By Joe Trezza
Rare birds are the ultimate puppet-masters.
Whether it be a dazzling harlequin duck in North Dakota or a mountain bluebird – as it is on this cold January day – misplaced just outside the old airport in Calverton, thousands of miles from its home, our feathered friends have the innate ability to show up where we least expect and in turn, to thrust us completely from our everyday lives in an attempt to see them.
The power is this tiny thrust is exceptionally fascinating. No more than eight inches long, it harnesses the pulling power of the Moon. Somewhere in its delicate frame it finds the strength to drag two dozen hardy souls from several states in the dead of winter out to the front of a frozen strip of pines outlining a one lane highway that leads to the end of the world. On the side of this highway they stand, bundled and shivering. Arsenals of binoculars point across the road at the chain fence surrounding a vacant field the bird has been frequenting, locked, loaded and ready to shoot, for hours upon the bird’s return. Dozens of birders have braved the weather over the past week to get a glimpse of the bluebird, which is making its first appearance in New York State in seven years.
The wind starts to pick up and shake the pines behind us. A mustached birder on the far end of the strip, here all the way from Massachusetts, turns around to peer into a small opening in the vegetation. Everything is hunkered down in the underbrush, hiding as much from the temperature as they are for the sharp-shinned hawk that makes a flying pass over the area every fifteen minutes or so. When something winged darts up momentarily into the clearing ten opportunistic birders, strung out on the disappointment of the no-show bluebird, rush to the scene with bins in hand, anxious to see if the commotion will result in some sort of consolation prize. Then the dust settles. I’ve never seen people get so worked up over a white-throated sparrow.
Ricky and I have driven in from the city. We’ve both seen mountain bluebird before, years ago out west, so we’re not as desperate as Mustache Man for the little sucker to show. Still a rare bird is an event and an excuse to get out, so we made the trip, joining the rest of the people puppets at around 9 am.
They move whenever something moves, even if there’s no chance at it being the bird. Mountain bluebirds are sky blue and like open areas with space to catch insects. If this one’s around, he’ll stick out against the winter sky like a squirrel on skates. What nobody seems to get is that he won’t be in the trees behind us or in the shrubs below them. They keep turning around.
Hours pass. This bird isn’t showing up; I start to tell people that. Most shoot back dirty looks but one agrees, a nice older man in mittens, who tells us about a snowy owl seen earlier in the morning at Montauk Point.
Snowy owls are rare in southern New York. In fact, they only come down from up north when lemming populations plummet on their arctic feeding grounds. Every five years or so these “interruptive” winters happen and birders rejoice. But even then, many who find owls won’t report their locations because they think photographers will scare them away. It’s only through lucky word-of-mouth that most birders hear about snowys. By the time noon rolls around we dip on the bluebird and head east.
Montauk. To some it’s the edge of civilization. Over one hundred miles from Manhattan, the Island’s race to the sea finally ends in a town so small it holds more millionaires than pizzerias. The famously picturesque lighthouse at its very point fittingly represents the place’s opulence.
Even more impressive than the beachside mansions is the sea itself, whose northern and southern waves meet below the lighthouse, resulting in a clash of watery titans that need to be seen to be believed. Cold ocean waters from the east and south mesh violently with warmer currents pushed out of the Sound, creating some of the most treacherous surf swells this side of Cape Hatteras.