Saturday, December 29, 2012

NYS 2012 Big Year Summary (Part 1)

So while I realize that no-one believes me, this really was an accidental New York State Big Year and I really hadn't planned it in advance.  The extent of my pre-planning was to invite an old birding friend, Philip Dempsey, to bird with me on the East End of Long Island on New Year's Day.  Our plan was to bird hard for a day and see how many species we could come up with, hopefully capturing some of the nostalgia of New Years Days gone by when we were young and rabid birders.  Fact is that neither of us had done much birding in recent years; careers, relationships, and other hobbies (fly-fishing in my case, surfing in Philip's) had pushed birding to the back seat.  So a bracing day of Winter birding would be a fun (and harmless) thing to do and that really, honestly, was the extent of the plan for 2012.

So our day went well and we found some good birds Out East.  It started with a pre-dawn Screech Owl in my yard in Northwest Harbor and ended 73 species later with one of the last birds being a Snowy Owl at Shinecock.  We saw nothing particularly unusual or rare that day and perhaps the best bird was a Glaucous Gull which we found at Sagaponac.  We certainly saw nothing like the Mega-rarity that Doug Gochfeld and Andrew Baksh turned up when they found New York State's first Grace's Warbler at the other end of Long Island.  Philip and I got the call from Angus Wilson but opted to stick to our original plan and stay local (would someone who was doing a big year skip a shot at a Grace's Warbler?).  We had a good day, enjoyed our time in the field and even picked up six more species, including a Mountain Bluebird, on the way back to the City the next morning.

Grace's Warbler - photo by Andrew Baksh, one of the original finders (used with permission).
Then an odd thing happened - the result perhaps of a strange series of coincidences.  My partner Ryan had introduced me to eBird during the Summer of 2011 and I had started to enter local birding records into it.  Back from our New Years Day trip I entered the birds we'd seen and discovered that you could see real-time league table of other birders year-lists.  And, almost certainly as a result of every other serious birder in the state abandoning their New Years birding plans to go and chase the Grace's Warbler, it tuned out that Philip and I were doing rather well on that list.  In fact I think we were briefly number one and two.

So perhaps, I thought, I'll see if I can see 100 (soon adjusted to 150) species in January.  And the rest, as they say is history.

The 'Winter that Never Came' allowed for a lot of birding time and I was able to run around collecting species that had been reported around the New York City area.  In addition to the Grace's Warbler I was able to add a Rufous Hummingbird at the American Museum of Natural History, a Barnacle Goose at Seatuck Creek, an Eared Grebe and a Eurasian Wigeon at Jamaica Bay, and a Black-headed Gull in Brooklyn.  Soon enough though the supply of local birds dried up and so I had to look further afield.

Rufous Hummingbird at the American Museum of Natural History
- photo by Greg Lawrence (used with permission).
In late January Philip and I headed up to the Adirondacks where we met up with Joan Collins and did two days of Winter birding.  Philip was between girlfriends at the time so could be talked into such a trip given copious assurances about unseasonably mild temperatures.  While we didn't get everything we wanted, we did add 14 year birds, including Boreal Chickadee and Gray Jay.  That put me in range for my 150-species January target and I got there with a Long-eared Owl at Hunter's Island in the Bronx on January 31st.  All done ...

Or perhaps not.  Having got back into the habit of birding I ended up adding another 31 species in February to end the Month at 181.  I finally caught up with the Barrow's Goldeneye at Jamaica Bay after multiple attempts and added a White-winged Dove on Staten Island.  I also cleaned up on local wintering birds now that I'd learned how to search eBird and had set up a 'Needs Alert' for New York State.

February, being mild, also allowed two more trips to the North.  A second Adirondack's trip with Joan Collins added Black-backed Woodpecker and an American Three-toed Woodpecker, one of New York State's superstar, hard to find residents.  The other trip was my first real foray to the NorthWest of New York and, after picking up two Western Grebes on Cayuga Lake and a King Eider at Sodus Bay, I met up with Greg Lawrence for a Niagara gull trip.  Greg and Joan were not people I knew before this year and in both cases I reached out to names I saw on eBird, looking for help in areas I didn't know well.  Joan turned out to be a professional bird guide (I had no idea) and Greg turned out to be a college student.  Either way, I managed to press both into service as unofficial regional helpers, the first of what became a network of new friends across the state helping me keep abreast of goings-on bird-wise.

Anyway, back to Niagara where Greg and I had a great trip adding Little, Thayer's and California Gulls to my year list.  My first time ever at Niagara and I didn't actually see the Falls - my parents live in Wales, and even they've seen the Falls.

Fun with Gulls at Niagara.  Herring, Iceland, Ring-billed, and
California Gulls.  Photo - Greg Lawrence (used with permission)
Oh, and another thing started to happen in February.  People started to notice my year list - most assuming I was some kind of new birder but a few remembering me from 20-years ago when I was last seriously birding in the NorthEast.  And people started to reach out, including a chap called Richard Fried (who I'd never heard of but learned was the current holder of the New York State Year List record at 352 species) who messaged me via Facebook to ask if I was doing a Big Year.  At the time I still wasn't sure.

Is a dull month where, if you've birded hard you'll have seen all the Winter birds and be waiting impatiently for migration to start.  The month started off in spectacular fashion though with the discovery of a Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch at Nancy Loomis's feeder North of Utica.  After that star bird however, normal service was resumed and it went back to being ... well just March.  While I added 12 year birds during the month it was quite the slog as I waited impatiently for more migrants and chased down early arrivals even though I knew they'd be abundant in just a couple of weeks time.  My last bird in March was a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the 'Owl Woods' at Braddock Bay near Rochester and I had to work really hard for that bird.  Still, with Spring Migration just around the corner and 193 species in the bag, I was actually starting to think I might actually do a big year.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

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