Eyes on the Horizon

A little flexibility goes a long way. When it comes to observing nature, sudden changes of plans are to be expected. The final days of May and beginning of June highlighted this need to roll with the punches. On a Sunday afternoon, I received a report of a Prothonotary Warbler at Connetquot River State Park. Brendan and I met up and made the drive to Suffolk only to find closed gates, rudely reminding us of the site’s inconsistent hours of operation. Undaunted, we continued the evening outing with a brief, uneventful seawatch from Tobay Beach and a visit to the JFK Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary. The preserve’s marshes turned out to be pretty lively, hosting Marsh Wrens, Saltmarsh and Seaside Sparrows, and Willow Flycatchers.

As the sun set, we made plans to make plans if the Prothonotary was seen again. Even though we were free on Memorial Day, Connetquot is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Reports would have to wait until midweek and any follow-up would be limited to the weekend. As Friday night approached with no positive word, I gladly made other arrangements to enjoy my days off. 24 hours of delicious food and outdoor adventures later, I received notice that the warbler had been refound, along with an elusive Least Bittern. Sunday morning saw me at the Park, racing the rain and joined by a dozen other birders with the same idea. It was a lovely morning of thorough exploration, but we failed to find our target birds. Despite the disappointment and the company of a few ticks, I found consolation in my first Yellow-throated Warbler of the year and a sighting of a huge Snapping Turtle returning to the water after laying her eggs. I parted ways with my friends and briefly stopped at Jones Beach, where the rain finally caught me.

I was getting ready to double-check for ticks and take a shower when I got a text from Brendan. The cloudburst had not lasted long, and although there was more rain on the way there were also high winds from the southeast and patches of dense fog. These are ideal conditions for bringing seabirds closer to shore than usual, and it’s a great time of year for seawatching. Location can make or break a seawatch: the best spots have an unobstructed view of the horizon and are generally far from the mainland. Barrier beaches, especially near inlets where bays and rivers meet the sea, typically offer good lookouts. We wanted our sightings to count towards Brendan’s Nassau year total and our home county lists, so we chose Field 6 at Jones Beach instead of Suffolk County’s Robert Moses State Park, an admittedly-awesome vantage point for watching pelagic birds. Shortly after setting up our scopes, a pair of Royal Terns flew west over the swash. This species is fairly irregular in the region, so we took these close sightings as a good omen.

The wind was gusting strongly off the sea, and it became clear that there were plenty of birds on the move. Common, Least, and Forster’s Terns patrolled the shoreline, and cormorants, loons, and Osprey were seen flying past. As we watched a young tern circling over the surf, Brendan and I were surprised by a dark, fighter-jet silhouette rocketing eastward just above the breakers. Blade-shaped wings and a roller coaster flight pattern are characteristic of the tubenoses, seafaring birds that sail on ocean winds around the world. The bird banked at the peak of its dynamic soaring trajectory, flashing silvery underwings on an otherwise dusky body: a Sooty Shearwater. It’s a real treat to see this globetrotter so close to shore, and we were fortunate to get great views.

The conditions during our stake-out changed by the minute. Clear skies gave way to peanut-butter-thick mist as the stormy weather advanced, only to open up again with unlimited visibility. Fog can play the role of friend or foe on a seawatch. Although it often means birds end up closer to the coast, they are harder to see with the reduced field of view. During one quiet portion of gray skies, Brendan spotted a young Lesser Black-backed Gull strolling down the beach. Two more immatures were later seen in flight, and we found an adult individual in the parking lot when we were preparing to leave. When the horizon became visible again, we were stunned to see a huge form splashing around on the ocean’s surface. A Humpback Whale was repeatedly breaching offshore, launching its massive frame out of the sea and crashing back down into the waves. The leviathan was visible for about an hour, periodically jumping, spouting, and slapping its giant pectoral fins on the water. It was just a bit too distant to try and photograph well, so I just sat back and enjoyed the unexpected and amazing sight.

For some reason, seawatching is generally best early in the morning or late in the day. Afternoon observations often improve steadily as time passes, and this held true on our watch. Apart from the surprise whale, we were treated to two additional Sooty Shearwaters and a larger Cory’s Shearwater cruising just beyond the surf. These birds are surprisingly tricky to see from western Long Island despite being relatively common from Robert Moses east, so this sighting was a Nassau first for both me and Brendan. I was not holding my camera when it passed closely, so I only managed to take distant, dismal photographs as the bird disappeared from view. We spotted several more shearwaters moving east far out over the horizon, but in the fading light we had to let them go unidentified. We finally packed up after more than 3 and a half hours on the shore. As soon as I got back to Lynbrook, the clouds opened up and the deluge began. Talk about great timing!

This afternoon patrol was hands down the best seawatch I’ve experienced on Long Island. It turned out to be an extremely productive day with great conditions, and simply put it was a great deal of fun! We learned later that there were several other groups conducting seawatches along the southern shore of the island around the same time, from far western Queens out into Suffolk. Taylor and John apparently had a solid showing a few miles to the east at Robert Moses, tallying a few additional species and higher numbers of Cory’s moving past. Brendan and I were far less disappointed to hear that now that we finally observed the bird on our turf. Also, for what it’s worth, their checklist was definitely lacking any playful marine mammals. There are many different metrics for success, and our watch was great victory by any measure. All in all, a mighty fine day at the beach

Year List Update, June 5 – 325 Species (+ Marsh Wren, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Yellow-throated Warbler, Sooty Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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2 Responses to Eyes on the Horizon

  1. Pingback: November Nonsense | Studying Life

  2. Pingback: The Joys of June | Studying Life

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