Meandering through May

Tuesday, May 16th, was the magical day when the migration floodgates finally opened this year. After a slow first couple of weeks, birders around New York suddenly found themselves besieged by a wave of travelers from the south. Favorable winds combined with hatch-outs of termites through the city parks brought large numbers of hungry birds down to ground level. It was allegedly possible to get multiple warbler species in your binocular view at once, and folks in Central Park claimed that this madcap morning of excitement would be the one they tell their grandkids about. Me? I was at work. The most exciting nature encounter of the day was a small-scale symphony performed by a Red-eyed Vireo and a Black-throated Green Warbler, serenading me through the open train doors at Rosedale station. The southerly winds continued overnight and the birds eagerly continued north, many of them already behind schedule. My after-work walks on subsequent days were as pleasant as ever, but notably quiet in terms of avian activity. Spring is a fickle mistress.

Things picked up a bit when I reached the weekend. Apart from discovering a robin’s nest in my front yard, Miriam pointed out a pair of Green Herons and some Cedar Waxwings passing overhead at a Saturday afternoon barbecue. I managed to scrounge up some new Neotropical arrivals at Hempstead Lake, including my first Blackburnian Warbler in far too long. There were plenty of vireos, gnatcatchers, and orioles flitting around to keep my attention, and the plaintive whistles of Eastern Wood-Pewee echoed through the trees.

Birds are often seen foraging more frantically than usual at this time of year, scrambling to collect food for their newly hatched young or fuel for their migrations. The Northern Flicker I spotted at the parking lot seemed much more laid back, casually searching for ants in a tiny pothole. My first Canada Warbler of the year was multitasking by eating as it sang, delivering its jumbled tune through a mouthful of damselfly. At least it was kind enough to pose for me when it paused to scan for its next victim.

Sunday morning began with another quick jaunt to Hempstead, but I didn’t find anything new or exciting. I decided to head out to the Forest Park waterhole, where I found a livelier scene that included nearly a dozen types of warblers. Several male Chestnut-sided Warblers, new for my 2017 list, chased each other through the greenery. Another birder pointed out a female Bay-breasted Warbler moving through the branches, and I carefully checked her sides, underparts, and legs to distinguish her from the similar Blackpolls nearby. Both of these species seem to prefer sticking to the mainland, so they are more commonly observed migrating through the City compared to the Island.

A sleepy raccoon napping in a sunbeam made me smile, and there were plenty of nice birds to be seen. Once I’d had my fill of local color and finished chatting with my fellow naturalists, I turned my car south.

Jamaica Bay has finally reopened the West Pond loop trail now that the breach caused by Hurricane Sandy has been repaired. I wasn’t looking to complete the whole circuit, but I did make a ceremonial crossing of the newly completed path. The Big John’s Pond Barn Owls were playing hard to get, but I was kept company by Gadwall, night-herons, and a drake Wood Duck. My year list picked up Willow Flycatcher, followed by Clapper Rail, and finally a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that flew directly at and over my car as I was exiting the refuge.

The work week leading up to Memorial Day was abbreviated by student portfolio panels scheduled for Thursday and Friday, but it was still a busy few days. Tuesday was my last night of grad class for the semester, and if I finish my work on schedule it should be my last one ever. My parents reserved a campsite at Nickerson Beach for the long weekend, so I had to stop by for dinner and merriment. A brief visit to the shoreline revealed that the local nesting colony is back in business. I spied several American Oystercatcher families, feeding their precocious youngsters as they wandered about the sand together.

The Common Terns and Black Skimmers have returned in force. Birders have recently once again begun searching this rarity magnet for interesting passersby, and there were already a few reports for me to follow up on. I did connect with a Gull-billed Tern that was circling high overhead, but failed to locate the Roseate Tern that was seen earlier that day. There’s still plenty of time to find some goodies at this spot, and it’s always worth keeping an eye out. As spring migration winds down, birders would do well to remember that it’s important to survey the local patches. Keeping tabs on breeders and monitoring familiar haunts is a great way to spend the summer months, and it can turn up some nice surprises if you’re lucky!

Year List Update, May 26 – 290 Species (+ Eastern Wood-Pewee, Canada Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, Clapper Rail, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gull-billed Tern)

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Country Roads

2 down, 2 to go! My brother Andrew successfully graduated from West Virginia University in December, and he made plans to walk at the ceremony this May. We’ve somehow become a Mountaineer family, with Kate due to graduate a year from now and Brigid choosing to follow their footsteps to WVU in the fall. When I received my diploma from Cornell in 2010, my parents rented a house on Seneca Lake where family and friends could stay without having to worry about hotel rooms for the weekend. They continued that tradition this year, reserving a property on the shores of Deep Creek Lake in McHenry, Maryland, about an hour from the university in Morgantown. We all made the journey down in shifts, heading down south once we were done with the week’s responsibilities. I was feeling a bit under the weather on Friday, but I wasn’t going to miss the festivities and celebration of my brother’s achievement! Andrew and I made great time on the journey down from New York, and a bunch of his college buddies were waiting for us when we arrived.

I found some free time between meals and drinks to get out and do some exploration nearby. Despite visiting Morgantown several times during Andrew’s years at WVU, I’ve never been birding in the area. Checking out the eBird data from Monongalia County revealed that there was a promising spot less than half an hour from the heart of town, Little Indian Creek Wildlife Management Area. I discovered that most of the habitat at this hotspot is brushy thicket atop a hill, the result of natural regrowth at a reclaimed mining site. This kind of open space is a specialty of the southern states, and it is home to a variety of cool birds. Field Sparrows and Prairie Warblers were omnipresent, singing loudly from all directions. I also found good numbers of Indigo Buntings and White-eyed Vireos, and spotted Pileated Woodpeckers and a Wild Turkey at the edge of the woods. New year birds included Scarlet Tanager, Cliff Swallow, Cerulean Warbler, and Grasshopper Sparrow.

My primary target on this outing was the Yellow-breasted Chat, a species which has joined the ranks of my absolute favorite birds. They’re just so weird, and I’ve got a healthy appreciation for the strange and unusual. I’d been talking about this species with some fellow birders recently while discussing the upcoming American Ornithological Society votes on research proposals. The annual reshuffling of taxonomy is scheduled for July, and one of this year’s offerings advocates placing the chat in its own family due to its genetic, morphological, and behavioral distinctiveness. When I was expressing my support for this long overdue decision, it occurred to me that I had never satisfactorily photographed a chat. Due to their rarity in my neck of the woods and their skulking habits, this was not a surprise, but I still wanted to remedy the absence of pictures posthaste. I knew that the family trip to Appalachia was a prime opportunity, since chats are far more common down south and are relatively conspicuous on their breeding grounds.

The overgrown scrub at Little Indian Creek looked like prime chat habitat, and eBird promised me that this was a traditional location for this species. I didn’t get far from the parking area before hearing my first chat calls, a unique, high-pitched note that sounds a bit like the twanging of a guitar string. A few individuals offered glimpses as they fluttered from bush to bush, but the views were brief and distant. Continuing down the path, I found myself surrounded by chats singing from all directions. Growls, hoots, and chuckles echoed from the shrubberies as the males staked their territories and advertised to potential mates. I followed a side trail towards some vocalizing birds that sounded quite close, but they went silent when I approached. After waiting patiently and quietly for a few minutes, I was rewarded when a chat hopped up onto an exposed branch, perfectly visible through a small opening in the dense cover. I was treated to close, crippling views as the bird moved through the thicket, and I managed to snag some acceptable photos. I even got to record his song and observe his flight display, a bizarre performance where the bird launches into the air with a burst of wild noises and exaggerated flaps. For such a sneaky, secretive species, Yellow-breasted Chats certainly have a flair for the dramatic!

Most of the weekend was spent relaxing at the lakefront property, and there was no shortage of food and drink to enjoy. It was a full house, and it was a damn good time with family and friends alike. It was nice that Andrew got a chance to partake in the formal walk, and I was glad that I was there to see it, too. We made plenty of memories and stories over the course of the weekend that I’ll always treasure, even though they aren’t relevant to the context of this blog!

I slept in on Sunday after a busy night of making merry. Before heading back north, I wanted to get out and enjoy some more of the local color. eBird has made it possible to gather regional intel quickly and easily, so I checked out a few options before driving off towards Chestnut Grove Road. Due to my limited time and the lack of pullovers, this outing was a largely ears-only tour of the roadside. Fortunately, there was lots of excitement and activity along the backroads. The general atmosphere on this stretch of pavement reminded me of Sterling Forest and Doodletown Road in New York. City and Island birders have to visit the southern tier of the upstate for a taste of Appalachian flora and fauna, but on this morning I was smack dab in the heart of the habitat.

I heard large numbers of buntings, vireos, and warblers as I made my way down Chestnut Grove Road. A loud Acadian Flycatcher was a nice addition after a silent Empidonax individual frustrated me at Little Indian Creek. At one point I heard a Blue-winged Warbler type song, but this area is apparently part of the hybrid zone with Golden-winged Warblers, just like Sterling Forest. I couldn’t be sure that the bird I heard wasn’t an intergrade or confused Golden-wing without visual confirmation. On the other hand, there was no mistaking the ringing song of a Kentucky Warbler emanating from a shaded stream through the woods. This is another species that is notably uncommon up my way, and when a second individual started singing in the opposite direction I realized it was the first time I’d ever been in their proper range. A scenic overlook revealed Jennings Randolph Lake, a nice turnaround point for my little adventure. I bid farewell to the swooping swallows and nearby family of bluebirds and started back towards the house.

I spotted a young Bald Eagle circling over Deep Creek Lake when I pulled up to the drive. I crossed the threshold to find my friends starting to pack their things, even though my immediate family was staying behind an extra day. No one was particularly happy about the prospect of returning to reality after such a fun weekend, but it was hard to be disappointed with the awesome time we had. I said my goodbyes, packed up some leftover food, and loaded into Jamie’s truck with Matt and Alexei. Country roads, take me home!

Year List Update, May 14 – 281 Species (+ Scarlet Tanager, Grasshopper Sparrow, Cliff Swallow, Yellow-breasted Chat, Cerulean Warbler, Acadian Flycatcher, Kentucky Warbler)

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Be That As It May

Migration has gotten a slow start in New York this year. Prolonged periods of cool weather, overnight precipitation, and unfavorable winds have stalled the return of many Neotropical migrants. Birds continue to trickle through, and there have been some nice local finds including a continuing influx of Summer Tanagers and Blue Grosbeaks. In general, though, the pace and magnitude of movement so far are below average for the first two weeks of May. Poor conditions can only hold the birds back for so long, however. They still need to reach their breeding grounds, and a pulse of favorable winds could be all it takes for the dam to burst. In the meantime, local nature enthusiasts have been carefully monitoring the wild spaces of the City and Island for any signs of interesting activity.

In addition to the southern songbirds, there’s another prominent overshot migrant that arrived in the region while I was looking at its relatives in South Florida. A lone Cattle Egret somehow found itself in the middle of Manhattan, and its spent the past month decimating the local worm population on a lawn in Chelsea. Some might be surprised that this half-pint heron has managed to sustain itself in such an unnatural setting, but Cattle Egrets are tough customers. These adaptable birds, widespread in Eurasia and Africa, reached the Western Hemisphere about a century ago, crossing the Atlantic Ocean seemingly by the power of their own wings and the trade winds alone. Their colonization efforts and impressive range expansion are a testament to their dispersal abilities and overall resilience. It was cool to add this bird to my state list under such unique circumstances.

I didn’t hear or see much else during the first work week of the month, largely due to lousy weather and work responsibilities. A singing Yellow-throated Vireo at Camp Ramapo on a Friday school trip was a pleasant surprise, but I was craving more. After spending months hearing me hype up the magic of spring migration, Miriam was eager to join me in the field and see what all the fuss was about. We started out on Saturday morning at Jones Beach, hoping that the previous night of southwest winds had ferried in travelers. The boat basin and sandbar by the Coast Guard Station were pretty lively, with lots of new breeding arrivals and some transient shorebirds hanging around. Common and Least Terns have returned to the coasts of New York, joining the Forster’s Terns that got back a week prior. One pair of birds was putting on a bit of a show at the end of the pier, providing great photo opps for the two of us.

Black Skimmers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and a lone Red Knot were among the highlights in the shoreline spread. We continued along toward the median, noting that the Tree Swallows have begun staking out birdhouses for the breeding season. Unfortunately, there were no noteworthy migrants in the landbird department, and the mosquito population at Jones has exploded unseasonably early and fiercely. We took our leave of the beach and headed inland towards Forest Park in Queens.

We arrived to find that Forest Park was much more active than the barrier beach. The waterhole was already under surveillance, and the other birders reported that there had been plenty of interesting things to see. Of course, “good” is always relative in the world of birding. The latest report on the listserv was an update from Robert Moses State Park, where Taylor and Pete had discovered a goddamned Yellow-nosed Albatross while seawatching. This species is a grand prize of pelagic birding in the Northeast, a fantastic find even on dedicated boat trips, and they had spotted it flying so close to shore that Taylor actually managed to get identifiable video stills through by phonescoping it. The general mood around the waterhole was a mixture of jealous disappointment and congratulatory awe…the boys had put the rest of us to shame! I was fortunate that the birding was good at the park, which helped pull me out of my envious funk relatively quickly. I heard my first Red-eyed Vireo and Rose-breasted Grosbeak of the year, and there were brief appearances by Wilson’s Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Magnolia Warbler. Miriam added a number of lifers, including Rusty Blackbird, Swamp Sparrow, and several of the 17 warbler species observed that morning. Most of the birds showed too distantly or quickly for photographs, but it was still a genuinely pleasant day despite the lack of giant seabirds.

Saturday night saw continued winds from a southerly direction, so Sunday saw me back on the hunt again. Unfortunately, it seemed that we had a lot more birds leaving than arriving, and the South Shore of the Island between Suffolk and Queens was essentially devoid of Neotropical migrants. Robert Moses didn’t show many anything exciting, but I did locate a distant Little Blue Heron among the waders in the grassy pools of Captree Island.

I continued west to the JFK Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary at Tobay Beach, where a nice spread of marsh dwellers awaited me along the entrance road. Snowy Egret, “Eastern” Willet, Boat-tailed Grackle, Green Heron, and Spotted Sandpiper were all hanging out together along the shoulder, picking at the water’s edge for scraps of food.

I heard a Marsh Wren singing beyond the lot, and there were several other vehicles parked at the far end. The trails of the refuge were occupied by mist nets, and I recognized some familiar faces among the banders working at the parking lot. They echoed my observation that there were almost no songbirds present, informing me that they’d only caught half a dozen individuals all morning. I got to watch them work with a male Common Yellowthroat who hit the nets shortly after I arrived. I always enjoy the chance to observe or assist with this kind of field science.

My final birding stop for the day was Jamaica Bay. I dedicated some time to a Big John’s Pond watch, but there was no sign of the Barn Owls at their nest site yet. It’s definitely a little early in the season to expect views of the nesting birds with any kind of consistency. The story out on the trails was the same as everywhere else: no passage migrants, but a few local breeders to keep me entertained. One little Yellow Warbler was particularly confiding, flitting about at close range and striking amusing poses as he gleaned insects from the foliage.

I returned home and prepared myself for the coming week. There is a lot to do before school’s out for summer, but the clock just keeps on ticking. I received noticed that I passed my edTPA, so that’s one less thing to worry about as we approach the end of grad classes and the work year. Hopefully we get “the big push” of migrants soon…I welcome the promise of distraction!

Year List Update, May 7 – 274 Species (+ Yellow-throated Vireo, Black Skimmer, Common Tern, Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Red-eyed Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Louisiana Waterthrush, Magnolia Warbler, Little Blue Heron, Marsh Wren)

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It’s Gonna be May

Every New York naturalist knows that the month of May is the big one. Migration kicks into high gear and there seem to be birds everywhere. When the conditions are right, however, we occasionally get treated to an early push of traveling birds before we change our calendars. Late April movements have a lot of potential for interesting vagrants, as the patterns of wind and weather are often a bit wacky during this rainy month. 2016’s Central Park Swainson’s Warbler was a great example of such a pre-May surprise. This year, the back half of April’s final week featured continuous days of southerly winds, perfect for ferrying migrants into the region.

On Thursday, the word from the outside world reported good numbers and diversity of Neotropical migrants in the NYC area. I had a date night in Manhattan planned with Miriam, so I spent a few hours wandering Central Park while I waited for her after work. Foolishly, I had neglected to put my binoculars in my work bag to prepare for the seasonal excitement. Without optics, I had to rely on my ears and the kindness of others to locate birds. Both served me quite well. I managed to pick up Yellow Warbler, Veery, Brown Thrasher, and Baltimore Oriole on my own, and friendly birders lent me a look through their bins at Nashville Warbler and Warbling Vireo. I even bumped into some familiar young birders from the Jamaica Bay trip last August, and I asked about a previously reported Yellow-throated Warbler. No one had spotted the local rarity since early morning, until one of the guys picked it up while we were talking. 7 year birds on an afternoon stroll without my binoculars was an impressive and welcome accomplishment, especially in the wake of Florida migration time. My good fortune continuous with a lovely night on the town, enjoying Dueling Pianos at Bar Nine and continuing on to BarBacon for a late bite before returning home.

Friday saw more reports of good birds, but I went straight home to close out the long work week with some relaxation. I awakened early on Saturday to try my luck at Jones Beach in the wake of continuing winds from the south. Forster’s Terns, typically the first species of this family to return to our shores, were seen while crossing the bridge to the barrier islands. Conditions were foggy and gray at first, though the mist gradually burned off as the temperature rose throughout the day. There were clear signs of migrant activity, with hordes of “Myrtle” Warblers flitting about in the foliage. I found a flock of Indigo Buntings along the backside of the hedgerow, and noticed a blocky-headed bird foraging among the sparrows behind the fence at the Coast Guard station. This was a female Blue Grosbeak, who had apparently been present for the past few days.

I continued along the median, counting birds as I went. Cooperative Baltimore Orioles, House Wrens locked in a territorial battle, and a sneaky White-eyed Vireo were among the early morning’s highlights. I noticed Fish Crows carrying nesting material into the denser groves, and a wild call overhead drew my attention to passing Common Loons. Not quite yet May levels of excitement, but a springy and pleasant atmosphere overall.

I was debating continuing on to another park as I approached the Coast Guard parking lot. Passing birders informed me of a male Blue Grosbeak that had been seen foraging on the lawn near the park entrance. Since this bird generally breeds south of Long Island and shows up only a few times each year during migration when individuals overshoot their destination, I’ve had very few quality encounters with the species. I hastened my pace and headed for the tollbooth. Sure enough, I found the grosbeak and a small group of admirers.

At first, the bright blue bird mostly kept his distance. I watched from across the road as he bounced along, picking in the grass and periodically fluttering up to nab flying insects. I slowly followed as he worked his way west from the entry road toward the gazebo, where he finally ducked into the brush. I returned to the lot and got in my car, only to rediscover the grosbeak had continued his trajectory and was now feeding on the lawn a stone’s throw away. This was by far the closest and longest view I’ve ever enjoyed of this species, and it was a stunning, pristine male! I used the car as a blind and snapped a few more photos, creeping along as the bird foraged on his way westward. When he took off into the foliage, I left Jones and headed home.

I took an afternoon stroll at Hempstead Lake with Dad, where we found Wood Ducks, a few migrants, and Canada Geese with goslings. The most majestic bird of the day was a stately Northern Mockingbird perched atop the impressive antlers of the local Elks Club elk. Saturday night was a chill session in Brooklyn with Miriam, Edem, and Kelsey…some much-needed relaxation! I didn’t get out birding on Sunday until well after noon, but I was determined to find some avian activity. The presence of singing redstart, parula, Black-and-White, and “Myrtle” Warbler outside my house was a very welcome sign of spring migration hitting full swing. Reports from the morning were promising, and I wanted to score a few more new birds before jumping into May madness with both feet.

My first stop was Valley Stream State Park, and I was surprised to find that overall activity levels were still high so late in the day. Orioles, wrens, vireos, and dozens of warblers were singing and flitting about in the trees throughout the area. A number of birds were periodically mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk perched near the entrance. I found my first Swainson’s Thrush of the year, cold-colored and buffy-spectacled compared to the nearby Veery and Hermit Thrush. I made my way to the comfort station for a pit stop, and stopped in my tracks when I heard a bird call I didn’t know. Not a call I didn’t remember after the long winter, not a call I didn’t hear well enough to recognize, an unknown call I simply had never heard before. THAT’S the sort of thing that gets a birder’s blood pumping! I spun around to inspect the source of the noise, and spotted a dull yellow bird with its back to me. It turned to reveal a heavy, horn-colored bill, continuing to utter its staccato, chuckling “pit-tuk” vocalization. I quickly checked the wings, uniformly colored with the plumage of the body, and the tail, relatively long and slightly cocked up, to confirm its identity: Summer Tanager. Separating Summers from the similar Scarlet Tanagers is usually easy with good views, and this female was cooperative enough to show all relevant field marks, including the distinctive call. My encounters with this species have been infrequent due to its irregular occurrence in these parts, and I feel like I learn something new every time I see one.

The northern limit of this bird’s home range is in southern New Jersey, and they are a rare but expected visitor to Long Island and NYC when spring migrants fly too far. New York birders typically find a few individuals each year, and this time I was lucky enough to be one of the finders! There had already been a handful reported from other locations in the past few days, apparently a part of the larger incursion of southern specialties that included the Blue Grosbeaks and Yellow-throated, Hooded, and Prothonotary Warblers. The prolonged period of winds out of the south seems to have worked like a “slingshot” to propel these southern belles beyond their normal range, and we are always happy to see them up here. The tanager disappeared from sight behind the building, and I failed to refind her for a documentation photo. I spent the remainder of the evening at Hempstead Lake, where I enjoyed double-digit species of warblers and a variety of other birds still showing off in the fading light of day. It was a perfect end to a surprisingly productive April, and a grand entry into the excitement of high migration season.

Year List Update, April 30 – 262 Species (+ Nashville Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, Veery, Brown Thrasher, Baltimore Oriole, Forster’s Tern, Blue Grosbeak, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Blue-winged Warbler)

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Pursuing the Prothonotary

My spring break trip to South Florida was a fantastic success. I saw just about everything I wanted went looking for, including a number of brand new lifers and some creatures I haven’t seen in far too long. There was one species, however, that I just couldn’t connect with. The Prothonotary Warbler is a common breeder in swamps and wet forests throughout the southeastern United States, and it is a frequently observed migrant in Florida. Indeed, multiple individuals were reported from the Keys, the Dry Tortugas, the Everglades, and the Miami area during the timeframe I was present. For some reason, I always seemed to miss them. This is not a bird I needed to add to my life list, as I have heard them in the past. Breeding Prothos at Cape May’s Beaver Swamp are all but a sure thing during the World Series of Birding. That being said, the fast-paced nature of the competition meant that we had to listen briefly and continue on when my team stopped to add the bird to our Big Day total. As a result, I had never actually seen this species with my own eyes. I certainly wanted to, because this living drop of sunshine is brilliant even by the high standards of the wood-warbler clan. It shouldn’t have been so difficult, but I somehow failed to pin one down during the entirety of my Florida trip. One of my photos of a flyover migrant that passed the Yankee Freedom III on my way out to Garden Key looked promising for a passing Prothonotary when I lightened up the image later, but that’s hardly an enjoyable way to score a visual lifer. The saga continued.

As if to add insult to injury, New York enjoyed a mini-invasion of these golden birds while I was down in the Sunshine State. Even though the vast majority of the species breeds south of Long Island, northbound migrants occasionally overshoot their destination in the spring. The first individual turned up at the Salt Marsh Nature Center in Brooklyn, where it spent several days delighting local birders. The warbler’s unusual choice of location resulted in a singularly unique situation involving some of the resident mollusks, but fortunately the harrowing tale came to a happy ending. Another Prothonotary turned up at the Lido Beach Passive Nature Area, and a third was discovered at Southards Pond Park in Babylon. As my time in Florida drew to a close, I turned my thoughts to the hope that these overambitious travelers would stick around for me to see. By the time I returned home, the closest and most convenient individual, at Lido Beach, was the only one still being reported.

Wednesday was a relatively straightforward day at work, with teachers and students alike slowly easing back into the routines of the weekly schedule. Once classes were over, I decided to head down to the coast to search for my quarry. I had to fight my way through the rush hour traffic to reach the beach, but it was well worth the effort. The stunning songbird appeared before me almost as soon as I stepped out of my car. It was that easy.

After years of getting the runaround from this species, my evening encounter with the Prothonotary Warbler was an up close and personal introduction. The bird was foraging actively without any fear of myself or the other birders present, and it thrice flew directly at my head before veering off to perch in the nearby shrubberies. At one point I actually had to step back and zoom out so my camera could focus on the friendly little warbler as it hopped about the branches in front of my face. I wish all birds could be this cooperative! Needless to say, the long-awaited visual lifer lived up to my high expectations. It was almost as if I was meeting a brand new bird for the first time.

Dad was a bit jealous of my pictures and stories, so we returned to Lido the following afternoon for another attempt. The bird was just as confiding and close as before, providing great views for my father’s first ever encounter with the species. Its shining yellow feathers looked gorgeous in the light of the setting sun, a warm reminder that spring migration has finally reached our home state. The restless flocks of Brant lingering in the area and the newly arrived Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibises in the marshes down the road provided more evidence of the changing seasons. I got an early start to my spring migration merriment during my time down south, but it’s that much more meaningful to see things happening in your own neck of the woods. It was a real pleasure to add the Prothonotary Warbler to my state and county lists while finally checking it as a visual lifer. Gotta enjoy the little things!

Year List Update, April 20 – 250 Species (+ Prothonotary Warbler, Glossy Ibis)

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The Bahamas-to-Biscayne Breeze

For the entirety of my vacation in Florida, the forecast was remarkably consistent. I awoke every morning to strong easterly winds blowing in from across the sea. This weather pattern certainly had an effect on the trip, impacting the movements of migratory birds and roughing up the waves for my journey to and from the Dry Tortugas. I even encountered a group of Key West locals who had sailed out to the national park on the wild winds and become stranded when it proved impossible to fight them and return home. The gusts died down slightly during the night I spent camping in the Everglades, which meant it was quiet enough for me to hear a singing Chuck-will’s-widow in the wee hours of the morning. The unfortunate side effect of these milder conditions was revealed to me when I stepped outside my tent at dawn and was immediately greeted by swarms of mosquitos. Flamingo is infamous around the world for its concentrations of these bloodsuckers, and they gave me a run for my money despite my years of experience swatting the suckers. I drowned myself in DEET as soon as I got the chance, and it did little to prevent the onslaught. I was considering a morning hike at the Snake Bight Trail or a kayak paddle on Florida Bay, but the ferocious attacks I endured upon arrival at these sites convinced me to move on earlier than I’d planned. I’d certainly gotten my money’s worth out of the previous day in the Everglades, so I couldn’t really be disappointed in the itinerary change.

I’m actually rather thankful to the mosquitos, because their irksome antics put me back within range of cell phone towers around breakfast time. When I checked my device, I discovered a minutes-old report that a male Western Spindalis had been discovered at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne. Apparently the winds out of the east had blown the colorful bird all the way from the Bahamas, a fairly regular occurrence at this time of year. April is a great month for rarities in Florida, but most of the finds from the previous week had been one-day wonders which failed to show for subsequent observers. Cuban Pewee, Loggerhead Kingbird, and Cuban Vireo all went missing before I was able to enjoy them, but I now had the opportunity to chase the flashy spindalis immediately after its presence became public knowledge. Like Wayne Cochran and the Blues Brothers, I was goin’ back to Miami.

A shot Brian a message that I was headed his way again and that there was a hunt afoot. He was off from class for the day, and so elected to meet me at Bill Baggs to search. I parked the car, and Brian led me to the area where the bird had been reported. It was Easter Sunday and the weather was nice, so the park was full of folks celebrating and enjoying the outdoors. We worked the fenceline by the lighthouse compound, listening closely for the high-pitched “seet” calls of the spindalis. We kept hearing tantalizing vocalizations, but there were many other birds calling as they moved actively through the foliage. It was difficult to keep track of everything going on, and an additional distraction arrived with an update that a female spindalis had also been located in the immediate vicinity. Brian and I redoubled our efforts, passing a number of Black Spiny-tailed Iguanas, or Ctenosaurs, as we explored the trails.

As so often happens, we were just about ready to call it quits when we heard a promising “seet” ringing from a nearby tree. We stopped in our tracks, trying to get a visual on the source of the repetitive calls. Something flew out and passed directly over our heads, smaller than a cardinal but larger than a warbler, with black, white, and orange plumage. It quickly ducked into the foliage again, but even with such a brief glimpse we knew what the bird had to be. A few feet further ahead, I was treated to a clear visual on the handsome male Western Spindalis, and Brian’s quiet exclamation told me that he had a good vantage point as well.

As North American rarities go, this species is somewhat reliable. Spindalises have a pattern of occurence in South Florida, and it is not uncommon for multiple individuals to show up at the same time. They’ve even been recorded breeding in the state before. That being said, this common Caribbean bird is still a great find in the United States, and even staked-out, long-staying birds can be difficult to pin down. We were lucky to find this guy without too much difficulty, and he was a little stunner, too! I watched as the snazzy-looking songbird picked fruit from a strangler fig, bolting down morsels before taking off and continuing along the fenceline. I sent out word that the vagrant had been refound, and birders almost immediately appeared as if out of thin air to pursue their quarry and thank us for the update. It was time for a celebratory lunch. I picked out a Black-whiskered Vireo before we left the spindalis spot, and we encountered a pair of Common Ground-Doves along the trail to the Boater’s Grill Restaurant.

After lunch, we decided to head back to Brian’s place and set up a makeshift bed for me on the floor. Now that I was back in Miami, it didn’t make sense to go wandering off when I was staying here the next night anyway. We relaxed and caught up on some responsibilities before going out for dinner at Al Carbon. Back at Coconut Grove, we swapped stories while drinking El Dorado 15 Year rum and I introduced Brian to Rick & Morty. I returned to Bill Baggs on Monday morning while Brian was in class, but the park had gone dead quiet with many migrants moving onwards overnight.

I walked the beach for a while and grabbed a bite to eat at the local Lighthouse Cafe, departing the area around midday. A pair of White Ibis foraging in a nearby puddle provided a nice photo opp as I pulled out of the parking lot.

I continued on to Crandon Park, passing additional groups of ibis and some Egyptian Geese on my way to the shoreline. Myriad waterbirds were assembled at the edge of the surf, including Royal and Least Terns, Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Laughing Gulls and quite a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls. This European species seems to be progressing with its colonization of North America at an impressive rate.

I’d heard there was a nesting area for shorebirds at Crandon, but I wasn’t sure which direction to go. Fortunately, there were only two options, and I chose right. A roped off enclosure hosted flocks of Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, and Least Sandpipers. There were a few Piping Plovers thrown into the mix, but I was searching for a reported Wilson’s Plover after my failed efforts at Bahia Honda. I couldn’t find anything on my first sweep, but shifting my viewpoint revealed a big-billed bird hiding behind some beach plants. Observing the Wilson’s in direct comparison with the other plovers was a treat, and the experience made for a lovely final lifer of the trip.

I scattered crows and vultures from the picnic area as I made my way back to the car, texting Brian so I could swing by to pick up the house keys. I was pretty close to birders out: I’d seen almost everything I’d gone looking for in the past week and was eager to kick back and rest.

I’d been nursing a crave for some barbecue, which I satisfied and exceeded at Swine Southern Table & Bar. The staff were incredibly friendly, the ribs were great, and they had an IPA called Hops 4 Teacher, but the real highlight was the appetizer: Black Angus Burnt Ends. Delectable chunks of brisket with blue cheese fondue, tater tots, and pickled chili peppers…just perfection. I staggered back to Brian’s place for one last night of good times before returning to New York the next day. Start to finish, this was an incredible, amazing trip. I met Miriam for a quick dinner in Manhattan and rolled into grad class with my luggage and a sunburn, resulting in a warm, somewhat incredulous welcome from my professor and fellow teachers. I wouldn’t have changed a single second of this vacation. Here’s to the next great adventure, whenever and wherever it may be!

Year List Update, April 17 – 248 Species (+ Western Spindalis, Black-whiskered Vireo, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Plover)

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Glades for Days

The day following my trip to the Dry Tortugas saw much more subdued birding efforts as I slowly made my way northeast out of the Keys. I spent some time at the Indigenous Park in Key West searching for rare vireos, but activity levels were low overall. A confiding “Great White” Heron, my first Wood Thrush of the year, and yet another Swainson’s Warbler were among the highlights on this relatively quiet morning. Even car birding in South Florida can be productive, as I picked up Tricolored Heron and spied a strikingly pale Osprey of the Caribbean ridgwayi subspecies out on the Overseas Highway. The famed Bahia Honda State Park took up most of my daylight hours, where I was hoping to twitch recently seen Wilson’s Plovers for my life list. No dice, though I did manage to add Semipalmated Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, and soon-to-be “Western” Willet to the 2017 list. I stopped for food at the Shrimp Shack, which apparently hosted Guy Fieri once upon a time, indulging in a cocktail, gator bites, and the namesake crustaceans. A return trip to Dagny Johnson at dusk resulted in a nearly birdless, but nonetheless breezy and enjoyable, walk. Golden Silk Orb-weavers and several species of reptiles kept me company as I strolled the trails before returning to Homestead’s Garden Inn. I’d covered a lot of ground, and I was in position for an early expedition to the ever popular Everglades National Park.

Awakening before sunrise, I heard a Common Nighthawk calling overhead while I packed my things into the car. The lights came on as entered the Everglades, and I was the first to arrive at the popular Anhinga Trail just within the park’s borders. It seemed that I’d made it just in time for breakfast…

…most of the locals were looking for a bite to eat…

…some more successfully than others!

The Anhinga Trail is aptly named. The aquatic “snakebirds” breed in numbers close to the boardwalk. I spotted a handful of fluffy youngsters and watched as their parents flew, foraged, and fussed with their feathers. The last time I’d visited this location, the breeding season had ended, so I’d never seen these concentrations of bizarre birds. It was a pretty cool experience and a classically Floridian scene.

The deep waters of the slough are home to copious American Alligators. This is one of the prime spots in the Sunshine State to photograph the mighty reptiles in the wild. Just be careful with your hands and feet near the water’s edge! I love me some crocodilians, and not just because they’re the closest living relatives of birds. It’s amazing that these ancient beasts are still around, surviving and thriving with very little change since prehistory.

I noticed a few Purple Gallinules strutting across the lily pads like chickens in a barnyard. The birds were largely unperturbed by my presence, but they were positioned between my vantage point and the harsh light of the rising sun. I stopped and waited, hoping that the viewing conditions would improve. One gallinule slowly crept closer to the boardwalk, and the ambient lighting gradually brightened. I watched its approach with bated breath.

Suddenly, the bird snatched some sort of morsel from the spatterdock plants and fluttered to the other side of the boardwalk, landing on the roots of a nearby tree in perfect light. The unexpected shift in position illuminated the gallinule with electrifying color. Purple doesn’t begin to cover it! I was mesmerized by the rainbow hues of the bird’s feathers, complemented by its primary-colored bill and bright yellow stems. It began to pick at the plant matter it had snagged, and I fired off a series of photos, hardly comprehending my good fortune. Dazzling.

My favorable luck continued a little ways down the trail, while I was trading notes with a passing birder. Over his shoulder, a large, monochrome bird floated into my field of vision. I shouted out the identification and swung my camera into position: Swallow-tailed Kite! The graceful raptor wheeled out over the path, banking hard and twisting its namesake extremity as it looped back the way it came. If I had to be as objective and thorough as possible in my evaluation of “Best Bird on Earth,” the Swallow-tailed Kite would be a strong contender. I have plenty of personal favorites, but this species is undeniably awe-inspiring and ranks very highly among the winged creatures of the world. Elegance, agility, speed, predatory prowess, impressive migration, distinctive appearance. Elanoides forficatus has got it all. It seriously pains me that I don’t get to meet these beautiful birds more regularly, but I am always happy with an opportunity to see them. Most of my sightings have been through car windows at speed, so this relatively close encounter with a standing photo session was a welcome change of pace. Ugh. It isn’t even fair how cool this creature is.

A number of Black Vultures, less conventionally appealing than the kite but almost as entertaining, were congregating atop a shelter on the trail. I’d been keeping a watchful eye on these scavengers after using a tarp to cover up my rental car at the behest of helpful NPS signage in the parking lot. The inquisitive vultures have apparently caused their share of mischief at the Anhinga Trail, investigating vehicles with destructive consequences for anything rubber or loosely attached. I’d spent too much money on my temporary set of wheels to take any chances with the buzzards, but today they seemed content to loaf around and scowl at passersby.

All of the wildlife that live in this part of the park are accustomed to constant human presence. I was able to get much closer to cormorants, egrets, stately Great Blues, and tiny Green Herons than I would at home, and the pictures I took were uncharacteristically respectable by my standards. Some would argue that photography at this location is kind of like cheating. Personally, I just enjoyed the opportunities for close study and the images that resulted from our time together.

I made a brief detour back to the hotel to pick up my forgotten phone charger, and I received a message from Donna that I should check out Lucky Hammock by the park entrance. This is a traditional spot for overwintering Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and I was lucky enough to spot a lingering individual perched on a wire along the roadside. Other highlights from my early morning efforts included a singing Eastern Meadowlark, a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks, and my first of year Eastern Kingbird. I repeatedly passed signs that marked crossing zones for Florida Panthers, but unsurprisingly I saw neither hide nor hair of this elusive predator.

I stopped at Long Pine Key Campground as I ventured deeper into the park, and it was here that I heard my lifer Brown-headed Nuthatches. Paurotis Pond was home to a number of nesting waterbirds, including Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and several varieties of ardeids.

I made a number of observations at my various stops and along the roadside. Multiple Florida Softshell Turtles were seen on the grassy edges of the highway, probably searching for places to lay eggs. The large and boldly patterned Lubber Grasshoppers were an unforgettable sight the last time I visited the Everglades, and I saw a few on this trip as well. Pipefish and Alligator Gar were among the diverse fish I saw swimming in the water features, and I reacted audibly to each of the Swallow-tailed Kites I saw defying gravity along the way.

When I finally arrived at the marina in Flamingo, I set out in search of a highly anticipated non-avian lifer. It didn’t take me long to locate my first American Crocodiles, lounging along the muddy banks where the mangroves met the water. I’ve seen related creatures in zoos before, and I’ve always read about the differences between crocodilians, but it was a real treat to finally encounter this species in the wild and observe their unique features firsthand. They were strikingly different from the alligators I’d seen earlier, with acutely pointed snouts, grayish coloration, and a snaggletoothed appearance created by the visible teeth from both the upper and lower jaw. There was also habitat preference to consider, since crocs favor brackish or salty water like this channel at the edge of Florida Bay. One individual floated over to the crowds of admirers assembled at the dock, providing an amazing opportunity to marvel over the monster at close range.

Another gray snout broke the surface a short distance away, looking like a bowling ball with a hole missing. There were several West Indian Manatees gathered near the end of the pier, and they, too, had a group of attendant onlookers. These gentle giants are wildly popular with landlubbers from all over the world, and we watched as they floated through the marina, feeding on seagrass and periodically coming up for air. It’s always fun to chill with these strange sea cows for a while.

I’d booked a campsite at Flamingo for the night, so I picked out a spot and set up my tent before setting out to explore some more. A resident ranger gave me a tip about a Pileated Woodpecker nest nearby, and I spied the young bird looking out its front window as I passed by.

I revisited some of the places I’d stopped on the way in and checked a few new locations as I continued on. The mostly dry Eco Pond featured a flock of Black-necked Stilts with a single American Avocet, and there were large groups of coots floating around on West Lake.

I made one final stop at the Anhinga Trail to take a look around. A pair of Swallow-tailed Kites was flying together in the distance, circling together in ever tightening circles like an intricate dance. It was an amazing sight, but it highlighted that I was down here by myself and reminded me to send some messages to the outside world while I still had cell reception. I love traveling and adventuring on my own, but it’s still important to keep in touch with the folks back home. After making contact with my loved ones, I returned to the wilderness and headed for my campsite.

I decided to walk the Coastal Prairie Trail at dusk, hoping to hear or see some elusive crepuscular creatures. The path picks up right at the Flamingo Campground, and it features some beautiful habitat and offers chances to find some very special wildlife. I listened for Black Rails that are known to inhabit the area, but sadly I couldn’t detect any this time. I noticed Bobcat scat and tracks at regular intervals along the trail, but the feline itself stayed hidden from view. I discovered plenty of animals during my walk, but the vast majority of them were hungry mosquitos. I did myself to keep them at bay with bug spray and a brisk pace, but I had to turn back before reaching the end so I wouldn’t be stuck searching for my bed when it got too dark to see. It was still a lovely evening despite the biting insects, and I actually managed to lose them for a time on my trek back to camp.

I made it to my tent just a bit after official sunset, settling in to sleep after an action-packed day in the park. It was a pleasure to find myself back in the Everglades after all these years, and I managed to cram a lot of excitement into just one day. The length of this post and the multitude of photos here are ample evidence of that!

Year List Update, April 15 – 244 Species (+ Wood Thrush, Tricolored Heron, Willet, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Common Nighthawk, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, Swallow-tailed Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, American Avocet)

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