Every December at this time, across the country (and now several other countries) birders are preparing for the world's most extensive nature survey - The Christmas Bird Count. I've been participating since 1995, except for 2002, when my arm was in a cast. Brooklyn's count was this past Saturday and I might have missed that one, too.
On Friday, I was putting on my coat and about to leave the house for an appointment when my cellphone rang. I didn't recognize the telephone number and considered letting it go to voicemail. When I picked up a woman on the other end said, "Is this Rob Jett, Robin's husband?" I replied, "What is this in reference to?" She repeated, "Is this Robin's husband?" "Who's calling please?" The voice at the other end of the line said, "There's been an accident." The bottom of my stomach dropped out. My mouth and throat were suddenly so dry that I could barely speak. The woman said in a very calm, reassuring voice that she had been hit by a taxi, but that she seemed OK. I wanted to run out the door, but knew it would be pointless. She was at the intersection of 57th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, I was in Brooklyn. I started to feel a little better when I heard Robin's voice in the background. In addition, the kind stranger who stopped to help my wife as she lay in the middle of the crosswalk was a retired nurse. That also helped to ease my mind a bit. An ambulance was en route and she would call once they knew the location of the hospital. She hung up and I began pacing around the apartment. The next call was from my wife. She calmly told me that she was going to St. Luke's on 59th Street. Then she commenced cursing the cab driver and how she wanted to kill the jerk. She sounded fine.
We spent the remainder of the day in the Emergency Room. There were no cuts or abrasions, but the X-rays revealed that her most serious injury was a fractured shoulder. She said that her whole body was hurting. I imagine that it felt like getting hit by an NFL tackle ... only you're not wearing any padding. I said to the attending nurse, "I guess this isn't the first time you've seen a patient who had been hit by a taxi." She said that I'd be surprised how many come in. No, I wouldn't.
Robin didn't want to take a taxi home (go figure), so we took the subway. Her right arm was in a sling, so I held her left arm as she limped onto the subway car. She immediately turned to a young woman in a seat at the end of the car and said, "I was just literally hit by a cab. Could you get up and give me your seat?" She may be down, but she's definitely not out.
That night I told her that I planned to drop out of the Christmas Bird Count to stay home with her. She insisted that she would be fine and I would be silly not to go. We went back and forth like that for a few minutes until I relented. She just wanted some peace and quiet to catch up on her reading.
My alarm woke me at 5:45am. I checked the weather and the windchill was 17 degrees. I was part of the team that was covering Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. Much of our effort would be spent walking in a line across Floyd Bennett's Grassland Management Area. In the past, we've had some pretty brutal wind whipping across the fields. The 140 acre tract is part of NYC Audubons Grassland Restoration and Management Project that was spearheaded by Ron and Jean Bourque. People are restricted from walking the grassland and I feel privileged to do so during the CBC. It is one of only two large remnant grasslands in New York City.
There are also several stretches of pine barrens on Barren Island, the island where the old, decommissioned airbase was constructed. Historically, Long-eared and other owl species are found among the pines. The conifers are primarily a mono-culture of Japanese Black Pine and, for whatever reasons, they are all slowly dying off. I"m always optimistic that I'll find owls, but haven't in several years. It was a good day for diurnal raptors, however, and we observed 8 different species, a Christmas Count first for me. The best one was the blackest dark morph Rough-legged Hawk that I've ever seen. It hovered briefly over a small stretch of grassland just to the north of the park's entrance. It flew in from the north, and after a few minutes of scanning for prey, continued flying south across Rockaway Inlet towards the Rockaway Peninsula.
There was an abundance of Horned Larks in two or three flocks that seemed to be constantly on the move. Perhaps they were a bit nervous because of the abundance of predators. We were never able to locate a Lapland Longspur that has recently been seen in the company of one of the lark flocks. However, at one point Roberto, Lenore and I followed in our bins a flock of 18 Horned Larks with a single, smaller bird. Presumably, it was the longspur, but I try to avoid "what-else-could-it-be" logic.
A flock of four Eastern Meadowlarks was a species save for the borough. We usually find them after they flush during our walk across the fields. In the past, I've only had 5-second views of their stuttering flight going away from me before they drop back down into the grass and vanish from sight. Yesterday they gave us an early Christmas present when all four perched for several moments on the branches of a bare sapling in bright, early morning sunshine. It looked like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with bright, yellow ornaments.
The purpose of collecting bird data on the Christmas Bird Count is to use the information, not only to assess the health of their populations, but also the general health of our environment. In the relatively short period of time that I've been participating, I've become aware of declines in some species. I try my best to be well-informed about environmental issues, but my experience on Friday emphasized the tenuous nature of all of our existence. My wife likes to tease me by saying that I'm saving the world one bird at a time, right now I'm just thankful that one particular Robin is still here.
A big thank you to Scott Whittle for his sharp eyes during the count and permission to use his photo.
by Rob Jett for "The City Birder"