An Act of Godwit

I was a little slow to start shorebirding in earnest this year, perhaps because seeking out southbound migrants meant admitting that the seasons are changing. On one hand, I welcome the end of the doldrums and eagerly anticipate the excitement of fall migration, but I’m not quite ready to be done with summer yet. I’m too busy celebrating the completion of grad school to go back to work! I couldn’t ignore the steady march of time forever, though, and I have certainly made the most of my freedom since classes ended in late June. Nocturnal flight calls overhead and tantalizing reports from the field finally convinced me to get off my ass and get back out there. More adventures await, and school’s not in session yet!

My first trip to Jamaica Bay this August left a lot to be desired. The mosquitoes were hungrier and more numerous than I’ve ever encountered at this site. Miriam and I got devoured, and to add to our woes we found few birds of interest at Big John’s Pond and the nearby East Pond overlook. A single Solitary Sandpiper was our sole consolation prize. We might have had more luck if we walked out on the shoreline at the south end, but the biting insects were too fierce and forced us to retreat. With time to kill after our abbreviated visit, we headed to Oceanside for a relaxing, easy stroll on the boardwalk. Fledglings were the stars of the show, with young Barn Swallows, Forster’s Terns, and Osprey providing great views. A few yellowlegs, dowitchers, and peeps served as a teaser for the rapidly approaching peak season.

Brendan discovered some cool birds at the northern ponds of Hempstead Lake State Park, a nice surprise given the habitat’s small size, inland location, and proximity to the Southern State Parkway. We made a quick trip at sunset and managed to pick out Miriam’s lifer Western Sandpiper. The fire of shorebirding excitement was reignited, and word of an American Avocet at Jamaica Bay further fanned the flames. After taking Gracie on a trip to Connecticut for a veterinary visit the following day, I received word that the avocet was still present at the northern end of the East Pond. It was time to boot up.

We arrived to find the water level at the East Pond a bit higher than I’d expected or hoped for, but it still proved to be passable in mid-calf waders. I gave Miriam a quick practical course in managing the mud, highlighting the importance of testing each foothold and remembering to pull a mired boot out heel-to-toe to avoid losing it altogether. Many a birder has sacrificed their footwear to the treacherous muck of Jamaica Bay, and coming into direct contact with the filth is best avoided. Once she got the hang of the technique, my fearless companion actually seemed to enjoy the challenge of slogging through the slime. We teamed up with Tripper for the majority of our visit, and we encountered a decent diversity of species as we worked our way south along the shoreline. Sightings included Stilt Sandpipers, a Red Knot, plenty of peeps, and some American Oystercatchers.

Tom, Gail, and Menachem greeted us at Sanderling Point, informing us that a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had just flown out of sight. They gave us some advice on how to safely reach the avocet on the other side of Dead Man’s Cove, one of the stickiest and sloppiest sections of the pond. We managed to make it across in one piece, and our prize was well-worth the effort. Avocets are classy, striking birds, and they certainly stand out among their smaller, difficult-to-distinguish brethren. This is Miriam’s first fall shorebirding season, and she expressed amazement at the similitude of the many species present. There’s no denying that these guys can be tricky!

The beauty of the East Pond is that many of the birds will forage and loaf at close range, allowing ample opportunity for study. One friendly Lesser Yellowlegs came strutting past us in perfect light, leaving a meandering trail of tracks in its wake. Even though many types of shorebirds look alike, familiarizing oneself with the subtle variations helps you to pick out the different birds in a flock by impression. White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers feeding among the Semipalmateds and Leasts were welcome additions to the day’s total. We left the refuge behind as sunset drew near, heading home to hose down our boots and gear.

Friday was a quiet, lazy day, largely due to periodic storms sweeping through the area. With no evening plans, I was beginning to get a case of cabin fever. Fortunately, I happened to check my email just a few minutes after a report came in from Doug and Sean announcing that they’d found a Hudsonian Godwit. This bird is tricky to track down, breeding in the remote Arctic and wintering in southern South America. Most individuals fly nonstop from Ontario across the Atlantic in the fall, completely skipping the East Coast. Although they occasionally stop in this region due to weather or fuel requirements, they don’t tend to linger long. I’ve missed connecting with Hudwits a time or two during my career, most notably when I took a drive from Ithaca to Montezuma with Ben and Brendan only to strike out back in 2015. This bird was on track to fill the void left by the Little Gull and become my next major nemesis, but I wasn’t about to let that happen. Less than 10 minutes after the initial message hit the listserv, I was out the door and on my way.

I made good time on the Belt Parkway, but when I reached the northern parking lot on Cross Bay Boulevard the sky was threatening more rain. I elected to leave my camera behind, grabbing my scope and binoculars as I dashed off towards the East Pond as fast as my boots could carry me. I sloshed my way out to Sanderling Point, passing Tripper on his way out, and the news was good. Sure enough, amongst the dozing Black-bellied Plovers I spied a larger, longer-billed bird preening in the shallows. Bingo. I was able to digiscope a few shots of my target as the light gradually faded and thunder rumbled in the distance.

After watching the Hudsonian feed for a few minutes, I started back towards my car. Sudden shrieks caused me to wheel around: a Peregrine Falcon had scared the flocks into flight. As the raptor continued south to chase the gulls, I picked out the godwit in flight by its black-and-white tail and distinctive proportions. When the shorebirds settled back down to rest, I resumed my journey out of the refuge. The first drops of rain fell as I navigated the muddy water, and lightning flashes grew closer and closer. The storm reached Jamaica Bay just as I reached my car. My successful hunt was a delightful outing, and if I hadn’t seen the report right away I may have missed the bird entirely due to timing and the weather. There but for the grace of godwit go I.

Year List Update, August 18 – 351 Species (+ Solitary Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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1 Response to An Act of Godwit

  1. Pingback: It’s a Shore Thing | Studying Life

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