2015 In Review – The Best of Birding (Part 1)

A lot of major life events have taken place since my last post in late 2014. After my time with Project Puffin came to an end, I spent several months substitute teaching at home on Long Island. Through the NYC Teaching Fellows program, I now have a full-time job as a high school biology teacher. To start 2016 strong, I’ve decided to outline my Top 10 birding experiences from 2015. It’s a bit less involved than a full recap of my life and a bit more aligned with the themes of my previous posts. It also serves as a solid summary of my year considering how much of it was spent out in the field. For the sake of ease, I’ve listed the events in chronological order rather than agonize over ranking them.

1. Couch’s Kingbird in Manhattan
This was the bird that started the year with a bang. The kingbird was actually reported around Christmas time, but I didn’t get the chance to chase it until January 4th. Apart from being a first state record for New York, this bird was notable for its choice of venue. Normally found in tropical, brushy habitat no further north than southern Texas, the winter wanderer was hanging out in the West Village atop fire escapes and playground plants. A far cry from the wooded streams and forest edges that it calls home, lower Manhattan is a strange place to find an insect-eating bird in January. I got great views of this lifer (which was apparently also seen by stars such as Peter Dinklage and H. Jon Benjamin) on a lovely, snowy morning. Not a bad beginning for 2015.

2. February Raptors on the Barrier Beaches
The winter of ’14-’15 was far more brutal than the mostly mild affair we’ve been experiencing this season. Freezing temperatures and heavy snows were commonplace, but the situation was even worse north of my latitude. This might have had some impact on the large numbers and variety of birds of prey that could be found on Long Island last winter. Even in quiet years I’ll find no shortage of hawks, falcons, and harriers, but this winter was special.  In the space of a few weeks, I had multiple encounters with species that I’d rarely or never encountered before in my neck of the woods. Apart from my ever-favored Snowy Owls, I also found Northern Saw-whet Owl, Short-eared Owl, and Northern Goshawk at Jones Beach. I was also fortunate enough to encounter most of these individuals more than once. The most abundant unusual raptors were Rough-legged Hawks. Normally irregular on Long Island and far more common up the coast towards Massachussets, these tundra-nesting birds stormed southward in force. One day I had 7 separate individuals while driving down the Ocean Parkway. I suspect the infamous “Snowmageddon” may have played a part in filling my February with raptorial surprises.

3. Florida with the Family
April brought Easter, and with it the opportunity to go on a vacation. I accompanied my family to Orlando for a few days, and even though it wasn’t planned as a birding trip I still managed to squeeze in some adventures. My parents, sister, aunt, and uncle all indulged me when I suggested activities like airboat tours or kayaking paddles. Even my grandparents joined in on some of the fun. The airboat ferried us around Cypress Lake, bringing us into contact with many alligators, eagles, and countless waterbirds including Purple Gallinule and Least Bittern (lifers). On our paddle at Merritt Island, we got up close and personal with manatees, dolphins, pufferfish, and other coastal creatures. I even took a solo trip with the rental car to see my first Snail Kites, and the whole family made a successful detour en route to Tampa for Dad’s first Burrowing Owl. Wildlife aside, this getaway was a great opportunity for some family time.

4. Birding Bro Spring Roadtrip
Due to all the free time afforded by part-time work, I had a pretty good run at migratory birds this year (more on that later). By late May, however, I was missing a few of the scarcer species and there were some lifers-in-waiting that breed not-too-far-north of the city. As a result, I loaded up a car with my good friend Brendan for my first spring trip to Sterling Forest and Doodletown. The drive up, hikes, and exploration were a lot of fun thanks to the company, and we also did very well with the birds. I finally got my first Golden-winged Warblers, a highly-localized and charming species, and caught up with some Black-billed Cuckoos. We also encountered a number of warbler species (including Kentucky, Cerulean, Hooded, Blue-winged, and Worm-eating), several Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and many other birds and birders. Even the insect sightings were exciting, featuring a Giant Swallowtail and a wide array of dragonflies. On the way home, we fought through city traffic to see an out-of-place Franklin’s Gull at Plumb Beach in Brooklyn. We basically watched the sun rise and set from the road on this action-packed day, and it has earned its place on my list.

5. Getting Ternt at Nickerson Beach
Disclaimer: I will make no apologies for the shameless puns in this entry.
Coastal Long Island is a fairly birdy place, but most of the action in the birding scene focuses on a few key locations. Jones Beach is located on a productive inlet and features a wide range of terrestrial and aquatic habitat, so it rightfully gets a lot of attention. However, just across the water to the west there are other beaches like Point Lookout and Nickerson Beach which still retain some acceptable natural space. Nickerson in particular was largely ignored until Brendan found himself working there a few summers ago and made some interesting observations. Common Terns, Least Terns, and Black Skimmers retern to the beach every spring to raise their young. It terns out that their presence attracts a few unusual visitors, and now people check the place with a little more consistency.

In June 2015, scattered reports were coming in about a number of travelers resting with the local breeders, so I headed down to see what I could tern up. I spent the better part of a day standing post at the colony as other local birders showed up to take terns scanning for visitors. Terns are long-distance wanderers who travel the world on marathon migrations. Their worldliness combined with their svelte looks makes them fascinating creatures to observe at length. The long watch paid off, since I managed to sight 8 different species of tern: an impressive day total for the area. The species I spotted were Common, Least, Forster’s, Black, Gull-billed, Royal, Roseate, and Arctic Tern. I got prolonged views and decent photos of all but the last, who is a very occasional guest in our waters. I’d caught fleeting glimpses throughout the day of a bird that I thought was the previously-reported Arctic, but I only managed to confirm this sighting by accident. One of the photos I’d taken of a Black Tern showed the Arctic Tern flying by, just about to leave the frame of the shot. A solid tern-out for a day at the beach!


Stay tuned for the next five entries, which will bring this blog up to date for future posts!



About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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10 Responses to 2015 In Review – The Best of Birding (Part 1)

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