One birder’s regulars are another birder’s rarities. Every bird comes from somewhere, and a species that may be quite abundant in its home region can spark a frenzy of excitement by showing up in an unexpected place. Rarity is relative, and the desirability of a given target often depends on your geographical point of view. Take, for example, the Common Greenshank. This shorebird earned its name due to its widespread distribution as well as its viridescent gams, with populations breeding across Eurasia and wintering in Africa, Australia, and southern Asia. Occupying a ecological niche similar to our familiar Greater Yellowlegs, Greenshanks are frequently observed in marshes throughout the Old World. Even in North America, Tringa nebularia is listed as a mere Code 3 bird due to the nearly annual occurrence of off-track migrants in the far western Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Last week’s report of a sighting in New Jersey, however, was decidedly uncommon. There are only a handful of records in history for the species on the Atlantic coast of the continent, and this individual was found in a readily accessible birding hotspot, Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Hordes of twitchers descended on the site, and spectacular chaos ensued.
Still smarting from my missed connection in Connecticut, I initially grumbled that the Monday discovery of the bird was not conducive to chasing. When the weekend rolled around and the Greenshank was still being reported regularly, Brendan reached out to me to see if I was interested in going for it. As if he needed to ask! We set out ahead of sunrise on Saturday, making good time in our journey along the Belt Parkway, through Staten Island, and south towards Atlantic City. Tom Ford-Hutchinson had set up a group messaging system to help coordinate search efforts, and an early morning update informed us that our quarry had been relocated along the southern edge of the wildlife drive loop. We reached the Brigantine Unit of the refuge just before 9 AM, paying the entrance fee and making our way out the road. Our arrival at the observation spot was met by a huge crowd of double parked vehicles blocking our path forward on the one-way road along the dike. Overheard whisperings suggested that the bird had flown north, and messages on the group chat confirmed that the European visitor had gone missing. As the gridlock began to loosen up, we continued along the loop to the “dogleg,” a bend in the northern dike where the bird was originally found.
There were a lot of familiar faces out on the hunt, and throughout the morning we attempted to keep one another informed of the latest reports and rumors. An hour ticked by without any sign of our target, and then suddenly a flurry of conflicting updates came in all at once. Friends called us with news that a group further up the road was on the bird, while someone on the chat chimed in to say that it was back at the south side. When we approached the closer alleged vantage point, the cry went up that it was flying. Brendan and I followed the directions of those tracking it, and I managed to get my binoculars on a small, tight flock of shorebirds looping out over the pool. The Greenshank was probably in my view, but the birds were so poorly lit and distant that I couldn’t discern anything that would clinch the ID. They settled down in the northeast corner of the compound, and the chat users squabbled about whether the bird was or wasn’t currently in view. Brendan suggested that we keep driving, and we could search from both locations if necessary. By the time we made it back to the southern drive, Tom confirmed that the bird had flown in from the northeast and landed once again near the earlier spot. It took some careful scanning of the assembled Greater Yellowlegs, but one of our neighbors finally managed to get a bead on the bird.
With my newest lifer set squarely in my scope view, I took some time to admire my prize. Even at such a great distance, the paler plumage of the Common Greenshank caused it to glow brightly among its dingy gray companions. The water was too deep for us to see the bird’s signature lower extremities, but it took flight several times as the flocks shuffled around, showing off the telltale white wedge pattern on its back. Goal achieved, Brendan and I exchanged congratulations. Before leaving Brigantine behind us, we took note of some of the other wildlife in the area. A calling flyby American Golden-Plover was a welcome surprise, and we tallied hundreds of ducks and shorebirds foraging on the expansive pools. These were repeatedly terrorized by a young Peregrine Falcon, and nearly 50 other species were observed during our visit. Satisfied with our successful chase, with bid the Greenshank farewell and began the return trip home.
A LeConte’s Sparrow was apparently found at Pelham Bay in the Bronx while we were searching the marshes of New Jersey, but we agreed that fighting traffic to seek out such an unreliable skulker late in the day was not a super appealing option. Thus, the sparrow continues to make a convincing case for status as my number one nemesis. Brendan wanted to beef up his county totals on the way back to Long Island, so we stopped at a couple of sites around Staten Island to do some local listing. Arbutus Lake hosted a flotilla of Gadwall, and Great Kills Park added a number of coastal and woodland species to our Richmond county lists. As we drove past Midland Beach, the calls of Royal Terns prompted us to pause and have a look-see. Word on the street was that a huge loafing flock had been hanging around in the area, an impressive sight considering the typically low densities of these seabirds in our region. The reports were absolutely true, and we counted upwards of 250 individuals resting on the sand just over the dune from the parking lot. We finally drove back over the Verrazano Bridge and enjoyed a relatively painless cruise down the Belt.
Brendan dropped me off back at home, and we thanked one another for the companionship on this exciting adventure. The Greenshank was certainly worth the time and effort that it took to track it down, and the spectacle of the situation won’t soon be forgotten. I’m sure that I will see this species again on future trips to Europe and beyond. Indeed, I will probably get to meet them at closer range and in greater numbers. There’s just something special about encountering birds in unexpected and unusual circumstances, though. The thrill that comes with surprise, shared lifers from faraway lands is a crucial part of the birding experience. That joy of experiencing a brand new rarity is something we all have in common.
Year List Update, October 28 – 397 Species (+ Common Greenshank)