It’s been a bit of a slow year so far. By this time in 2017, I’d already been on trips that took me to New York’s offshore waters, Connecticut, the Adirondacks, and Canada in search of rare birds. Even in 2016, I’d enjoyed a Montauk outing more successful than this month’s visit, as well as the surprise discovery of some pelicans at Jones Beach. I’ve linked so many previous blog posts because, frankly, I don’t have much to offer in this one. No lifers, no journeys beyond the Island, and few rarities outside holdovers from December. All the same, I would be remiss to pass on updating my adventure log. I don’t want to fall into the trap of inconsistent writing, so here are a few stories and images from the back half of January.
One of my best achievements in the first month of 2018 is keeping up the daily checklist challenge for eBird. I’ve been closely monitoring the species observed on my commute to and from work, and I’ve also enjoyed a few dedicated exploration efforts each weekend. Driving up and down the Ocean Parkway can often prove productive, especially when combined with stops at hotspots. I was treated to a close encounter with a confiding Rough-legged Hawk, a much more impressive year bird than the Red-winged Blackbirds I spied flying overhead. At JFK Wildlife Sanctuary, I scored a double whammy on American Bittern sightings, though I’m not certain if they were separate individuals or the same bird at different locations. I really shouldn’t complain about my year when I’ve had such good luck with this tricky species of late.
A visit to Jones Beach found unbelievable concentrations of duck hunters blasting away at waterfowl all along the bay. The warm weather must have drawn them all out before the rapidly approaching end of the hunting season, and birding was unsurprisingly hampered by their activity. I moved on to Point Lookout, hoping to see some of the unusual species that have been hanging around. Enormous rafts of scaup and Brant were packed tight between the jetties, taking refuge from the countless guns going off in the inlet. The Harlequins were out and about, but there was no sign of the King Eider crew which had recently been favoring this stretch of beach. I still appreciated the chance to observe Greater Scaup at length, as they floated and foraged nearly at my feet. An unarmed human at such close range must have seemed like less of a threat in comparison to their options on the other side of the rocks.
I was able to locate at least one Lesser Scaup among the throng, and this provided a fantastic study opportunity. Every single field mark that differentiates the two species was readily visible in direct comparison, a delightful and infrequent treat.
A few Ruddy Turnstones working the boulders were the only year birds I added at Point Lookout, but I did catch a glimpse of a Great Blue Heron after dark: a slender silhouette slinking through the shadowy shallows at a channel near Miriam’s house. Dad discovered a Glaucous Gull at Hendrickson during the work week, but it was long gone when we returned in the evening. I was satisfied with a consolation female Wood Duck paddling with the Mallards at the creek. My Friday ended earlier than expected, so I drove out to Oak Beach in search of a Barrow’s Goldeneye and an Eared Grebe, perhaps repeat visitors from last winter. The female goldeneye was identifiable even at a distance in the fading light, but the grebe was a no-show.
Miriam accompanied me on yet another visit to Point Lookout, where she got acquainted with Harlequin Ducks for the very first time. The dapper little divers certainly lived up to her high expectations. A Snowy Owl was a welcome surprise, rarely seen on the western side of Jones Inlet, but it was less surprising to see careless observers repeatedly pushing closer until it took off and flew elsewhere. We headed out to Oak Beach again, but all of the local birds had vacated the scene, replaced by eight unexpected parasailers. I dragged myself out on Sunday despite foggy, rainy conditions, hoping to get the Eared Grebe or a better look at the Barrow’s. Visibility from the roadside was awful, and incredibly there were gunshots ringing across the water even in the pea-soup-thick fog. I decided not to hang around too long with that mess, instead retreating to Jones where the skies were somewhat clearer and a hunting Peregrine Falcon gave me front row seats to its aerial show.
My final year bird of the year’s initial month was a good one, and under pretty awesome circumstances. While driving home one night, I noticed a dark shape perched atop a light post alongside the parkway. The feathery “ears” atop its head and its burly form were unmistakable: a drive-by Great Horned Owl. This was a wonderful nocturnal surprise, especially along with the Red Fox that I had just seen prowling the shoulder of the road. Thus, January is behind me, and even though it dragged on a bit I still managed to have a good time on the birding scene and in “real life.” February is full of promise, and only two short weeks remain until the arrival of winter break. I’m coming for you, Spain!
Year List Update, February 2 – 117 Species (+ Rough-legged Hawk, Red-winged Blackbird, Ruddy Turnstone, Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Great Horned Owl)