The Wings of Winter

A light fall of snow leading into Friday resulted in minimal accumulation, but the forecast called for a more serious winter storm over the weekend. The scheduled Brooklyn pelagic tour was rescheduled for the following Saturday, which got me off the waiting list and onto the roster. I’d been waiting to see if I’d have a chance to join the expedition, but this was not the outcome I expected. To make the most of my days off, I decided to head out to Montauk Point early and seawatch before the weather got too bad. My hope was that the wintry winds would blow some seagoing birds closer to shore, and it’s now something of a tradition to begin the year at the end of the Island.

After a solo jam session on the road, I arrived at the lighthouse parking lot just after sunrise. Taylor and Pete were already standing watch, and we were joined by several other birders throughout the morning. One guy, Carl, was a visitor from Wisconsin who’d come out for the pelagic and was trying to make the best of the cancellation. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was given his spot on the boat: sorry and thanks, Carl! On the bright side, we still managed to help him score some lifers on what turned out to be a pretty solid seawatch, even though most birds were a bit too far for photos. All three scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, gannets, and loons were moving all morning long. We also spotted pairs of Bonaparte’s Gulls and Great Cormorants flying by, and a few groups of goldeneye were seen zipping past the Point. The highlight of the day was a seriously impressive Razorbill flight, perhaps related to the oncoming storm. We counted over 150 of these penguin lookalikes during our watch, and there were usually multiple groups visible at once. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any rarer alcids among them, and although our vigil was pleasant there was nothing too out-of-the-ordinary to be seen.

Once the snow started to fall, it quickly picked up a head of steam. I turned back west and was soon followed by the rest of the crew. I stopped briefly with the others at Wainscott Pond, which was along the way and was hosting a Sandhill Crane, but the bird was hunkered down somewhere and we struck out. The storm was looking bad enough that I chose not to detour up to Southold for a reported Townsend’s Solitaire, and it was very slow going the whole way home. Travel time was nearly doubled, which necessitated a pit stop at Belmont Lake. Nice photo opportunities, though!

I finally warmed up and reunited with the family at home, but the next morning I was at it again bright and early. Returning to Belmont to look for roosting waterfowl, I connected at last with the roving Barnacle Goose that eluded me the previous weekend. Its gray-and-black patterning and dark breast made it stand out even with its white face tucked behind a wing. The snoozing vagrant was the only rarity, but there were some other nice birds around including Merlin, Common Merganser, and Ring-necked Ducks. I put word out on the listserv that the Barnacle was present in case any would-be chasers got a later start with the snow. My next stop was Southards Pond Park, where a Greater White-fronted Goose had been reported the day before. I struck out on this bird, but I did encounter Shai, Pat, and Chase and had an opportunity to catch up while we scanned the open water across the ice.

I had to return home for breakfast and shovel detail before it got too late. After some quiche, we set about moving snow from the property, the grandparents’ house, and the office. Once I was done with my duties, I headed back out to check out the Hendrickson birds. The numbers of geese were surprisingly high, but they were all packed into one hole in the ice at the north end of the lake. Subflocks continued to move in and out of the park, while the birds at the puddle bathed, slept, and honked.

The Pink-footed Goose stood out pretty clearly, resting at the edge of the Canada flock. It eventually woke up and began strutting around, pausing to drink from the pool of water or preen its feathers. I’m still surprised that the goose has stuck around this long, but it has certainly made itself comfortable here.

I got a tip from a departing birder that they had found the Cackling Goose which has been seen on and off at the lake. I had not yet encountered this individual, which is been much less reliable than our pink-footed friend. He showed me his photos and told me that the Cackler was last seen moving towards the back of the flock, so I shifted my vantage point and began sweeping again with a fresh search image. The broadside view of the smaller, migrant Canadas on the far side of the puddle made things much clearer, and I was able easily pick out the unique birds. There were two smaller Canadas with darker faces than normal, including one that had practically no white cheek patch. I also spotted a markedly smaller, block-headed goose with a white edge below its black neck sock. Bingo.

The tiny Cackling Goose was one of the most obvious individuals I’ve seen, on par with the clear and cooperative flyover at Jones Beach last fall. It eventually lifted its head, yawned, and began to stroll lazily across the ice. It was absolutely dwarfed by its Canadian cousins, and despite its overall similar appearance its stubby features made it look surprisingly cute. I was glad to finally catch Hendrickson’s other noteworthy goose, and appreciated the extended, close-up views.

Next up was the continuing Red-headed Woodpecker, who seemed to be hard at work excavating a cavity. There were two other birders watching the youngster, who is no doubt eager to complete its shelter from the cold. I mentioned the Cackling Goose to the others, Sue and Rick, and they asked me if the Ross’s Goose was still there. NO. Apparently less than an hour earlier, when I was shoveling, one of these small, white birds had joined the magic flock of Hendrickson geese. The Lost Goose Phenomenon strikes again. It was absolutely absent when I arrived, unfortunately, but they had obtained a photo for documentation. Somehow this tiny local park continues to surprise! I showed the Cackler to my new acquaintances and set out again, hoping to find a Ross’s somewhere.

As it would happen, there were several Ross’s Geese around the island that day. Birders far out in Suffolk spotted a flyover at a backyard stakeout where Rufous Hummingbirds have been feeding, and Rob P. reported a trio at Elda Lake just across the border. I wonder which, if any, of these birds were connected with the Robert Moses sightings or any of the other scattered reports from the air. Against my better judgment, I once again made the run out along the Southern State for another wild goose chase. Regrettably, I arrived too late and found no Ross’s on site in the afternoon.

Since I was right down the block, I stopped once more at Belmont to keep an eye out as flocks flew in to roost for the night. I discovered a group of Wood Ducks tucked under some shrubbery, and plenty of small woodland birds were fluttering about. I also spotted a small Canada-type goose with pale, frosty plumage and a somewhat blocky head. The bill was small, but not dramatically stubby, and its plumage looked fairly uniform. However, it was difficult to judge other features like primary projection and breast color from the photos I snapped before it swam out of sight. On any other day, I probably would’ve called this a Cackling Goose without much hesitation, but the dinky, diminutive Hendrickson bird set my ID bar higher than usual. Both Cackling and Canada Geese exhibit a wide range of variation, and they were only split into separate species about a decade ago. It is undoubtedly a very complex species complex, but at the end of the day photo comparisons suggest that this goose was indeed another, less obvious Cackler.

A few final stops to keep an eye out for unusual waterfowl took me right up to sunset, when I watched the lights go out over Hendrickson Park. Saying good night to the Pink-foot, the Cackler, and all the other wild and wonderful birds out there, I finally headed home for the night. The first full work week of the year was ahead of me, and I’d had an exciting but exhausting weekend.

P.S. As I was writing this post on the way to work on Monday, I spotted one of the local American Kestrels perched on the wires behind my school. Yet another year bird and a nice start to a busy week!

Year List Update, January 9 – 97 Species (+ Razorbill, Surf Scoter, Bonaparte’s Gull, Great Cormorant, Cedar Waxwing, Barnacle Goose, Merlin, Cackling Goose, Belted Kingfisher, American Kestrel)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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4 Responses to The Wings of Winter

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