On Long Island, summer birding is coastal birding. Songbirds and other terrestrial species have settled in on their breeding grounds, but many water-bound birds operate on a different schedule. Some seabirds wander the oceans of the world throughout the season, and shorebirds begin their southbound journeys as early as July and August. Any relaxing day at the beach can turn up some interesting sightings. New York’s barrier islands feature a variety of habitats from sandy coastline to marshy mudflats, and one never knows what ocean winds or concentrations of bait fish will bring within sight of the shore. I keep my eyes peeled whenever I find myself down at Jones and the other beaches, but I make special effort to check a few areas with more dedicated, nature-focused excursions. Nickerson Beach, outside the high-priced collection hours, is one of the prime spots for summer beach birding in Nassau County.
The tern colony at Nickerson is larger than most of the others in the area, and it acts like a magnet for lost or wandering individuals of different species. Rarer birds often follow the foraging breeders back to shore and spend some time loafing on the sand with the locals. Last year, I was fortunate enough to visit the colony on an especially noteworthy day, tallying an impressive 8 species of terns. In addition to Common, Least, and Forster’s Terns that nest in the area, I also observed Gull-billed, Royal, Roseate, Black, and even Arctic during my stakeout.
So far, the action in 2016 hasn’t been quite as lively, with only a few individuals of interest stopping by, one or two at a time. I went to Nickerson on Sunday, but the weather kept things quieter than usual. Northerly winds were so strong that there were no birds resting on the beach itself, keeping instead to the grasses in the roped-off colony to avoid getting sandblasted. I swept the area but quickly called it off and headed home for dinner. Next time.
Wednesday proved to be a better day, with lighter winds off the seas instead of mini-sandstorms from the north. Sure enough, the loafing flock had returned to their usual place on the beachfront near the colony. I swept through the assembled birds and found a two brighter white birds gleaming among the Commons: a pair of Roseate Terns. This species is far more limited in range and particular about nesting site, but hunting them down is well worth the search efforts. Longer tail streamers, black bills, and a faint pinkish wash to their pale underparts add up to make a very sharp-looking bird. They also have a distinctive flight pattern and unique vocalizations that help them stand out from the crowd. One of the individuals was banded, but I couldn’t get close enough to properly decipher the field-readable marker outside of noting the color and a blurry, barely-visible “R” leading the code.
EDIT: I contacted some folks from the Audubon Society and got a few answers about this bird’s origins. Yellow bands with an initial “R” character were used on Great Gull Island in Long Island Sound, the largest local colony of breeding Roseates. Without confirmation of the second and third characters, which are always numbers, I do not know how old the bird is. Mystery solved, at least in part.
After spending some time admiring the Roseates, I strolled down the shoreline to check out a popular bathing and resting spot about a quarter mile west of the main colony. Although I thoroughly checked every bird, I could not locate an Arctic Tern among the flocks. I came across another Roseate, as well as some families of American Oystercatchers and plenty of Black Skimmers. The nesting birds periodically took flight to circle overhead, swirling in massive cyclones of feathers. The voices of the Roseates cut clearly through the cacophony of tern calls, and I spotted them towering high above their fellows before swooping back down to alight on the sand. I took my leave of Nickerson and returned to my car satisfied. A great year bird in the bag!
The other birding adventure of the week was an evening bike ride down the Ocean Parkway with Brendan. The hammocks of dense shrubbery among the marshes and dunes are a unique habitat uncommon elsewhere on the island, and he hoped that they might support unusual birds like nightjars as they do in other states like New Jersey. We parked in Wantagh and biked the bridges over the bay, reaching Tobay as darkness fell. Choruses of Marsh Wrens and Willow Flycatchers sang the sun to bed, and we listened for rails and owls. No dice, though we were instead greeted by copious mosquitos intent on a feast of blood. We rode back along the parkway, briefly stopping to watch and listen for activity but finding little. Despite the paucity of non-parasitic wildlife, I had a great time! We closed the night with milkshakes and a quick bite at a diner before driving home. Summer nights are quite alright with me.
Year List Update, June 15 – 328 Species (+ Roseate Tern)