Reluctantly, I agreed to fly to New Jersey for a presscheck. Work often presents strange opportunities like this... After reviewing the press sheets and approving the color and ink density, I left the plant with the guys I was working with. My scallop dinner at a waterfront restaurant in Jersey City included conversation with the three sales reps who discussed the subtlties of barbecues and football, kids and the production issues surrounding recent SEC rulings. I tried my hardest to remain focused on the conversation, but my wandering mind led me toward the peach-colored sunset reflected in the glass buildings across the bay. It was a breath taking sight. I ate my scallops slowly and nodded my head, pretending to listen. In the foreground I saw a bird from my childhood, a Great Black-backed Gull in it's full northeastern glory. Huge and languid in its manner. A giant black and white thing, chasing two smaller bicolored things, Black Skimmers. They flew past the window and I missed another few seconds of shop talk. The guys were happy enough simply to be away from the press, drinking beer and laughing. They didn't seem to notice my absence.
This feeling, of utter absorption in the setting, would be repeated the following day when I had a full five hours to explore on my own. I haven't been to the northeast for ten years, and before that it's been a full twenty-five since I moved to California. A long time in other words... I turned left out of the plant, where I had been reviewing press sheets, and walked to Liberty State Park with great expectations. This good-sized park, about a 30 minute walk, is much like Crissy Field, I suppose, with a mile or two of rocky bayfront and large greens criss-crossed with bicycle paths and decorated with flags. A few young trees set in perfect soil circles break dot the even landscaping. What would I find? I wondered.
I had investigated the park online before my trip, gotten a sense of the habitat and immediately began formulating a plan about where to look and what to look for. I felt like I was visiting old family members, and had just one day to catch up with them all before I'd have to say goodbye again. There were so many birds I remembered from before I moved. So many acquaintences... I wanted to see American Black Duck, and did. They were right along the shore right where I'd left them 25 years ago, swimming beside several Mallards, allowing close comparison. There were also hundreds of Brant foraging on the great lawn, all showing the white belly of the eastern race, and White-throated Sparrows feeding openly and in groups, much like our Golden-crowneds. There were Laughing Gulls visible flying to and from Ellis Island, and small groups of Fish Crows scavenging on the shore, picking up scraps of whatever they could find. I was so happy to see them all again.
I strolled the waterfront, snapping pictures of the ferry building, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty in the distance. It was beautiful, and the changed landscape of Manhattan was impressive. Coast guard helicopters patrolled constantly, as did several boats deployed to keep watch over things. I kept my watch out for Great Cormorant, but it never showed. Strange, I was sure I'd see one, but maybe they were less common than I thought. The sky was clear and it was warm and muggy though, just like I remembered. I continued my walk. Forster's and Common Terns passed overhead, squawking loudly. There were also several Spotted Sandpipers, and a lone Semipalmated Sandpiper along the muddy edges of the lagoon. Green Heron stood on some drift wood and preened as Red-winged Blackbirds (with bright yellow coverts) defended their territories.
In a hundred yards from the water, the main road cut beside a lovely decidious grove, a woods, with a bright green open canopy of insect paradise. I could hear an occasional song overhead and in the underbrush, but it wasn't overwhelming like I expected. A fast moving bird, dashed through and was gone. My iPod, set to broadcast a few birds I thought might be near, had surprisingly little effect. So I resorted to pishing. Slow at first and then more intense and agitated. The response was almost immediate! Within seconds birds started to appear all over the place. First the Gray Catbird, curious and tame. Not one but three popped up from the tangle within a few feet of me. Then an American Restart, all hormonally-charged and bold, flitted about spreading his tail repeatedly in display. There was also a wave of several Black-throated Green Warblers, buzz-singing and moving deliberately from treetop to treetop. Black-throated Blue (sharply dressed in a navy and black uniform), Blackpoll, Nashville, Black-and-white... They were all there. It was an onslaught, and it seemed as if everything I focused my glasses on was an old friend.
An instant later a saw it. A brilliant flash of luminous red. Seeming to glow from inside, a stoplight-colored Scarlet Tanager appeared in the lime green branches. The sight was heart-stoppingly beauiful, and split the spectrum into a vibrant explosion of color. Arresting. Unforgettable and magnificent. For a moment or two, this was the only bird in the world and it transported me to the time I saw it for the first time at age 14 near my home in Massachusetts. I love that bird, and seeing that brilliant color changed me all over again. It's so ironic that what brought me here was a printing job. I was oveseeing the job, making sure all the colors were correct, and now standing before a bird of a color no printer can successfully duplicate.... It's humbling.
I continued along the road, and onto a trail through a small preserve. The area is much the same as the roadside woods, but allows you to enter the grove and get a better look. A cattail marsh borders it, and Marsh Wrens were singing with their New Jersey accent, quite different from ours. There were more Warblers in this area, including a Northern Waterthrush that walked toward me on the forest floor. Before I got my glasses on it, I dreamed it might be another walking Warbler, the Connecticut... I searched for Cerulean or Worm-eating as well, but they never appeared. No matter. Neon orange Baltimore as well as the deep burgundy Orchard Orioles were both present, as were several Swamp Sparrows in their full breeding plumage, which features great patches of rufous on their wings. Eastern Towhee showed up, singing loudly from the top of a bush. "Drink your tea!" Northern Cardinal, a brightly colored bird by normal standards, but dull when compared to the violent red of the Scarlet Tanager, was there with its tawny-colored mate, both quite vocal. It took me a moment to recognize their song again. It's been so long... Common Grackles were numerous wherever I looked, as were the Gray Catbirds. If it hadn't been such a long time since I'd seen them, I might have grown tired of them... Well, I suppose that isn't true. I never seem to get tired of birds, no matter how common for familiar. But I feel a special excitement at seeing birds from my life in New England. So, goodbye again, old friends. Until next time...
American Black Duck
Black-crowned Night Heron
Great Black-backed Gull
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler