December is a busy time of year for most people. I’ve been scrambling to take care of work obligations, grad school due dates, and holiday shopping while trying to maintain a balance of rest and responsibility. Fortunately, the stressful schedule has been letting up as the final days of 2016 fly off the calendar. Signs of the season are all around, and I had the opportunity to enjoy my students’ reactions to the famous Rockefeller tree during a trip to the Museum of Modern Art that I helped chaperone.
When I arrived home on Friday the 16th, I gathered a few final pieces of gear and turned the car east. The third weekend of the twelfth month kicks off the Christmas Bird Count period, an annual tradition that I love taking part in. The Montauk count is one of the top priorities because it gives me an excuse to explore a part of the island that I rarely visit during a season when the birding is choice.
The drive out was a two-hour musical adventure that was happily free of dangerous drivers or deer with a death wish. I arrived at Vicki’s place to find her and Doug finalizing count plans. I joined the strategy session and Taylor showed up shortly thereafter. The weather forecast was not ideal for outdoor science, but we still managed to hash out an itinerary that we felt would make the most of our time. Bedtime came early, with the knowledge that we’d be rising early to begin the count.
Just after 5 AM, I was awakened by a knock on the door: Taylor, saving me from an incorrectly-set alarm. I pulled together a quick breakfast and we bundled up before heading out into the dark. There’d been quite a bit of accumulation since we dozed off, and the snow was still lightly falling as we loaded up the car and rolled out of Vicki’s driveway. Our first stop was a wooded area near the Point where we tried for nocturnal birds. We managed to stir up a chorus of three Eastern Screech-Owls, and we also encountered a pair further down the trail who moved around us quite closely, calling to one another. It’s always a delight to hear the whistled songs of these tiny raptors, but catching a glimpse of shadowy wings launching from a branch together was a real treat. The owls made a great start to our day, and we made for Shagwong Point as the sky lightened and the snow turned into rain.
Our seawatching efforts at Shagwong are a critical component of our team’s territory sweep, but it can be a difficult location to work with. Getting to and from the isolated shoreline is challenge enough, and the quantity and diversity of birds visible there is very variable. Our morning was a bit of a mixed experience: nothing terribly exciting, with a few absentees and low counts, but the birds kept coming and we clinched most of the expected species like gannets, scoters, and Long-tailed Ducks. The wet and cold conditions didn’t help, and the weather only got worse when we wrapped up the seawatch and headed inland.
We checked out the other locations tasked to us, picking up a handful of songbirds and birds of prey along the way. Big Reed Pond was devoid of waterfowl save for a handful of Black Ducks and a loon, but we snagged Wood Duck and American Wigeon in flight later in the day. A surprise shorebird that we spied landing on the airport runway in heavy rain gave us pause, but the views we got through distant, foggy optics revealed it to be nothing more than an out-of-place Dunlin. Our clothes soaked through as we finished up the morning portion of the count, but we had an opportunity to dry off at Vicki’s during lunch.
We compared notes with the rest of the team, and I borrowed some dry gear from my friends before we headed back out. The clouds finally parted around midday, and the remainder of the count was much more pleasant and conducive to birding. Doug told us that the highlight of his morning was a Yellow-breasted Chat, a welcome addition to any outing checklist. Taylor and I briefly checked the tangle of vegetation where it had appeared, but we failed to connect with the bird. Doug joined us afterwards, and we drove out to Montauk Point to check some of the northern shoreline that our territory team often neglects. Taylor had identified a few specific roads and coves that he felt could be productive, and his hunch was right on the money. We caught sight of a first-year Iceland Gull flying along the coast to the west, and a calling American Pipit was a barely-heard hope that we finally confirmed as it fluttered overhead.
Several territory teams congregated at the southern end of Lake Montauk, where we saw scaup, goldeneyes, and Buffleheads floating on the water. A Great Cormorant went flapping by, and huge flocks of robins totaling over 1000 birds passed over heading west. Our final stop for the count was a return trip to Big Reed Pond, where we had repeatedly missed a critical species for our count area: Virginia Rail. These tiny marsh-dwellers are often heard at the Pond during winter even without the coercion of playback, but no one on our team had managed to locate them or elicit a response to tape on count day. I returned to the area with Taylor at dusk, hoping that the setting sun would mean an increase in activity from the hidden birds. We parked the car in a strategic location, played calls, and waited. Nothing. As I strained my ears for the distinctive grunting squeals, I heard the faint sound of rippling water close by. Something was moving through the tangled vegetation in a pool immediately adjacent to the road, less than a stone’s throw away. Raising my binoculars, I adjusted the focus to help me discern close-range detail in the fading light. Rusty feathers, chicken-shaped structure, boldly-striped sides. Yes. My exceptional luck on this self-proclaimed Year of the Rails continued with my first-ever look at this secretive species. We watched the rail silently scurry through the reeds and branches, and a second, unseen bird finally called a little further back. The sun finally set and we bid the birds farewell.
I gathered my supplies at the house and thanked Vicki for once again opening her home to us for the count. Taylor and I met up with Brent to check a spot where he’d been fortunate enough to score a Northern Saw-whet Owl for the checklist, but it did not return for us.* The compilation dinner, one of my favorite parts of the Christmas Bird Count tradition, did not exist in an official form this year, but a number of us gathered informally at a nearby restaurant to compare totals and highlights. I saw a number of familiar faces and met some older birders who I knew in name only, listening intently to their stories about how the local wildlife scene has changed over the years. I finally drove home to Lynbrook to warm up and sleep. The next morning was the dawn of another big day: the 27th Annual Healy Christmas Brunch. A couple of hundred people, breakfast and dessert to feed an army, drinks and games and merriment. Always a great time with family and friends!
As a side note: I’ve made it to the end of this post without any halfway decent bird pictures, and that seems a shame. The camera stayed away for most of the CBC due to the weather, and although I was prepared to photograph the chat it never materialized. The only notable birding that happened between now and my last blog post was another encounter with the Long-eared Owl at Jones Beach. I heard reports that the bird was seen again, so I returned with Miriam to search for it one evening. Even though it had moved from the site of its initial discovery, we were fortunate enough to stumble upon the roosting owl and an attendant group of photographers in a new location. Never, ever, ever gets old.
With only a week left in 2016, I’ll be looking to make a few last-minute trips to look for year birds and potentially even some lifers. I’m also planning a “Best Of” post for the year, but not until the adventures are done for. Stay tuned for a recap of this madcap year!
*EDIT: At the time, we departed the Saw-whet spot thinking we’d missed the owl. On another outing a short time later, Brent used the same recording we played and realized that a quiet “background” call we’d thought was a part of the tape was absent from the actual track. In reality, the Saw-whet had been distantly and consistently responding to the same portion of the playback, and we failed to realize it was an actual bird rather than a voice on the audio sample. I was greatly amused when I finally learned the truth. Soooooo I DID technically get Northern Saw-whet Owl in 2016, but I was not aware of it in the moment. This hobby has its moments!
Year List Update, December 23 – 407 Species