There are telephone numbers that people call to get various kicks. For some New Yorkers, nothing matches 212-832-6523. "Greetings," says Tom Burke's recorded voice when you dial the number. "This is the New York Rare Bird Alert." When Burke's birders called his hot line Nov. 1, they heard an extraordinary Special Report: "This morning a wood sandpiper was identified at the Marshlands Conservancy in Rye, Westchester County."
A wood sandpiper! Wow! The news that Tringa glareola had somehow wound up on the western shore of Long Island Sound sent tingles up the spines of the avian inclined. The wood sandpiper summers mainly in Siberia and in limited numbers in Scandinavia, and it winters in southern Africa, India and northern Australia. It never comes to New York. This was an alert for the ages.
The 48-year-old Burke, a resident of Rye himself, was among the very first to identify the bird. Early that Wednesday morning, Oct. 31, he had dropped by Marshlands before commuting to his job as manager of a Manhattan accounting firm. He had caught a glimpse of "an odd-looking thing running into the reeds." The next morning he visited Marshlands again. There he met Lysle Brinker, 28, a friend and fellow birder. Burke asked Brinker, a petroleum-industry analyst, if he had seen a particularly queer-looking solitary sandpiper, a species sometimes seen at Marshlands and one that, as it happens, resembles a wood sandpiper. Brinker said that a shorebird had, in fact, given a strange call. With that, Burke and Brinker joined the hunt.
"For 45 minutes, nothing happened," Burke says. "Then, as we were walking out, we heard a call, sort of a trebled note different from anything I was familiar with. We looked up, and the bird landed about 20 yards from us, on a mud flat. If we had left 15 seconds earlier we would have missed it."
December 24, 1990
The bird's upper parts were brown and heavily spotted. It had a white supercilium (a line over the eye) and long green legs. Needing to note other markings, the men flushed the bird. "It showed us a white rump, a banded tail and palish underwings," says Burke. They hurried back to Brinker's car, consulted a reference book and excitedly identified the bird as a wood sandpiper. Burke ran home to call other birders and to record the finding for his Rare Bird Alert patrons.
The stampede was on. Birders from New England to Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia flocked to Marshlands with their spotting scopes. It's difficult to convey the impact of such a sighting on these passionate people. Take the case of Denny Abbott. He and his son, Steven, drove from Stratham, N.H., to Rye. They saw the bird on Friday, Nov. 2, and Abbott drove his son back home to New Hampshire. On Saturday he headed for Boston's Logan Airport to pick up a friend from California, whom he took to Marshlands to see the bird.
By the time the wood sandpiper disappeared, on Nov. 5, about a thousand birders had peered at it. A number of them were listers who note how many species they have seen and where. Burke's own life list has more than 2,200 entries, and his local list for Rye now has 291. Marshlands and the adjacent Rye Golf Club, which allowed sandpiper fans to use its parking lot and posted signs indicating the proper mud flat, are especially good areas for birding. "Marshlands," Burke explains, "has the only really viable salt marsh left in Westchester County."
It is known that wood sandpipers hang around such marshes, but the question remains: How in the world did this bird wind up so far off course? Its migration route is on the opposite side of the globe.
"There are a lot of theories," Burke says. "Possibly it got mixed up with a different group of shorebirds that came this way. It might have been a Scandinavian bird that got caught by a weather depression and sucked right over Greenland."
Burke has written a report on the sandpiper for the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC), a group of bird-watchers who are experts in species identification. Burke described the bird, its plumage and its habits. He sent along photographs of the bird and a tape recording of its call. Brinker cosigned the submission. Only with the NYSARC's stamp of approval does the rare visit become official in New York State.
But Burke, Brinker and a thousand others are already convinced of what they saw. "Look," says Burke. "If you're interested in fish or plants, you know what to expect when you look somewhere. But birds give the unexpected. You see things that boggle your mind. In birding circles, we call them cosmic mindblowers. This was a cosmic mindblower."