Birding in September

The first long weekend of the school year is always cause for celebration. With Thursday and Friday off from work, I was especially excited to get out into the field. For one thing, my camera was back in one piece after the lens went missing in my own home for a few days. Additionally, the forecast called for sustained northerly winds every night of my mini-vacation, which meant conditions were ideal for migration. When I arrived at Jones on Thursday morning, I found it still closed as a precaution for Tropical Storm Jose, which had fortunately passed our region without any problematic impact. I chose not to push my luck by lingering on site. I did enjoy a brief photo shoot with a group of kestrels that were getting chased around by an aggressive Merlin. The larger falcon apparently wanted a prime perching bush all to itself, and it was quite persistent in pursuing the interlopers.

My next stop was Robert Moses, where I found Taylor and Brent observing the morning flight down the coast. We had an opportunity to catch up for a little while, noting large numbers of flickers and a smattering of other expected migrants. Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Great Cormorant, and more representatives of this year’s fantastic Cape May Warbler crop were welcome sights, but we failed to locate any Western Kingbird-tier rarities. Once the guys took their leave, I spotted a Peregrine flying in off the ocean and got closer views of some Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the lot. Overhead movement slowed down quickly, so I departed from the barrier beaches and stopped by Santapogue Creek in Babylon to say hello to the annual wintering flock of Long-billed Dowitchers.

Friday found me back at Jones, doing my best to fight off mosquitos as I explored the area. There is a lot of standing water out in the dunes this year, and the population of bloodsucking insects has exploded as a result. Spraying and swatting offered some relief, and I teamed up with Bob A to search for spots with more birds and fewer bugs. The flicker flight continued, phoebes had moved in overnight, and I was happy to hear a Dickcissel buzzing its way northwest. Bob led me to a sheltered patch of brush near the bay shore, a side trip that turned up Blackburnian, Magnolia, and Nashville Warblers.

The young Nash was especially interesting, and it struck me as just a little unusual. Its drab, first-year plumage certainly contributed to my sense of unfamiliarity, but I also noticed the bird pumping its tail as it moved about. This behavior is essentially unreported in the eastern population, but the western birds, known as “Calaveras” Warblers, love to shake their tail feathers. This subspecies pair just missed getting enough votes for a split earlier this year, so I was curious about whether they can be reliably distinguished in the field. Short answer: not really, at least not outside the breeding season. Apart from some vague descriptions of slight plumage and proportion differences to look for, the tail bobbing is all we have to go on. It’s not really a well-studied complex. I still enjoyed the excuse to do some snooping and reading thanks to my encounter with the odd little warbler.

Raptors were moving in decent numbers and diversity throughout the morning, and interspecies clashes were a common sight. One poor Cooper’s Hawk got the business from a Merlin and a Sharp-shin at the same time, lining up a shot for a neat side-by-side-by-side comparison. A few harriers, kestrels, and Ospreys were also in the mix, floating westward through a clear, blue sky.

I took a chance to relax at home on Saturday, but I still stopped by Jones in the afternoon for a short, uneventful check-in after a Curlew Sandpiper was reported. The bird dissppeared before I even left the house, but birding is all about thoroughness and taking chances. Subsequent review of photos showed that the shorebird was a tricky Dunlin, but I think most would agree with me when I say that I prefer a prompt announcement of a “maybe” over a confident proclamation that comes too late. Besides, the in-depth discussions that arise from the community ID process are great learning opportunities for birders of all ability levels. It’s all part of the fun!

After a relaxing night around the fire pit with old friends, I was back out in the field before sunrise on Sunday. Although terrestrial activity at Jones was reduced, there seemed to be some action by the water. A close kingfisher is always a treat, and the distinctive cry of a Whimbrel reached my ears while I was counting the shorebirds on the sand spit. I briefly saw the curve-billed bird flying in and subsequently hiding among the vegetation. The onslaught of biting insects eventually chased me back to my car,  but I heard a Royal Tern calling from the direction of the sandbar before I ducked inside the vehicle.

It wasn’t even 9 AM, and I didn’t want to cut my morning expedition short. I considered my options, and eventually decided to check the bar one last time for the Whimbrel and the Royal. On my way over to the docks, I bumped into Bob and Sarah, who asked if I had seen the Brown Pelicans that just went by…NO. They informed me that the birds had flown west, heading out towards the ocean. I reasoned that I might be able to catch them if I moved fast enough, so I rushed down the fisherman’s road and set up my scope at the lot. Starting from the mouth of the inlet, I slowly scanned as I swept my scope to the east. Amazingly, I managed to refind the giant seabirds resting on the water at the northern edge of the bay. I snapped some documentation images from my scope and headed back to the Coast Guard station to see if I could put anyone else on them. I arrived to find that a newly assembled crowd of birders had also found the pelicans, and we all exchanged congratulations. A few minutes later, the visitors spread their giant wings and took to the air. We watched as they circled the boat basin several times before splitting up and flying in different directions, eventually passing out of sight.

I’ve got a major soft spot for pelicans. When I was a kid, our yearly family trips to the Outer Banks were a highlight of my summer. We usually left in the wee hours of the morning, reaching the Chesapeake Bay Bridge shortly after daybreak. This was the spot where I saw my first Brown Pelicans, and I always looked forward to their appearance as a signal that we were getting close. I’ve since encountered the massive plunge divers on both coasts of the continent, but I had never seen one in my home state. I even crossed paths with their larger, paler cousins in New York before I saw their familiar faces around these parts. Most years see a few individuals discovered somewhere on Long Island, but I’m usually too far away or arrive too late. Finally catching up with these impressive creatures under unexpected circumstances was a brilliant ending to a wonderful weekend.

With the pelican show over, I was finally ready to head back to the barn. I said goodbye to my friends, got one last look at the Whimbrel when it reemerged, and returned home by way of Hempstead Lake so I could prepare my work for the week. Four days of fun were exactly what my brain needed after the stress of school resuming. You’ve got to make the most of any and all vacation time, however brief it may be!

Year List Update, September 24 – 371 Species (+ Long-billed Dowitcher, Whimbrel)

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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 Birding in September

  1. Pingback: Rarity Round-Up | Studying Life

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