I love impromptu adventures, and I welcome the opportunity to just head out and go somewhere with only a rough sketch of a plan and enjoy the ride. Miriam and I have had pretty successful summer on the exploration front, and we’ve done plenty of winging it along the way. On Saturday, we decided to make a short-range day trip to New Jersey. Our lack of a detailed itinerary provided us with a lot of freedom, but such expeditions can have their drawbacks. We trusted the GPS too much and got stuck in Manhattan thanks to a bike race blocking off our crosstown route, and when we arrived at Richard W. DeKorte Park it was way too hot for wildlife and wildlife watchers alike. After improvising our way into a nearby bar to pass the time, we returned to DeKorte and found increased activity levels. I managed to locate a Least Bittern, our primary target, in the cooler late afternoon hours.
My favorite excuse for a spur-of-the-moment outing is a rare bird chase. When I first heard news of a Common Shelduck reported in New Hampshire, however, I was somewhat skeptical. Waterfowl always receive extra scrutiny as potential vagrants due to their prevalence in private collections of exotics. As more knowledgeable individuals weighed in on the discovery, it became apparent that there was actually a pretty strong case for a wild origin with this individual. The shelduck population has grown dramatically in Iceland in the past few years, and August is prime time for dispersal in juveniles and pre-molt adults. The old stigma of automatic dismissal for this species, which previously plagued the European geese, seems to be gradually fading in the face of new, promising records from the northeastern provinces and states at the proper times of year. They are certainly strong flyers capable of migrating long distances. The support for a pattern of natural vagrancy in Common Shelducks, similar to that of Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese, Tufted Ducks, and Eurasian Wigeons, is slowly gaining ground. The New Hampshire bird lacks any obvious signs of captivity, the timing checks out, and a local waterfowl breeder confirmed that they don’t even own any shelducks to lose. It’s up to the records committees in the end, but it definitely can’t be discounted out of hand. I was curious.
A Monday night conversation about “how cool it would be” to go looking for the bizarre bird quickly solidified into a real opportunity. Miriam met me before sunrise on Tuesday morning, and we set out for New England. We managed to avoid hitting any serious traffic on the way up, and we reached the shelduck stakeout site south of Odiorne Point State Park around 10 AM. Our quarry wasn’t visible at first, but we soon spotted it feeding in the pond furthest back from the road. I noticed that the distant duck employed an interesting foraging style that reminded me of an avocet or flamingo, wading in muddy water and sweeping its bill back and forth to sift for small invertebrates.
The shelduck eventually wandered out of sight behind some vegetation, only to reappear in flight headed our way a moment later. We quickly raised our cameras and snapped a series of shots as it flapped past. It hooked south before reaching the road, touching down in a larger, closer pool.
I led the way down the road to get a better view of the presumed long-distance traveler. The shelduck was warily regarding the passersby who were jogging or walking along the shoulder, so we made sure to move slowly and deliberately and avoid approaching too closely. We enjoyed vastly improved looks at the strange goose-duck from this vantage point, watching as it switched to floating, shoveler-like straining for food. After a few minutes, our photoshoot was cut short when our subject took off and circled back to the original pool. We took its departure as a cue to take our leave, both satisfied with our encounter with an unusual and fascinating new bird. Maybe this record will even get accepted!
We continued north to Odiorne Park, exploring the rocky shoreline and watching the gulls, cormorants, and eiders feeding in the shallows. The day was starting to heat up, and we really wanted to go for a swim. We hadn’t thought to bring bathing suits, but there was no reason we couldn’t go pick some up. Winging it!
I took Miriam on a short driving tour of Portsmouth, a lovely town on the southern side of the New Hampshire/Maine border. Those who wish to visit the Isles of Shoals, including Cornell’s Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island, typically due so through this port. It’s been 6 years since I last saw these streets, and it was nice to see some familiar sights. We took the bridge to Kittery, Maine and settled in for lunch at Warren’s Lobster House. I was glad to be back in my former summer home even though I only put my toe across the state line for the duration of a meal. After filling our bellies with delicious seafood and refreshing drinks, we found a shop where we could purchase some swimwear. Upon returning to Odiorne, we found that the shifting tides had made the water more difficult to access and carried mats of floating seaweed to the nearshore areas. On the other hand, they had also exposed several tidepools. We traded a swim session for wading and exploring the intertidal zone for critters. At least I got a chance to dunk my head.
We had another big decision to make for our trip itinerary: to chase or not to chase. The shelduck wasn’t the only visiting bird making New England feel like Old England. Birders at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Cape Cod had discovered a Little Stint and a Bar-tailed Godwit, both shorebirds from across the pond. The godwit was not accessible without a boat, but the stint was readily visible on shore near public parking at Morris Island. We tossed around the idea of extending our trip over the course of the day, and in the end we opted to just go for it. We raced the sunset towards Cape Cod, valiantly fighting through Boston rush hour traffic and escaping via a convenient HOV lane. We finally reached Chatham with just an hour of light to spare.
Fortunately, the tide cycle lined up perfectly with our arrival. The exposed sand was much easier to navigate than the rock walls lining the beach, and we made it out to the shorebird flats in good time. I set about scanning for the Little Stint, but unfortunately I never managed to pick it out. There were some birds that briefly gave me pause, but with the limited lighting and time I simply couldn’t make the miracle happen. I later learned that a dozen plus birders had failed to find the stint on the earlier low tide that day, so perhaps it simply wasn’t there to be seen. The cloud-covered sunset at the Cape was still an exceedingly pleasant way to end the day. We saw plenty of other shorebirds, flocks of egrets and terns, and scuttling hordes of fiddler crabs filtering the mud for food. Miriam and I walked back out the beach as the lights went out, heading into town for dinner.
Our on-the-fly planning meant that we had a long drive back to Long Island in the dark, and the late night storm that found us en route certainly made things interesting. When we finally made it back in one piece, we settled into bed for a hard-earned night’s sleep. The shelduck, the food, and the sights along the way were absolutely worth the effort we put into our adventure. I always appreciate a successful journey, no matter how far I travel and how late I get home!
Year List Update, August 22 – 352 Species (+ Common Shelduck)