Monday, January 18, 2016

First Snow of the Season and White Birds Arriving in Suffolk County

Snowy Owls and White-winged Gulls Out East

Saturday, January 16 - Dune Road and Calverton

I had to stay in the City on Friday night but forced myself to get up early on Saturday and run out to East Hampton with a plan to drop off the dogs, fill the feeders, then double back and do some Winter birding. The temperatures had started to drop Out East, with the threat of snow later in the weekend, so it seemed like a good chance to round up some recently reported, and newly arrived, Northern birds.

The weather was not really cooperating, it was cold, windy and wet, but I stuck with the plan and forced myself over to Dune Road in Hampton Bays by mid-morning.  Shinecock Inlet was unpleasant but I did get out of the car and scanned the gulls in the rain, adding a Lesser Black-backed Gull to the year-list.  I got soaked though so decided to do some car birding along Dune Road in the hope of seeing a recently reported Snowy Owl or American Bittern.  The Owl was a no-show but I did get the Bittern near Triton Lane where it was feeding in a ditch, inches from the road, and flushed before I could get a photo.  Still, this bird isn't going anywhere, it'll be around all Winter, so I'm sure I'll see it again.

Field Sparrow - EPCAL, Suffolk County, NY
Given the weather, I decided to head inland so ran up to the Calverton area in search of sparrows for the year-list.  Got a good haul of those, with Field, American Tree and White-crowned Sparrows quickly joining the list.  I then went over to McKay Lake where I relocated a Golden-crowned Kinglet I'd seen in November and got a real bonus when the continuing, but elusive, Common Gallinule put in an appearance.  This bird showed up in the Fall, seems to have a broken wing, but somehow has managed to cling on, spending its time with a single Mallard on this shallow pond.  Have to feel a bit sorry for it, but I hope it manages to survive the Winter somehow, seems to be a plucky little chap.

Feeling better about my quick haul of year-birds and now that the weather seemed to be improving, I decided to head back down to the barrier beach and this time worked my way out to Cupsogue County Park.  It's a long, slow, drive through the beach houses to get there, and the speed limits are rigorously enforced by the quaintly named 'Bay Constables' who must make a good amount of revenue off visitors breaking the 25-mile-an-hour limit (yes, they still ticket even in the Winter and I saw one poor soul contributing to the town budget as I drove out).  When you get there though, Cupsogue is a pretty neat place.  The location if famous as a Seal haul-out with up to 60 Harbor Seals and occasionally other species coming out of the water to loaf and socialize at low tide.  Now that the weather had brightened up, there were actually quite a few locals taking a Saturday walk to see the seals, but I had birds on my mind, found a high vantage point and started a big circle-scan across the whole bay area.  First up shorebirds, where I picked out 5 Red Knot among the hundreds of Dunlin and Sanderlings.  Then I checked the duck, picked up my first Belted Kingfisher of the year and, after walking a little further down the road, got what I came here for - a flock of 33 Snow Buntings.  All good stuff, but running out of time, I had to head back to the house, so reluctantly left and started to work my way back East.

As I got to my turn at the Ponquogue Bridge, on a whim I decided to go a little further and check the dunes to the East.  Finding nothing of note I turned to go home, but just as I started back, a curious lump stood out on top of a Dune.  No question what this was .... my first Snowy Owl of the season!  A couple of quick shots from the car, and back home.  Despite the cold, wet, start to the day it actually turned out to be a really nice day of birding.

Snowy Owl - Ponquogue Beach, Suffolk County, NY

Sunday, January 17 - Montauk

Up early and out to Montauk Point to meet Menachem Goldstein (another of the seemingly infinite number of Cornell University undergraduate birders) for some sea-watching.  I couldn't stay long but we covered the Point area fairly thoroughly, picking up quite a few Razorbills, several thousand assorted sea-duck, the continuing drake King Eider, and Menachem's lifer Black-legged Kittiwake.  Then on to the West Jetty at Montauk Inlet (stopping briefly for 4 Snow Geese in keeping with the snow theme) in the hope of more 'white birds', in this case White-winged Gulls.  The Inlet didn't disappoint, and we soon had good views of a 1st-cycle Glaucous Gull with a 1st-cycle Iceland Gull for a close comparison,  There were also two 'Kumlien's' Iceland Gull in the same group of birds along with some Bonaparte's Gulls and a 1st-cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Eight species of gulls at Montauk ... Winter is definitely coming.

Adult 'Kumlien's' Iceland Gull (bottom left) and 1st-cycle Iceland Gull (right).  Almost all of our Iceland Gulls are 'Kumlien's' but you can't really tell with the 1st-cycle birds so we just call them 'Iceland Gulls''- Same species - Montauk Inlet, Suffolk County, NY
'Kumlien's' Iceland Gull - one of two at Montauk Inlet, Suffolk County, NY 
Glaucous Gull - Montauk Inlet, Suffolk County, NY

With time running out, and dinner plans back in the City, we decided to make one last stop to see if the Virginia Rails found during the Christmas Bird Count at Big Reed's Pond were still willing to make a little noise.  A quick hike into the pond until we found some likely habitat, and I played a couple of blasts of 'tape" (I know, I know, but in this case where multiple Rails are wintering at the pond and calling to each other anyway, I don't think there's any harm done) which started two of the rails clicking and grunting back to us, and each other, from the cat-tails.  That was enough for the year-list so we let them be and, after stopping and failing once again to see the Napeague Snowy Owl, I called it a day.

As a postscript, the snow did in fact come that afternoon and coated East Hampton and the City with a light covering.  The ride back to the City was a bit interesting too, in that I narrowly missed a multiple car collision when some oblivious driver plowed into the rear-end of another (while texting?) and started a chain reaction involving at least 5 cars in the lane next to me.  Ah the joys on Winter ....

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