Wednesday was overcast and gray, but mostly dry and pleasantly warm. I set out early in the morning to check in on a few unusual birds that had been sighted nearby. My first stop was Oak Beach, one of the Suffolk hotspots that is closest to my home. There had been three rare species hanging around the shoreline here, so I figured it was a pretty good place to start my day. I positioned myself at the edge of a cove next to a spit of land called the Sore Thumb, scanning the flocks of waterbirds with my scope. I could find no sign of the Eared Grebe or King Eider that had previously been reported here, but one of the first birds I got my glass on was a female Barrow’s Goldeneye mixed in with her Common cousins. I swept through the raft of ducks very carefully just to make sure I hadn’t been mistaken, but review proved that dumb luck had won the day and saved me some time and frustration. She was honestly rather difficult to spot on subsequent passes, but her darker head, yellower bill, and distinctive profile set her apart from her relatives. This was a New York first for me, a welcome and overdue addition to my state list.
There weren’t many other birds to be seen at the beach. A large flock of Greater Scaup flew overhead, and I was surprised when a Red-throated Loon started vocalizing. I’d never heard this species calling before, and I even got a recording as it chased a rival across the surface of the water. I bumped into Taylor and Brent as they were heading out of the area, briefly swapping notes before we all continued on.
JFK Memorial Wildlife Refuge was my next stop. As I turned out of the Tobay Beach parking lot onto the access road, I kept a close eye on the cuts in the marsh. I was hoping to see the pointed bill of an American Bittern that had been frequenting the area, but the bird was apparently hiding elsewhere. There was no shortage of sparrows working the brushy edges of the parking lot, including my first of year Swamp Sparrows. The hidden pools down the trail are usually a good spot to check for ducks, but on this day they were mostly empty. I found only a few Black Ducks and a lone Raccoon paddling along through the reeds. Fortunately, my exploration resulted in a bittern sighting. The uncommon, unusual heron took off from a watery channel through the grass and flew past at close range, giving a startled cry as it flew onward.
I made my way down to Jones Beach, noting the resident Peregrine Falcons perched atop the tower. I checked the median for songbirds and raptors, but the late morning activity levels were pretty low. A midair fight between two more falcons was definitely the highlight of my search. I received word from Bob A that the Peregrines had previously been harassing a Snowy Owl down by the jetty. Hoping that the owl would still be on site after fending off the attacks, I trekked down to the shore. I spotted gannets, Razorbills, and other seagoing species along the coast, and a familiar white lump was perched on the sand some distance away.
It’s a very rare treat to have a Snowy Owl all to one’s self on Long Island. All too often, hordes of photographers swarm around the birds like paparazzi. Even when the crowd is respectful of the owl’s personal space, it can still be a bit of a circus. At times, the Snowies are pressed until they flush repeatedly and hide out of sight. I slowly approached the owl, taking time to gauge its response and keeping back further than I needed to. It was largely unconcerned with my presence, lazily surveyng the horizon as it rested after its battle with the falcons. I never get tired of spending quality time with this charismatic species. Once I’d had my fill, I turned and left the owl to nap undisturbed.
The usual jetty birds, Purple Sandpiper and Harlequin Duck, were absent when I reached the land’s edge. I was told that both had been present until the owl and falcons squared off, which caused them to flee across the inlet to Point Lookout. Hoping to add the Harlequins to my 2017 list, I followed suit and tracked down a small flotilla of the ducks on the western shore. After a lunch break at home, I headed out to Stillwell Woods to spend my evening hours listening for nocturnal species. I was again treated to the display of the woodcocks, and I also caught the duet of a Great Horned Owl pair on the northern border of the park. The dramatic difference between their voices was apparent as they sang to one another, and I spotted one of the birds in flight as it passed over the road.
I had an appointment with my brother, Andrew, at his workplace in Melville on Friday. I took the lunchtime meeting as an excuse to do some morning birding along the county line. Brent joined me once again, hoping we could score some successes similar to our previous two efforts during this vacation. Although we visited about 10 distinct locations to check for birds, it was a fairly quiet morning all around. Numbers and diversity were low at most of the stops, but that is not to say that the day was devoid of highlights. I picked up Canvasback for the year list at Tung Ting Pond, and a preserve at the Pulling Estate surprised us with multiple Eastern Bluebirds and a scurrying Eastern Mole. It was a perfectly pleasant outing, even if it lacked the glamour of our Great Gray chase.
Miriam and I met up after lunch to do some exploring of our own. Hempstead Lake is always a nice spot for a walk, and this unseasonably warm afternoon was no exception. Plenty of local songbirds have started to stake their territories, and we glimpsed the snout of a turtle poking out of the waters of MacDonald Pond. Waterfowl were the stars of the show, and a drake Red-breasted Merganser on the northern lake was a welcome surprise. As sunset approached, we headed north to Stillwell Woods again, where Miriam was hoping to meet the Great Horned Owls for the first time. It wasn’t long before the male’s bass hoots came echoing through the growing darkness. We were fortunate enough to see him take off from the trees down the road and float like a ghost towards the deeper reaches of the forest. The shadows grew long, the color faded from the landscape, and the stars twinkled into view. Another successful vacation day had come and gone.
My last excursion of February break was a very early morning to Jamaica Bay on Saturday. I was curious to see if I could locate any Saw-whets or other species of owls on the refuge as the rising sun drove them to their day roosts. A thorough search on the eastern side of Cross Bay Boulevard failed to turn up any nocturnal raptors, but there were plenty of woodcocks to be found. Males could be heard displaying from all directions, and I encountered a handful of individuals at close range on the trails. Most of my sightings of these little weirdos take place either in crowded city parks or under dark or distant conditions. I always appreciate the opportunity to spend quality time with this species, a majestic beast resembling well-camouflaged NERF football with chopsticks taped to one end. Flocks of Snow Geese noisily passed overhead as the lights came on and the woodcocks retreated to the shadows. The remainder of the weekend provided plenty of relaxing, fun moments as the return to reality drew nearer. In spite of looming deadlines and responsibilities, I certainly made the most of my time off. Family, friends, and food were major contributors to the success of the break, and I have no regrets about the long days spent adventuring around the state. Life is good.
Year List Update, February 26 – 151 Species (+ Barrow’s Goldeneye, Boat-tailed Grackle, Swamp Sparrow, American Bittern, Harlequin Duck, Canvasback)