Vernal Variety Show

The seasonal shift from late winter to early spring is always a bit of an awkward transitional period. The weather slowly lurches towards warmer averages in fits and starts, with sunny spells and favorable winds unceremoniously broken up by sudden cold snaps and chilly rains. Wintering birds tend to leave much faster than new spring migrants start arriving, which can result in long, quiet stretches without much activity of note. Nevertheless, the weeks framing the vernal equinox are a time of cautious anticipation. While March may not be as dramatically lively as May, or even April, it is not a month without its charms. 

While the overall diversity of birds on the move during the first phase of migration is fairly low, the key players involved are generally high-quality species. Eastern Phoebes, American Woodcocks, and a wide array of waterfowl begin to increase in abundance at this time of year. Birds of prey also feature prominently among the preliminary season highlights. The beginning of March delivered a pair of Black Vultures cruising past my Astoria rooftop and a handsome Red-shouldered Hawk passing low over the Randall’s Island ballfields. The clear star of the show in this month, however, is one of our most beloved local birds, the Osprey. Despite lengthy migratory routes which can take them as far as South America, these iconic raptors are consistently among the earliest and most conspicuous arrivals each year. I eagerly look forward to the return of these celebrated heralds of spring all winter long, and my first sighting of 2024 featured a trio of travelers who plunged, one by one, into Southards Pond, snagging some takeout trout and perch before resuming their journey north. In the days since that initial encounter, I have already seen a number of Ospreys reestablishing territorial claims and touching up their nest sites throughout the region. Additional hints of breeding season preparations have included my local kestrel pair, who have been seen canoodling extensively at their favored perches around my apartment, and the Astoria Park Red-tails, who are hard at work constructing a new nest on the RFK Bridge. 

The final throes of winter also present a great opportunity for catching up with rarities, whether by searching for lingering winter visitors before they skip town or by seeking out newly arrived vagrants as shifting conditions start to shuffle the deck a bit. This year, I was fortunate enough to engage in both varieties of chases. I managed to connect with Brooklyn’s first record of Rufous Hummingbird at Prospect Park in late February, my long overdue state-first Western Grebe at Staten Island in early March, and a delightfully green Painted Bunting during a St. Patrick’s Day stroll at Hempstead Lake with Dad and Andrew. The most noteworthy sighting of the season, however, turned out to be a repeat from 2023. In the last days of February, the NYC birding community was stunned by the discovery of a Swainson’s Hawk at an industrial recycling center on the Brooklyn waterfront, the exact same site where the young individual I initially met in Staten Island eventually relocated. The wayward raptor treated me to a close, cooperative flyby when I dropped in to pay it a visit, and my photos were sufficient to confirm that the plumage details were strikingly consistent, give or take a year of molt and wear. I never would have imagined that I would see this particular bird again, but its triumphant return was a welcome bright spot at a time when most of the news surrounding the City’s raptors was notably negative. The natural world is always full of surprises!

Though not quite as grand in scale as these dramatic headliner vagrants, I am personally rather invested in the ongoing saga of my own little local rarity. A stray overwintering Nashville Warbler, which I initially discovered on the first day back to work in 2024, resurfaced unexpectedly after several weeks without any confirmed sightings. With the arrival of the vernal equinox, this little songbird has become increasingly more active, chipping constantly and flitting about conspicuously in the tangled brush that lines the railroad tracks behind the school. I have done my best to document my guest as best I can for as long as it stays with us. The western and eastern populations of Nashville Warbler seem to be fairly genetically distinct, so there may come a day when the question of where this bird came from becomes more relevant for listing purposes. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on just how identifiable these subspecies are in the field, with various sources speculating on the reliability of perceived minor differences in plumage details, call notes, and behavior. As of now, the only surefire way to distinguish between the two is by song. I continue to hold out some hope that increasingly warmer weather and sunnier conditions might prompt this individual to start tuning up soon, but regardless of the final outcome this bird’s extended holiday at my schoolyard has been a delightful and instructive experience.

Of course, birds are not the only creatures that start to stir as winter begins to fade, and indeed many other species are reaching their seasonal peak while avian migration is still weeks away from prime time. This year, I was thrilled to reacquaint myself with the incredible and underappreciated world of vernal pools. These ephemeral wetlands typically form deep within the woods as water from snowmelt and early spring rains collects in low-lying areas. A number of amphibians are vernal pool specialists, traveling overland from their hidden haunts in the forest to lay their eggs in a safe location devoid of predatory fish. When the ponds dry up over the course of the summer, the larvae metamorphose and set out on their own, eventually returning to the same site when they themselves have matured. I was fascinated by the concept of vernal pools from the moment I first read about them in my childhood, but I did not get to enjoy an in-depth, hands-on experience with this marvelous ecosystem until I went to college. Warm, wet nights at the start of spring brought hordes of Spotted and Jefferson Salamanders out of their underground lairs, slowly making their way across the soggy golf courses and roadways around Cornell’s campus. Attendance at this mass migration event that was a time-honored tradition during my undergrad career, but in the intervening years my vernal pool encounters have sadly been few and far between.

Like a subterranean amphibian emerging from the Earth after a long period of dormancy, my love for this remarkable hidden world began to resurface as the weather warmed in the early months of 2024. The inciting incident was an unexpected invitation to join a nighttime search for Tiger Salamanders out on the East End. I was vaguely aware that this state-endangered species could still be found in a few isolated pockets around Long Island, but I had never considered that the opportunity to see them for myself might be so readily accessible. In February, I tagged along on a South Fork Natural History Museum guided walk, which was also attended by Ryan, Adrian, and a ragtag contingent of Cornell’s Herp Club. We successfully located several of the footlong, boldly patterned salamanders at their kettle pond hideaway, and I quickly found myself getting hooked on vernal pool life all over again. Come March, I was making intentional expeditions around the Island to track down secretive amphibians, adding Four-toed, Northern Two-lined, and Blue-spotted Salamander to my life list. Overdue reunions with Eastern Red-backed Salamander, Red-spotted Newt, and my beloved Spotted Salamanders, the species that started it all, rounded out my springtime salamandering efforts quite nicely. Spending time with herps provides such a delightful contrast with birding: searching for silent, unobtrusive crawlers under logs and in the water rather than watching vibrant, conspicuous creatures winging their way through the air or bouncing through the foliage. The variety of activities on offer for the curious naturalist is always appreciated, and I am already looking forward to spending some time seeking out additional targets during the summer and into the fall.

A recent nocturnal survey in the woodlands of Nassau County, courtesy of my friend Stephane, turned up a wide array of additional seasonal treasures. Along with a handful of the aforementioned Spotted Salamanders, the vernal pools we examined hosted the first singing Spring Peepers of the season, several pairs of Wood Frogs actively engaged in amplexus, and impressive numbers of Springtime Fairy Shrimp. High-pitched squeaks, just barely detectable even in the still, windless conditions, directed my attention to the antics of Southern Flying Squirrels, and my thermal scope even revealed the presence of an active nest cavity way up the trunk of a towering tree. Even with this surprising observation taken into account, the biggest shock of the evening came from my first introduction to a phenomenon which was only recently discovered by science. As we walked through the forest, Stephane let me man his bat detector, an incredible device that renders the inaudible vocalizations of echolocating bats perceptible to human ears. A built-in, Merlin-esque spectrogram recognition feature provides some insight into the variety of species present, which would normally defy identification as mysterious, fluttering shadows in the gloom. During our search efforts that night, Stephane and I repeatedly recorded a distinctive pattern of calls that is now known to represent the song of the Silver-haired Bat. There are still many questions to be answered about the primary function, seasonal timing, and performance context for these newly recognized batsongs, but the opportunity to “hear” this charming night music for myself undoubtedly left me filled with joyous wonderment. There is still so much to see and so much to learn about this extraordinary planet of ours, even in our own backyards!

With the official vernal equinox now behind us and April just a few days away, the spring season is finally starting to heat up in earnest. The true peak of pre-breeding migration is still a fair ways out, but I am perpetually grateful for the small, magical moments that even the quietest seasonal doldrums can produce. My Marches seem to pass a bit more quickly in recent years, now that I have focused my energies on making the most of them rather than bemoaning the relative lack of excitement. As cliché as it may sound, there truly is always something exciting going on in the natural world. There is never a shortage of new, inspiring, and wondrous encounters waiting to be experienced, if only one knows where to look.