The holiday season kicked off with some much needed vacation time. I dove into Thanksgiving break headfirst, determined to make the most of my four days of freedom. The big day itself was perfectly pleasant, with the family gathering for a delicious traditional meal. I managed to cram a variety of activities into the remainder of the long weekend, catching up with friends and relaxing while also prepping the house for December. I got to spend time with Andrew and Kate before they returned to college, went to see Moana, and played plenty of Pokémon Sun. Delightful.
There was also some time set aside for exploring the outdoors. At Dad’s behest, I stopped by Hendrickson Park on Friday to check in on his Pink-footed Goose. Even though he had failed to spot the bird for a few days, others had reported it. I confirmed its continuing presence, and Dad finally resighted his friend on a Sunday morning. What’s more, I spotted a drake Mallard x American Black Duck hybrid. Interspecies excitement is always interesting to see.
Miriam and I made plans to go birding early on Saturday, setting out for Jones Beach shortly after sunrise. Ever since she learned of my hobby and heard my stories about local sightings, Miriam has wanted to see an owl in the wild. Winter is the prime time for owling on Long Island, and reports of several species had started to quietly crop up on eBird. We parked at the West End lot and made a long loop down to the jetty and up the inlet, scanning the dunes for a Snowy Owl the whole way. It was a lovely walk, and the chilly wind gradually gave way to an agreeably warm day, but there was no sign of our hoped-for quarry. Snow Buntings, gannets, and a number of the expected waterfowl and songbirds kept us entertained during our stroll. When we reached the lot, I suggested a brief check of the median followed by a potential stop at Hempstead to try for Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles.
Approaching the median from the Coast Guard station, we bumped into a crowd of familiar faces. Multiple birders told me that the Snowy reported on Wednesday had been seen again this morning, just to the east of where we headed west down the beach. There were also reports of a young Northern Goshawk in the area, and folks were following up on a Northern Saw-whet Owl sighting from a few days prior. Prioritizing our possible targets to focus on my favorite animal, we kept an eye out for the hawk as we trekked through the median towards the swale where the Snowy was spotted.
Arrival at the beach found several other birders frustrated by the distinct lack of an owl. We sweeped the immediate area and scanned the distance, but could not pick it out. Fortuitously, two other nature enthusiasts approaching from the east let us know that they found the owl at a new perch further down the shore. I picked up the pace, determined to bring a close to our hunt. A few minutes of powerwalking through the sand later, there it was.
Miriam seemed to have high expectations for her first encounter with this magical animal, and I’m pretty sure they were exceeded. The owl was resting at the edge of the dunes, swiveling its head to keep tabs on the world around it. Through my binoculars and Stacey’s scope we were able to get great views of the northern visitor. A passing fisherman, taking a phone call, put everyone on edge when he walked directly at the owl. The bird watched him intently as he approached, but it became apparent that he did not see the owl at all. Recognizing this, the raptor didn’t even flinch as the man unknowingly walked by within spitting distance.
Snowies always draw a crowd of admirers who do know what to look for, though, and more observers trudged down the beach to see the wanderer from the Arctic. Even though the assembled onlookers were respectful at this time, keeping a good distance without creeping up, the owl decided it was time for a new vantage point and took flight. Miriam gasped audibly at the wide, white wingspan that spread as the bird launched into the air. It settled a short distance away, and I took this as our cue to move on.
Back at the median, Miriam got to meet Taylor and I got glimpses of the alleged goshawk. My views, and many of the photos that were later provided, ended up showing a particularly burly Cooper’s Hawk with raggedy plumage reminiscent of some important goshawk field marks. Birding is challenging, hawks are hard, and I was certainly left confused by my initial looks at the large raptor. It’s not too late for someone to find a goshawk down at the beach, though!
I returned to Jones alone on Sunday, putting in search hours from dawn to past high noon. I had the pleasure of seeing the Snowy again, as well as plenty of the usual suspects, but failed to locate anything new for the year. Frustratingly, I ended up just missing something really good. A single Red Crossbill has been sporadically seen in the median for about a week and a half, but I’ve failed to connect with it. Today the call went out that a flock of 7 of these unpredictable nomads had touched down at the turnaround. I was at the beach by the nature center watching the Snowy, and I ran back to the lot and drove to the end of the road. I would’ve loved to catch this species, which I haven’t seen since my life encounter with a trio feeding on potted plants outside an Alaskan Blockbuster 3 years ago, but I arrived on site 15 seconds after they took off. Brendan stopped by and the loner was reported with a goldfinch flock, but we searched to no avail. There were also whispers later in the evening that a Saw-whet had been located after I left the beach, but the details are uncertain and sketchy at best.
Honestly, it’s hard to complain about a vacation partly spent in the company of a Snowy Owl. I had a great time exploring the beach with Miriam and catching up with friends and family during my break. Besides, 2016 isn’t over yet! Let’s see what December brings.
Year List Update, November 27 – 405 Species