Me and Starr and the Spotted Redshank
Last Tuesday Starr Saphir added a Greater Yellowlegs [flyover] to her Central Park Life List, bringing her total to 244. Hearing about this reminded me of a story I wrote long ago for the Wall St. Journal. It was about a Spotted Redshank, a bird in the same genus as the Greater Yellowlegs. As it happens I was with Starr Saphir on the unforgettable day I saw the Redshank. I thought you might enjoy reading the piece..
A Rare Bird in Brooklyn
by Marie Winn
[from the Wall St. Journal, 1/5/93]
Late one fall in a marsh in Lapland, or perhaps it was on the banks of the Yenisey River in central Siberia -- far, far away, in any event -- a bunch of large shorebirds began to gather in flocks and wait for the right weather. A good strong wind from the northwest was what they needed to help them reach their distant wintering grounds in Southern China, Thailand or Vietnam.
One day when conditions seemed perfect they took off. But along the way a freak storm caught the flock in its path, blowing the birds completely off course. One confused young male wandered miles in the wrong direction, clear across the Bering Strait and into Alaska.
For a few days the stray bird rested and fed in the company of local shorebirds. Many belonged to his own family, sandpipers, and a few to his very genus, Tringa, but none were exactly like him. For one thing, his new companions were genetically programmed to head directly south at this season, while his own species’ inherited tendency was to go southeast, which is just what he did, making his way across an entire continent until he came to a coast.
That, quite possibly, is how a Spotted Redshank, Tringa erythropus, one of the rarest of all rare bird visitors to North America, happened to end up in a dingy little neighborhood marina in Brooklyn, New York.
On December 6th of that same year, John Yrizarry and his wife Mary, long-time Brooklyn residents, decided to make a little detour on their way home from shopping. The Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count was just a few weeks away and Mr. Yrizarry, a renowned bird artist, was in charge of one counting area. He wanted to check out a small marina near Sheepshead Bay just at the intersection of Knapp Street and Avenue X. It was an unlikely spot, but last year he had seen some Greater Yellowlegs there. These large sandpipers are common shorebirds in the area, but they’re not always around for the Christmas Count.
A Christmas count, as you may know, is an annual bird census that takes place throughout the country during the final weeks of December. It was started in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional Christmas “side hunt,” a gruesome competition during which hunters went out after Christmas dinner, chose sides, and tried to shoot as many birds as they could. Today volunteer bird lovers get together at Christmastime to count the different species of birds in an area as well as the numbers of individuals, thus providing useful scientific data about bird populations. But Christmas counts are still competitive. Brooklyn really wants to beat Montauk at the other end of Long Island in total number of species. And teams in every area dream of finding a rare bird.
At the marina, Mr. Yrizarry immediately sighted some Greater Yellowlegs roosting on a broken-down wooden float in the murky water. The birds were asleep. He focused his binoculars on them for a moment. Then he rushed back to the car where his wife, a birdwatcher as well, was waiting patiently with the groceries.
“Mary! Get out! Five yellowlegs and one of them has red-orange legs!” he exclaimed. If this bird was what he thought it was, then it fell into the category described by Kenn Kaufman in his Field Guide to Advanced Birding as “a cosmic mindbender.”
Using a telescope he keeps in the trunk of his car for just such contingencies, Mr. Yrizarry now noted other signs suggesting that the bird, though closely resembling a yellowlegs, was in fact an excitingly different creature. There was less streaking on the crown, for one thing, and a longer eyeline.
Just then the mystery bird raised its head. Mr. Yrizarry quickly inspected its bill before the bird tucked it away again and resumed sleeping. Yes, a droop to the tip as if it had been hit by a hammer. And yes, bright red-orange on half the lower mandible. That was the clincher. Only one bird has all those features, and Mr. Yrizarry had last seen it in 1974 on his honeymoon with Mary. But that was in Europe where the bird is a regular visitor. Here was another one just a short drive from home. Mr. Yrizarry turned to his wife and said: “Do you know, I believe we have a Spotted Redshank here.”
Within minutes of his discovery Mr. Yrizarry reported the bird it to the Rare Bird Alert, a telephone hotline for unusual bird sightings. Birders from far and wide flocked to the spot. Then two days later the bird vanished.
On December 18th, , the day before the Christmas Count, the Spotted Redshank reappeared at the Knapp Street marina. There it was spotted in turn by Starr Saphir, one of the city’s best birders and the captain of one of the 13 teams of the Brooklyn count. Just before notifying the Rare Bird Alert that the redshank was back, she called Dorothy Poole, a friend who would be on her team the next day. When you think that some birders go all the way to Madagascar to acquire a new bird for their life list, it is not surprising that Ms. Poole dropped everything at the Manhattan office where she works as a market researcher and flagged a taxi to take her to the southeast corner of Brooklyn.
Word of the redshank’s return spread rapidly. Even before sunrise on December 19th , the day of the count, three birders had already set up telescopes at the marina. Six Greater Yellowlegs were there too, sleeping on the float. But no Spotted Redshank.
By 3:00 that afternoon a sizable crowd of disappointed redshank seekers were gathered at the marina. Rick Cech, a vice president at J. P. Morgan & Co. and a notable birder, was among them. He was the organizer of the Brooklyn count and he badly wanted a redshank on Brooklyn’s list. That would settle Montauk’s hash At almost 4:30, just as everyone was about to call it a day, a young man from Starr Saphir’s team appeared with a breathless message: “We have it!” I was the fourth member of that team. We had counted thousands of common birds all day, Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, Mallards and Brant, first at Rockaway Inlet and then at the huge Marine Park golf course. At a few minutes after 4:00 we reached a little saltwater pond just east of a semi-wild promontory called Plumb Beach. It was our last stop on the count – the sun would be setting within the next half hour.
As we approached we could see three birds feeding in the mud at the water’s edge. Without much hope we peered at them through binoculars. And almost at the same moment we realized that the smallest of those three birds was the redshank. It had bright red-orange legs. It scuttled about a bit more nervously than the other two. We watched it for another moment or two, just to be sure, and an odd, slightly creepy yet exhilarated feeling came over us. We gathered closer and hugged each other. Then our youngest teammate, a graduate student named David Krauss, raced to his car to get word to the crowd at the Knapp Street marina..
The light was rapidly fading by the time the others arrived. They could barely make out the color of the bird’s legs, but they could easily see the differences in size and behavior. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that our bird was the Spotted Redshank.
One of those late arrivals introduced herself to me in the lowering light: Anna Kozlenko, a visiting ornithologist from the Moscow Research Institute of Natural History and Conservation. She had seen a Spotted Redshank only once before in her life. It was late last May, she told me, on the banks of the Yenisey River in central Siberia. I felt a chill. We exchanged a look and I knew we were both thinking the same astonishing thought.
Montauk chalked up 130 species on their Christmas count that year. Brooklyn had only 128. But one of them was a Spotted Redshank.