A Wet Christmas

The week of work before a vacation is always a total slog. I fought my way through a slow five days, taking care to deliver my best lessons and record the data I needed for grad classes. The all-too-slow drip of sand from the hourglass was worsened by several reports of rare birds cropping up in local hotspots while I was busy at school. I fought the good fight from Monday to Friday, aided by festive sidebars with coworkers, friends, and loved ones. After the final bell set me free, I made some plans to get out birding early on Christmas Eve. Brendan warned me that the weather looked less than ideal, with wet conditions right up until the holiday obligations began. I elected to do some exploration by vehicle before kicking off the celebrations. The reported birds of note were all in locations which were very conducive to car-birding, so I wasn’t too concerned about my chances and options.

Friday night was a lazy one with Miriam, and the rain convinced me to sleep in on Saturday morning. I started off in the late morning and began driving east. First stop: Camman’s Pond Park in Merrick. A Black-headed Gull, a species that regularly wanders to our shores from the other side of the Atlantic, had been spotted hanging around the water feature here. I only just met this bird for the first time alongside the Painted Bunting in Prospect Park last year, so I still needed it for my 2016 year list. Rumors of the sighting at this location started to circulate early in the week, and it was finally confirmed on the listserv on Friday. I rolled up to the park and found the gull immediately upon pulling into the lot. It was sitting at the water’s edge a stone’s throw from my parking spot, and I was treated to great views and solid photographs when I rolled the driver’s-side window down. This species is sometimes referred to as having split personalities: a “Bonaparte’s Gull side” and a “Ring-billed Gull side.” Black-heads that turn up in North America often range widely in coastal locations with large flocks of Bonies, but every once in a while a confiding individual sets up shop at an inland lake with some tame Ring-bills. This bird, fortunately, was living the latter lifestyle, and I got to enjoy its company from the warmth and safety of my car.

I took my leave of the Black-head and made tracks for the Ocean Parkway. The intensity of the rain increased as I continued eastward. Robert Moses State Park was my destination: the site of another noteworthy sighting that had continued throughout the work week. A pair of Ross’s Geese had been seen feeding on the lawn at the roundabout, and I was hoping to catch up with these uncommon visitors for the first time this season. The stormy conditions made for an uneventful drive down the parkway. As I crossed the bridge to Robert Moses, I could make out something unusual on the grassy centerpiece surrounding the tower.

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Ross’s Goose confirmed!…but only one individual. I stayed on site for about 10 minutes, but the second bird didn’t show during that time. I was lucky enough to get good views of the goose that was present, and there were also two leucistic Canada Geese among the dozen or so feeding next to the road. The rain continually fogged my camera lens, and I had to wipe it clean several times during this photo shoot. All the same, it was a pleasure to see this rarity up close for an extended period of time. I did hear that the second Ross’s later returned to its mate, but when I turned back towards Nassau I left only a single snowy bird gleaming in my rear view mirror.

I kept my eyes peeled for goodies as I passed Cedar Marina and Jones Beach, but my final outdoor stop for the day was Hendrickson Park. By the time I arrived, the skies had cleared somewhat and the rain had all but stopped. I thought I heard a chattering chuckle in the trees across the creek, but I was soon distracted by a Brown Creeper that fluttered to the base of a nearby tree. These birds are straight-up adorable, and every aspect of their biology is perfectly engineered for their niche. Camouflage, structure, and behavior: these birds know how to be the tree. I watched the little guy do the creep for several minutes, and it even dropped back down to root level to search the crevices in the bark a second time. When the creeper flew on, I continued towards the main lake.

There were plenty of aquatic species resting on the surface of the water, and plenty more perched on the shoreline and the sparse patches of ice. I swept through the gulls, geese, and ducks, but failed to find anything out of the ordinary. Hooded Mergansers are lovely little beasties and all, but there was no sign of anything truly rare. The long-staying Pink-footed Goose and a recently-located Cackling Goose had been seen repeatedly during the week, but I couldn’t find so much as a stray feather from either bird during this outing.

I made my way back north along the creek, pausing in the spot where I’d heard the promising vocalization. Another rarity had been reported in this exact spot every day since the Queens Christmas Bird Count on Sunday. The distinctive noise I’d barely noted was the call of this species: a Red-headed Woodpecker. I heard the bird a few more times before I finally got a visual on the wayward youngster. The Red-head was perched high in the trailside trees, hammering away at the bark. This individual was a first year bird, and the gray-brown feathers of its hood were clearly transitioning into brilliant crimson. I watched the woodpecker drill and clamber about for some time before continuing down the stream.

I accidentally flushed a resting Great Blue Heron from the tangled foliage along the water, and it touched down on the lawn near some exercise equipment. I found the juxtaposition of the large, lanky bird with the suburban structures of yard fencing and pull-up bars amusing. I snapped a few pictures before leaving the bird in peace and returning to the car.

I made it home with plenty of time to shower up and make myself presentable. The holiday festivities kicked off with some delightful family time and delicious meals. I’m looking forward to a week-long vacation of adventures, but there’s going to be plenty of relaxation mixed in there as well. A Merry Christmas and all manner of Happy Holidays to my readers! I’ll be back with more updates very, very soon. If nothing else, I’ve learned that I am in fact available to participate in the South Nassau Christmas Bird Count on January 1. 2016 still isn’t over though…who knows what the final birding trips of the year will bring!

Year List Update, December 24 – 408 Species (+ Black-headed Gull)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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6 Responses to A Wet Christmas

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