Tuesday, May 16th, was the magical day when the migration floodgates finally opened this year. After a slow first couple of weeks, birders around New York suddenly found themselves besieged by a wave of travelers from the south. Favorable winds combined with hatch-outs of termites through the city parks brought large numbers of hungry birds down to ground level. It was allegedly possible to get multiple warbler species in your binocular view at once, and folks in Central Park claimed that this madcap morning of excitement would be the one they tell their grandkids about. Me? I was at work. The most exciting nature encounter of the day was a small-scale symphony performed by a Red-eyed Vireo and a Black-throated Green Warbler, serenading me through the open train doors at Rosedale station. The southerly winds continued overnight and the birds eagerly continued north, many of them already behind schedule. My after-work walks on subsequent days were as pleasant as ever, but notably quiet in terms of avian activity. Spring is a fickle mistress.
Things picked up a bit when I reached the weekend. Apart from discovering a robin’s nest in my front yard, Miriam pointed out a pair of Green Herons and some Cedar Waxwings passing overhead at a Saturday afternoon barbecue. I managed to scrounge up some new Neotropical arrivals at Hempstead Lake, including my first Blackburnian Warbler in far too long. There were plenty of vireos, gnatcatchers, and orioles flitting around to keep my attention, and the plaintive whistles of Eastern Wood-Pewee echoed through the trees.
Birds are often seen foraging more frantically than usual at this time of year, scrambling to collect food for their newly hatched young or fuel for their migrations. The Northern Flicker I spotted at the parking lot seemed much more laid back, casually searching for ants in a tiny pothole. My first Canada Warbler of the year was multitasking by eating as it sang, delivering its jumbled tune through a mouthful of damselfly. At least it was kind enough to pose for me when it paused to scan for its next victim.
Sunday morning began with another quick jaunt to Hempstead, but I didn’t find anything new or exciting. I decided to head out to the Forest Park waterhole, where I found a livelier scene that included nearly a dozen types of warblers. Several male Chestnut-sided Warblers, new for my 2017 list, chased each other through the greenery. Another birder pointed out a female Bay-breasted Warbler moving through the branches, and I carefully checked her sides, underparts, and legs to distinguish her from the similar Blackpolls nearby. Both of these species seem to prefer sticking to the mainland, so they are more commonly observed migrating through the City compared to the Island.
A sleepy raccoon napping in a sunbeam made me smile, and there were plenty of nice birds to be seen. Once I’d had my fill of local color and finished chatting with my fellow naturalists, I turned my car south.
Jamaica Bay has finally reopened the West Pond loop trail now that the breach caused by Hurricane Sandy has been repaired. I wasn’t looking to complete the whole circuit, but I did make a ceremonial crossing of the newly completed path. The Big John’s Pond Barn Owls were playing hard to get, but I was kept company by Gadwall, night-herons, and a drake Wood Duck. My year list picked up Willow Flycatcher, followed by Clapper Rail, and finally a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that flew directly at and over my car as I was exiting the refuge.
The work week leading up to Memorial Day was abbreviated by student portfolio panels scheduled for Thursday and Friday, but it was still a busy few days. Tuesday was my last night of grad class for the semester, and if I finish my work on schedule it should be my last one ever. My parents reserved a campsite at Nickerson Beach for the long weekend, so I had to stop by for dinner and merriment. A brief visit to the shoreline revealed that the local nesting colony is back in business. I spied several American Oystercatcher families, feeding their precocious youngsters as they wandered about the sand together.
The Common Terns and Black Skimmers have returned in force. Birders have recently once again begun searching this rarity magnet for interesting passersby, and there were already a few reports for me to follow up on. I did connect with a Gull-billed Tern that was circling high overhead, but failed to locate the Roseate Tern that was seen earlier that day. There’s still plenty of time to find some goodies at this spot, and it’s always worth keeping an eye out. As spring migration winds down, birders would do well to remember that it’s important to survey the local patches. Keeping tabs on breeders and monitoring familiar haunts is a great way to spend the summer months, and it can turn up some nice surprises if you’re lucky!
Year List Update, May 26 – 290 Species (+ Eastern Wood-Pewee, Canada Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, Clapper Rail, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gull-billed Tern)