It took over 10 years of stopping, looking and listening; walking in federal, state and local parks, wildlife sanctuaries, wildlife management areas and swamps; listening to CDS of songs and thumbing through shelves of books, both my own and from libraries, to get myself even comfortably proficient with identifying land birds by sight and sound.
I learned by walking around, keeping my eyes open and not being afraid to stand very still (to the dismay of my husband) until what I was hearing popped into view so I could note a few field marks and then look them up later.
I am what I call an enlightened intermediate. There are birds that I don’t see often enough to be able to immediately identify, and I am still not good enough to be able to identify which little birds are flying overhead, tho’ I am better on the bigger birds.
But I am woefully bad when it comes to sea and shore birds, and it didn't have to be that way had I known what I had when I had it.
I grew up along the southern coast of Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island. Living in a coastal area is different from being inland, as I am now. The light is different. The summer temperatures are cooler. The thunderstorms are more intense.
At the time I was growing up in this part of Brooklyn, the only birds I knew were robins, jays, cardinals, pigeons and “sparrow,” most likely house sparrow.
At the same time, the areas along the coast were not exactly inviting.
What is now Gateway National Recreation Area was only in the planning stages. Plumb Beach, along what was once the Shore Parkway (now the Belt Parkway) was a small, dirty beach, a place my mother drove us to but warned us not to go into the water. Official signs had the same warning.
The area across the road from nearby Marine Park, where I‘d ride my bike, was a garbage dump. So was the area near the Kings Plaza Shopping Center off Flatbush Avenue. The huge landfill across the Belt Parkway from the huge apartment complex known as Starrett City a few miles farther away stunk at all times of the year.
But when it stunk, gulls would hover looking for food. What kind? I couldn't tell you then. Gulls were gulls. NOW I could tell you but the landfill has been capped and is becoming a grassland. No more gulls. (It has only been with the help of a few photographs that I can say the predominant gull along the Sheepshead Bay waterfront when I was growing up was the herring gull.)
I left Brooklyn for college, marriage and a house in a New Jersey town far from the shore.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn waterfront was changing. Gateway, the national park, stretches from Sandy Hook in New Jersey to the eastern coast of Staten Island, to the Brooklyn south shore to Jamaica Bay in Queens. Plumb Beach is part of it and was cleaned as a result of my federal tax dollars at work. Even the dump across from Marine Park is now a protected salt marsh.
People started noticing all the interesting birds passing through or staying to breed. After years of not thinking about that part of Brooklyn I was suddenly seeing mentions of great birding in the New York bird list.
I went back to Plumb Beach a few years ago en route to the larger Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge farther east, and saw many least terns, an endangered species in New Jersey, hovering, seemingly not bothered by the people windsurfing or laying there.
Least terns? At Plumb Beach?
I am very glad people recognized the importance of a clean waterfront and worked to create habitats where birds can feed and breed. People need to get away from the harshness of urban life and should be able to enjoy a natural area where they can find other creatures than mankind.
But I also wish it could've been so clean when I was actually living in the area, and had more of an interest in birding. That way I'd now be as proficient on shore birds, gulls and sea birds as those I must now turn to for help when I see something I can't identify.
Live and learn.
Maybe in another decade of birding I'll be able to finally stop kicking myself.