With shorebird migration approaching its peak, birders are scrambling to catalog and count the feathered travelers as they make their way south. Stopover sites where flocks gather to refuel are major hotspots for naturalists at this time of year, and everyone wants a piece of the action. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge hosts a Shorebird Festival every year, providing refreshment and informative programs for people interested in learning more about the seasonal visitors. This year, the event was scheduled alongside several other group meetings, including a field trip for the New York State Young Birders Club.
My friend Hope helped start New York’s society of young birders many years ago. I was present on the club’s very first outing back in August 2008, when we also visited Jamaica Bay. I made memories with a number of fellow nature nerds on the trip, and we found our share of exciting wildlife. The highlight was a White-faced Ibis that we discovered with a little help from the ever-vigilant Shai Mitra. Unsurprisingly, Shai was asked for a repeat performance as a trip leader for this year’s group. Due to a scheduling conflict, he was already committed to head another expedition. He recommended me as a fallback guide, and negotiations were made for me to take the helm. And thus the student has become the teacher.
I met Carena and her crew of budding birders bright and early on Saturday morning. The club members ranged from 10 to 17, and most of them had brought parents along for the ride. There were a few familiar faces that I recognized from prior events, and we did a quick round of introductions and safety guidelines before heading out to the pond. Things kicked off with a trio of Stilt Sandpipers feeding a stone’s throw from where the entrance trail meets the shoreline. This was a new bird for many of the kids, and we quickly racked up species as we continued down the water’s edge.
The East Pond was thick with birds and birders alike. Most of the Island and City regulars had come out to join the festival, and Shai’s group dropped by to check on us. Dowitchers, plovers, and sandpipers carpeted the mudflats, and we picked up singles of Solitary Sandpiper, Willet, and American Oystercatcher as well. We kept a sharp eye out for less common species like Pectoral and Western Sandpipers, which I had seen earlier in the week at Jones Beach. A few group members spotted a White-rumped Sandpiper, and a Red Knot showed nicely for all the birders present.
As group leader, I’m a teacher. I did my best to make sure everyone could see everything, and I got to practice my skills in preparation for the upcoming school year. I also walked the young birders through tricky identifications, encouraging them to take note of various field marks. While they scanned the congregations of waterbirds, I challenged them to locate young Little Blue Herons among the similar Snowy Egrets. The older group members quickly picked out the birds by noting their yellowish legs. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs provided another learning opportunity, and the scores of similar-looking peeps were a fun ID puzzle. When we encountered young Night-Herons, I wondered aloud about bill color and the density of markings. This helped my students distinguish between Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned even without the distinctive plumage of adult birds.
Birders weren’t the only creatures on the hunt during the festival, and we were fortunate enough to see a bit of nature, “red in tooth and claw.” The abundance of shorebirds at this time of year always draws predatory attention. A juvenile Peregrine Falcon swooping out of the sky elicited “oohs” and “ahhs” from onlookers as it sped like a bullet towards its quarry. The perpetually wary prey saw it coming and launched into the air, sounding alarm calls and weaving to and fro in coordinated, shimmering flocks. Despite a valiant effort and a few close calls, the Peregrine failed to snag a meal before continuing on. Back in the parking lot, one of the kids alerted us to a similar commotion on a smaller scale: a Cicada Killer doing what it was born to do. The wasp made short work of paralyzing the noisy insect, providing the group with great views.
We made a brief jaunt over to Big John’s Pond, but there was no activity in the nest box and few new birds in the area. We turned back toward the lot to enjoy a picnic lunch, and while en route a sharp-eyed parent spotted a Gray Tree Frog perched on a branch just above the trail. The youngsters took some time to enjoy this close encounter before continuing on, scribbling notes and snapping pictures of the resting amphibian.
I helped the club finish up the tallies for the trip list and provided a few more details for the trip report before saying farewell. The members and parents alike were very thankful for a successful outing, and I was happy to have helped. We had a lovely morning, saw some great wildlife, and only one kid stepped into the thick, foul mud of the East Pond. That sounds like a successful trip to me!
Year List Update, August 20 – 386 Species (+ Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper)