The annual Christmas Bird Counts rank highly among my most anticipated events of the Yuletide season. There are two specific counts that I try to do every year: Southern Nassau and Montauk. These survey circles represent my local patches and one of my favorite birding spots on the Island, respectively. As the count period approached, I discussed strategy with my teammates and eagerly looked forward to the scheduled dates.
The Friday before my journey to Montauk brought an unexpectedly intense snowstorm, and my loved ones expressed some concern about my late night drive to the End. After assessing the conditions on the way to and from the family’s traditional Star Wars viewing of The Last Jedi, I agreed that it was not a great night to be on the road. I decided to head to sleep early and drive out before dawn on Saturday instead. I reached Vicki’s house just after 6 AM and grabbed some breakfast for Taylor, who’d been out owling with minimal success in the windy darkness. We hitched a ride out to Shagwong Point, one of the critical checkpoints on our territory, with Vicki’s son Chris. A Snowy Owl and some Snow Buntings took off at close range as the pickup made its way out the beach, both infrequent encounters for our turf. We set up our scopes behind the shelter of a dune and started taking down numbers of the birds observed on our sunrise seawatch at Shagwong.
Once we finished tallying marine species, we began working our way inland and checking various hidden sites along the way. A second Snowy Owl along the beach was a welcome find, and we racked up a few more waterbirds around the jetties at Lake Montauk Inlet. As we explored the area near the Montauk Airport, Taylor heard the call of a Common Raven and I spotted a Tree Swallow foraging along the edge of the runway. Both of these species were great additions to the day’s total, and I learned some details to put them in context at the compilation dinner that night. Our raven was only the second ever for the Montauk CBC after the first observation on Gardiner’s Island last winter. Tree Swallows have only been recorded during this count a handful of times, and there have been no records in the past 12 years. Our team, on the Point North territory, managed to land a handful of species that were not recorded elsewhere, known as “saves.” Apart from the swallow and the raven, we also found Virginia Rails, a Marsh Wren, and a Common Yellowthroat. The final combined total was a respectable 122 species…not bad on such a blustery day with most freshwater sites frozen over!
Additional counts came and went over the course of the next week, but I was too busy with other obligations to partake. The annual Healy Family Christmas Brunch was held on Sunday the 17th, and it was well-worth the intense preparation necessary to host and feed our legions of guests. I had a full week of work to survive before I could enjoy my holiday vacation, and the remaining days of school seemed to drag on for an especially long time. I did manage to slip into the city on Thursday night to see my uncle play saxophone for a Christmas show with Darlene Love: a small taste of festivities before the official end of responsibility. I even got to spend some quality time with a cooperative Woodcock in Bryant Park before meeting up with the family.
When the weekend finally arrived, I was happy to use some of my free time for birding. My first priority was a Mountain Bluebird at Robert Moses that had been discovered by Pat Lindsay during the Captree CBC while I was partying it up at the brunch. Even though I’ve seen this species on several occasions out west, including earlier this year, I had never before observed one in my home state. Adding the bluebird to my New York list proved quite easy, as the little charmer was actively showing off while it foraged in the junipers at Democrat Point. I was treated to quality, up-close and personal views of the wayward bird, and I was thankful that it had stuck around for a full week so I could get acquainted with it.
Christmas itself was a delight, and I enjoyed a well-balanced mix of friends, family, relaxation, and outdoor adventures over the course of the week that followed. Miriam led me on an expedition to the frigid northern limits of New York state in search of a white Gyrfalcon near Plattsburgh, though we sadly came up short in our efforts. It was still a fun mini-roadtrip, and there was plenty of consolation raptor activity in the form of her first Rough-legged Hawks, a surprise adult Red-shoulder, and multiple Bald Eagles circling together and hunting out on Lake Champlain. It’s hard to complain about an impromptu day of birding, even when the hoped-for quarry is a no-show!
The Southern Nassau CBC often takes place in the first days of the new year, but this time the count date fell on December 30th. I was teamed up with Brendan, as of course is tradition, but this year we were joined by our good friend Ben Van Doren on our journey to the Jones Beach jetty. The appointed meeting time at the West End parking lot was 6:30 AM. I spotted some sort of owl taking off from one of the holiday light fixtures in the predawn gloom, and when the sun began to rise it revealed a glass-like sea and unlimited visibility. Count day was off to an auspicious start. We trekked down to the beach and started off with a seawatch. Good numbers of ducks were moving through the area at first light, and we were able to quickly confirm the continuing presence of two King Eiders in the local flock of Commons. These birds, a young male and an adult nearing full breeding splendor, had been seen frequently in recent days, and they would’ve been a glaring miss if we had failed to locate them. Fortunately, this was not an issue. The handsome ducks showed well throughout the morning.
Snow began to fall with some strength, much earlier than weather forecasts had predicted. We pressed onward to the jetty and found the boulders coated with a slick layer of ice. It proved difficult to successfully navigate the slippery rocks, but we still managed to pick out a flock of 30 Purple Sandpipers. This is one of the crucial “gets” in our territory, as there are many coastal birds that can easily go missed for the count if we fail to deliver. We found a Snowy Owl, over a dozen “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrows, a large Snow Bunting flock, and a number of seagoing species as we headed up the inlet and into the dunes. BVD also spotted an Iceland Gull flying west along the shore. A Short-eared Owl that flushed from a brushy patch ahead of us was one of the best surprises of the day, and the raptor fortunately stayed low and settled a short distance away after our unintended disturbance. Back at the lot, carefully scanning a congregation of Horned Larks revealed 5 Lapland Longspurs picking seeds from the snow-covered stalks of grass.
Even in freezing cold weather, even when the wildlife refuses to cooperate, Christmas Bird Counts are something special. The spirit of camaraderie and the inevitable silly stories that come from the shared experience make these efforts a true birder holiday. As temperatures plummeted and sky grew snowier, the three of us found fewer and fewer birds later in the day. All the same, we had smiles on our faces throughout and took pride the morning’s successes. BVD had to head back to the city in the early afternoon, and when we finished searching our turf I briefly parted ways with Brendan to unsuccessfully follow up on a report of a White-winged Dove just blocks from my house. By sunset, I was back at Otto’s Sea Grill to join my friends for the highly anticipated compilation dinner.
I wasn’t sure what to expect this year due to the weather forecast and the extended cold snap leading up to the CBC date. However, we managed to pull together a surprisingly impressive total despite the early snow and the scarcity of fresh, open water. 132 species were recorded by participants across the territories, including a number of great “write-in” species that are rarely or infrequently encountered on the count. The data are still being sorted out and prepared for the master database, but Southern Nassau apparently reported the largest number of species out of all New York counts this year! As I look back on a fantastic year full of great memories, it’s clear to me that this CBC season will be among the most memorable events of my 2017 experience. Considering the adventures I’ve had since January, that’s really saying something!
Year List Update, December 31 – 404 Species (+ King Eider)