were several birds and a little critter that were endangered. One bird I missed entirely because I had no idea how special it was: Black Rail. I would correct that oversight about fourteen years later, when I moved to California. The other two I did manage to see was the California Clapper Rail (now known as the Ridgeway Rail) and the very tiny Salt-marsh Harvest Mouse. And the circumstance of this encounter was great for the rail and me; but, for the mouse - not so much. You see, the rail had just caught the mouse and then without much hesitation, gobbled it up. One endangered species being fed to another endangered species. "Ain't nature grand!?"

ridgwaysrail-bolsachica-10-11-14 smbasblog-dot-com Kirsten-Wahlquist
Ridgeway’s Rail, Photo by Kirsten Wahlquist, Courtesy of smbasblog.com

Black-Rail T0B54056 Brian-Small

Black Rail, Photo by Brian Small, Courtesy of briansmallphoto.com

The tour came to a close in January of 1980. And, I returned to NYC with the excitement that I had picked up this wondrful new hobby; and it really had me. And, people would wonder: "Where can you possibly go bird watching in NYC?" The answer becomes christal clear if you put your mind to it. Wherever there are trees and grass and bodies of water big or small. Heck! I got my life Brown Creeper, eating breakfast looking out the window, forty-two stories up, in my dining room, watching this little bird climbing the outside brick wall of the building, searching for insects. Crazy! A funny and delightful bit of serendipity. But, putting the hobby in action didn't prove very difficult at all. Central Park at any time of year is a treasure trove for feathered species: lots of trees, grass, a gigantic reservoir, and also a boat pond. Central Park is actually immense. And, in the spring and fall, birds on migration coming from long distances and flying over miles of concrete, see this green oasis and they just drop down and feed as much as they need to. I would get most all of my eastern warbler species there. And, in the winter, the reservoir and boat pond would be host to Scoter species and Tufted Duck, Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck and both Scaup,among other waterfowl. That's not so shabby.

There are other places in NYC which are fantastic for birding. Possibly at the top of any east coast list would be Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is reachable by subway from Manhattan to Queens. Other places reachable by subway are the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Prospect Park, Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx for example. And, if you are lucky enough to have a car, you can venture out to Long Island and check out some of the great places along Fire Island. One place in particular in the fall, Robert Moses State Beach, there is a great Hawk watch where you get a chance to see accipiter flights and in early October there is a falcon migration peek and you see Kestral, Merlin, and Peregrine regularly. It is a great place to see a lot of falcons barreling through going south.

It is at the western end of Fire Island that I did my first chase. I had made a number of friends on the Fire Island Hawk Watch. There are some really great people monitoring this watch. One of them, was a great deal of fun to be with: Bobby Kurtz. I have never met any birder more enthusiastic than Bobby. With each new exciting species, he was like a kid at Christmas. Well, this adventure starts out on Thanksgiving weekend 1984. That Friday, I was working out in the gym in my building. And, mid-bench press, my wife comes bursting in the gym, and she teases like no one else. "Uh, you got a very excited, crazy call upstairs." (Pause) She's smiling, very slyly. "Yes", I responded. "Some very overly enthusiastic birding friend of yours just called with some important information." "OK, who was it?" "A Bobby Kurtz?" "What did he say?" "There is some really rare bird down at Jones Beach". "What kind of rare bird?" (I really didn't know if she was pulling by leg or not. She had this sly smile on her face.) "Well, I think you should put the weights down and go up stairs and give him a call - it's about some sort of falcon?" "Falcon?" "Yeah, a Gyrfalcon?" "WHAT?" "I think that's what he said." I cannot tell you how fast I got upstairs, because even running, I had to wait for some elevator to carry me to the 42nd floor.

Gyrfalcon
Gyrfalcon, Courtesy of Audubon.org

"Hey Bobby!" "Hi, Lou!" "What's up?" "You gotta hop on the train tomorrow and meet me because we've got a Gyrfalcon out here, at Jones Beach!" "Wow, ABSOLUTELY!, what do I have to do?" "Get on the first train to Freeport, Long Island, I'll meet you and we'll drive down to the beach." Well, I wasn't going to be kept from having a good time. I knew that I had to get up at 4 am and take the subway down to Penn Station and catch a Long Island Rail Road train to Freeport. This also meant that I had to switch trains in Jamaica, Queens to continue this trip out to Freeport. I was so excited, I don't think I slept at all that night. So, when the alarm went off at 4, it barely rang before I shut it off so as to not disturb my wife that much. At that hour, in November, it was still pretty dark out. I got dressed for possible really cold weather, because of being at the beach in late autumn. It actually wasn't that cold out. And, the great thing about NYC is that the subways run at all hours. I bought a train ticket which left the station around five-ish. I met Bobby at the station in Freeport, who was having a hard time containing himself with his excitement, which only made me more crazy.

It was a relatively short ride from Freeport, zipping down the Meadowbrook State Parkway to Jones Beach. And as you enter the park itself, there is what could be described as a replica of the Washington Monument in the traffic circle. So we parked the car and walked around as the day was getting sun. And, looking up at this structure, near the top, before all the sides come to a point, there are open windows. It had been reported that the bird was using that as a roost. When we started to look at one of the windows which was for a second empty, the falcon flew in and perched on the sill. Yikes! Bobby and I were jumping around the parking lot like a couple of six year olds. We were looking at a bird which seemed to be very robust and stocky in build. It was not nearly as streamlined as the Peregrine. We got such great looks, as it was extremely cooperative just perched there. So, we could analyze what we were watching. It was a juvenile grey race bird. It didn't have the clear head and mustache pattern that Peregrines, Prairies and Kestrals have. The breast and belly was heavily streaked, the mantle was grey and the long tail was banded. It did that head bobbing thing that I've come to see falcons do. We just starred in awe for a long time.

And then it took off over the water to the north. The pigeons, gulls, ducks, Canada Geese and Brant were pretty nervous. It seemed to have strong, steady, measured wing beats - slower than a Peregrine and seemingly much more powerful. And, it turned around and flew back into the tower, where, a few seconds later, it was met by its smaller cousin, a Peregrine. Now, this was really fun to watch. A rather short territorial match. There was a bit of an aerial dog fight with neither bird getting the upper hand and then it was over. The Peregrine, however, did hang around on a different side of the tower. It was really neat to compare the two birds, and there is no question as to which is bigger and more powerful. The Peregrine is just faster. We spent the entire morning watching this northern visitor. We would see it fly out over the inlet to the north of Jones Beach and make attempts to pick up a Brant. This seemed more like an intimidation tactic than anything else. I will say that on subsequent visits, it did hunt Brant, Coots, Canada Geese, ducks and pigeons. This bird had a huge smorgasbord of bird varieties to feast on.

So much to feast on, that the falcon spent the entire winter of '84-'85 in that tower eating whatever it caught. Previous to this run to try and see this special treat, I had become a member of the NYC Audubon chapter. And, I got on the field trip committee. And, several times that winter, I took people out to see their first Gyrfalcon. And, each time we went, within minutes that bird would be in that tower. On one occaision, there were about one hundred people around that traffic circle looking up at that bird. The day Bobby and I went, we were the only ones. That Gyrfalcon was so cooperative all winter. If it was out foraging, it would always return to that tower. It was a big sensation that stayed until the end of March 1985. No one harrassed it, because the perch was more than one hundred feet up in the air. I actually didn't realize, at the time, I was doing a "chase". I initially thought that I was going out to find a new species for my life list. I did realize that it was a rare find. And, in the short time that I had been seriously birding, birds of prey were my weak spot. I had to see them. I did go after this because I thought it might be a once in a lifetime bird species for me. Little did I know that I would see four more years later.

What this did do for me, in any case, it started a fervor to go and track down as much as I can, any doable rare bird. So, at one point, especially when I moved to California, it became an obsession. When I first moved here, I met a few birders who were gung-ho about chasing and we would burn up the roads in the south-west and the west. It's exciting and depending on who you do it with, it can be a lot of fun. Most of the folks I used to do this with, have moved to the east coast, so I don't do it much anymore . Not that I don't want to - it's just that my truck is older now, and it's hard to rustle up folks who would be interested in perhaps driving long distances. I try to convince people that I have a really good track record doing chases. Since those days in NYC, and about thirty years of doing chases, I've only missed two target birds. That may put me at 98 percent.

Chases have their own particular type of adrenalin rush: the excitement of planning one, whether the chase is immediate or a few days away. There is a bit of individual antsyness, while driving in the car, depending on your temperament. Not to mention the possibility of tossing and turning the night before, depending on where you rank in your head the species you are going to see. Sometimes a long trip may not seem to take as long for you, if you tend to get a little crazy about these things. And, then again, a long trip may seem to be incredibly long and never ending, if you tend to get a little crazy about these things. Personally, when I arrive at the designated area for the bird, I don't like to dally around. I want to go directly to find the bird. I get tunnel vision and super focused. Leisurely birding can take place after the target bird is found. Sometimes, if you get sidetracked, you can miss your target altogether. I've seen that happen (which is possibly a subject for another article).

The other point is that it can be loads of fun and tremendously rewarding. And, a great excuse for celebration. I've done some crazy chases with friends. And, if I hadn't, I would have missed a Northern Hawk-Owl in Spokane, Washington, a Falcated Duck at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, a Blue Mockingbird and Eared Quetzal in south-east Arizona, Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Jenner, California, on the Russian River. I caught the first year of "Al" the Laysan Albatross in Point Arena, a Little Bunting in San Diego, a Rustic Bunting in Hoopa, an Ivory Gull at Grover Beach, a Common Cuckoo in Watsonville, and a Siberian Accentor in a snow storm in a yard in Hailey, Idaho. That's just a sample of my fun ride, chasing.

That gyrfalcon became my favorite bird, and remains my favorite species. I've had some wonderful chases and seen birds I never thought I would get a chance to see. And, that's what's so great about it. A rare duck can be someone's treasure, as some little sparrow may be. Whatever you find dear to you, is dear to you and no one can take that away. It'll put a smile on your face, and brighten up your countenance; and, you have the right to do with it as you wish. You can share your excitement with others or keep it to yourself. Whatever you decide, it's up to you. I'll tell you this, everyone should at least try one chase. See and feel what it does for you. There's a chance that some bird may thrill you. Another little word about my friend, Bobby Kurtz: I believe that everyone needs a birding friend like Bobby. His enthusiasm is so child like. It's infectious in the best possible way. With him each outing became an exciting adventure, whether it's at Montauk Point, while you're freezing looking at beautiful sea ducks and gannets in the winter. Or, you're at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania watching migrating flights of so many of the eastern bird of prey species. Or, down at beautiful Cape May, New Jersey watching so many different types of birds migrate through the Atlantic flyway. With Bobby, it's a lot of fun.

For me it proved that birding can really be exciting. Each species has its charm, allure, and its own special beauty; whether it's a Wood Duck or a Vesper Sparrow. Watch them. Take it all in. Don't just tick it off your list. Watch their behavior (if it will let you). Sometimes when some bird flits about, it can be hard; but, that's part of the process. Sometimes, they make you work, and at other times, they cooperate. And, when you've had your fill, you walk or drive away from it. My life "Gyr" was very cooperative that winter of '84-'85. And, each time, watching it, was thrilling and unlike any other - always something new about it to observe. Cheers!

Falcated Duck
Falcated Duck, Photo Courtesy Audubon.org


 

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