Despite everything – birds!

19 03 2010

The Park - West Side Highway NYC

After finding myself sans power on Sunday after the pretty devastating storm which hit Fairfield County on Saturday last week I retreated back to New York City  to stay with my girlfriend for a few days. She lives just a stones throw from the West Side Highway and the Hudson River in what real estate agents like to call Chelsea (it’s a fine line up there!!!). With winter finally appearing to break, I decided to see whether the glut of spring migrants I was expecting to follow the clearing of the ‘blocking weather’ that the storm had caused would even touch down on the little strips of ‘park’ that exist between 30th and 20th Streets just blocks from her house. Amazingly I was not to be disappointed, in what amounts to little more than a smattering of trees, a few patches of lawn and some areas that construe some type of ‘natural’ habitat there were birds to be found.

I’ve always had a soft spot for urban and suburban birding, perhaps because I’ve always been a city boy. There is also something beautiful and gratifying about discovering birds eking out a living in places that just seem so relatively unlikely. I love finding birds wedged between the industrial wastelands of Stratford and enjoy heading into the Big Apple to see the throngs of migrants that touch down in Central Park each year. I think there is something gratifying in seeing these birds making the most of a bad job and carrying on regardless of the obstacles that we have placed in their way. Here on the West Side Highway I’d discovered a Central Park in miniature. This little scratch of ‘habitat’ held a few migrant birds, probably somewhat shell shocked to find themselves flying over an endless concrete, steel and glass metropolis as sun rose they had flocked to what provided a best of a bad bunch choice that morning.

As I turned the corner off of the cycle path and into the pedestrianized area of the park I spotted my first true sign of spring, a lively Eastern Phoebe perched on a chickenwire fence scanning eagerly for flying insects. As I watched it, it flew a few times dipping down to the ground to inspect for morsels before again alighting on a conspicuous lookout perch. Phoebes to me are the real sign of spring – forget blackbirds they are always to be found should one look hard enough in winter, but the chances of a Phoebe making it through a full winter in the Northeast are pretty much slim to none. The bird called a few times as they always seem to do early in the season before the break into their full ‘song’, such as it is. A magical moment as my spring started with the accompaniment of the drone of West Side Highway traffic and the overhead throb of private helicopters touching down on the helipad just a few hundred yards upstream.

For me I guess part of the joy of seeing birds in this kind of environment is the incongruousness of it all. The idea of something completely wild showing up in the most unlikely of places. These migrants aren’t city birds like the pigeons, gulls and house sparrows but mere tourists on their way to something more recognizably home to them. I do sometimes wonder what they are thinking when they find themselves confronted with these somewhat confusing and hostile surrounds. As I arrived in the park I watched one unidentified passerine jump off from the park and head up into the great unknown northwards into the city. I found myself wanting to shout after him to come back and stick it out here from the day as it wasn’t going to find that it got much better. That said though in 30 or 40 blocks it might have spotted the haven of Central Park and spent the day hanging out with some more of its feathered brethren in much quieter and more appealing surrounds than a splash of greenery jammed between the dirty river and the constant cacophony of New York traffic.

Anyway the sight of these few waifs and strays on New Yorks west side made me think that this park might be a fun little place to check out over the spring to see what might possibly turn up. As well as the Eastern Phoebes (I found a second a little further down), the park also held 2 somewhat noteworthy Fox Sparrows, a handful of common sparrows: Junco, White-throated and Song, as well as an American Robin and a couple of Mockingbirds (staking out territory?) On the water as well as the ubiquitous three common gull species and Canada Geese were a flock of over 100 migrating Brant and a couple of American Black Ducks. I see a new bird list forming – West Side Park birds. An adventure to be continued…