Late fall always seems to bring the excitement. As southbound migration begins to slow down, the potential for weird surprises comes to a peak around the time that expected wintering birds start to arrive. November is a great time of year to get out and explore personal patches, and it helps to take note of long-term weather patterns and local conditions to maximize the efficiency of search time. This month often brings some of my favorite birding moments of any given year due to the consistent unpredictability. I often find myself down by the seashore, looking for unusual vagrants among the residents and more typical travelers. Flocks of gulls and swarms of passage passerines are great example opportunities to turn up something interesting, and they often provide plenty of spectacle themselves.
Geese are some of the most conspicuous arrivals in November. They are loud, obvious, and abundant, and lost geese have a well-documented tendency to fall in with crowds of common species. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the burgeoning numbers of waterfowl at Hendrickson Park, watching closely for last winter’s most famous visitor. Off-track birds sometimes return to the same locations for years on end, and Dad is especially hopeful that his friend will return to us soon. So far, all of the geese at the lake have black feet, but migrants have been slightly delayed in their journey to our latitude. Anything is possible. I did, however, spot a Cackling Goose among the countless Canadas on Friday afternoon. It wasn’t the most obvious individual, but its short bill, frosty plumage, and squarish head stood out from the crowd.
I returned to Hendrickson on Saturday, and I located a second Cackling Goose after refinding the bird from the previous evening. This individual was much more conspicuous, with a stubby little bill affixed to its blocky head. This tiny, adorable gooselet looks remarkably similar to the bird that spent the season here from 2016 to 2017. Photos on eBird reveal that there have been several different Cackling Geese observed at this site over the past year or so, but the long-staying individual was distinctly diminutive and cartoonishly cute. Comparing my previous photos to the most recent series of the “new” goose, I think there’s a real possibility that this is a returning bird.
The gaggle of geese lounging on the lakeshore contained a mix of beefy locals and smaller migrants. The degree of variation in this species is impressive, even with the Cackling clan removed and recognized as biologically separate. I noticed a compact Canada with a thin, dusky chinstrap that resulted in an atypical dark-faced look. This bird, too, looked rather familiar, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a migrant that kept the company of last winter’s Cackler. Only time will tell if these are the only rarities to recur at this location.
There were plenty of gulls, cormorants, and ducks roosting alongside the geese. An American Coot was another indicator of the turning seasons, and I was delighted to see a handsome pair of Wood Ducks paddling out towards the center of the water feature. The late morning light illuminated the bright blue-green eyes of the cormorants perfectly. It is always a treat to observe this hidden feature in the field: it lends a lot of charm to an already quirky and entertaining bird.
When I finished up in Valley Stream, I headed east towards Montauk. My parents invited me to visit them at their weekend campsite in Hither Hills, and the East End birding scene heats up as the weather cools down. After meeting with my family and friends at the Montauk Brewing Company, I set about combing the area for goodies. I put in some time scanning Lake Montauk from multiple vantage points, but I found no sign of the female Brown Booby that lingered in the region from September into November. I can only hope that she got out of town ahead of the cold snap that came through at the end of the week. That same front seems to have ferried in a number of northern visitors, and I was pleased to find Purple Sandpiper, American Pipit, and a variety of seabirds during my scouting. One of the Common Loons I observed was still transitioning out of its dapper summer garb, creating an odd patchwork plumage.
I set up my scope at the Point’s restaurant patio as the sun sank lower in the sky, and I was not disappointed with my impromptu survey. Large feeding flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls, several hundred strong, were a welcome sight after too many years with reduced numbers of these birds around the Island. There were good numbers of Laughers and other gulls mixed in with the throngs. I even picked out a pair of Great Shearwaters tailing the fishing boats close to shore. I drove back to the campground at dusk, enjoying dinner, drinks, and games before turning in for the night.
I woke up at 4 AM on Sunday, slipping out of the camper as silently as I could to do some owling. I searched at several spots in Hither Hills and Hither Woods State Parks, connecting with multiple Screech-Owls and a Great Horned Owl along the way. A tiny shadow that silently flew in to investigate my whistled Saw-whet impression caught me off guard. Interestingly, it revealed itself as a curious Screech-Owl when I got a glimpse of its ear tufts and it began vocalizing. One wonders what goes on in the world of these nocturnal predators when they cross paths with one another in the dark. As sunrise drew near, I made tracks to Camp Hero State Park and prepared for a dawn seawatch atop the bluffs. The lights came on slowly, but the colors and patterns revealed by the early morning glow were well worth the wait.
I’d been communicating with Anthony about coordinating our search efforts in the Hamptons, and he met me at Camp Hero just as the sun was peeking above the horizon. Mere minutes after he turned his optics towards the sea, he called out the name of a bird I was not expecting to hear: Pacific Loon! Anthony got me on the bird as it came perpendicular with out position and continued flying east towards the Point. I immediately saw that it was smaller than a Common Loon, with a less blocky profile and much faster wingbeats. It also had larger trailing feet and a more rounded head than a similarly-sized Red-throated Loon. The contrast between the dark upperparts and the clean white underparts was stark, and there was no evidence of pale speckling or paneling on the back. The bill was straight and intermediate between the two expected species, and the sharp line between dark and light on the neck lacked the white indentations of a Common or the dusky smudging of a young Red-throat. When the bird disappeared from sight, we exchanged high-fives in celebration of our good fortune. This was not only a state bird, but also my 400th year bird of 2017! Not bad for not being certain about setting a goal back in January!
The remainder of our vigil continued to impress. I refound one of the shearwaters from the day before, and Anthony spied a pair of early Razorbills. A Gray Seal was seen bobbing in the surf, and a spout just beyond the breakers drew immediately grabbed our attention. A Minke Whale’s dorsal fin broke the surface, but when we lowered our binoculars we saw a long, flat object rising rising from the waves in the same location. Was that a pectoral fin? The next blow was also followed by a Minke, but the third and fourth revealed a Humpback Whale that was seemingly moving in close association with its smaller cousin. We eventually left the cliffs to sweep the surrounding area for additional birds. Theodore Roosevelt County Park and South Lake Drive were quiet, but we were surprised by a Parasitic Jaeger and a flock of Snow Buntings on the western side of the Lake Montauk Inlet. The final treat of the day was a large pod of dolphins foraging north of Culloden Point. Through Anthony’s stronger scope, we were stunned to see the tan and gray hourglass markings that identified them as Short-beaked Common Dolphins, a species neither of us had ever seen from land before. It seems that the November shock factor isn’t limited to birds! You just never know what you’ll find!
I made a few more stops on my way back to Nassau, pausing at Seatuck Creek in Eastport to add a drake Eurasian Wigeon to my year total and briefly passing through Jones Beach just to see if there was any noteworthy activity. I was ready to crash by the time I made it home, satisfied but exhausted from a full weekend. I’ll be back out at Montauk soon enough…I only hope for similar successes next time!
Year List Update, November 12 – 402 Species (+ American Pipit, Pacific Loon, Parasitic Jaeger, Eurasian Wigeon)