The Merry Month of May

After a lingering storm and consecutive days of poor conditions for migration, we finally got a pulse of favorable winds on Saturday night. This was the first bout of agreeable weather since the start of peak migration, which teased birders with the possibility of a big migrant push. I awoke on Sunday to thick fog blanketing the streets of Lynbrook. As I pulled my gear together, I got a text from Brendan saying that Hempstead Lake was apparently quiet. I set out for Jones Beach, which had been uncharacteristically poor for landbird migration thus far in the season, in the hopes that any travelers would touch down on the barrier beaches.

Shortly after I arrived and met up with Brendan, the fog turned to rain that gradually increased in intensity. Walking out from the parking lot, I heard no sign of birds in the foliage along the fringe. Perhaps the wave of migrants had passed us by or hooked off in a different direction. Not to be deterred, we spent about an hour and a half at the gazebo near the coast guard station, scanning the sandbar and the bay for waterbirds. This turned out to be a successful venture, and we found a number of interesting coastal species. Several Lesser Black-backed Gulls, returning Common and Least Terns, a flyover Whimbrel, and a large flock of breeding plumage Red Knots brought plenty of excitement to our stakeout. I unfortunately missed my chance at photos due to the precipitation, but it still proved to be a decent morning.

Brendan and I started to talk about options for the rest of the morning, considering how to make the most of the day given the conditions. As we spoke, the rain clouds began to pass us by and break up, but precipitation continued in the form of songbirds dropping out of the sky. Within minutes the trees and shrubs along the road had come to life with migrants who had touched down in the wake of the storm. We quickly spotted Veeries and Wood Thrushes, and Brendan commented that large numbers of thrushes had been calling overhead during the night. It became clear that the migrating birds had arrived after all, and the foggy, rainy conditions had produced a fallout event that forced them to the ground. We quickly revised our plans and set about exploring the area, unsure of the scope or spread of species we would find.

The trees lining the roadsides had come alive with tiny birds. Kinglets and gnatcatchers suddenly seemed to be everywhere, and warblers were streaming westward in numbers that increased by the minute. Since we were traveling west on foot, the birds kept flying up from behind us and announcing their presence with chipping and buzzing calls. It was hard to know which way to look with so many colorful shapes darting past. Prairie, Palm, Magnolia, Cape May, Blackpoll, Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Black-and-white, Chestnut-sided, Yellow-rumped, and Yellow Warblers were all encountered over the course of the morning, with Ovenbird, Northern Parula, Northern Waterthrush, and Common Yellowthroat rounding out representation of the family. A pair of Merlins kept coursing over the treetops, looking for the opportunity to snag one of the travelers for breakfast.

We picked our way around the outer edge of the median and headed towards the Fisherman’s Lot. We never moved far without encountering a new pocket of activity and excitement. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds whizzed up and down the road, female Scarlet Tanager and Purple Finch were nestled in the branches at the turnaround, and Purple Martins periodically passed overhead. The shrubberies fringing the road from the fishing lot to the coast guard station featured some of the best views of birds. The Cape May Warbler has stunning breeding plumage that brightens any day, and we were surprised to find a trio of gorgeous males moving through a thicket together. Songs rang out from all directions, and bright flashes of color kept our eyes glued to the bushes. I’d never experienced an event like this at Jones before.

One of our last planned stops on the circuit of West End was the hedgerow at the coast guard station. Several thrushes, thrashers, and sparrows were seen rustling in the tangle, and we also saw a brilliant Indigo Bunting and a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks nearby. Brendan and I were treated to crippling views of a Magnolia Warbler, which had been my 300th species observed this year. This joins Merlin and Altamira Oriole as my 2016 century birds, and I’m hoping to score at least one more!

While I was crouched down and scanning the understory of the hedgerow, Brendan unexpectedly called out a Summer Tanager. Finally found our rarity. I snapped to attention and saw the bird, silhouetted against the now blue sky and flying away. It looped out over the boat basin and dove into some trees by the gazebo where we began our day. We failed to relocate it, but Brendan had snapped some distant, blurry pictures for documentation. Upon reviewing the photos at home, however, we found that they didn’t meet our expectations. While Scarlet Tanagers are glowing red with a black tail and wings, Summers are a uniform, more subdued rosy color. This bird appeared to have wings that were darker than the body, which shouldn’t be the case. Had we been mistaken?

One of the joys of birding is that it’s a constant learning experience. Our previous experiences with this species were limited to hearing it in southern New Jersey during past World Series of Birding events. I knew of the species, but I suppose I never really knew it well. Brendan and I both had to do a little bit of homework to justify what we had seen in the field with what the pictures showed. Fortuitously, some images surfaced on eBird showing other recently-seen Summers that were transitioning between their dull, olive-brown “baby feathers” and the full rose-red of adult males. In this plumage, the wings have a dingy, brownish appearance that contrasts with the body coloration, without looking as striking and obvious as the jet black flight feathers of a Scarlet. Comparing our zoomed-in photos with these pictures, it became clear that our bird was in fact a dead-ringer for a first-year Summer Tanager. The initial ID had been correct to species, but an unusual, transitional plumage with subtle details had thrown us off and afforded us an opportunity to learn a little more about the birds we pursue. Rarity report sustained! The tanager, a slightly-smudged ruby, served as the crown jewel in a truly stellar morning of spring birding. With 102 species cataloged, it was the highest one-day total I’ve ever documented at a single location. Spring is off to a great start!

Year List Update, May 8 – 304 Species (+ Semipalmated Sandpiper, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Common Tern, Whimbrel, Least Tern, Purple Martin, Magnolia Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Summer Tanager)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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6 Responses to The Merry Month of May

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