Gotta Enjoy the Little Things

This is a story that began a decade ago, in late December 2007. My good buddy Brendan led the charge on an ambitious attempt to score a rarity hat-trick along the South Shore barrier islands. Despite the bitter cold and vicious winds, we made a valiant effort to find our target birds. Regrettably, we fell flat on our faces and missed all three, dipping on Townsend’s Solitaire at Oak Beach and both Black-headed Gull and Little Gull at Point Lookout. Over the years, I have settled these scores one by one. I’ve gotten Black-headed Gull every year since seeing my lifer in 2015, and I finally saw a solitaire in New York this January. The Little Gull, however, proved to be a notoriously dodgy opponent, eventually earning a spot as my number one Nemesis Bird.

Once somewhat regular on Long Island in winter with flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, Little Gulls have become much harder to find now that numbers and concentrations of wintering Bonies have declined precipitously. A detour to chase a report in Elmira while driving home from Ithaca last April saw me miss the bird by 45 minutes. I failed to connect with an individual that hung around Montauk this February, conducting a fruitless search the day after it had last been seen. Then there was the youngster that visited the Nickerson tern colony last month, evading me and taunting me on two occasions. Last weekend, Mike Z and Tom FH offered me a spot on an impromptu journey to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware, where a Little Gull and an even rarer Little Egret had been discovered. I declined at the last minute due to obligations with family and friends, and they naturally got both birds. With the newfound freedom of summer vacation and reports that my Nemesis and its friend were still present, I decided to make my own trip down to Delaware.

I awoke at exactly 4 AM, and I was driving away from the house before 4:15. The Belt Parkway and Staten Island were conquered so quickly that it felt like a dream, and my GPS welcomed me to New Jersey at 5 AM on the dot. I pulled up to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge at 7:15, paying the entrance fee and making my way towards the observation tower at Raymond’s Pool. Purple Martin apartments bustling with activity and male Blue Grosbeaks fighting over territory highlighted that I’d covered a lot of ground since leaving my bed. As promised by birders who’d visited the site before me, insect activity levels were insane. Biting flies swarmed my vehicle and tried to keep up as I drove along. I slathered myself with insect repellent before stepping out of the car, which kept the little monsters from landing on me but didn’t stop them buzzing around my head. The bugs kept circling me as I walked the trail, never landing, but once I climbed the tower they seemed to disappear. As I turned my gaze toward the pool, I immediately saw the Little Gull, preening calmly on the near shoreline. What an appropriate lack of fanfare and drama after 10 years of missed connections! I took some time to admire my quarry in the early morning glow, and nearby birders pointed out a male Ruff among the yellowlegs, dowitchers, peeps, and plovers that were picking the flats. The day was off to a great start.

As I watched the Ruff and the gull, I continually watched for the third European visitor present at the refuge. There were many long-legged waders dancing around in the shallows at the far end of Raymond’s Pool, and one of them caught my attention as a potential candidate for the Little Egret. Even at a distance, it seemed subtly different from the Snowy Egret it was foraging with. Predictably, once I mentioned the bird of interest to those with stronger scopes it took flight along with its close associate. We followed their trajectory to some trees near a fork in the road, where one path goes towards the entrance and the other continues on to Shearness Pool. I made a mental note to take a look there when I finished up at Raymond’s, and returned to scanning the closer areas. We saw numerous species of shorebirds, herons, and songbirds, and I was very happy to hear the distinctive voices of Northern Bobwhites. Several large Snapping Turtles could be seen trudging through the mud, and I spotted a few Diamondback Terrapins along the road. When I reached the junction between Raymond’s and Shearness Pools, I paused to check the trees. There were about a dozen Snowy Egrets roosting in the branches, and I started analyzing each of them for field marks. Two of the birds were annoyingly hidden, perched at the back and largely obscured by twigs. I noticed that other cars were approaching the intersection from behind me, and I was blocking the way forward at this crossroads. I snapped a few quick pictures of the assemblage and continued on, forgoing closer study so I could clear the road for the other nature enthusiasts.

The familiar faces from the tower at Raymond Pool caught up with me at Shearness, setting up their scopes and scanning intently. I was using my car as an observation blind to defend myself from the biting insects, but I decided to step out and check in with my fellow birders. When I ambled over to them, they mentioned that they had seen the Little Egret in the trees at the junction before it flew off to the north. I began to wonder what my road etiquette had cost me. At the time, we focused on trying to refind the bird, though I did ask them for details later. I was told that the Little Egret had been tucked in towards the back of the tree, hidden among the branches, perched next to a Snowy. When I reviewed my photos on the back of the camera, my suspicions were confirmed.

The frustratingly concealed pair that I’d noted before driving away may well have been the same two birds I saw fly to the tree during the earlier stakeout, but one of them was definitely the Little Egret. My pictures show the bird preening, and unlike the shaggy crests of the adjacent Snowies, it has long, thin feathers extending from the back of the head. The marked difference in head plumes is the single best field mark for distinguishing between these two species, as illustrated by the illustrious David Allen Sibley. In some of the images, it is possible to make out the bare skin between the eyes and the bill, the lores. The dull, grayish face of the Little Egret contrasts with the vivid yellow of its Snowy cousin. Although the photographic evidence of these two characteristics confirmed that I had seen the right bird, the poor views and subsequent confirmation of the ID were not as satisfying as it would’ve been to enjoy the egret in the moment. If only all lifers could be as cooperative as the morning’s Little Gull!

In the time between seeing the egret and checking my photos, I continued to explore the refuge. I spent a good chunk of my time at Shearness Pool, scanning from the roadside before heading to the watchtower. Once again, I was attacked by flies between the car and the observation platform, but I was mysteriously left alone once I ascended to the upper deck. At one point I saw an egret in a flock at the furthest corner of the mudflats that had long, thin streamers billowing out behind its head. At such a distance, my scope wasn’t powerful enough to confirm anything else before the bird took flight. Although it flew slightly closer, it hid behind a row of vegetation, and the egret that came out didn’t look as promising as the initial sighting. Did the Little Egret fly in and sit tight while a Snowy walked out? Were the “head plumes” I thought I saw pale, poorly placed blades of grass? Was this the tricky Snowy with stray elongated feathers in its lacey crest that we saw earlier? Some birding questions remain unanswered, but I’m comfortable with that. At least least I did see the bird, however ridiculous the circumstances may have been. There were plenty of other goodies to distract me from the headaches the egrets were giving me. As I stood vigil at the Shearness tower, I was treated to a number of lovely locals, including a pair of Orchard Orioles, noisy Yellow-billed Cuckoos, and several Bald Eagles that terrorized the wading birds out on the flats.

The flies found me once again when I started back towards my car. As I swatted to keep them at bay, I heard a familiar medley of whistles, purrs, and chuckles emanating from the bushes by the parking lot. The singer disappeared in a flash as I approached, but I could hear several other Yellow-breasted Chats vocalizing nearby. I reapplied my bug spray and paused to listen for a while. One of the birds fluttered into view, showing off his song flight display. His return to the foliage was received by a territorial Gray Catbird, and after a brief scrap the chat flew across the road, directly at me. He landed in a bare bush at close range, watching me intently as I snapped pictures. His lively performance continued, popping his head up for each hoot and leaning forward to deliver raspy chatters. I was especially happy to spend some quality time with this bird, since it felt like a celebration of the recent AOS decision to recognize the Yellow-breasted Chat’s distinctiveness by classifying it in a monotypic family separate from the warblers. Three cheers for Icteriidae!

Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, Field Sparrows, and Acadian Flycatchers were encountered along the brushy edges between field and forest. I heard Marsh Wrens and Clapper Rails calling from the tidal channels east of the main road. A Painted Turtle, a White-tailed Deer fawn, and numerous dragonflies rounded out the day’s non-avian checklist. The deer flies, green head flies, and mosquitoes were less welcome observations, but it was a gorgeous day at the refuge all the same.

Back at the park headquarters, I enjoyed an extended photo shoot and recording session with the breeding Purple Martins. Several structures chock full of nesting gourds were set up near the main lot, and the giant swallows were hard at work collecting meals for their growing offspring. I heard a few more Bobwhites in the field across the way, but despite my best efforts I couldn’t get a visual on the adorable little quails. Hearing their namesake cries, which have become so rare in many parts of their former range, was enough of a treat for me.

I finally took my leave of Bombay Hook in the early afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to this famous refuge, and I was especially pleased that I caught up with all of my planned targets. Although the elusive Little Egret was not nearly as accommodating as the Little Gull that broke my curse, seeing both species in one place without a trip to Europe was a privilege. My number one Nemesis Bird spot is now left open, and I’m sure that vacuum can’t exist for long. If nothing else, I’ll need to get improved views a Little Egret one of these days. The Ruff was a welcome bonus bird, and my encounters with the chats, Bobwhites, turtles, and other wildlife all added up to make this “little” adventure a grand success. The expedition was well worth the long drive, though the manageable traffic on both legs of the trip certainly helped to keep me sane. Here’s hoping my next outing is equally enjoyable!

Year List Update, July 2 – 314 Species (+ Little Gull, Lesser Yellowlegs, Northern Bobwhite, Ruff, Little Egret)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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One Response to Gotta Enjoy the Little Things

  1. Pingback: Miriam and Tim’s Little Adventure | Studying Life

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