Three day weekend. Three expeditions. Three white birds. A story of three parts.
I’d decided to start my long weekend at Jones Beach in the hopes of finding something interesting by myself. Friday morning had featured a successful pre-work chase of some previously reported birds at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens. Dad needed to attend a meeting in the area, and he offered to drive me since the park isn’t far from my school. I encountered the Lark Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Pine Warblers that have been associating with a flock of juncos for the past few weeks, and only missed the Cackling Geese seen on the water features nearby. I love twitching vagrants and following up on listserv posts, but it’s extra sweet to find a rarity of your own. Besides, Snowy Owls had finally begun to show up on the Island this week, including one reported at Jones. That’s reason enough for me to get out of the house and search. I gave a heads-up to Tracey, a newer birder eager to catch up with this special species. We made plans to meet at the beach early and put in some time combing the area.
The early morning was drizzly and wet, so I spoiled myself with a little extra time in bed and got to the West End beach just after sunrise instead of just before. I spotted a Peregrine Falcon perched above the bridge, heard a Pine Siskin mixed in with a flock of goldfinches, and found the lingering Eastern Phoebe flycatching from the holiday light structures. I met up with Tracey on the beach, and we walked west to the jetty and up the shoreline of Jones Inlet. There were good numbers of waterfowl, loons, and other seabirds moving down the coast. The dunes were atwitter with flocks of Snow Buntings, but there was no sign of an owl. As I hooked away from the inlet on a trail through the dunes, I turned back towards the ocean for a final sweep of the horizon. I spotted two large birds slowly gliding from east to west in the distance. I raised my binoculars, expecting to see gannets or cormorants, perhaps even the less common Great Cormorant. To my surprise, I saw that the birds were gleaming white with black flight feathers framing their massive, 9-foot wingspans. There was no mistaking those large-beaked silhouettes: this was a pair of American White Pelicans!
Pelicans of any kind are an uncommon, if somewhat regular, sight in New York. This species breeds west of the Great Lakes and winters along the Gulf and California coasts. A pair of White Pelicans had been seen on-and-off at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens since November. They repeatedly took off for parts unknown, but consistently returned to lounge about at the refuge. Although they’d last been seen flying southwest on January 7th, it’s possible that these were the same two birds. The species has only been reported from Long Island a handful of times according to eBird, and I could not find any previous records for Jones Beach. All things considered, this was a very lucky sighting of a very impressive bird. I excitedly called out to Tracey, helping her up a dune to view these majestic travelers before they disappeared from view. She ended up taking the pictures above with her superior camera, and I had the pleasure of posting about the sighting. We parted ways soon afterwards, and I checked another area of the park to follow up on an additional report, another Lark Sparrow. Heading to Hempstead Lake, I gathered a few year birds of the woodland and freshwater variety before hanging up my optics for the day.
Proud of my discovery, exhausted from a late night with friends, and knowing that colder temperatures were imminent, I elected to sleep in on Sunday. “Let somebody else find the birds, maybe then I’ll head out into the cold,” I thought. The “color party” and karaoke combo I attended with Edem and Kelsey was totally worth the 2 am train home, but I wasn’t about to follow that up with another early morning. When I did finally awaken, I took it pretty easy for most of the day. While relaxing with Dad and making plans for the evening, I heard some internet whispers of another large, white bird on the loose. The Snowy Owl I missed the day before was being seen and photographed at Jones. I’ve seen no shortage of Snowies in my birding career, but I still have a major weakness for my favorite animal. Despite the freezing winds and my lazy mood, the temptation to see this bird for the first time in over a year was nearly irresistible. Besides, this Sunday was functionally a second Saturday. Let’s get to it.
I drove down to the West End, parked at the corner of the lot closest to the beach path, and set off on my quest. The winds were strong, and before long snow began to fall. Once I reached the beach, I could see a white lump all the way down by the jetty, accompanied by a small group of photographers and birders who’d also braved the elements. I headed over to spend some time with the owl, notifying Tracey that I had her target pinned down. I stuck with it while she raced to the beach, snapping some pictures of the great northern predator set against a distant Manhattan skyline. The intensity of the weather continued to increase, the Snowy looking all the more at home in the driving snow. Tracey arrived and gleefully got acquainted with the bird for the first time. Smiling, I said farewell and trudged back through the snow to return home. Worth it.
Martin Luther King Jr. made great strides for the betterment of our society, and the least we can do is honor him with a national holiday. I took full advantage of the day off by once again heading out for a birding excursion. I was going to attempt a multi-stop search of the south shore between my house and western Suffolk. As I was setting out, an email came over the listserv from Doug Futuyma saying that there was a nice spread of rare geese on Belmont Lake, one of my planned stops. I decided that Belmont was sounding better as the first target than the last, so I set off for the park. Driving past Hempstead Lake, I was treated to fantastic views of an adult Bald Eagle gliding down the roadside. Eagles have been regular at this location for a few years now, but it still stuns me that a species that once faced potential extinction is now consistently seen in suburban Long Island. Growing up, I never would’ve guessed I’d have the pleasure to see these birds so close to my own home. This is just one of the many small joys birding brings to my daily life.
I parked on the side streets near Belmont Lake and strolled out to the shoreline. A huge flock of Canada Geese and other waterfowl was roosting on the water. I found my primary target and the third white specialty of the weekend with little difficulty: a Ross’s Goose. This species is a miniaturized, cuter version of the far more common Snow Goose. It is an infrequent migrant to this area, typically arriving in association with flocks of other geese. This bird’s conspicuous coloration and relatively smaller size were hard to miss and a joy to see. My previous experiences with this goose have all been fleeting or distant views, so I took the time to study the Ross’s at length.
Circling the lake, I also discovered the reported Cackling Goose to make up for my earlier miss in Queens. The Cackler is the “fun-size” cousin of the Canada Goose just as the Ross’s is of the Snow. It is yet another species I’d not seen particularly well in the past, so I watched the two swimming through the throng of larger geese together. After exploring the park’s trails for other birds, I turned to leave. Loud, yelping cries rang out, causing me to whirl around. A pair of Greater White-fronted Geese took off from a hidden spot on the shoreline, flying north. These birds had been seen around with the Ross’s and Cackling, but Doug had missed them earlier. I reported their presence and departure as I loaded into my car.
I worked my way back east along the Ocean Parkway, scanning Oak, Cedar, Gilgo, and Tobay Beaches on my way to Jones. I didn’t dally too long there, making a short tour of the prime spots. I relocated the Snowy again, resting in the dunes not far from a Brant kill it had been eating earlier. The Lark Sparrow didn’t show, but I did catch a distant glimpse of some Red Knots departing the Coast Guard Station before leaving for Lynbrook. The rest of the day was dedicated to preparing for the work week, but I was still thankful for the weekend’s adventures and the white, winged wanderers who made it extra special.
Year List Update, January 18 – 117 species (+ Pine Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Peregrine Falcon, Red-winged Blackbird, Pine Siskin, American White Pelican, Tufted Titmouse, Brown Creeper, Great Egret, Snowy Owl, Bald Eagle, Ross’s Goose, Cackling Goose, Belted Kingfisher, Greater White-fronted Goose, Red Knot)