Be That As It May

Migration has gotten a slow start in New York this year. Prolonged periods of cool weather, overnight precipitation, and unfavorable winds have stalled the return of many Neotropical migrants. Birds continue to trickle through, and there have been some nice local finds including a continuing influx of Summer Tanagers and Blue Grosbeaks. In general, though, the pace and magnitude of movement so far are below average for the first two weeks of May. Poor conditions can only hold the birds back for so long, however. They still need to reach their breeding grounds, and a pulse of favorable winds could be all it takes for the dam to burst. In the meantime, local nature enthusiasts have been carefully monitoring the wild spaces of the City and Island for any signs of interesting activity.

In addition to the southern songbirds, there’s another prominent overshot migrant that arrived in the region while I was looking at its relatives in South Florida. A lone Cattle Egret somehow found itself in the middle of Manhattan, and its spent the past month decimating the local worm population on a lawn in Chelsea. Some might be surprised that this half-pint heron has managed to sustain itself in such an unnatural setting, but Cattle Egrets are tough customers. These adaptable birds, widespread in Eurasia and Africa, reached the Western Hemisphere about a century ago, crossing the Atlantic Ocean seemingly by the power of their own wings and the trade winds alone. Their colonization efforts and impressive range expansion are a testament to their dispersal abilities and overall resilience. It was cool to add this bird to my state list under such unique circumstances.

I didn’t hear or see much else during the first work week of the month, largely due to lousy weather and work responsibilities. A singing Yellow-throated Vireo at Camp Ramapo on a Friday school trip was a pleasant surprise, but I was craving more. After spending months hearing me hype up the magic of spring migration, Miriam was eager to join me in the field and see what all the fuss was about. We started out on Saturday morning at Jones Beach, hoping that the previous night of southwest winds had ferried in travelers. The boat basin and sandbar by the Coast Guard Station were pretty lively, with lots of new breeding arrivals and some transient shorebirds hanging around. Common and Least Terns have returned to the coasts of New York, joining the Forster’s Terns that got back a week prior. One pair of birds was putting on a bit of a show at the end of the pier, providing great photo opps for the two of us.

Black Skimmers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and a lone Red Knot were among the highlights in the shoreline spread. We continued along toward the median, noting that the Tree Swallows have begun staking out birdhouses for the breeding season. Unfortunately, there were no noteworthy migrants in the landbird department, and the mosquito population at Jones has exploded unseasonably early and fiercely. We took our leave of the beach and headed inland towards Forest Park in Queens.

We arrived to find that Forest Park was much more active than the barrier beach. The waterhole was already under surveillance, and the other birders reported that there had been plenty of interesting things to see. Of course, “good” is always relative in the world of birding. The latest report on the listserv was an update from Robert Moses State Park, where Taylor and Pete had discovered a goddamned Yellow-nosed Albatross while seawatching. This species is a grand prize of pelagic birding in the Northeast, a fantastic find even on dedicated boat trips, and they had spotted it flying so close to shore that Taylor actually managed to get identifiable video stills by phonescoping it. The general mood around the waterhole was a mixture of jealous disappointment and congratulatory awe…the boys had put the rest of us to shame! I was fortunate that the birding was good at the park, which helped pull me out of my envious funk relatively quickly. I heard my first Red-eyed Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak of the year, and there were brief appearances by Wilson’s Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Magnolia Warbler. Miriam added a number of lifers, including Rusty Blackbird, Swamp Sparrow, and several of the 17 warbler species observed that morning. Most of the birds showed too distantly or quickly for photographs, but it was still a genuinely pleasant day despite the lack of giant seabirds.

Saturday night saw continued winds from a southerly direction, so Sunday saw me back on the hunt again. Unfortunately, it seemed that we had a lot more birds leaving than arriving, and the South Shore of the Island between Suffolk and Queens was essentially devoid of Neotropical migrants. Robert Moses didn’t show many anything exciting, but I did locate a distant Little Blue Heron among the waders in the grassy pools of Captree Island.

I continued west to the JFK Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary at Tobay Beach, where a nice spread of marsh dwellers awaited me along the entrance road. Snowy Egret, “Eastern” Willet, Boat-tailed Grackle, Green Heron, and Spotted Sandpiper were all hanging out together along the shoulder, picking at the water’s edge for scraps of food.

I heard a Marsh Wren singing beyond the lot, and there were several other vehicles parked at the far end. The trails of the refuge were occupied by mist nets, and I recognized some familiar faces among the banders working at the parking lot. They echoed my observation that there were almost no songbirds present, informing me that they’d only caught half a dozen individuals all morning. I got to watch them work with a male Common Yellowthroat who hit the nets shortly after I arrived. I always enjoy the chance to observe or assist with this kind of field science.

My final birding stop for the day was Jamaica Bay. I dedicated some time to a Big John’s Pond watch, but there was no sign of the Barn Owls at their nest site yet. It’s definitely a little early in the season to expect views of the nesting birds with any kind of consistency. The story out on the trails was the same as everywhere else: no passage migrants, but a few local breeders to keep me entertained. One little Yellow Warbler was particularly confiding, flitting about at close range and striking amusing poses as he gleaned insects from the foliage.

I returned home and prepared myself for the coming week. There is a lot to do before school’s out for summer, but the clock just keeps on ticking. I received noticed that I passed my edTPA, so that’s one less thing to worry about as we approach the end of grad classes and the work year. Hopefully we get “the big push” of migrants soon…I welcome the promise of distraction!

Year List Update, May 7 – 274 Species (+ Yellow-throated Vireo, Black Skimmer, Common Tern, Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Red-eyed Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Louisiana Waterthrush, Magnolia Warbler, Little Blue Heron, Marsh Wren)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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1 Response to Be That As It May

  1. Pingback: Meandering through May | Studying Life

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