2015 In Review – The Best of Birding (Part 2)

Without further ado, here’s Part 2.

6. Red Phalarope at Jones Beach
The summer of 2015 was a busy time. I was in the midst of summer training for my teaching fellowship, which was an intense baptism by fire. I still tried to get out into the field when I could, and a July 10 listserv report of a breeding plumage female Red Phalarope was too good to pass up. Phalaropes are notable among birds because the female is the flashy, colorful one who competes for mates while the male is the drab babysitter. They also breed in the extreme northern tundra and winter far offshore in the ocean, having traded their dapper spring garb for an ensemble of gray and white. This is not a bird you expect to see in New York without getting on a boat at the right time of year, and certainly not in this state of dress. I last saw this species when I last posted on this blog in September 2014: a fleeting glimpse of a gray passerby miles off the coast of Maine was all I had to add to my life list. These were exceptional circumstances. Fall migration had yet to truly begin, but this pretty little lady had appeared at my favorite birding spot and was reportedly quite cooperative. After a long day after a long week of summer school and teacher training, not to mention a break-up, I was in need of a “rebound bird.” I dashed home from the city just to dash out to the beach. I trekked out into the dunes to the ponds where the bird was seen and found her and her entourage with little difficulty. As I basked in the late afternoon glow,  the company of this gorgeous rarity and the other assembled birders was exactly what I needed to remind me life was juuuuust fine.

7. October Nemeses and Discoveries
As I mentioned in Part 1, I more or less crushed migration in 2015. I saw a great variety of birds in both seasons, and I connected with a lot of missing lifers (like Connecticut Warbler and Buff-breasted Sandpiper) and uncommon surprises (Philadelphia Vireo and American Golden-Plover, for example). One particular weekend in October stands above the rest, however. The nights before the 17th and 18th brought favorable winds from the north, and with them many migrant birds. I spent these two days at Jones Beach, which proved to be a great choice. I finally caught my perennial nemesis, the Red-headed Woodpecker, and got great views of a handsome adult as well as hearing calls from a young individual others had seen. I also self-discovered a Yellow-breasted Chat that delighted the Long Island birding community by being reliable and accommodating by the standards of this skulky species. Good numbers of sparrows, warblers, raptors, and more added up to 82 species at the beach over the course of the weekend. Not a bad run that late in the migration season!

8. Central Park “Western” Flycatcher Investigation
November is prime time for vagrants, and birders in Central Park this past fall discovered a small, nondescript flycatcher that eventually sparked a sizable scientific investigation. It was immediately recognized as an Empidonax, a notoriously confusing genus of very similar birds, and was quickly pinned down as one of the two “Western” Flycatchers. This species pair, Pacific-slope and Cordilleran, are functionally indistinguishable away from their breeding grounds. So, naturally, we had to try! I put some time in after grad school class to find the bird and attempt to gather some evidence one way or the other. On my quest for the flycatcher, I also got to spend some time with a majestic Great Horned Owl, a young Red-headed Woodpecker, and many curious birders. I ended up recording the mystery bird’s calls on my phone, which proved all but useless due to the similarities between their call notes. Other birders heard it sing, took sonograms of more recognizable calls, and even collected a fecal sample for DNA analysis at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The jury is still out on the genetics due to the extensive winter vacation Cornell students are blessed with, but the other evidence strongly hints our bird was a Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Stay tuned for updates.
UPDATE: The results are finally in, and DNA analysis reveals that the Central Park bird was definitely not a Cordilleran Flycatcher. Pacific-slope it is!

9. The Prospect Park Painted Bunting
This was definitely the highest-profile avian event in New York all year. A stunning male Painted Bunting showed up in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on November 29th, to the awe of local birders and reporters alike. When the news reached me, I was out in Suffolk picking up my life Barnacle Goose, and by the time I got home darkness had fallen. I could only hope the bird would stick around until the following weekend. Throughout the week, the bunting continued to dazzle the city and became something of a celebrity. The media coverage was seriously impressive, with countless pieces reporting on the glamorous appearance of the bird and the importance of urban parks. Many articles were accompanied by Doug Gochfeld’s unforgettable quote about how birders were “losing their shit” over this sighting. Although I worried that our colorful guest might skip town before I could see him, he remained in Prospect Park for the entirety of December, finally disappearing from his favorite spot a few days into 2016. Over the course of that month, I was fortunate enough to see him 3 times, and each encounter brought better views and improved photos. And yes, I did indeed misplace my excrement.

10. Montauk Christmas Bird Count
Birders have a long-standing tradition of Christmas Bird Counts. Established as a nature-friendly alternative to Yuletide hunts, these citizen-science efforts serve as a stock-take of birds throughout the country. Despite the name, the counts can take place anytime between December and January, and it can be an enlightening and engaging experience. With so many birders condensed into a relatively small area, the coverage often turns up interesting birds. This season I was convinced to join two teams: the Montauk and South Nassau counts. The Nassau count didn’t take place until after New Years, but the Montauk effort started before dawn on December 19th. After seeing The Force Awakens with my dad and brother on Friday night, I headed out to the end of Long Island. I arrived at our assigned meeting place near midnight and settled in for a few hours of sleep.

Starting just after 5 am, I spent about 12 hours with my friend and count partner Taylor trying to sniff out as many birds as we could in our area. We missed a few expected species. We found a few surprises. We had a lot of weird conversations to pass the time. It was a very long, very windy day, but I had a smile on my face the whole time. We even got the chance to “poach” out of our count zone so we could see an Ash-throated Flycatcher another team had found, a lifer for both me and Taylor. Tallying our results at the delightful compilation dinner, the count totaled 115 species with the extra “count week” sightings included. I turned my car westward for the long drive home, exhausted but content with a day well-spent.


There are a number of experiences I could’ve included in this summary, especially the other 2015 lifers who did not get a mention or additional trips with family and friends. European Goldfinch (Bermuda), Black-headed Gull (Prospect Park), and Tufted Duck (Lake Capri): I still love you guys. Shout-outs to everybody who helped make 2015 so great. 2016 is already off to a mighty fine start!

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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7 Responses to 2015 In Review – The Best of Birding (Part 2)

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