What a Wonderful World

Since 1970, April 22nd has been celebrated as Earth Day around the globe. This season of spring renewal is a fitting time of year to reflect on the magnificent splendor of the natural world around us, and the annual observance serves as a crucial reminder of our place in our planet’s ecosystem. In recent years, I have seen an increase in discourse regarding Earth Day as a day of mourning rather than cause for merriment. While I certainly understand the sentiment behind this mindset, I personally believe that it is now more important than ever before to maintain a positive, if tempered, outlook when addressing the present state and imminent future of the environment. It is all too easy to find cause for despair whilst surveying the condition of Earth’s biosphere, which is why I take it upon myself as a science educator to highlight the inspirational bright spots that are often a bit harder to see. There are still wonders to be marveled at all around us in this world, and those persistent natural miracles are worth fighting to preserve. This April, in particular, has been exceptional for helping me remember that truth.

Far and away, the most prominent natural spectacle of the past month was a long-awaited event of cosmic proportions. The 2024 Total Solar Eclipse has been one of the most highly anticipated appointments on my calendar for the better part of a decade, ever since my friend Kevin’s glowing review of the totality experience in 2017 led me to swear an oath to myself that I would not miss out next time. Jacqi and I made plans to visit her brother James in Burlington for the big day, taking full advantage of the rooftop access and free parking at his house to avoid the crush of crowds in the city’s public spaces. Armed with protective eyewear and comfortable chairs, we joined his roommates for a lofty viewing party with an unobstructed view of the action. I consciously made an effort to document bird behavior leading up to, during, and after the main event, and I ended up noting some interesting observations, but this goal was obviously secondary to enjoying the eclipse itself.

As the Moon’s silhouette gradually ate away at the disc of the Sun, ambient light levels dimmed and the temperature dipped perceptibly, a familiar sensation from the partial eclipse I viewed back at home 7 years prior. Nothing could have prepared me, however, for the sudden and astonishing shift when the eclipse reached its peak. We watched, awestruck, as a vast shadow swept across the landscape from the west, shrouding our world in darkness. In all directions, the horizons were painted with the rich, golden glow of sunset, while the firmament overhead was stained a deep, dusky indigo. We gazed up in wonder at the brilliant white ring of the Sun’s corona, the gleaming centerpiece of this surreal skyscape, as it radiated out from behind the inky black void of the Moon. Dramatic solar prominences, arcs of plasma extending for hundreds of thousands of miles, appeared as motes of vibrant pink light that were visible even to the naked eye. The assembled crew of observers alternated between incoherent exclamations of amazement and moments of quiet contemplation in dumbfounded silence. There were simply no words to adequately capture the majesty of such an incredible celestial phenomenon. After more than 3 unforgettable minutes, the umbra finally passed and daylight returned, leaving us all to spend the rest of our lives reflecting on the magnitude of what we had just witnessed. It was immediately clear that none of us would ever truly be the same after such a indescribably transcendent experience.

After partaking in such a monumental collective celebration of the solar system’s mysteries, it was fortuitous, perhaps, that I had plans for smaller scale festivities in the immediate wake of the eclipse. My bachelor party was scheduled for the following weekend, concurrent with Jacqi’s bachelorette, so Friday afternoon saw us departing with our friends and family for Cairo, New York and Stonington, Connecticut, respectively. As best man, my brother Andrew did a fantastic job organizing a few days of low-key debauchery appropriate for a passel of 30-somethings, including a blend of close friends from high school, college, and beyond. Good food, good drinks, and good times were had by all. True to my established brand, however, our schedule also featured an activity that may have been a first in the world history of bachelor parties. In between rounds of Super Smash Bros., Wingspan, and beer pong, I led a few of the lads on an exploratory hike to the wooded creek outside our lakehouse lodgings in search of salamanders. We ended up locating my lifer Northern Dusky Salamanders, an adorable young Spotted Salamander, and good numbers of Eastern Red-backed and Northern Two-lined Salamanders as well as Red Efts. Non-amphibian wildlife highlights included a pair of Northern Watersnakes, a handsome Common Loon that stopped over at the lake, and my first Louisiana Waterthrush of the season. These critter encounters were merely a footnote in an entire weekend chock full of fun events, but it is always a treat to spend time in nature with my loved ones.

A sort of a sequel expedition was conducted the following weekend back home in the City. Dmitriy, Efua, and Adam joined me on a quest to the northern limits of Manhattan, where isolated populations of Northern Dusky and Eastern Red-backed Salamanders still lurk out of the sight of most New Yorkers. It might seem inconceivable that these tiny, sensitive creatures have managed to maintain a foothold in such a bustling urban environment, but to me this serves to highlight the inherent resilience of nature. If these unassuming organisms can make it here, well, perhaps they truly can make it anywhere. Life always finds a way when it is allowed the space to thrive. 

With spring migration slowly but steadily approaching its peak, the window of opportunity is wide open for unexpected vagrants to shake things up in the birding world. The biggest surprise of the season for New York, thus far, was a brilliant male Lazuli Bunting that turned up at a private feeder in Flanders, Suffolk County, home of the Big Duck. News initially broke via an ID request on Facebook, and there was some uncertainty at first as to whether the site was open for strangers to visit or if the bird was still present. When the bunting was confirmed continuing and access was officially granted for guests, my friends and I called an audible and took part in an impromptu chase. Dmitriy, Efua, and I made the drive out to the base of the South Fork, hoping to connect with the state’s second-ever record of this charming western rarity. Though we had to wait for quite a while after our arrival, we were eventually treated to wonderful views of the colorful songbird as it munched on seeds alongside more typical East Coast feeder birds. This observation marked my 413th species for my New York list, a number I scarcely dared to dream of when I first started intentionally keeping track of my home state total after graduating college in 2014. The vagaries of vagrancy ensure that marvelously unusual sightings like this one are always on the table, which is a huge part of what makes birding so special.

When the NYC Department of Education first revealed their schedule for the 2023-2024 schoolyear, teachers and students alike rejoiced at the news that spring break would be a few days longer than normal. In an effort to take full advantage of the extended time off, I schemed up plans for a solo trip upstate to the Adirondacks. Making the pilgrimage to the woodlands and wetlands of this marvelous mountain range is now a mostly annual tradition for me, and my basic itinerary for such expeditions has been refined over the course of many years. Given the exceedingly mild winter weather leading into this season, I was especially interested in investigating some of the more remote reaches of the region, which are typically inaccessible until later in the spring due to lingering snow cover or muddy meltwater. Upon arriving in the foothills of the High Peaks, I discovered that the various dirt roads and hiking trails were, as suspected, uncharacteristically high and dry. The gateway to the backcountry was open earlier than usual, providing a special opportunity to explore the wilderness with relative ease. 

Every birder who visits the Adirondacks dreams of encountering the legendary Spruce Grouse. Due to its striking looks and cryptic behavior, this iconic denizen of the boreal forest is highly sought after quarry for naturalists across the continent. In many places along the southern fringe of their extensive range, populations of these endearing wildfowl have seen precipitous declines. This is a species perfectly adapted for life in early successional woodlands, favoring areas with a mix of young and old conifers as well as dense undergrowth filled with blueberries and other shrubs. Although logging and land development pose an obvious threat to such ecosystems, the gradual maturation of forests into old growth can also result in the disappearance of suitable Spruce Grouse habitat. The natural cycle of disturbance that this species and others like it depend on is further stifled by fire suppression and the elimination of wetlands. With some forests gone, other forests too old, and increasingly hostile landscapes carving up the spaces in between, fragmented grouse populations are less capable of coping with threats like predation, disease, and the shifts in conditions associated with climate change. The New York population of Spruce Grouse is thus listed as endangered, completely isolated from its neighbors in Canada and New England and facing the risk of extirpation. 

Fortunately, conservationists in the Empire State are not the type to give up without a battle. Adirondack Spruce Grouse have been the beneficiaries of an in-depth recovery plan over the course of the past decade, with a dedicated team of researchers undertaking special efforts to preserve our beloved chickens of the woods. Translocation projects have reintroduced grouse to areas of appropriate habitat where they had previously disappeared, and active forest management strategies have been implemented to reclaim and maintain suitable movement corridors to help knit the scattered populations back together. Where the local extinction of this species once seemed imminent, there is now some hope that the bolstered numbers of Spruce Grouse might yet be able to hold on. Sightings have become much more frequent in recent years, a positive trend that will hopefully continue for the foreseeable future.

Knowing that early spring is the peak season for courtship behavior in this species, I put in some dedicated search time during this trip in an effort to improve on my fleeting roadside lifer sighting from a few years back. Even my most optimistic daydreams, however, came up far short of the dazzling experience that I was graced with in reality. While exploring a hiking trail far off the beaten path, a series of hoarse clucking calls drew my attention to a Spruce Grouse hen, who flushed from the treetops a short distance away from me and flew off into the woods. As I turned to follow her flight, I was stunned to see a gloriously ornate male, mid-display, fluttering down into the center of the path. Undeterred by the departure of his intended audience, he graciously continued his performance for my consideration, and I was more than happy to oblige him with my undivided attention. He swaggered about on the mossy earth, swaying and fanning his tail with exaggerated swishing sounds while beating his wings forcefully. Every few minutes, he launched into the air and settled onto an elevated perch among the spruce boughs, presenting several more cycles of emphatic struts along the limbs before returning to the ground in a noisy flurry of feathers. As I struggled to contain my excitement over this stroke of good fortune, a rival male suddenly appeared on the trail behind me, offering an unexpected counterpoint production and thoroughly shattering my mind. I was surrounded by Spruce Grouse, spoiled for choice as to which bird to watch, and I could not have been happier. What an incredible privilege to witness such a rare and remarkable scene, and how wonderful it is that this spectacular creature still persists in the wildest parts of New York State!

The remainder of my time in the Northwoods proved to be impressively rewarding overall. In addition to my close encounters of the grouse kind, I also managed to connect with the rest of the expected boreal specialty birds within 24 hours of my arrival in the Adirondack Park. An accommodating Boreal Chickadee at the Sand Pond Brook crossing, several curious Canada Jays at Sabattis Bog and Massawepie Mire, and territorial pairs of Black-backed Woodpeckers at Madawaska Flow rounded out the setlist for this brief but productive expedition. Crossing paths with any of these charismatic taiga icons is always a triumphant moment in its own right. The opportunity to enjoy some quality time with each one of these delightful species instantly secured this trip’s position as an all-time high point of my Adirondack birding career. 

Beyond the successful sweep of resident boreal birds, there were plenty of other prizes to be celebrated over the course of my mini holiday. Noteworthy year birds included a Sandhill Crane on a nest at Tupper Lake, a handful of skittish Ruffed Grouse in the Blue Mountain Road area, and chance encounters with both Red and White-winged Crossbills. On the non-avian front, I also observed the local American Beaver at Little Tupper Lake, my first Snowshoe Hare for New York State at Madawaska Flow, and my lifer Smoky Shrews at Bloomingdale Bog. Moose tracks were documented at multiple sites, and Bloomingdale also produced Brown Elfin and Northern Azure for my developing butterfly list. My final evening in the Adirondacks saw me watching the Sun sink below the horizon at Little Tupper Lake, listening to the peents and sky dance twitters of a nearby American Woodcock while Barred Owl, American Bittern, and countless Spring Peepers vocalized in the background. I confess that it was difficult to leave the mountains on the heels of such an amazing trip, but it is comforting to know that the beasties of the boreal forest will always be there waiting for me whenever I find my way back north. 

Following up on such an extraordinary expedition is no easy task, but NYC still pulled out all the stops to welcome me home in style. When news of a vagrant Swainson’s Warbler at Brooklyn Bridge Park had first come through at the end of the previous week, I was certain that my busy schedule would prevent me from reuniting with this delightful southern songster. Implausibly, the bird wound up sticking around for several days, an eternity compared to previous New York records, and was still present when I returned from the Adirondacks. I was unable to resist the thrill of the chase, and I headed straight for Kings County as I made my way back downstate. Once I successfully secured a parking space and made my way over to the stakeout site, I quickly found the bird and its attendant group of admirers. It had been several years since I last observed this famously skulky creature, and this individual proved to be shockingly cooperative by the usual standards of the species. Watching the warbler flip dry leaves while whistling happy tunes in the middle of a busy waterfront park was a positively delightful experience. Hopefully all of these recent rarities are a sign of things yet to come as the migratory season approaches the zenith of its power!

With May, and the associated peak activity of spring migration, rapidly drawing near, it is easy to get caught up in the anticipation of what comes next. Even so, it is important to appreciate the highlights and special moments that have already been enjoyed this year, especially as we prepare to close out Earth Month. I am beyond grateful for the dramatic natural phenomena and fascinating organisms that make life on this planet such a grand journey, not to mention the lovely people that we are fortunate enough to share them with. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic and overly emotional, I truly think that the experiences of this past month have made it one of the most memorable of my life to date. That said, I have a sneaking suspicion that there may be some strong contenders coming up before 2024 is through. As long as this world keeps spinning along, there will always be more adventures to be had. Only time will tell where the story ends, but I will always do my best to make it a good one!