Settling the Scores

I suffer from acute birding FOMO. Passing up on opportunities for exploration and discovery, especially alongside friends, bums me out. Last year, Taylor and Brent worked to organize a grassroots bird survey in the style of Audubon’s official Christmas Bird Counts. The circle they established included some woefully underbirded but promising habitat along the North Shore that is not covered in any existing CBCs. I was excited to help out in the inaugural Northport Winter Bird Count, but unforeseen circumstances got in the way. A winter storm forced the rescheduling of the annual Brooklyn Paulagic trip, which moved me off the wait list and into a seat on the boat. As much as I wanted to assist my friends, I was hard-pressed to say no to the promise of Dovekies, puffins, and other elusive seabirds. I certainly didn’t regret my choice to join the offshore expedition, but I felt bad about bailing on the count team. When count preparation rolled around once again for 2018, I was eager to set things right.

I was assigned territory in the Huntington sector of the count circle, which made me responsible for all points of interest from the harbor south to the survey area border. I was also tasked to check up on Centerport’s Tung Ting Pond at dawn, a critical spot for rare waterfowl. After some fruitless nocturnal birding in the wee hours of the morning, I headed to the pond to wait for sunrise. I was soon joined by Tim Dunn, who was the only counter working on the entirety of the Centerport sector. I let him know that I was happy to relieve him of this tallying effort, and he gladly agreed. After a quick scan and a pleasant catch-up, Tim set out to cover the rest of his expansive turf. Rafts of Canvasbacks, increasingly rare on the Island away from traditional sites like this one, were obvious at first light thanks to their namesake white upperparts. As the sun increasingly illuminated the hundreds of roosting Canada Geese, I was able to pick out a Greater White-fronted Goose and a Cackling Goose among the throng. Both birds had been seen in the week leading up to the big day, but it was crucial to catch them at their known nightly resting place before they took off to feed in some nearby field.

I added an adult Bald Eagle and a nice spread of ducks to my personal count list before returning to the Huntington area. The rest of the day was spent combing the town’s surroundings in search of all things avian. Armed with a list of potential hotspots provided by Brent, I cruised around in search of additional intriguing locations. Most of the sites I visited were small roadside parks and public waterfronts, but I also took some more extended walks through larger preserves like West Hills County Park and Froelich Farm. I accumulated a respectable tally of species, including goldeneye, flicker, creeper, and Golden-crowned Kinglet as new year birds. There were a few nice surprises along the way, such as a female Red-breasted Merganser on a tiny freshwater pond and a cooperative flock of Fish Crows that came to visit me before sundown.

After dusk, I met the other 12 participants at Changing Times Ale House for our compilation dinner. The available fare was solid pub grub, and we had a grand time swapping stories and counting up our totals. Out of the final count of 87 species, I was surprised to learn that I had contributed a few personal “saves” that would’ve otherwise been missed: American Coot, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. I was thankful for the opportunity to help out with this incipient count, and I look forward to seeing where the effort goes in the future.

Sunday morning brought conditions that were far more blustery and chilly than Saturday’s weather. I bundled myself up and struck out for Tiffany Creek Preserve in Oyster Bay, hoping to finally track down Nassau’s first ever Townsend’s Solitaire. I’d missed the long-staying rarity on my January 1st attempt, and after catching up with the King Eider and Ross’s Goose it was my most egregious remaining New Year’s dip. I arrived to find other birders departing the scene, stating that the bird had showed briefly at dawn before disappearing again. I set up shop atop the hill, watching and waiting. Cloud cover eventually gave way to clear skies, crowds of hopeful observers began to arrive, and despite the cold midmorning saw an uptick in avian activity. A pair of ravens passed overhead, croaking and diving in a coordinated courtship flight. When a flock of bluebirds flew in from the southeast, I went on high alert: the solitaire had apparently been seen in loose association with its fellow thrushes multiple times. Sure enough, someone spied our target flying in from the same direction a few minutes later. The svelte songbird picked berries from its favored juniper tree, offering distant but extended views before departing.

With Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I decided to spend my extra weekend hours at the East End of Long Island. I reached Hook Pond in East Hampton just as the sun was coming up, quickly picking out a pair of Tundra Swans. This is the most consistent location on the whole Island for these large, white birds, and they did not disappoint. A short time later, I was setting up my scope in a sheltered alcove along the backside of the Lighthouse Grill at Montauk Point. Strong northeast winds had been blowing throughout the night, and I hoped that they would provide a seabird show in the early morning. Nearly 100 Razorbills, good numbers of scoters and eiders, some flyby Red-necked Grebes, and a young Iceland Gull made my predawn drive worthwhile. Big Reed Pond was fairly quiet, save for a lone catbird, and I found another Iceland Gull at the Lake Montauk Inlet, also a first-cycle individual.

My next stop was Montauk Downs Golf Course, where I teamed up with Mike McBrien, who had also been seawatching at the Point. We set out across the fairways in search of grazing geese, eventually locating a trio of Snow Geese and a Pink-footed Goose at the far northern boundary of the course. With my targets secured, I hunted down a celebratory lunch at Townline BBQ in Wainscott. From there, I turned the car southwest towards Dune Road, where I tried my luck for rails and bitterns. Even though I couldn’t find any skulky wetland species, I was happy to spot a Snowy Owl perched on the ice along the marsh’s edge.

The day’s light was fading fast, but I had time to stop by the Mill Pond in Sayville and tick Eurasian Wigeon off my year list. These handsome ducks are annual on Long Island, but they’re usually just far enough away that I end up waiting until late in the year to chase them. This individual was on my route home and quite confiding, showing exceptionally well among the other assembled waterfowl. I crossed the bridge over the frozen Great South Bay and drove along the barrier islands to watch sunset from the Jones Beach parking lot. The wind was too strong for any owls to come out and hunt, but the atmosphere of the scene made for a nice end to my adventure.

Looking over my records from the past few years of serious listing, it seems like January 14th is always the day that I hit 100 species for my annual list. 2018’s first century bird was none other than the Townsend’s Solitaire: not bad! Maybe next year I’ll be able to beat my consistent pace and crack triple digits even earlier. It’s a silly goal, but it’s something to look forward to, at least!

Year List Update, January 15 – 110 Species (+ Canvasback, Hooded Merganser, Green-winged Teal, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Pintail, Greater White-fronted Goose, Cackling Goose, Common Goldeneye, Northern Flicker, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Eastern Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Common Merganser, Tundra Swan, White-winged Scoter, Surf Scoter, Razorbill, Red-necked Grebe, Gray Catbird, Pink-footed Goose, Snow Goose, Eurasian Wigeon)

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About timhealz

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