In the wake of our upstate adventure, Brent and I decided to check out some of the interesting birds which had been reported towards the eastern end of Long Island. We met up at a parking lot just east of Connetquot early on Monday morning so we could carpool the rest of the way. Tracey and Mike originally planned to join us, but last minute changes of plans sent us along by ourselves. The drive out to the End seemed much quicker due to the quality conversation in the car, and we kept an eye out for activity adjacent to the road. We briefly stopped to scan a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls feeding alongside the highway, knowing that these congregations often attract visitors. In fact, our first target had been spotted with a big group of Bonies feeding along the coast at Montauk. We arrived at Ditch Plains Beach just after 9 AM. A careful sweep of the assembled gulls quickly turned up a Black-headed Gull, but the hoped-for Little Gull was nowhere to be seen. A number of birders were out making the most of President’s Day free time, and they all reported negatively on the presence of our quarry.
Not to be deterred, we continued to the coast guard station on Lake Montauk’s Star Island. There were plenty of birds floating on the water nearby, and fortunately it didn’t take us long to find the one we were looking for. Among the loons and sea ducks was a small, salt-and-pepper plumaged form closely resembling a bath toy: a young Black Guillemot. This red-footed auk is common on rocky shorelines in New England, but it is quite rare off the coast of New York. I’ve got a soft spot for these adorable alcids, developed during my time as a Project Puffin intern and devotee of International Guillemot Appreciation Day. I have been fortunate enough to see the species in my home state before, which was a point of pride over several other more seasoned seawatchers. This individual, however, has been remarkably cooperative and most serious New York birders who needed to see it have gotten the chance. I was just happy to get reacquainted with my former neighbor!
I have never seen a winter day at Montauk that was so mild and beautiful. It was unseasonably, almost uncomfortably, warm throughout the morning. The sky was cloudless, the ocean was flat calm, and the light shining on the sea was blinding. We checked the coastline at the Point itself and several lookouts along the northern shore. Harbor Seals, Horned Grebes, various sea ducks, and a lone Razorbill were among the highlights of our efforts. Regrettably, at these checkpoints and a return visit to Ditch Plains, we couldn’t relocate the missing Little Gull. I’ve failed to find this species on multiple dedicated search attempts over the years, and this strikeout was the final straw. I suppose the vacuum left by vanquishing the Upland Sandpiper couldn’t last forever: Hydrocoloeus minutus is now my number one, capital-letter Nemesis Bird. We’ll see how this story ends on another day.
Brent and I picked up a few more nice birds as we gradually worked our way west. Iceland Gulls were refound at Montauk and Shinnecock Inlets, and flocks of Eastern Meadowlarks appeared at several roadside fields. Another staked target that was absent for us was the long-staying Sandhill Crane at Wainscott Pond, where we teamed up with Doug F. Brent made an awesome save on our second pass when he IDed a Greater White-fronted Goose at great distance among the thousands of Canada Geese spread across the water and lawn. Snow Geese in Southampton and a young Black-crowned Night-Heron on Dune Road were also notable, but I think my favorite part of the early afternoon was the delicious lunch we had at Townline BBQ.
Just before we returned to my car and parted ways, Brent was struck by inspiration to check a nearby American Woodcock hotspot. On this clear cool evening, we hoped that the birds would be out displaying. The noise from the nearby traffic was a bit bothersome, but we soon heard a distinctive, comical “peent” noise echoing from the distant brush. As we walked back towards the vehicle, I noticed a second woodcock vocalizing on the other side of road, much closer to us. We both began recording the sound, and a third bird responded with a chorus of his own. Woodcock #2 was not pleased about this interloper’s insolence, and he quickly took flight to confront his enemy. I watched, bewildered and amused, as a grand battle unfolded before my eyes. The airborne bird repeatedly strafed the singing individual, uttering a staccato, machine gun call in response to each “peent.” The pudgy shorebird’s flickering wingbeats bore it aloft as it looped up in wide arcs, passing surprisingly near to my head as it dove down at the intruder. When the displaying male launched into the twittering aerial portion of his performance, I lost sight of both birds in the darkening sky. I managed to get a video of the whole ridiculous event, which produced some usable audio of the various vocals. I finally said farewell and thank you to Brent and began the drive home with a silly smile on my face. Woodcocks…gotta love em!
I awoke well before the sun on Tuesday, teaming up with Miriam to search for nightbirds in the wee hours of the morning. I’d recently learned that Stillwell Woods Park does not close between dusk and dawn like so many other Long Island public lands do, so I was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to explore this habitat in the dark. We traversed the trails through the tangled woods as the frosty ground crunched beneath our feet. The stars were remarkably bright on this clear, cold morning, and I pointed out constellations twinkling in the wide open sky. In one of the forested areas of the property, I tried to call in a Saw-whet Owl so Miriam could share in experiencing the tiny predator as her interest in starting a life list grows. I performed my whistled routine, and I was once again fortunate enough to hear the signature winter calls responding to me from the trees nearby. The little owl’s bark was loud, obvious, and aww-inducing, but it vocalized only twice and remained hidden in the dark branches. Miriam was impressed and I was thrilled about another successful owling outing, so we continued onward through the park.
While listening for owls at the edge of the woods, I heard a faint kissy noise floating down from overhead. More woodcocks, in full sky dance display! This was another bird on Miriam’s most wanted list, so I excitedly led her towards the more open thicket habitat beyond the trees. The diving woodcock descended to the ground and resumed “peenting” quite close to us, and a second individual flew low over our heads. Multiple birds began singing and dancing from different directions as the sky brightened enough to see shapes and silhouettes. We rounded a bend in the trail and found ourselves right on top of a displaying bird, his “peent” call emanating from the scrub within spitting distance of our location. We could clearly see a woodcock taking off from the immediate vicinity as he continued to serenade us, likely an interested female who’d been drawn in by his irresistible love song. As the approaching sunrise brought color to the landscape, the woodcocks dispersed and the diurnal songbirds began to awaken and greet the new day. We returned to the parking lot, shivering but glad that we’d gotten up early enough to overlap with the night shift.
We briefly stopped at Parrots of the World to get up close and personal with some more exotic critters, then headed towards Valley Stream together. I noticed four ravens acrobatically pursuing each other through the air over Merrick Road, providing Miriam with a chance to practice binocular skills and field ID. We arrived at Hendrickson Park to encounter a surprisingly lively level of activity, both in terms of waterfowl and landbirds.
The “sky dancing” woodcocks were not the only signs of spring we saw on this bright, breezy day. The lingering young Red-headed Woodpecker is gradually showing more of the namesake color in its dingy brown hood. A small crew of Monk Parakeets that went racing past seemed to be visiting the park to collect twigs for refurbishing their massive nests. A pair of Killdeer were working the muddy edge of the lake, and we saw both American Black Ducks and Mallards engaged in courtship behavior. These birds were fortunately romancing the correct species, as I’ve often seen hybrid individuals at this lake. One of the resident ducks clearly has some barnyard genes in his DNA makeup. Unnatural, but surprisingly photogenic. Mike S also arrived on the scene from Staten Island, pointing out a young Red-tail that had secured a Gray Squirrel for lunch.
The goose flock on the lake boasted some impressive numbers, and unsurprisingly all of the local oddities were present and accounted for among the throng. The Pink-footed Goose looked hale and hearty, floating along conspicuously among its season-long hosts. I scanned meticulously until I located the subflock of smallish Canadas which often accompanies the Cackling Goose, identifying them thanks to the two dark-cheeked birds that stand out from the crowd. Once I had a specific section to focus on, I was able to find the tiny-bodied, block-headed, stubby-billed visitor and snap some photos. There was also a cooperative individual that possessed stray patches of white feathering on its head and neck. This diverse gaggle of geese has been an entertaining study subject throughout the winter. I’ll be sad to see them go and curious to see if they return again next fall. Only time will tell, and the seasons keep on marching along.
Year List Update, February 21 – 145 Species (+ Black Guillemot, Eastern Meadowlark, Greater White-fronted Goose, American Woodcock, Killdeer)