March is not my favorite month. It’s a challenging time for a New York naturalist, caught in between seasons without the excitement of either winter or spring. On top of that, it is the only month of the year with no scheduled days off in the realm of education. I really wasn’t looking forward to this twelfth of 2017 as February came to an end. In retrospect, everything went better than expected. A snow day lent an unexpected break to the slog of full work weeks, and some important obligations were rescheduled for later in the school year. I also found a distraction from the seasonal dullness with the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It has been quite some time before I sat down to play an extensive, story-driven video game on a console and TV, but this incredibly well-crafted offering provided me with an exploratory adventure when the exploration opportunities outside were lackluster. A mix of productivity, surprise schedule changes, and guilty pleasure gaming helped make me the most of March. As far as birding goes, there are 3 major strategies for tackling the March doldrums:
1) Track down lingering winter visitors before they disappear
2) Watch and wait for early spring arrivals
3) Hunt continuing rarities
My few dedicated birding efforts this month focused mainly on Option #3. A week after the Great Gray chase upstate, I returned to Oak Beach in search of the Eared Grebe I’d missed last time. I was fortunate enough to find the bird when I returned, standing out from its Horned cousins even at a distance due to proportions and plumage. In the realm of late-leaving winter birds, I found a variety of waterfowl along the coastal and freshwater shorelines I searched. A pair of young Bald Eagles flying north over the Ocean Parkway was a welcome sight, and there were lots of hungry songbirds coming to our feeders in the wake of the last storm.
I’ve visited Massapequa Preserve several times in the last few weeks, searching for a young Northern Goshawk that has been inconsistently sighted in the area. I made a solo run and a trip with Miriam, but we failed to connect with our target both times. In fact, we were tantalizingly close to the site of a confirmed encounter when we were present, but the bird was no longer visible when we arrived on the scene. Fortunately, there was plenty of activity despite the chilly winds. One of the resident Screech-Owls was visible at its nest hole entrance, and the songs of cardinals and blackbirds were ringing through the trees. Wrens, woodpeckers, and sparrows were seen fluttering about at close range, and the ponds provided views of an American Coot and a big, ugly domestic Muscovy. Another highlight came when I noticed my first Ospreys of the year, soaring high above the trees. Like the Greater Yellowlegs I saw in Valley Stream a few days prior, this early spring migrant was added to my 2016 list when I journeyed to Texas in February. It was nice to actually get them as seasonal firsts in New York this time, and it helped add some spice the bland March birding menu.
The final weekend of the month brought strong winds from the southwest, a forecast that promises migrant movement as spring marches along. I made a Saturday morning circuit of some South Shore hotspots to see if anything exciting had moved in overnight. The marshes at Captree Island were empty save for some Green-winged Teal and Hooded Mergansers, but a Common Raven perched on a light fixture was a nice surprise. The shaggy corvid took off heading west when I arrived, and I later caught up and overtook it as I continued on past Tobay Beach. There’s probably a math problem there…
I joined forces with Stan when I bumped into him at the Jones Beach coast guard station. We worked our way through the median and down the swale to the beach, noting my first of the year Eastern Phoebe among the kinglets and nuthatches. Volunteers were setting up fencing to protect the habitat of the newly arrived Piping Plovers for the upcoming breeding season. I spotted a lone individual resting on the sand, no doubt prospecting for a location suitable to nest. Yet another positive sign that spring, slowly but surely, is ramping up.
Some email updates came in over the listserv, and I was suddenly reminded of the 4th option for birding during the doldrums:
4) Chase after reports of surprise new vagrants!
A pair of Red Crossbills had been spotted at Edgewood Oak Brush Plains Preserve in Deer Park on Friday. I’ve been burned by these unpredictable nomads before, failing to connect with them by mere seconds last year, and I didn’t expect anything more than a one-day wonder from this report. Surprisingly, the birds were refound the following morning in the same location. I decided to head out there and try my luck. Despite some misinterpretation of email subjects and directions, I managed to reach the preserve with Stan following close behind. Doug F was returning to the lot when I pulled up, and he said the flighty finches had been seen on and off throughout the day. I hiked down the trail through the pines, finding a large crowd of familiar faces already in position. Taylor informed me that, once again, I was just barely too late. The birds had disappeared into the dense cover of the boughs as I rounded the corner into view. Damn. I elected to wait around a while, feeling gradually more apprehensive about my odds as friends came and went. Birder stakeouts almost always feature fun conversations, catching up and swapping tales to pass the time.
Finally, I heard the distinctive call notes of the crossbills floating down from overhead. A dozen birders all sprang to life in unison when the sound reached their ears, and we followed their flight to the top of some nearby budding trees. The female quickly set about feeding among the branches, and the male posted up at the highest point available. To my shock and delight, he began singing loudly and proudly as he surveyed the area, almost as if defending a territory. Could it be? This species wanders widely, often breeding wherever they find ample resources, setting stakes in a different location year after year. Other observers reported the male was feeding the female repeatedly, a common courtship behavior. Perhaps this park warrants some closer attention in the next few months.
We encountered male Pine Warblers and an Eastern Bluebird on our way out of the preserve, and I returned west to Nassau for some weekend festivities with friends. Sunday morning was overcast with a chill, but I had time to pop out to Hempstead Lake for a little while. Wood Ducks were the stars of the show, floating and flying around near the swampy section and even perching in the trees. I finally caught up with Rusty Blackbirds for the 2017 list, and a group of jays and crows helped me find one of the local Great Horned Owls. An exciting, non-avian sighting was a Muskrat paddling down a stream. These little guys become much more active as the weather warms up, so I was especially happy to see one of them out and about. All the same, aquatic rodents are small-time compared to the waves of winged migrants still to come. Full steam ahead, April ahoy!
P.S. Special shout out to Stan, who passed along an old pair of binoculars when I casually mentioned that Miriam would be needing some before migration kicked into high gear. They are a perfectly functional beginner set, and she’s ecstatic about the opportunity to put them to good use!
P.P.S. March delivered one last surprise year bird, and it was a good one! A Lincoln’s Sparrow that wound up in Bryant Park late last fall apparently managed to survive the entire winter. That’s a surprisingly impressive feat, considering heightened holiday activity, continuing construction and deconstruction, and several waves of snowstorms have all impacted the micropark in that time. I just spotted the little guy, drenched from the day’s rain, hopping around at the edge of a daffodil planting. Despite looking a good deal like the rest of the little brown jobs, I’ve got a soft spot for this species due to their sharp markings and wonderful song. It’s a relatively uncommon migrant in these parts, and the northbound individuals won’t be turning up for several weeks. Maybe March isn’t so bad after all!
Year List Update, March 28 – 160 Species (+ Greater Yellowlegs, Eared Grebe, Osprey, Eastern Phoebe, Piping Plover, Red Crossbill, Pine Warbler, Rusty Blackbird, Lincoln’s Sparrow)