I hate to let a long weekend go to waste. Between the Saturday pelagic and a long-awaited performance of Hamilton on Sunday, I was doing a pretty solid job making the most of my time as I headed into Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I slept in slightly later then usual, then picked up Miriam en route to Jones Beach.
My morning at the beach was a pretty mixed bag of experiences. Upon arrival, I learned that the local owls had not been seen and I’d just missed a Yellow-breasted Chat. I put in some time searching for the strange songbird, which basically amounted to staring at a promising bush for an embarrassingly long time while I tried to figure out what was slowly moving in the dense cover. I finally discovered that there was hidden snow melting off the branches in the back, much to my chagrin and Miriam’s amusement. On the plus side, there were a few other birds around. Two Tree Swallows flew over the Fisherman’s Road, and we got nice looks at a number of loons floating on the bay. Commons and Red-throats were both diving actively quite close to the shore. The most accommodating bird seen at Jones was a surprisingly friendly mockingbird that popped out of the holly to say hello.
After grabbing a quick bite and sending Miriam off to work, I set my sights eastward. There were a number of rare birds continuing in Suffolk, and while I didn’t have a whole day to devote to chasing I knew I could squeeze in a few afternoon stops to try my luck. The Sandhill Crane in Wainscott was tempting, and a number of small ponds offered uncommon waterfowl and gulls, but my choice was clear. I elected to pursue the species which I had never seen in New York state. In fact, I had not seen the Townsend’s Solitaire since my life encounter a decade ago. This distinctive species of thrush inhabits mountain forests and defends patches of juniper berries as its winter territory. For some reason, this relatively-short-range migrant often finds itself off-course on the east coast. An individual had been discovered in an area of appropriate habitat along North Sea Drive in Southold. The bird had been fairly consistent for about a week, and a positive Monday morning report was enough to send me all the way out to the North Fork.
I arrived at the solitaire stakeout around 3 PM, finding a scene very different from the wooded ridge where I first encountered the species in Jasper National Park, Canada. Beach houses lined a quiet road, and the gentle waves of the Long Island Sound lapped the sand behind them. Immediately to the south of the road was a brushy tangle of shrubs, deciduous trees, and junipers. I began searching for the wayward bird, but it was nowhere to be found. Other birders began to arrive, and we caught up as we swept the area. I was beginning to wonder how much of my limited daylight I could devote to this hunt, but a shout from Ed and Bob rendered my concerns inconsequential. The solitaire was teed up on a distant treetop, somewhat difficult to spot against the gray branches. It flew to a closer perch, then came nearer again, and finally swooped low overhead as it crossed the road to the power lines.
The Townsend’s Solitaire is a subtly striking species. It somehow makes a soft palette of gray, white, black, and buff look pretty snappy, largely thanks to its intricate wing patterns and bold, bright eye ring. The thrush fluttered down to some berry-bearing limbs in the patch of junipers it has been favoring, showing off wonderfully at close range. I watched it bolt down several pieces of fruit before it returned to a higher perch, where it began whisper singing to itself while surveying its territory. Pleased with my successful hunt and the caliber of the encounter, I bid bird and birders farewell and continued on my way.
My final stop for the day was Dune Road on the opposite shore of the Island. This is allegedly a choice winter birding site, but I’ve never had much success there. Unfortunately, that streak continues. American Bittern, Rough-legged Hawk, Snowy and Short-eared Owl had all been reported from the area, but I failed to connect with them before nightfall. A Turkey Vulture seen in Southold was the only somewhat noteworthy bird I found. I also received photographic confirmation from Brendan of some sad news passed on to me by Rob: the Long-eared Owl at Jones Beach had been refound on the ground beneath her tree. The body was collected by nature center staff, who will likely perform an autopsy before it joins the specimen collection. It’s the best case scenario given the circumstance, but it was still upsetting to hear. I only hope that the owl, a probable female and my lifer individual, died of natural causes without much trouble. The two occasions that we met made for unforgettable experiences. I watched the sun go down over the marshy bay, took a deep breath, and headed home.
Despite a few low notes towards the end of the day, I still had a fantastic time gallivanting around Suffolk. The circle of life keeps spinning, creatures come and go, and it’s always a pleasure to enjoy them while our paths intersect. The little lost Townsend’s Solitaire was great company for my afternoon, and just one of many highlights from a fantastic weekend of adventures. I still got to close out my mini-vacation in high spirits, swapping stories with Dad and Mom over food and movies. This shortened work week is made that much sweeter by memories of time well-spent.
Year List Update, January 16 – 107 Species (+ Tree Swallow, Turkey Vulture, Townsend’s Solitaire)