I don’t need an excuse to go birding, but I’ll gladly take one when it comes my way! It’s nice when I get the chance to steer my aimless wandering toward a meaningful purpose. To that end, I was intrigued by a Friday evening listserv post from Shai containing a last-minute proposal to conduct a “rarity round-up” over the weekend. The goal, as outlined in the email, was to comb the Island as thoroughly as possible in search of any seasonally or regionally unusual birds. I thought of the effort as a sort of practice run for Christmas Bird Count season, with the key difference being a focus on sniffing out surprises rather than tallying the total numbers of each species observed. At any rate, it sounded like a lot of fun. I confirmed my participation with Shai and outlined a rough plan to scour southern Nassau for two days. Saturday morning found me at Jones Beach just as the rising sun set the distant city skyline ablaze.
Rather than join the usuals at the jetty or the median, I decided to get off the beaten path and explore some tucked-away scrubby habitat where I’d enjoyed some warblers a few months prior. It was a pleasant stroll, but unfortunately devoid of anything out of the ordinary. After about an hour I continued on to check some less popular patches in my area. I scanned the marshes north of the Ocean Parkway, discovering my first Snowy Owl of the weekend perched on a hillock across the channel. The bird had found a roost safe from overzealous human admirers, but it still had to contend with unwanted attention from a harrier that halfheartedly buzzed it before continuing on. After opening its beak threateningly at the low-flying nuisance, the owl settled down to rest once again. I drove over to the JFK Sanctuary at Tobay Beach to try my luck. My pishing drew in a number of songbirds, including American Tree Sparrows and Carolina Wrens. I also noted a White-crowned Sparrow foraging with the White-throats, Songs, and Swamps.
JFK turned out to be my most productive stop for rarities, even though I didn’t encounter anything on the level of Hammond’s Flycatcher. A Blue-winged Teal on the hidden ponds with other ducks was a nice find, but a Northern Parula roving with some Yellow-rumps was an even better prize. This individual represented the latest recorded report for Nassau County, and along with a handful of others between Brooklyn and Montauk is among the latest historical sightings in the state. The unseasonably warm weather we’ve experienced has apparently kept a number of warblers lingering long beyond their usual departure. A Wilson’s and Magnolia Warblers in Manhattan and a Prothonotary in Suffolk are also notable for being basically unprecedented north of the Gulf Coast at this time of year. Remarkably, I found a second parula at Cow Meadow Park in the evening hours. These two were my rarest contributions of the weekend, even though the species is abundant at other times of the year.
Other Saturday sites included Point Lookout, Lido West Town Park, the Passive Nature Area, and Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area. I also made a quick trip to Robert Moses at dusk to search for some gulls that others had mentioned, but the activity had apparently dispersed by the end of the day. As I was wrapping up my final checklist at dusk, a ghostly form flew into view through the darkening sky. The Snowy passed low over the roof of my car as it headed out to hunt, floating into the night on silent, white wings. Even with the minor unexpected rarities taken into account, my brushes with the ongoing Snowy Owl invasion ranked well among the day’s highlights. In addition to the marsh squatter and the twilit flyby, I managed to scope one of the Jones Beach birds from across the inlet at Point Lookout. I will never tire of watching these majestic predators during their winter visits to our shores.
I met up with Shai, Pat, Pete, and Brent at Sea Levels in Bayshore for dinner. It was a treat to catch up over delicious food and drinks, swapping notes about the day’s searches and trading tales of adventures past. None of us wanted to stay out too late, however, because the rarity round-up was set to continue in the morning. I started Sunday at Robert Moses, hoping to catch the foraging flocks from the previous day. There were a great many birds present in the area, but most were feeding far out on the horizon in front of the sunrise. My scope wasn’t able to resolve anything interesting, so I turned back towards the west. An American Bittern that flew up from the Gilgo Beach marsh was a welcome discovery, and I heard word of more cooperative seabirds at Jones. I made tracks to the West End jetty, where I was greeted by Tripper, John G, and a congregation of hungry Bonaparte’s Gulls.
These fluttery, squeaky mini-gulls, affectionately known as Bonies, are an engaging and entertaining species to observe. I spent a couple of hours with the flock, watching as they swirled and circled around the rip currents and plunged into the sea to nab tiny fish. Besides being thoroughly delightful themselves, large groups of Bonies often attract the attention of similar-looking but less-common species. I was definitely hoping to find a rarer relative among their numbers, like a Black-headed or Little Gull, but the best I could manage was a late Common Tern. Considering how much fun I had during my stakeout, I’d consider this effort time well-wasted.
Despite the lack of sneaky vagrants among the Bonaparte’s ranks, there were plenty of other great winter birds hanging around the area. A Parasitic Jaeger flew east down the shoreline shortly after I arrived, a difficult bird to get from shore and a slightly out-of-season one at that. I was also pleased by the appearance of an adult Iceland Gull winging its way across the inlet. Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones worked the boulders, eagerly digging into morsels exposed by the falling tide.
Harlequin Ducks are a stunning addition to any coastal scene, and there were several of these dapper divers bobbing in the surf. Scoters, eiders, and Long-tailed Ducks were also visible nearby, and I observed good numbers of Red-throated Loons with a few individuals showing off at close range. I’d seen a Snowy Owl on my way down to the jetty, presumably the same one I spied from afar the day before, but taking a closer look on my walk back to the parking lot revealed that there were two different birds on site. All in all, it was a perfect December day at the beach.
I paused briefly at Valley Stream State Park and Hendrickson Park before returning home, saying hello to one of the continuing Cackling Geese and scrounging around in a last ditch attempt to locate something new. With a busy week ahead and sundown fast approaching, I decided to declare my rarity round-up a success and bring the weekend’s birding session to a close. I enjoyed the opportunity to do some self-directed exploration rather than chasing someone else’s finds or counting an assigned territory. Perhaps some of the lingering goodies will stick around for the various CBCs…we don’t have much longer to wait!
Year List Update, December 4 – 403 Species