A three-day weekend means three days of opportunities to make use of free time. Friday, Veteran’s Day, was a much-needed chance to sleep in after a very late night with Miriam and friends in the city celebrating her birthday. I made a brief foray up to the North Shore in the afternoon to look for a female King Eider at Ransom Beach, but apart from this unsuccessful chase I spent most of the day relaxing at home. Saturday started off with the usual run to Jones Beach. Plenty of songbirds and raptors were moving through the brush along the roadsides. I headed down to the beach itself, finding several Horned Larks and an American Pipit picking the wrack line as they scurried across the sand.
For the past week or so, huge numbers of Northern Gannets have been seen moving westward relatively close to shore. There are times when you need to scan the distant horizon to have a hope of spotting these large seabirds. I’ve also witnessed migration events when groups of the birds are close enough to be heard vocalizing as they travel down the coast. On this morning, birders from Suffolk to Queens reported hundreds to thousands of gannets passing by in flocks, occasionally pausing to plunge into the ocean for a meal.
A swirling cyclone of white, black, and brown was twisting back and forth down the beach towards the jetty. I raised my binoculars to scan the small flock of Snow Buntings more closely. Numbers of these arctic passerines, which some of my friends have affectionately dubbed Snow Beasts, increase as the season progresses. I often see congregations of several hundred moving over the dunes in unison on the most frigid winter days. For now, there were only about 30 individuals in the flock, and a pair of them didn’t quite match their neighbors.
Mixed in with Beasts were two Lapland Longspurs. These birds often keep the company of buntings or larks and are slightly unpredictable in our region. Last winter, for some strange reason, they were all but entirely absent for the entirety of the season. No one really saw any, and no one really knows why. Seasonal variations of bird distributions can be fickle. Fortunately, the longspurs have returned early this year, and I can finally add this species to my 2016 list.
Sunday perfectly highlighted the weirdness of November birding. I’ve previously mentioned that this month is a big one for vagrants, with late, early, and out-of-place migrants providing no shortage of excitement. Jones had nothing unusual to report, but I found a lingering Blue-headed Vireo at Hempstead Lake. I took great care to accurately separate this individual from similar, rarer species, just as myself and some other birders triple-checked a late young Baltimore Oriole in the afternoon to rule out western relatives. Our systematic analysis was to be expected, considering where we were and why we were there…
I had already returned home and gotten some lunch when I got word from the listserv that Bobby Berlingeri had discovered an Ash-throated Flycatcher at the often-overlooked Lido West Town Park. This western species is regular but rare on the East Coast in fall, so the announcement drew quite a crowd. I arrived to find Brendan with the assembled onlookers, and Taylor, Pat, and others showed up to see the wayward bird. As always, we took pains to confirm all field markers and make sure it wasn’t a more common or even rarer representative of the tricky Myiarchus genus. The flycatcher proved very cooperative, calling softly as it flew around snagging insects and berries at the edge of the parking lot.
Brendan and I did a quick horizon scan from the beach, and he pointed out a huge congregation of gulls to our east. Large numbers of birds were feeding on schools of bait fish just offshore, and there were even more loafing on the sand nearby. We debated the best access point for closer inspection, figuring that the statistical odds of an unusual visitor were in our favor, and settled on Camp Anchor as a likely good vantage point. His hunch turned out to be correct, and we came out of the dunes almost on top of the action. Within minutes of arriving at the frenzy, Brendan excitedly called out a young Glaucous Gull flying down the beach directly towards us. The big, oatmeal-colored gull, a very early arrival for this uncommon species, landed nearby and showed off nicely in the fading light.
Not wanting to be outdone, I began sweeping the horizon with renewed vigor, hoping to find something interesting. As I picked through the gulls and gannets for any unusual individuals, a burst of mist sprayed forth from the sea. “WHALE!” Brendan turned his optics to see the massive mammal, and the distant Humpback spouted several more times as it worked its way towards the west. As is often the case with onshore whale sightings on Long Island, we were too far away to snap photos of the action, but I love seeing any whale from any distance any time. The sun sank lower in the sky, and Brendan and I turned back towards the parking lot. Other birders arrived to follow up on our Glaucous report, and we made sure they were on the bird before we departed. To close out a fantastic fall weekend, I was shocked by an enormous orange moon hanging low in the sky as I pulled out of the lot. I had missed the memo that this full moon would be the largest and closest in 70 years, but I sure was glad I got to see it! Not bad, Nature.
Year List Update, November 13 – 405 Species (+ Lapland Longspur, Ash-throated Flycatcher)