December began with a chill, bringing cold winds as a front swept in from the north. I was woefully under-dressed for my early Saturday excursion to Jones Beach. No hat, no gloves, and only a T-shirt beneath my leather jacket left me shivering for most of the morning. I hoped that the blustering gales would whip up some avian activity, especially since Brendan had bumped into another group of crossbills while I was at work on Friday. There were some birds on the move, with groups of blackbirds, goldfinches, waxwings, and robins sweeping overhead. Unfortunately, this late in the year the flocks were few and far between, with no rarities among their overall low numbers.
Raptors made up for the weak songbird showing. The local Cooper’s Hawk was about, diving repeatedly on a murder of crows who were yelling at something in the pine trees. Their target was revealed when a massive, winged frame burst from hiding and flew straight towards me. I brought up my binoculars and saw large, golden eyes heading in my direction: a Great Horned Owl. The owl led the crew of corvids to the turnaround, then looped back and headed out of sight down the beach.
A lull in activity at Jones was broken by a report of a strange, pale-rumped swallow at Point Lookout. Of the two species known to occur here, one was far more likely for this time of year, but the ID still needed confirmation. I crossed the inlet and drove to Fireman’s Park, where I found fellow birders, a flotilla of Harlequin Ducks, and the promised swallow.
I got my glass on the bird and quickly confirmed that it was a Cave Swallow, the hoped-for and expected option. Although their Cliff Swallow cousins are somewhat uncommon in these parts during spring and summer, Caves breed no further north than Texas and New Mexico. In late fall and early winter, strong southwest winds can blow them out of range, only for fronts from the northwest to push them the rest of the way to the East Coast. This prolonged weather pattern occurs regularly enough that Cave Swallows are annual in our region despite the distance of their home range from New York. This particular individual was especially cooperative. Cave Swallows are often seen as a quick flyby on a windy day, barely showing well enough to be identified. Every once in a while, though, they settle in a spot to forage. This was the case with a quartet of birds at Venetian Shores last fall, and it was certainly the case today. As the speedy swallow zipped around, it repeatedly buzzed us at close range, flying directly at us at eye level. It’s hard to get good photos of these maneuverable aerialists, but the views were appreciated by all.
That night, I was out at a bar with my parents and neighbors. I checked my email and noticed the daily New York State eBird rarity report had come in. I gave it a brief scan to look for anything interesting.
A Long-eared Owl had been reported at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. This secretive species has eluded me for many years in many locations. I’ve put myself in the right kind of spot at the right time of year over and over, and I’ve always come up short. I even missed a bird discovered by Taylor in February 2015 by less than an hour. I’d heard nothing about it since I had only just properly joined the Long Island birding community, and folks don’t like to blab too much about sightings of charismatic and disturbance-sensitive birds like owls. This discretion is warranted, since people love owls and sometimes love them a bit too much. Taylor’s Long-ear had been sitting comfortably on location for several days, but just before I arrived a group of birders and photographers had formed a circle around its roost tree. They gradually moved closer, closer, closer until the bird flushed and disappeared. Although this species was once fairly common in the NYC area, sightings have become less frequent and birders have become tighter-lipped about discoveries. As a result, I had a bit of a nemesis on my hands.
I made plans for a journey to the Bronx the following morning, but when I awoke in the morning I realized I ought to check the hours of operation for the Botanical Gardens. The gates typically don’t open until 10, so I decided to begin my day at Jones and see if the continuing winds from the northwest had blown in anything interesting. A good early sighting was a Common Raven that lit in the trees along Peninsula Boulevard as I drove past Hempstead Lake, and I made good time getting down to the shore. There were lots of birders working the area, and I finally got to meet Tracey’s and Brendan’s significant others, Mike and Fiona: both long overdue introductions. A few goodies were reported, but I was in a rush to begin my hunt. By 9 AM I was headed back towards my car, when simultaneous texts from Tracey and Stacy gave me pause. They reported a mystery owl at the turnaround, which I had not checked, emphasizing that ID was being debated. The stand of pines at the turnaround was on my way out, so I parked along the shoulder and walked over to the small crowd assembled at the edge of the grove. A few folks confidently directed my sights to “the Great Horned Owl to the left of that tree trunk.”
What. WHAT. This trim, comparatively-tiny bird was no Great Horned. In an excited whisper, I confirmed its name to the glee of my friends and fellow birders: Long-eared Owl. I was dumbfounded, amused, and elated at this twist of fate. No need to trek up to the Bronx now! Everyone told someone about the find, and I drew a literal line in the sand so no one in the growing mob would step too close to the owl. It was clearly on high alert after being disturbed from its slumber, so we hung back a good distance away and kept our voices low. Dad and Miriam, both too busy with work to join me at the beach, expressed their disbelief and jealousy when I told them about the surprise encounter. Brendan, who was co-leading an Audubon bird walk, brought his group over to the turnaround pines. Everyone in the group, including many fresh beginners, got a look at the Long-ear. The morning continued to surprise us when the continuing Great Horned Owl flew low overhead, apparently returning to the area after being chased by marauding crows.
I was ecstatic to spend some quality time with my newest lifer, but we elected not to linger for too long. Leaving the owl an opportunity for some much-needed rest, I followed the Audubon walk down to the shore. Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, and a Lapland Longspur showed at the swale. There was even a pair of Dunlin among them, and much larger flocks gathered at the jetty and the inlet. I peeled off from Brendan’s crew to rejoin Tracey, Stacy, et al. down by the far west end of the beach. They had seen continued squabbling between the Great Horned and the crows, and there were reports of a Short-eared Owl in the dunes nearby. I spent some time looking for it, getting greedy for an owl hat trick. When Stacy and Kurt decided to leave, I remained in the hopes of finding the Short-ear. We took a break from searching the grass to visit the jetty, where Mike picked up lifer Harlequin Duck and Northern Gannets.
I got a text from Stacy that they had inadvertently kicked up the Short-eared Owl on their way out, and a Northern Harrier had chased it back down the beach towards us. I quickly returned to the dunes, but the owl had returned to hiding. Tracy, Mike, and Patrice eventually decided to head home, and my determination led me to stay behind. I was once again made a fool, as they, too, flushed the Short-ear when I was elsewhere. Knowing that the bird had been accidentally flushed repeatedly, I called off my chase to give the bird a break. Knowing that these owls often fly up conspicuously to hunt at dusk, I hoped that if I lingered I would have a chance to see the bird on its own terms. I instead returned to the Long-eared Owl roost, finding only a handful of quiet, respectful birders on site. The owl was still on the same perch and had even settled in for a nap. I was relieved to see that no one had pressed or stressed the bird during the day. I checked in on it again when Mike Z. got off work and headed down to the beach, making sure that he also got his lifer.
With an hour to go until sunset, I trudged out to the inlet and settled in alongside the trail. I had a good vantage point to see the spread of the dunes, and I waited as the sun crept lower and lower in the sky. The Short-eared never showed up, perhaps waiting for proper nightfall or having relocated elsewhere, but I honestly couldn’t even complain. It was absolutely beautiful at the beach that evening, and the quiet peace of the gathering darkness made for a perfect end to a fantastic weekend. I returned to my car once the sun slipped below the horizon line, passing the Long-ear and sweeping one last time for its shorter-eared cousin as the light finally faded. Bidding the barrier beach owls a successful night of hunting, I turned towards home with a satisfied smile on my face.
The final surprise of the weekend came with the evening’s eBird report and a message from a Bronx local I’d contacted. It turns out that there may have never been a Long-eared at the Botanical Gardens after all. The walk leader had heard no reports of a bird alleged to have been present for a week, though several additional reports came in from Saturday and Sunday of a continuing Great Horned Owl seen by groups of birders. It is entirely possible that my whole Long-eared Owl chase was based on a mistake, and I would’ve gone running around the Bronx in vain while the real deal coincidentally showed up at my local patch. I lucked out in a big way thanks to my early morning stop, the help of my friends, and sheer happenstance. Life is funny, sometimes.
Year List Update, December 4 – 407 Species (+ Cave Swallow, Long-eared Owl)