Molting Northern Cardinal

It had been a long time since I birded Central Park. It had been a long time since I’d seen any warblers besides Yellow and Nashville; it had been a long time since I’d seen any Northern Cardinals or Blue Jays, period. And yet the weather, holding steady at Too Hot and Too Humid, didn’t seem to promise anything but frustration as early September crawled along and the days of my vacation counted down. Birders can chase and lure, scrutinize and organize, but we can’t control the weather, and so like all weather-dependent activities birding is a vital reminder of our lack of omnipotence, both humbling and liberating.

In theory. When you’re actually putting up with it, it is just very frustrating. So when a cold front finally managed to push through, bringing rain and wind, I decided to violate a major rule of vacations and get up early the next morning.

Starting off at Strawberry Fields, I dodged a slooooow tour group and was almost immediately rewarded by a Black-and-White Warbler, followed closely by an American Redstart and an eye-level Magnolia Warbler that really brought home to me how very out-of-shape the warbler i.d. lobe of my brain has become. A flock of Blue Jays bounced through, and a flock of Common Grackles. Then I almost ran into a man peeing in a bush, and I knew I was really back in New York.

Next stop, of course, was the Ramble. After dodging around a wedding and sadly finding no Black-crowned Night Herons in the spot where I had come to expect them, I found another flock of warblers — more Magnolias, more Redstarts, a Wilson’s, a Mourning in incredibly frustrating plumage, and one of the prominent contenders for my all-time favorite warbler species, the Black-throated Blue. I also ran into a local birder who was unimpressed when I gushed about how much I was enjoying my morning — until I explained that I was from Montana.

Well, I am sort of am from Montana now, I guess. At least judging by how excited the ratty red-brown new crop of Northern Cardinals made me as they kept crossing my path.

The jaded New York birder told me about a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that I failed to find, a Yellow Chat that I failed to find, and perhaps most bitterly of all, an adult Red-headed Woodpecker that I failed to find despite following two other birders, one of whom had seen the bird that very day.

It was now creeping into the afternoon, and I was hungry, so I made my way out of the Ramble (dodging another wedding) and headed south. My last species in the park was Wood Duck, which we have in Montana too but which is always fun to see.

Oh, and there was one other birdy thing that happened in New York City. Anyone have any idea what species this is?

Tattoo of heron

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at