Saturday, December 29, 2012

NYS 2012 Big Year Summary (Part 2)

And the Spring migration that I've been waiting for finally gets underway.  This isn't a time for rarities so much, but rather a 'mopping up' operation.  Over the next six weeks I can get most of New York's migrant breeding birds without going too far from home, but each one that I miss requires a trip to look for them in their breeding habitat.  Too many misses and I'll be running around like crazy chasing breeding birds through June instead of focussing on the rare ones.  So through April and May I find myself doing a lot of migrant watching.

I end up getting 56 year-birds in April almost all from New York City parks and the State Parks on the South Shore of Long Island.  Barn Swallow is my 200th species of the year on April 6th and other 'good birds' include a Yellow-throated Warbler at Riverside Park, a Prothonatory Warbler in Bryant Park, several Kentucky Warblers in Central Park and a Golden-winged Warbler in Crocheron Park in Queens.  That bird turns out to be my last add of the month but things are looking pretty good as I head into May with few misses to worry about so far.

Golden-winged Warbler in Queens.  Photo - Corey Finger (used with permission).
Misses are an odd thing to think about as almost anything that I'd missed up until now could feasibly be found later in the year in the 'second winter'.  Come April though a new class of 'permanent' misses appear with Spring overshoot migrants that might not show again and aren't going to give me a second chance.  Fortunately there aren't too many of these this April; a Bullock's Oriole upstate is a one day bird and not chaseable while being lucky enough to see one of the Swallow-tailed Kites that showed up in just that ... luck.  Those two were the worst of my April misses so I actually considered myself to have done pretty well.

Is my absolute favorite month of the year in Eastern North America (and large chunks of the Palearctic too for that matter).  Migration is at full force and life seems to be flooding back to every habitat in our area.  It's a month that I could happily be outdoors in Nature every single day, and this year I think I might just well have been.

May started with a good vagrant bird for my 250th bird of the year - a breeding plumage male Yellow-headed Blackbird which had set up territory near Binghamton.  It also included my 300th bird when I managed to levy my local network Out East to track down a calling Northern Bobwhite on the North Fork of Long Island.  In total I added 57 new year birds in May, ending up at 306 and feeling really positive about breaking the record.

On the record front, by now I was pretty much openly acknowledging that I planned to try to break the New York State big year record and had even given an interview to Corey Finger at 10,000 Birds that said as much.  Things seemed to be going well and once again I missed very few birds - a Swainson's Hawk and a possible Swainson's Warbler being the most notable misses.  It was also a lot of fun racking up such big numbers of year birds day-after-day.  You get  a lot of endorphins from checking things off a list.

The almost mythical Henslow's Sparrow - crappy shot, great bird.
Other May highlights included a lot of time out at night on Long Island failing to find Black Rails but hearing lots of Eastern Whip-poor-wills and successfully tracking down one of New York State's few breeding Chuck-wills-widows.  I also chased down Upland Sandpipers at Blue Chips Farm, Bicknell's Thrush at Whiteface Mountain,  Henslow's Sparrow at Perch River, and Arctic Tern at Cupsogue Flats. On the vagrant front I finally caught up with a White-faced Ibis at Jamaica Bay after many, many hours of searching, only to have Shai Mitra then find another one about 400 yards from my house in Northwest Harbor (!).  I also got Mississippi Kites, a bird I was fretting about bumping into, when a pair showed up and started to build a nest at Sterling Forest.

Coming out of May I was in pretty good shape with a very defined list of breeding birds still to hunt down and a fair amount of time to do it before shorebird season kicked off in July.

Involved a lot of miles as I slogged back and for across the North Country trying to track down those scarce, or even semi-mythical, breeders that are often the envy of many a New York Birder.

Spruce Grouse (a small and declining relict population hang on in the Adirondacks) became something of an obsession and 'Hunting the Snark' as I came to call it took me to these mountain bogs, and fed a lot of mosquitos, three times this month.  I had good intel from local birders and research scientists, including the location of a breeding pair, but it still took me six long days of searching before I finally bumped into a mother and young at Spring Pond Bog.

The Snark!  Or Spruce Grouse.  A lot of hours went into this bird.
Other long-haul trips netted me breeding King Rail in Western New York and Northern Goshawk near Potsdam, but I failed miserably in my attempt to track down a Gray Partridge that Chris Wood had seen in Amish Country near Perch River.  Shorebirds also started a bit early with a Curlew Sandpiper at Pike's Beach and a Ruff at Montezuma.  I felt really good about this last bird having raced up there as soon as I heard about it and got the bird late in the day.  Sure, it was a 14-hour round trip but surely this would be the only Ruff seen in New York this year .... and then Andrew Baksh found 4 or 5 this Summer at Jamaica Bay (details of several Ruffs here at Birding Dude - Andrew Baksh's most excellent blog).

Curlew Sandpiper at Pike's Beach.  This was my first digi-phone shot and I was quite encouraged
but I haven't been able to get much in terms of results since.
Perhaps the best bird of the month though, and certainly the best bird that I found myself this year, was a total and complete surprise.  I'd been debating how to get offshore to look for Pelagic Birds.  Richard Fried in his record breaking year, had been taken offshore several times by Angus Wilson and John Shemilt and had managed several really good birds.  I was pretty sure this was not going to happen for me when I finally worked out who John Shemilt was and realized the he was the guy I yelled at for driving his truck all over the shorebird flats at Mecox.  So I was pretty much on my own.  While June was early for seabirds, in past years I had seen a lot of jaegers and shearwaters South of Montauk while fly-fishing for Mako Sharks (all catch-and-release).  So, chartering a shark-boat and captain, I headed off and spent a day chumming in and around the shark fleet about 30-miles South of Eastern Long Island.  And we had quite simply the most amazing day of sea-birding that I've ever had in New York waters.

Cory's Shearwater looking very imposing and close to the boat.
To cut a long story short we had all three Jaeger Species and hundreds of shearwaters often up close to the boat.  By the time we had to head back to Montauk I couldn't imagine a better day of birding and then .... a Fea's Petrel flew close by the boat!  Luckily the captain was able to pursue the petrel and I was able to get some shots because no-one would have believed me had I not got photos.  A first record for New York State and a truly awesome bird.  With Fea's Petrel, Spruce Grouse and Curlew Sandpiper in New York in the same week this truly was a 'purple patch' and perhaps the highlight of the year.  The Summer, and almost all the sea-birding I did after that were certainly a bit of an anticlimax.

The Fea's Petrel, a first for New York State.

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