Sunday, January 31, 2016

Owling and Year-birding Out East

More local birding in the Hamptons

Friday January 29th - Calverton Area

I hadn't really had a chance to do a lot of birding over the past week or so.  Work, and a snow storm had kept me indoors with the exception of one quick walk through Central Park between meetings. So, with the weather improved, and some free time ahead, I was itching to get out and see some birds.

'Red' Fox Sparrowin Central Park
One of the species I most wanted to see was Short-eared Owl two of which had been regularly showing for birders over at EPCAL (Grumman) in Calverton.  The site is an old Jet-figher factory, with mostly disused runways and some wonderful grasslands that harbor a decent selection of increasingly rare birds on Long Island.  Unfortunately the battle to preserve the site seems to have been long since lost and the Town of Riverhead, which controls the site, seems determined to turn it into an industrial park, chipping away at the habitat each year, and progressively making access more difficult for birders.  Still, we have to make the most of what we have now, and two owls had been reliably hunting at dusk for a week or so, delighting many local birders (and joining a few year lists).

I was surprised to see that I needed Short-eared Owl for Suffolk County, but that discovery made my urge to go see these birds even more acute.  The problem was finding time, and for a week or so, I just hadn't been able to find a way to be over at EPCAL at 4:30pm for a sunset vigil.

This Friday was different though, and I was able to juggle meetings, slip away, and pulled into the parking area at EPCAL at around 4:15pm.  There were actually quite a few cars that joined me for the  vigil - two photgraphers, a couple of cars of birders, and a couple who seemed more like interested naturalist types, making me wonder how the word had gotten out so broadly.  While we waited, we were treated to a flock of Eastern Meadowlarks (good), and a thorough low-level buzzing by a small helicopter out for a joyride (not so good).  By 5pm, the light was starting to dim and, with the prospect of good photographs dimming with it, the photographers left, followed shortly afterwards by the birders.  I'm stubborn though (as I've said before), and having come all the way over there, I was going to stick it out until the bitter end - as long as the sky was light enough for silhouettes, there was still a chance - and at 5:15pm, a silhouette of a Short-eared Owl glided through my field of view, whirled above the tree line, and dropped out of sight.  It, or another owl, did the same trick a few minutes later.  No mistaking the bird.  Glad I stayed.

And here's one I made earlier - it was too dark to shoot the owls at EPCAL but I took this pic last month in Orange
County, NY.

Saturday, January 30th - North Fork of Long Island and Dune Road

I didn't really have a clear plan of action for Saturday and with me that's more or less always fatal for birding as I tend to end up driving around and not spending enough time out of the car.  The day started off on the wrong foot when, after taking the ferry over to Shelter Island and arriving at Mashomak Preserve in search of some recently reported Rusty Blackbirds, I was told that they required "a good six-mile hike" to get to (I'm guessing the staff could dive there).  So a quick disappointment and it threw my general idea of where I was going to spend the morning completely off.

I decided to take another ferry over to Freeport to see if I could find some birds on the North Fork, but not having a clear plan, I ended up just drifting  around, checking some goose flocks, checking a few ponds, but not finding much.  Even the vineyard that I planned to drop by (to re-stock on local reds) was closed, and before long I had come off the North Fork and was at Reeve's Avenue Buffalo Farm without having seen very much of note.  The rot stopped there though when I bumped into a flock of American Pipits (a year bird) and that sighting changed my mind and my mood, sending me off to Dune Road to dig in and do some proper birding.

Dune Road is one of my favorite spots and it does yield good birds if you are patient and persistent.  I thoroughly worked the marsh between Dolphin and Triton Lanes - I knew there were Clapper Rails and Seaside Sparrows in there somewhere - and although I came up blank on my targets, I did get great looks at an American Bittern close to the road.  I also picked up two year birds, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and some Horned Larks closer to home.  Feeling much more motivated, I decided to try some owling later that evening and so wrapped up, and headed out into the NorthWest Woods of East Hampton after dark where I heard a Great Horned Owl and saw an Eastern Screech Owl.  Five year birds for the day.  Not a bad day of birding in the end, despite the slow start.

The famous American Bittern of Dune Road - many local and visiting birders see their Bitterns right here, and I suspect
it's often the same bird year after year.

Sunday, January 31st - Montauk

Back to the usual Montauk routine today with some sea-watching (nothing unusual) and some poking around the beaches and harbors, hoping for Purple Sandpipers but not finding any.  I did see some more American Pipits, an Iceland Gull, and the usual ducks.  I also picked up a couple of year-birds with Savannah Sparrow and Wood Duck joining the year-list.  A pleasant enough morning, and I put in my time, checking a few less covered places, just to see what was around.

American Pipit - one of four that were feeding on the Montauk Inlet Jetty and in nearby dunes.
So I finished January with 137 species for the New York Year List - a respectable haul and ranked 3rd among New York birders.  The current leader is Ken Feustel who racked up a very impressive 146 species, and somehow managed to get two species ahead of his wife Suzy.  Both totals are shy of my record breaking 2012 pace though where I amassed 150 species in January.  I definitely don't have the energy for another big year but I think I will set myself the goal of 300 species this year in New York State, just for some added motivation to get out there and bird more locally.  It's been a fun month bird-wise, and so on to February.

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