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Northern Race
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2008


On Wednesday I was in Central Park when I checked my email and saw that a Northern Wheatear had been reported in Loweville, a town above Utica. It was 11am, and having just driven down from Utica the day before I knew it would be at least five hours up there...sunset was at 6:15....it would take an hour back to Brooklyn by train...I could just make it! Assuming of course that the bird stayed put. I was back home by 12:15, downloaded a couple of podcasts, and out the door by 12:30. On the way up I was checking my email and rerouting my google maps every 30 minutes or so. Several email updates assured me that the bird was being cooperative and hanging around...but google maps kept telling me it was a longer drive than I thought it should be. I pushed the car a little faster - I find that 10mph over the speed limit or less and the cops leave you alone...so I was at 74 mph the whole way. As I came in to Utica I judged the daylight left with my fingers (each finger that the sun sits above the horizon is about 15 minutes)...I still had a chance. My gas gauge was getting dangerously low, but I didn't dare stop for fear that I would show up a minute after the bird left...and yes, this does happen, so not a totally unfounded worry. Finally I was up at the farm where it was seen, and saw a couple of other cars there...a good sign...I was out of the car and running, and there it was, a Northern Wheater, perched up on a woodpile. In the photo below the woodpile is on the left and you can just barely make out the bird on top.


It was about 5:30, so the sun was setting and the light was beautiful, and the bird was extremely tame. I was hesitant to get too close at first, but the other birders assured me that this one wasn't going anywhere, so I was able to stand about fifteen feet away with a couple of other photographers and get great photos. After a bit the other birds left and I was alone with the Wheatear, when it hopped down on the ground and then swooped up and perched on a post not five feet away. I didn't have a camera in hand so I was actually forced to stand perfectly still and just watch...we looked at each other for a few moments, each curious about the other. For me it was the first time I'd seen a Wheatear, a probable weeks-old bird that had probably just flown down from the barren fields of the Far North, and the bird probably looking at a close-up human being for the first time in it's life. After a few moments, the photographer in me took over--I lost my cool and tried to reach for a camera, and the bird flushed back to the woodpile.

Tom Magarian, who had reported the bird, came back and invited me to join him and Tom Carrolan to check on the bird radar station he monitors. We headed up in his car to the base of one of the many giant wind turbines that dot the landscape there. Being at the base of the turbine was awesome, and I didn't grasp the scale of these giants until I was underneath one. They are comprable to the Statue of Liberty, if the Statue of Liberty was slowly swinging her arms around in a circle. There are little flags around the base that warn you not to get to close, since the turbine itself can have an energy field around it. In the picture at the right you can see my car and a small trailer, and the trailer is the radar station. It has two antenna that spin, the type you see on top of larger boats, on on top of the trailer and one attached to the side, so that there is both a horizontal and vertical reading. The radar can pick up the movement of birds, and give a good idea of the scale, altitude and timing of migrational movement.

After checking that everything was working with the radar, we went back down to town and had dinner. Both Toms have done counting at hawk watches and at Cape May (in addition to other things), so it was edifying to listen to them talk about any bird subject. Counting at Cape May is kind of a college education in bird identification...Cape May is one of the, if not the, best spots for birds on the East Coast, and the counters spend all day, most days, for a couple of months, counting and ID-ing the birds that pass by. By the time you're done you may have seen hundreds or thousands of birds that you might only see a handful of in a year elsewhere, plus rarities that are seen almost nowhere else. In addition, Cape May is a central focus for some of the most famous birders in the field, and apparently it's not uncommon to run into people like David Sibley or Pete Dunn. It's hard to imagine a better way to improve one's skills and knowledge about birds and birding.