I’m typing this post with frigid digits as I commute home from my school in Queens. After an unseasonably, uncomfortably warm December, January has brought an end to The Long Summer and reminded New Yorkers what winter is capable of. We’ve finally dipped below freezing and seen our first flurries of solid precipitation, to the dismay of those who’d gone soft hoping for a mild season. As I understand it, the annual “Storm of the Decade”™ has been forecast to hit the East Coast this weekend, so keep an eye on how weather predictions progress in the next few days and plan accordingly.
While many northeasterners curse the cold and bar themselves indoors until the spring thaw, I willingly spend hours on end traipsing about frozen beaches and parks at this time of year. If you know where to look, you can find surprising visitors to our lands who consider the winter conditions here to be acceptable or even agreeable. On Long Island, most of the action occurs along the coast. As a result, I decided to spend Saturday the 9th on the copious coastline at Montauk Point, the far eastern end of New York State. This outing was actually my second big birding event of the new year, having participated in the South Nassau Christmas Bird Count a week prior. Counters totaled an above-average score of 130 species throughout the day, of which I contributed nearly 70. Personal highlights from the count included Great Horned and Eastern Screech-Owls, Virginia Rails, Harlequin Ducks, and Orange-crowned Warbler. This is the first year I’m keeping track of my annual species total from Day 1, so I was eager to start strong and rack up some new additions at Montauk.
Birding typically rewards early risers, so I was up before first light on the 9th. I’d decided to make a detour rather than head straight to the Point, and I needed to be there before the sun got too high. A Pink-footed Goose had been reported at a pond in Smithtown, roosting with a flock of Canada Geese by night and flying off to feed in nearby fields soon after sunrise. This species nests far away in Greenland, but sometimes migrates in the wrong direction and visits North America rather than Europe. I wanted to catch this life bird at a known location before it wandered off, so I arrived at Miller’s Pond just before 7:30 am. There were already other birders on site, searching for the Pink-foot among the gaggle of geese across the ice. The birds were far away and constantly in motion: Anthony Collerton had already spotted and lost the bird when he came over to tell us about it. I borrowed another birder’s scope and l quickly relocated it, more or less exactly where he said it should be. It was too far away for decent pictures, but not too far for great views. I spent some time admiring this new sight, made sure everyone could see the bird, and eventually departed to test my fortunes out east.
Standing on the windswept bluffs at Montauk, I scanned the surging swells and innumerable sea ducks bobbing around on the waves. One of my targets was a stunning male King Eider who had been seen in the area for several weeks. In this wind, at this distance, with only my binoculars, I was having a difficult time finding it among the large rafts of scoters and Common Eiders present. I was eventually joined by a team of nature lovers who were leading a wildlife walk along the Point. After getting to know them, I was offered a chance to use one of their scopes. Lo and behold, once equipped with superior optics I found the King himself without too much effort. Superb. The Universe is reminding me that I need to get my own scope again. Seawatching in particular can be incredibly rewarding with one and and a grueling disappointment without one.
Case in point: in the few short minutes it took me to find the King, I spotted a small bird of interest whizzing eastward. The compact, football-shaped body and frantic, buzzing wingbeats told me this was an alcid. Unlike the Razorbills I’d been seeing and the Dovekies I’d been hoping for, this bird had bold white patches on its wings and salt-and-pepper plumage. A Black Guillemot! Although I lived among these adorable auks all of summer 2014 in Maine, this was still a real treat. This species is rarely seen in New York waters, and is even less frequently seen from land. I soon lost sight of the bird among the waves, but it was a pleasure to encounter an old friend again in my home state, however fleetingly. Whether wearing their dapper black breeding plumage or the more subdued tones of their winter and juvenile plumages, these critters have lots of character.
The day continued to deliver on excitement. John, the leader of the walking crew, rescued an injured female Common Eider from the surf. The bird had apparently been shot, so he brought her to a rehabber who last reported that she is recovering well. I texted to coordinate coverage of the area with fellow birders Taylor, Shai, and Pat. They arrived at the bluffs to see the King, and I headed to the inlet to see the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls that they had found. We reconvened to check a few more spots together, trading tales along the way. Taylor and I hit up Culloden Point for Red-necked Grebe and Big Reed Pond for Virginia Rails, and we finally parted ways as darkness fell on a stellar day of birding. I stopped for a tasty shrimp taco meal at a local bar and then proceeded back to Lynbrook, blasting the soundtrack of Hamilton all the way home.
Year List Update, January 9 – 95 species (+ Pink-footed Goose, Green-winged Teal, Red-tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey, White-winged Scoter, Great Cormorant, Common Goldeneye, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, King Eider, Double-crested Cormorant, Snow Goose, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Sanderling, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-necked Grebe, Greater Scaup, Common Grackle)