Lessons Learned

Sometimes you have to get back to basics. Birding is a complicated, detail-focused pastime, and even local, day-to-day outings can result in surprising challenges. Experienced naturalists would do well to remember where they started, continually honing skills and striving to be a better observer. Amidst the busy schedules of work and grad school, I’ve found the past week’s adventures have been something of a remedial course in birding bylaws.

1. Use the resources available to you

Technology has been a massive game-changer for the birding scene. Rare Bird Alerts are delivered via email and posted on local listservs. eBird is an incredible citizen science tool that allows birders to search for particular species or locations, whether they want to know about recent sightings, review historical patterns of occurrence, or peruse uploaded media. They’ve even added a public profile option, improving on the “community” feel of the website. New York City naturalists use a Twitter-based alert service to report birds in Central Park and other Manhattan hotspots. I keep a close eye on this page during migration, in case there’s an excuse to dash into the city after work. On Tuesday, I had just such an occasion. A gorgeous adult Red-headed Woodpecker was observed moving around the Ramble throughout the day. I rode the subway beyond Woodside and took a side trip to Central, tracking down this handsome and long-overdue year bird. I was on the scene even before some NYC regulars got the word. Technology is incredible!

2. Double-check IDs and 3. A picture is worth a thousand words

Saturday was a windy, rainy, dreary day. I used the lousy weather as a motivator to stay inside and be productive, and I actually got a lot of work done. I periodically checked the tech platforms, just in case an outdoor update came in from someone hardier than I. Eventually, I received a report of a Connecticut Warbler at the Jones Beach coast guard station. There was a break in the rain, so I headed out to follow up. Upon arrival, I met Keith, the original finder, who had already put Mike on the bird. We watched it forage along the weedy fence line for an extended period of time, snapping pictures whenever it briefly came into the open. As the wind and precipitation began to intensify, I took my leave and returned home.

In the shelter of my house, out of the cold and wet, I reviewed the photos I had taken. Something was a bit off. The eye ring, which had appeared a little thin during brief unobstructed field views, was broken in the front and the back. A Connecticut should always have a bold, bug-eyed look, and the yellowish throat breaking up the gray hood didn’t look right either. Come to think of it, the bird’s scurrying motions were more hopping than the typical strolling gait expected in the species. I’d watched this critter for more than half an hour, and I’d failed to notice that it was actually a very late Mourning Warbler. The young of these relatives are especially similar, and I also had to compare my shots to their western cousin, the MacGillavray’s Warbler, just to be sure I consider even the unlikeliest options. A quick camera and pictures from multiple angles can prove invaluable for sorting out tricky IDs like this.

4. The early birder gets the bird

Mornings are almost always the best time for birding. Once again, I was at Jones Beach before the sun. Familiar faces started to arrive, hoping to track down the locally rare and out-of-season Mourning after my updated ID post the previous evening. Despite the persistent winds from the west, there were still a number of birds working their way down the beach towards the mainland. In addition to the usual suspects, we managed to connect with Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Indigo Bunting, and Field Sparrow near the fisherman’s road. A lingering Blackpoll Warbler was sunning itself at the turnaround, and a dapper male Black-throated Blue was spotted at the coast guard property. As usual, there were plenty of raptors seeking breakfast, and one passing Cooper’s Hawk gave people a fright as it flew by clutching a bright yellow bundle of feathers. Some feared that yesterday’s visitor was on the menu, but the Mourning was eventually relocated in much the same spot. Birders continued to trickle in throughout the day, and upwards of 30 happy people got to see their target.

5. Inspect even the expected

It’s all too easy to get desensitized to conspicuous and ubiquitous birds. On Long Island, gulls are an unavoidable fact of life. We see them everywhere, and at first glance they all look pretty much the same. Their plumages can be frustratingly variable, and many species overlap with certain field marks or even hybridize. There’s always a chance, however, of finding a diamond in the rough. I took the time to sweep a ragtag bunch resting on the parking lot at Tobay Beach as I drove by. My diligence was rewarded with half a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls. These European visitors are about the size of a Herring Gull, closer in coloration to a Great Black-backed, and on the rise in North America. Sifting through complicated challenges like gulls is good observation practice, but it helps when they are mostly stationary.

6. Leave no stone unturned

Familiarizing oneself with the nooks and crannies of a local patch allows a vigilant outdoorsman to reap tremendous benefits. Animals often do their best to stay out of sight, but knowing preferred hiding spots increases the chance of finding interesting wildlife. An unexpected Turkey Vulture floated overhead as I continued down the drive from Tobay to the JFK Memorial Bird Sanctuary. The marsh revealed no bitterns or interesting sparrows as it has in the past, so I got off the beaten path to check the hidden pools among the dense grass. Today they were hosting a large flock of Green-winged Teal, several night-herons, an egret, a Great Blue, and a handful of stunning Wood Ducks. Later observers Taylor and Brent reported the teal missing, but bumped into a bittern. The secret treasure troves of nature are always different, even from hour to hour.

7. The ordinary can be extraordinary

Even the most common birds can catch you off guard. I swung past Hempstead Lake for what was planned to be my final stop of the day. There was nothing unusual to be found, and indeed there were very few birds around at all. I was getting ready to depart when I noticed that a Great Blue Heron which had flown past me was standing in the shallows not far away. I crept nearer in the hopes of snapping a few shots of this often wary bird, but it was comfortable with the distance I kept and stayed put for an extended photo shoot. This young individual, with its Alfafa sprig of loose feathers, was incredibly confiding and cooperative. When I’d had my fill, I left the bird in peace and headed for the car. Definitely one of the day’s highlights!

8. Consider the conditions 

I checked in on eBird rarity emails from Brooklyn, noting a checklist that reported some late-lingering terns at Plumb Beach. I opened the link not to read more about the terns, but to see if there were any sightings of a personal target that I knew wouldn’t trigger the rare filter. Bingo: at least two Nelson’s Sparrows were observed in the marsh, as is typical at this time of year. The positive report was enough to spur me to action and convince me to take on the Belt Parkway. I made it to Plumb with acceptable timing, only to be blasted by wind when I stepped out of the car. Damn. In my haste I’d forgotten to think of how the weather might impact my hunt. Tracking a small, secretive sparrow as it silently sits among swaying marsh grasses is no easy feat in ideal circumstances. The strong gusts of wind buffeting the stalks were an added obstacle, but I was determined not to leave empty-handed.

9. Sometimes binoculars are mightier than the camera

I know that this statement contradicts my earlier third rule, and my opinion on which gear to prioritize varies on a case-by-case basis. Generally, I feel that binoculars will allow you to get on and get a look at more birds than a camera will. Photos can be hugely helpful, but if the focal species is quick or secretive enough that capturing it on film will be difficult, it’s usually best to focus on getting a good look. Nelson’s Sparrows are tiny, quiet, very similar to several related species, quick to disappear, and often only seen obstructed by stalks of grass. National Geographic-quality pics were not my priority. I stood near the eastern outflow of the marsh, binoculars in hand.

The reported Royal and Forster’s Terns were circling the shoreline, and coursing Northern Harriers flushed an Eastern Meadowlark out of hiding. Other birds of prey included a Sharp-shinned Hawk and an American Kestrel. There were even snails feeding at the falling water line, inching along as jets of water launched by bivalves spurted from the sand. After almost two hours with only fleeting glimpses of unidentifiable sparrows fluttering about, I finally caught a break. A likely-looking individual was seen in flight during a brief lull in the wind, drawing my focus. Some passersby on the other side of the grassy patch caused the bird to hop up on a stalk hidden from them but facing me. A strong burst of wind made it to cling tight to its perch, and through the vigorously waving grasses I was able to just make out the pumpkin-orange coloration and faint markings that identify this species. The breeze died down, the sparrow dropped back out of sight, and I turned the car towards Lynbrook for dinner.

10. Never. Stop. Exploring.

Life is hard. Birding can be hard, too, but it’s fun. My hobby helps keep me sane in the hustle and bustle of daily life, and it livens up stressful weeks. This all-encompassing scavenger hunt provides me with an excuse to get out and search for new things, while also appreciating the world around me for what it has to offer. Of the various rules and tips of nature exploration, I think that the constant reminder to just keep enjoying it is the most important lesson of them all.

Year List Update, October 23 – 403 Species (+ Red-headed Woodpecker, Nelson’s Sparrow)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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3 Responses to Lessons Learned

  1. Pingback: In the Pink | Studying Life

  2. Pingback: 1-2-3 Break! | Studying Life

  3. Pingback: Sparrow Spotting | Studying Life

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