For the Birds: Global Big Day, 19 Species and Two Winter Squalls in May

By Brian Kluepfel

I find myself shivering in a wooden hut on the edge of the river; it is where two years ago I scrawled a missive to a higher power, asking that my new marriage be blessed. Today, I’m just praying for the snow to stop.

I’ve come to the Mariandale Center to count birds, as many thousands did last Saturday in honor of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Global Big Day. This is an annual event to encourage use of the lab’s e-bird, a tracking app which allows the user to count avian species by location. It’s what’s known as “citizen science,” where normal folk like you and I can contribute to the overall body of knowledge. It’s a nice feeling, generally.

Right now, I’m not feeling too nice, generally, as a second episode of icy gusts batter the little mediation hut. (It’s a nice hut, but has no door and the opening is allowing some of the nasty weather to come in.) Like the earlier squall which drove us back to our car and my wife home, this weather event is over in about 10 minutes. Time to get back to birding.

Today should be an optimal day for spring migrants, but then again, nobody counted on it being 34 degrees on May 9. Or on sheets of icy rain and sleet interfering with observation. My wife joked earlier that we should use last week’s sunny day list for the Big Day, but that would take all the fun out of it, wouldn’t it?

I wander to the southwest portion of the property, where some tall reeds lead down to the Croton River, right where it meets the majestic Hudson. Last week I saw a red fox darting around the water’s edge. (I’d see him later today, too.) I know this is a good spot for the yellow warbler, and sure enough, I get one in my sights. (Warblers are lovely, and bright, but move very quickly.)

Another fortunate warbler sighting is a common yellowthroat, a tiny, black-masked species with a colorful splash of yellow, too. Further down the hillside, the common “chip” of a northern cardinal signals the arrival of our bright red friend; a commonly-seen species here, but I never get tired of seeing them.

Last week we saw tree swallows (metallic blue, incredibly agile) battling an eastern bluebird for a nest box, next to Mariandale’s labyrinth. We thought the swallows had won the day, but today, lo and behold, we saw the bluebird in the box’s entryway. Huzzah! A victory for New York State’s bird, which is in serious competition with several aggressive species for survival.

This week we missed two other representative birds of Mariandale: the bald eagle, our national bird, and the wild turkey, mooted by Ben Franklin as the country’s symbol. We saw both last week, which shows how happenstance birding can be. While I was wowed by the eagles, I also took note of how incredibly beautiful the turkeys are when the sun hits them just right, reflecting about six different colors.

I take in a few other favorite species: the northern flicker, winged edged in gold, and the chuckling red-bellied woodpecker. The boisterous pileated woodpecker, a giant of the forest, remains hidden, and I refuse to use the “h.o.” (heard only) designation. I WILL see that bird one day.

I settle on 19 species, having aimed for an even 20, but satisfied that I’ve managed to see that many on a snowy May day. But the sun’ll come out tomorrow.

Brian Kluepfel is a writer for the Lonely Planet travel guide series in Latin America and a contributor to Birdwatching magazine. He edits the Saw Mill River Audubon newsletter and encourages you to join the SMRA and participate in their activities.


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