It’s a Shore Thing

Birders and other ecology enthusiasts track the seasonal cycle very closely. Through observation of the annual changes in conditions, we refine our expectations and our understanding of how the natural world works. Every year is different, though, and sometimes nature surprises us. I have been quoted as saying that “summer means shorebirds,” but the 2017 migration season has extended the excitement a bit. In addition to the wayward New Jersey Greenshank that I chased last weekend, there have been a number of late, lingering shorebirds popping up around Long Island. The most notable of these were four Hudsonian Godwits discovered at Heckscher State Park. After seeing frequent reports and stunning photographs of the birds all week, I couldn’t resist heading out to try my luck on Saturday morning. As soon as I arrived at the site, one of the godwits flew across the parking lot entrance road and settled with two of its companions in a grassy puddle at the edge of the concrete.

This species evaded me for many years, mostly because Hudwits typically make very few stops on their migration between the extreme northern and southern reaches of the Americas. This group, unfortunately, is apparently having a rough journey, which may account for their multi-day stay on the Island. Although two individuals are the picture of health, another has apparently injured its right leg and the matching wing. The fourth bird is in an even worse state, with large growths on its face and left leg. All three individuals present were still feeding actively, rushing to refuel so they can continue their flight south. Due to their focused foraging, the godwits paid little mind to the growing crowd of human admirers. The lighting was perfect and our subjects were close and cooperative. This sighting was a great improvement on my life encounter back in August. I’m always grateful for the opportunity to get to know a bird a little better.

There were plenty of other shorebirds probing the puddles. A confiding Greater Yellowlegs associated loosely with the godwits, and flocks of Dunlin alternated between dozing and darting around to snag earthworms and insects.

A Long-billed Dowitcher and a Pectoral Sandpiper were among the less common highlights present. Ring-billed Gulls hung around the periphery, periodically chasing down Dunlin in an effort to steal their hard-won prey. A female Northern Pintail among the Mallards and Black Ducks was also a nice surprise.

Out in the parking lot proper, I spied a large loafing flock of mixed gulls. As I scanned the assemblage, I picked out a smaller, darker bird resting on the pavement. The American Golden-Plover eventually wandered over to join a crew of Black-bellied Plovers, offering a great opportunity to compare these similar species side by side. I have a soft spot for Golden-Plovers, the bird that earned the 500th spot on my life list, and this was the best view I’ve had all year.

When I finally pried myself away from the shorebird spectacle, I departed Heckscher for Swan Lake in East Patchogue. A Eurasian Wigeon had been reported from this location during the week, and I was hoping to secure that species for my year list. I thoroughly checked every corner of the lake from every possible vantage point, but it seemed that the foreign visitor had moved on. I found a variety of more expected waterfowl, including pintail, Gadwall, scaup, Ruddy Ducks, and Bufflehead. There were also two strange-looking domestic Mallards with monochrome plumage, and swans were appropriately abundant. Once I was satisfied that the wigeon was gone rather than hidden, I turned my car back towards Nassau.

My final stop for the day was Jones Beach, where I found high numbers of sparrows and still more lingering shorebirds. A White-rumped Sandpiper and a very late Stilt Sandpiper brought my outing’s total of waders up to 10. Cracking double digit shorebirds in November on Long Island is pretty exceptional. I walked down the beach to the jetty, where flocks of terns were swirling and diving in pursuit of bait fish. A Harbor Seal and small numbers of sea ducks were among the first signs of winter that I observed, contrasting starkly with the warm weather and delayed migrants. There were also some feeding Humpback Whales observed nearby in the morning, but they had been replaced by fishing boats and jet skis by the time I reached the area. Content with my successful day of exploration, I headed home.

The forecast called for sustained easterly winds overnight and a shift to the southeast just before dawn. Even though the projected windspeed wasn’t too high, the direction was nearly optimal for pushing seabirds near to shore. I decided to do a sunrise seawatch from Robert Moses in the hopes of spotting something interesting. The gusts ended up being stronger than predicted, and I arrived at the coast to find a lively, birdy scene. Ken was already present with scope trained on the water, and we were later joined by Doug, Bob, and Sarah. Thousands of scoters, mostly Black with a handful of White-winged and Surf, were winging their way across the horizon. Gannets were plunge diving everywhere we looked, with conservative counts still reaching the high hundreds. I briefly spotted a shearwater cruising by beyond the breakers, and I was hoping for a Manx to add to my 2017 tally. We eventually confirmed the identity of two Great Shearwaters circling the fishing boats, a nice find at this time of year. There were surprisingly few gulls and no jaegers to be seen, but I was glad that I woke up early to survey the ocean. I returned inland once the action began to slow around 9 AM, pausing at Jones and Hendrickson en route to my house.

The weekend’s final adventure began well after sunset on Sunday night. Late fall is the peak migration season for owls, and I was pretty eager to catch up with one after several months without encountering any. Many birders begin searching for owls in earnest after Halloween, a fitting unofficial kickoff to the owling season. I’d heard through the grapevine that some of the smallest and most inconspicuous members of my favorite family had already been discovered in our region, and I knew a fantastic spot to try my luck. After trudging along the dark trails at Stillwell Woods Park, I paused to offer a call to the night. I didn’t have to wait long before a response echoed through the shadowed forest, an eerie, rising wail. It was impossible to see the source of the noise in the gloom, but the keening cry told me all I needed to know. Saw-whet Owls are back. The adrenaline rush that comes with successful owling is one of the most unique feelings birding can provide. The exciting challenge of locating these spectral nocturnal predators, combined with the instinctive, gnawing unease that takes hold of the subconscious in the darkness, is an unparalleled experience. Despite the continuing shorebird diversity and the unseasonably high temperatures, the little Saw-whet’s return is a big reminder that winter is well on its way.

Year List Update, November 5 – 397 Species

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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