The day began on the road. I was following up on a report of a Ruff at Timber Point East Marina in Suffolk. The rare European shorebird, a male in beautiful plumage, had been discovered around noon the previous day, but it had disappeared by the time Tracey and I arrived a few short hours later. I discussed the bird’s behavior and departure with other observers, and decided that it was worth a check the next morning. The marina is barely over the county line and surprisingly close to home, so I worked it into my plans for the day. Realistically, I wasn’t optimistic about relocating a long-distance traveler that had last been seen flying high and fast away from the location. That being said, Timber Point has a history of reliable Ruffs, and I had a bunch of possible, pun-tastic blog post titles planned out in my head. The sun was still low in the sky when I reached the dock and began scanning the scene for a guest from across the pond.
Not all stories end in victory, and the this post doesn’t have a title like “Ruff and Ready” or “Going Through a Ruff Patch.” I visited the marina twice that morning to search for the Ruff around the edges of the marsh, but couldn’t find so much as a feather from the short-staying visitor. The saltmarsh, just like the wooded parks and sandy shorelines I usually explore, was beginning to show signs of the turning seasons. A number of more typical shorebirds, including Least Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Willets were probing the grassy pools. Terns, gulls, and swallows wheeled in the skies overhead. The choruses of Red-winged Blackbirds were accompanied by singing Seaside Sparrows who had just arrived to stake their territories for the breeding season. I also spotted a small cluster of Glossy Ibises feeding among the egrets and herons. In between my unsuccessful searches for the Ruff, I visited nearby Connetquot River State Park to look for a local pair of Yellow-throated Warblers, a species that is uncommon in our region. Although I enjoyed my stroll through the pine barrens and lakeside forest, I came up short on this hunt as well.
I returned to Hempstead Lake hoping to turn my luck around. Brendan had been texting me throughout the morning, updating me on the various migrants he’d been finding at my local park. It was late in the morning by the time I arrived, and I feared that activity might slow down as the midday doldrums set in. To my delight, the wildlife activity levels remained high. Chipmunks and squirrels scrounged in the leaf litter while muskrats and turtles paddled along the surface of the lake in search of food. Warblers were out in force, though most of them were species which have lingered in the area for the past few days. Along the edge of the main trail, I heard a wiry-thin, high-pitched song floating down from the lofty branches overhead. I raised my binoculars and zeroed in on a fiery orange jewel blazing among the new green leaves: a male Blackburnian Warbler. This species is one of the flashiest members of a very colorful tribe. Getting quality pictures of these birds can be challenging as they flit among the topmost twigs, but seeing them is a classically springy pleasure.
As I worked my way along the dog walk trails while typing my eBird checklist, I heard a trilled song coming from the tangled undergrowth. Trills are a common vocal style for many birds, and there are several species in New York that sound vaguely similar to one another. I ruled out Pine Warbler by tone and Dark-eyed Junco by season, defaulting to Chipping Sparrow in my half-focused mind. Something, however, made me peer around the bush to check the slightly “off” singer. Instead of a sparrow, I found a Worm-eating Warbler poking through leaves at the end of a dangling branch. This bird is a fairly uncommon migrant on Long Island: not quite rare but irregular enough that I was rather pleased with my discovery. As I posted about this seasonal first on the birding listserv, I heard a snippet of song from the Yellow-throated Vireo Brendan had found alongside the Blackburnian. My fortunes had shifted.
Back at home, I got a series of messages from other Long Island birders. Several people had made a trip to Hempstead to find my Worm-eater, and they’d found a few other early migrants that I had missed. Brendan texted me, having missed the listserv post due to his ancient phone and thus hearing about my find secondhand. I decided to make it up to him by returning to the park and helping him track it down, hopefully picking up some more year birds in the process. We got a chance to catch up while waiting near its last known location, and in the end we both got to close our outing on a high note. A possible Worm-eater sang several times from the shrubberies along the trail, and we also heard an Orchard Oriole and saw a Veery before the sun set. Despite the rough start, it turned out to be a fine day enjoying the excitement of spring in New York.
Year List Update, April 27 – 284 Species (+ Seaside Sparrow, Glossy Ibis, Blackburnian Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Yellow-throated Vireo, Orchard Oriole, Veery)