Breeding season in the Northern Hemisphere is over. The time has come for migratory creatures to turn around and start heading back south. In the spring, migration is a mad dash for the nesting grounds, with birds racing to stake territory, attract mates, and gather resources for raising young. The autumnal migration season is a more leisurely, protracted affair. Many species take alternate routes, and the earliest individuals may pass through an area months ahead of the stragglers. August is when the non-shorebird species start to come through in numbers, and I added Black Tern and Bobolink to the year list during visits to Jones Beach.
The Rufous Hummingbird is one of many species that sometimes wanders widely in the fall, turning up far afield from its usual haunts. Although rare on Long Island, this western bird is not entirely unexpected in the region late in the year. However, an August report of an individual at Elizabeth A. Morton National Wildlife Refuge surprised birders by being far ahead of schedule. Taking advantage of my last week of summer break, I made the trek out the island to search for the little lost traveler. My National Parks pass once again provided me with free entry, and a flock of confiding Wild Turkeys greeted me just inside the gate.
The feeders and gardens near the visitor center were buzzing with activity, but there was no sign of the Rufous. During an extended stakeout, park employees arrived and informed me that the sugar water in the feeders had just been changed. After faithfully visiting the center for three days and most of the morning, the wayward hummer had returned only once since the mixture was replaced. I held out hope that it would return, but after several hours without any sightings it was clear the bird had moved on. Perhaps something about the fresh nectar was not to its liking. I snapped a few pictures of the local Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as I waited in vain for their rarer cousin. Honestly, any hummingbird encounter is a great experience.
My main target was a no-show, but my Suffolk outing was hardly a total wash. Morton is semi-famous for its chickadees and titmice that, after years of being fed by visitors, will come to the hand for an offering of seed. I made a short circuit of the trail and befriended plenty of birds along the way. Upon reaching the gardens again, I was told that no other birders had seen the Rufous in my absence. With a family dinner on Fire Island planned, I kept a close eye on the clock as I turned back west. I spotted another Suffolk specialty en route, the peculiar Big Duck of Flanders.
I decided I had enough time for a brief stop at the sod farms in Riverhead. These expansive fields are another strange spot for birders “in the know,” as they often attract migrating shorebirds. Several species, including Buff-breasted Sandpipers, American Golden-Plover, and Baird’s Sandpiper, prefer dry, grassy, upland habitat over mudflats or pools during migration. These birds, which migrate later than many of their relatives, are often referred to as grasspipers. I had struck out with Buff-breasts during the Jimmy Buffett concert the previous week, missing some birds at the Jones Beach dune ponds by less than an hour when I walked down the beach to find them. The dip had robbed me of a Buffy/Buffett pun for a post title, but I hoped to connect with individuals reported in Suffolk. My afternoon visit to the farms was on a time crunch, and although I spotted my 2016 Baird’s I saw no sign of any other grasspipers. Not wanting to push my luck any further, I raced to Bayshore and arrived just in time for the ferry.
When a Connecticut Warbler showed up at Alley Pond Park in Queens, I was determined to break my streak of missed birds. I got to catch up with a number of birder friends on site who reported intermittent glimpses of the skulking songbird throughout the day. When I was left alone after a few hours of searching, some silence and diligence eventually revealed rustling stems which I tracked until the Connecticut briefly revealed itself. This species was #390 on my year list, and I was eager to kick off the final 10 with a grasspiper redemption tale. I once again slogged out to Suffolk on a Saturday morning and parked along Osborn Avenue. This vantage point had been reported to host some good birds, and I quickly found what I was looking for.
Another group of assembled birders confirmed I was in the right spot, and additional cars arrived periodically throughout my stay. There were a handful of Buffies picking their way through the sod tracts fairly close to the roadside. Even more impressive was a large flock of 68 American Golden-Plovers further out in the field. Although they are often seen on Long Island as singles or small groups, Golden-Plovers congregating like this is a treat we rarely observe in our area. The birds were showcasing various plumages and stages of molt, and there was not a single more common Black-bellied Plover among them.
As the farmhands worked the fields, a tractor startled the plovers into flight. Moving as one, they put on quite a show as they weaved back and forth, up and down, and eventually settled on the grass much closer to the our position. We got great views of them alongside the assembled Buff-breasts, Killdeer, and peeps.
Golden-Plover holds a special place in my heart and on my life list, ranking as the 500th species I ever saw. I reached this milestone in 2013 when I worked in Alaska. The plovers were one of the first new birds observed during my summer job, and despite lumps, splits, and species removed from my list due to uncertainty, I recognize them as the “official” species for that number. This summer, I reached 600 total species, and the plover reunion put me one step closer to my year goal of 400 in 2016. That’s a lot of love for lists, but it’s also nice just to spend some time with these long-distance travelers. As my last big outing of summer break, a seasonal specialty was a fitting reminder that school, work, and the fun of fall are right around the corner.
Year List Update, September 3 – 392 Species (+ Black Tern, Bobolink, Baird’s Sandpiper, Connecticut Warbler, American Golden-Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper)