Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Urban Birding: The Falconer and Iceland Gulls in Central Park.

When I first moved to New York City back in April 1991 I started birding in Central Park within days of arriving.  Although I'd been to the US before then (three trips to Maine and one to Florida) there were plenty of new birds for me to see and I think I got Life Birds almost every week during that first Spring migration.  After the initial rush though, I started finding ways to bird further afield, a process that started with birding in New York and New Jersey and ended up ten years later with a crazy World-lisitng phase that almost burned me out.  Still, I think I've managed to do at least a little birding in Central Park in each of the last 23 years and it's always fun to jump on the 3-Train and spend a couple of hours wandering the paths to see what I can turn up.

As a recently arrived Brit many of the local birders recommended that I read Donald Knowler's book 'The Falconer of Central Park' the story of, you guessed it, a British Birder spending a year birding Central Park.  The author spent a whole year visiting the Park regularly and chronicling the birds and the characters he met there, including his year-long search for his own nemesis bird, an Iceland Gull in the Park.  It was of course a great recommendation for me and I read it several times that first year in the US, although I, unlike the author, never did catch up with the Iceland Gull.

(Photo from where there are still many copies available)
Fast forward to today, and I still go to the Park occasionally even though I spend much less time in New York City than I used to.  Over 23 years of birding there I've seen a lot of birds but, when Jacob Drucker found an Iceland Gull on the Central Park Reservoir back in December 2012, it did take me back to reminisce about those early days.  I did drop by the Park once to look for this gull but just had time for a quick visit as I had other priorities in December.  I had no luck that day, and given that I'd seen literally dozens of Iceland Gulls in New York State that year, I didn't really follow up.

This particular gull seemed to be on my mind though and so twice in January I circled the reservoir and scanned all the gulls hoping to re-find it.  I just had bins with me so it would have been a tough pick given the distances but a first-cycle Iceland Gull stands out even among several thousand distant gulls so I had some hope that I might bump into it.  I had no luck on either visit, but then a few days ago Nadir Sourigi reported the gull again and yesterday, as I was heading out to a dental appointment, others reported seeing it too.  So I threw my bins in my coat pocket, ignored the strange looks I got from the staff at the dentist's office (doesn't everyone have binoculars sticking out of their pocket?), and when I was done there took a cab up to 89th Street and 5th Avenue and walked into the Reservoir.

Of course I squelched in on the East Side, where recent snow melt had turned the trails into mud, and all the gulls seemed to be on the West Side.  So as I worked my way round the North end of the reservoir I kept scanning each group while making my way towards the main gull concentration.   Before I'd gone very far though I picked up what looked like a good prospect out on the ice but it was distant and I needed to get closer to be sure.  Hoping the bird would stick I kept pushing around, really wishing I was wearing boots and not street shoes, but at each stop the bird looked better until I got close enough to see the bill and I was quite sure I had a first cycle Iceland Gull.

A very distant view of the Iceland Gull on Central Park Reservoir
 (Photo - Deborah Allen, used with permission).
So, after 23 years I got an Iceland Gull in Central Park, and added it to my New York County list on eBird.  Not a huge triumph, but a nice bird and made better when I saw Deborah Allen looking for the bird later and was able to get her on it too.  Deborah was also able to get some super-distant photos even though the light wasn't at all cooperating, so I felt I should memorialize the moment with a blog post.  I've seen a ton of good birds in Central Park over the years but it's always satisfying to add a new species and so I guess I'll probably keep wandering in there when I get the chance.

Update:  the next day someone found a Black-headed Gull on the Reservoir.  So now I have a new gull to look for and I hope this one doesn't take 23 years to track down.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Blasts from the Past: Great Gray Owls near Ottawa, Ontario

Given that Great Gray Owls seem to be in Southern Canada in some numbers this year, we've been waiting for one to show up in New York State.  Yesterday we got word of one near Massena (a spot I birded last week) and, while I won't be able to chase this one this week, it's hopefully a good sign of more to come.  In the meantime, here are some photos from a great Owl-oriented trip to Ontario in 2009.  We saw 7 species of owls in 4 days (Snowy Owl, Great Gray Owl, Long-eared Owl, Barred Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Boreal Owl, Northern Hawk Owl).  Dream birds in New York but a little more regular up there in Canada.

Great Gray Owl (2 birds, 4 shots)

Finishing with a sunset photo -  think we had three individual Great Grey Owls
in view at the same time in this one area.  A really neat trip, and great birds.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lava Shearwater. Still out there somewhere?

I have a soft-spot for Shearwaters, perhaps from growing up close to massive Manx Shearwater colonies in Wales.  Thought this article was really interesting, and I'm really not sure what to make of the photographs.  Could this be the extinct Lava Shearwater?  This species (Puffinus olsoni), only described in 1990, once bred on several of the Canary Islands but has been extinct since perhaps the 15th Century.  The 'fossil' remains of the species are apparently very common on the islands suggesting that the species was once a common breeder, perhaps in very large colonies.  It is believed to have been hunted, and perhaps also fell victim to introduced mammalian predators of some sort.  And of course, no-one know what it looked like, which makes an unusual looking small shearwater a very interesting bird indeed.

Image and background facts courtesy of Wikipedia
Even if this isn't a 'ghost of a gone bird', the link has some nice information on sea-birds in the Canary Islands.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Cold, White, North .... of New York.

Just back from a quick two-day trip to NorthEastern New York, a bit of a change from Long Island, but a bit of a challenge in terms of temperatures and conditions.  My plan was to head up to Long Lake in the Adirondacks, look for Hoary Redpolls, then head down to the St. Lawrence Valley with Joan Collins to look for Winter birds.  I made a hotel reservation in Lake Placid with a vague plan to either check out some boreal forest spots on Wednesday, or of heading down to the Champlain Valley if I still hadn't found some of my target birds they day before.

These Common Redpolls descended on my car when I arrived in Long Lake,
presumably looking for the sand and grit I tracked in with me.
Leaving the City at 3:15am, I pulled into Joan Collin's driveway near Long Lake almost exactly 5 hours later and was immediately surrounded by a swirling flock of 200 or so Common Redpolls.  Joan has a big feeder set-up and gets large numbers of redpolls every other year when they surge South.

So reluctantly exiting the car, and scrambling for an extra layer of clothing, I greeted Joan and got down to the serious business of winkling Hoary Redpolls out of the Commons.  Luckily, the flock, while skittish, stayed fairly close to the feeders, and we soon had two females and brief view of a stunning almost pure white male.

Female Hoary Redpoll (2 shots)

While there's still some debate about the taxonomy of Redpolls I keep to some simple rules ... pure white rump and undertail, stubby bill, limited streaking = Hoary.  It may be a gross oversimplification but it's probably OK for now, at least until people really pin down the taxonomy of these beautiful birds.  Work seems to be ongoing with experts suggesting a number of forms that may or may not be good species.  They're certainly variable though, and here's another interesting link that has all of the (currently) recognized North American forms (species? sub-species? races? or whatever) together on one feeder.  Fascinating little critters.

Joan unfortunately had a family emergency so we had a bit of a false start before I headed off down to the St. Lawrence Valley in the early afternoon.  I was in search of Pine Grosbeaks, Northern Shrikes and Bohemian Waxwings so cruised roads and the locations of previous sightings in Canton (Nothing), Potsdam (Nope) and Massena (Nada).  Somehow I was sure I'd bump into these birds fairly easily but I was really struggling and it wasn't until I cruised some roads NorthEast of Massena that I finally bumped into two Pine Grosbeaks followed twenty-minutes later by a flock of 22 Bohemian Waxwings.  Of Northern Shrikes I saw nothing, and the search for Grosbeaks and Waxwings had consumed my daylight so I had to turn South and made my way back up into the Adirondacks to the welcome warmth of my regular hotel in Lake Placid.

Wednesday dawned .... well cold.  When I turned off the alarm my iPhone said the temperature was -17 degrees Fahrenheit (-27 degrees Celsius) and I seriously though about turning over and sleeping in.  Still, I'd driven a long way and I don't get up there all that often, so the birding urge took over and, putting on every item of clothing I'd brought with me, I headed out to start the car.  I'd hoped that I could pick up boreal birds driving Oregon Plains Road and listening, but of course I had no such luck.  That left nothing for it but getting out and hiking Bigelow Road and heading into Bloomingdale Bog.  The Bog was bruttaly cold, but also birdy and I could hear Black-capped Chickadees almost as soon as I got away from the road.  Pushing down towards the 'feeder' I saw four Gray Jays sitting quietly on the  tops of nearby trees and, while I hoped that they might come down to visit, they really didn't seem to want to move in the cold.  The chickadees also kept up quite a racket on both sides of the road and before long I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling from behind a group of Black-capped Chickadees.  I followed them for a while, struggling for a look at the Boreal while my face and hands stung in the cold air.  It took me perhaps another ten minutes to see the bird and, as soon as I had, I jogged back to the car (and I'm not one of nature's natural joggers), slammed the doors and turned up the heat, heated seats, and even the heated steering wheel until I got feeling back in my hands and face.

When I got to the car I was ready to head South right away but, as I thawed-out, I figured I already had Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadee so I may as well go and look for a Black-backed Woodpecker.  So, bracing myself, I headed back onto Bigelow Road.  I quickly heard a woodpecker tapping away a fair ways back from the trail but, as I was looking for a route to bush-whack in, I head a loud "kweek" call .... Hairy Woodpecker.  So pushing on, it took me another twenty face-numbing minutes before I heard another woodpecker, tapping gently, almost imperceptibly, and close to the trail.   Sneaking closer, I pushed into the trees and bingo ... a female Black-backed Woodpecker.  So back to the trail, and I didn't stop moving again until I was out of the mountains and down in the, relatively balmy (0-degrees F) Champlain Valley.

Rough-legged Hawk in the Champlain Valley.
The rest of the trip wasn't all that noteworthy bird-wise.  I saw some Rough-legged Hawks near Lake Champlain, but found both the recent 'Pochard spots' completely frozen with no ducks to see.  I ended up down at Shawangunk hoping for Short-eared Owls but my promise to be 'back home for dinner' meant leaving by 5pm and the owls had not yet started their show by the time I had to leave.  Still, it's a neat spot and I was treated to a show by 11 Northern Harriers, 2 Rough-legged Hawks, and even a Coyote.

Northern Harrier at Shawangunk (2 shots)

So not a bad trip.  A 'tad nippy' as we'd say in the UK, but a good selection of birds that I'm not likely to see at home in Suffolk County.  The trip, inevitably started more 'Big Year version 2.0' rumors but if people think about it, they'd see that I'm not hitting many of the birds (Townsend's Solitaire for example) that I'd be obsessing about it I was doing another big year (which I'm not!).  Enjoying the birds I'm seeing though ...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Monk Parakeets in Suffolk County, NY

So I have a soft spot for Monk Parakeets.  I know that they are an introduced species, and perhaps don't belong here, but I like to think that they are filling the 'Gap in Nature' left when we drove the native Carolina Parakeet to extinction.  It's a bit of a stretch I know but it somehow feels right that a parakeet is slowly colonizing the NorthEast US, even if the local power companies are doing their best to thwart them by taking down the nests on utility poles.

Growing up in the UK, I have a respect and affection for introduced birds which there at least have a robust and fascinating pedigree associated with aristocratic Victorian collector-naturalists, and tied to a swashbuckling generation of adventurers discovering the wildlife of the world's wild places.  As a young birder, tracking down a Golden Pheasant in the rhododendron forests of Norfolk, or watching Mandarin Ducks on the oak-lined streams near my home in Wales, was 'almost' as exciting as really going to China (a trip I couldn't afford until many years later).  I also still vividly remember seeing my first Rose-ringed Parakeet at a park in Margate, Kent and the being literally stunned by this amazing bird in such an ordinary suburban setting.  While recent history of some of our introductions in the US may not be quite as glamorous, and even if our parakeets came from a bunch of little old ladies not closing their bird-cage doors properly, I still like the fact that New York has parakeets.

Monk Parakeet (3 shots)
Today I spent a little time looking for a Monk Parakeet in Suffolk County, New York.  This species is pretty well established in the New York City area - easy to find in Brooklyn, and widespread in Queens, Nassau, and a few other nearby counties.  In Suffolk though they are confined to the Western edge of the county, and typically live in areas that I don't tend to bird all that much.  I had directions from Ken Feustel to a nest behind the a retail store in Babylon Village, and actually managed to find the nest pretty quickly, but unfortunately it was empty at the time.  So I kept pushing West based on another tip and, as I was driving through Lindenhurst I saw a parakeet on a wire outside a strip mall.

Finding a place to do a (legal) U-turn, I got back and pulled into a nearby parking lot.  A single parakeet was sitting outside the nest but as I walked up under the pole a few more heads began to poke out of the various nest-holes.  I was aware that as I was taking photographs, I was very much being watched by the parakeets up above.  A few minutes later however the parakeets switched their attention to something on the other side of the nest and suddenly nine birds flew out and dipped quickly into some trees behind the mall.  Scanning around me I saw a Cooper's Hawk slip by but was surprised that they would abandon the safety of the nest when there was a predator in the area.  Perhaps its safer to be on the wing when there's a hawk about.

When I got back I posted an image on Facebook and got a reply from Donna Schulman who said that parakeets in Queens are finding innovative places in which to nest, now that the utility companies have removed many of their existing nest structures.  I hope they can find a way to make it because I really like having them around.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Urban Birding: A Morning in Queens, New York

Had to be in the City this week for a couple of dinners so took advantage of the free morning to visit some parks in Queens.  I have some friends who are Queens residents and absolute zealots about the borough (county) and it's birds.  Despite that bias, I have to admit that Queens has treated me well over the past year or so with goodies like Virginia's Warbler, Painted Bunting and LeConte's Sparrow in 2012.  For some reason, the parks of Queens seem to get good stuff, and perhaps more importantly, a battalion of good birders tend to find it.

First stop was Kissena Park, a spot I've visited before, and in particular to search for it's Winter resident Slate-colored Junco flock that often seems to host a rarity or two.  I walked the trails quietly until I heard the sound of juncos off in the grass and and then worked my way around to position myself ahead of them as they moved around.  After a few minutes the first Juncos started to pop up nearby and, as I stood very still, passed by me at close range.  There were a few other birds in the mix; some Song Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and a few Tufted Titmice seemed to be loosely associated with the flock.  Then I saw a small greenish-gray bird and got bins on it, catching a gray head, yellow breast, and a little bit of an eye-stripe ... Orange-crowned Warbler.  Almost simultaneously a few American Goldfinches came by and among them was a small khaki-colored bird feeding on grass seeds ... Indigo Bunting.  The flock was past me pretty quickly and I didn't see anything else odd in it, but still, nice birds for January in New York City.

Indigo Bunting
After Kissena my next stop was meant to be a quick drop-in to look for Barn Owl at Jamaica Bay but pulling into the parking lot I checked the 'Book of Lies', I mean the 'sightings log', and saw a recent Snowy Owl report from the West Pond.  Wandering down to there I saw Doug Gochfeld and a ranger on the trail and, not 30 yards in front of them, was a Snowy Owl sitting quietly in the marsh.

Snowy Owl (2 shots)
Well that was easy, so I stuck around for a bit, took a few record shots and checked out the storm damage to the West Pond.  Hurricane Sandy has breached the walkway and turned what was a freshwater pond into a brackish tidal lagoon.  What that means for the birds remains to be seen but there doesn't seem to be an immediate plan to put things back the way they were.  Still, nice to see a Snowy Owl in Queens and I left Doug there hoping for the bird to fly over into Brooklyn (the border is only about 30 yards away at that point) so he could list it for his home county too.

Inevitably, when some excited birder posted this particular owl on the State-wide Listserve later in the day, the administrators posted a reminder not to share the location of owls, and then the "owl e-mails" started flying again.  This seems to be an annual event in New York and one that generates emotions out of all proportion to the actual issue.  Photographers and birders sometimes get too close to owls and a few have behaved poorly in the search for a the perfect shot.  This in turn leads for calls to suppress information on the location of owls, which of course offends the vast majority of birders and photographers who want to see the birds and who generally behave responsibly in the presence of rare birds.  Last year it even led to allegations of elitism in the birding community and to levels of invective more normally associated with divisive social issues at the national level.   In fact, last year's debate got so out of hand that many of us now cringe when owls of any sort are mentioned on the Listserve but mercifully the sparks seem not to have ignited a blaze so far this year.  And, for what it's worth,  this bird seems like a good candidate for people to actually be able to go and see without disturbing it.  This Snowy Owl sat quite contentedly about 30-yards South of the main trail and was not in the least bothered by our presence, at least that day.  As long as folks stay on the trail I'd imagine this could be a bird safely seen by many, and who knows, maybe the bird that hatches a few more birders.

Unfortunately the Barn Owls weren't as cooperative and didn't show themselves for me that day so I went off and put a couple of hours into searching Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn for a recently reported Thick-billed Murre.  No luck on that front for me but I did get back to Manhattan in time for lunch and was pretty happy with my Queens County birds for the day, and starting two more county year-lists.  A pretty civilized morning of birding in New York City.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Western Grebe - my 300th Species in Suffolk County, NY.

I know, I know, County Listing is a whole other level on bird-listing insanity .... but it does have a certain appeal.  I had kept Country and State Lists over the years but County Lists are something that I can definitely blame squarely on eBird.  I'd never have the energy to track them myself, but now that I have them (eBird summarizes them all neatly for you) I guess I have to pay attention to them.

Given that I was a late-adopter of eBird, and that I still have only a tiny fragment of my historic bird notes entered into the database, my county lists are perhaps a little sparse.  The ones closer to home are pretty good though as I made the effort to enter historical goodies for New York and have birded them hard for the past few years.  Suffolk County, New York in particular is pretty clean and I've been watching it with interest as it closed in on the magic 300-species mark (generally considered pretty respectable for any New York county).  For the past week or two the list had been hovering at 299 so I was on alert for the big three-oh-oh.  Today I got a shot when Peter Polshek called me to say that Tom Burke had found a Western Grebe at the Ponquogue Bridge.

Western Grebe is a bit of an oddity and seems to pop up randomly on the East Coast.  I was lucky enough to see two at Cayuga Lake early in 2012 and thus didn't really worry about them too much during my Big Year.  This year though the species had been on my mind.

In December, a group of birders from Pennsylvania had reported a Western Grebe from Montauk but none of the locals had been able to catch a glimpse.  Then last week Steve Schellinger reported one from Kirk Park and the bird actually stuck around all day allowing several local birders to catch up with it.  I unfortunately was in New York City that day and didn't have a chance to try for it.  Many birders tried for the bird in the subsequent days but it wasn't to be found.

Today was my fist chance to look for the grebe so I went out to Montauk only to find out that the town was completely fogged in with almost no visibility.  So much for that I though and doubled back to look for a reported dead whale on the beach at Napeague.  Almost as soon as I got to the spot the phone rang and Peter Polshek gave me the news about the Ponquogue bird.  And so off again, crawling through the Hamptons and taking more than an hour to go about 30 miles in traffic.

Western Grebe (2 shots)
When I pulled up at the boat ramp under the bridge I jumped out of the car and started scanning the waters to the East.  Only after a couple of fruitless minutes did I turn around and noticed Shai Mitra, Pat Lindsay and Ken Feustel on the jetty behind me with scopes pointing in the other direction (!).  The rest, as they say was easy, and Western Grebe joined my Suffolk County list.  Great bird.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Photospot: Lapland Longspur at Jones Beach

Paid my first visit of the year to Nassau County, New York today on my way back Out East from the City.  Caught up with a few nice things at Jones Beach including American Oystercatchers and Harlequin Ducks.  Best bird though was this very confiding Lapland Longspur that was hanging around some steps and railings at the Coastguard Station.  So much better seeing them this way than the more typical fly-over views.

Lapland Longspur (3 shots)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Goosin' Around Long Island - Winter Waterfowl

So having survived January 1st with no obvious urges to run North for Slaty-backed Gulls and Common Pochard - and boy am I glad I didn't run up to the land of minus 20-degrees for a plastic pochard - I figured it was safe to do some local birding.  The world seemed to have pretty much taken the week off so I spent a pleasant five days just birding Suffolk County, my home county, on Long Island.

Greater White-fronted Goose like the very finest lawns in East Hampton.
This one was on Further Lane, a very choice address where people can afford
lawns large enough to host decent sized goose flocks, but don't mind them being
there.  Well to be honest they probably don't know the geese are there because they're
spending the season in Aspen.  Works out well for the geese though.
I suppose, to the rest of the US, Long Island is famous for it's geese - the result of a famous double a few years back where a Barnacle Goose and a Pink-footed Goose shared a field for a number of weeks and were seen by many traveling birders.  While we don't get the huge flocks of Snow Geese that some spots get I suppose we do get some good variety of geese and of Winter ducks.  That, coupled with the heavy birding coverage, probably means that many a birder has seen one or other life geese here.  It also means that during the first couple of weeks of the year the locals rush around year-listing all the waterfowl species that were found in December in case the weather changes as we lose the birds we have.

There are usually at least a few Cackling Geese around the East End if you
look.  This one was at Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, just before year-end
but I've seen two so far this year in East Hampton/Southampton.
Watching Canada Geese is fun but for most people the star birds are the annual Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese and the challenge is teasing one of these good Eurasian species out of the Canadas.  While we haven't had a Pink-footed Goose so far this Winter (3 records last winter), and have been overshadowed by a very cooperative Barnacle Goose in Van Cortland Part in Bronx County, there was a Barnacle Goose out there on Long Island somewhere and so I needed to track it down.  Trouble was that the bird wasn't really pinned down as yet, but folks were out looking so it was only a matter or time before someone bumped into it.  So, not really knowing the birds habits, or the locations where it tended to show up, I just went about my business and waited for the call.  I chased the Tufted Duck at Huntington Harbor, saw two Barrow's Goldeneye at Montauk and tracked down one of the Eurasian Wigeon that have been hanging around the island.

Eurasian Wigeon have been pretty regular this Winter for perhaps 4 or 5 drakes
seen at various sites on Long Island.
Then on Friday, as I was stomping around in the freezing Winter winds at Hecksher State Park looking for Longspurs, I got a text from Derek Rogers that said simply 'Barnacle Goose (Yes)'.  Luckily I was close by so I could zip over to the site and got decent scope views of the Barnacle before it headed out to feed for the day.  In total, I had 33 species of wildfowl in Suffolk County this week; not a bad haul of for the first week of January.  I could also have added a few more if I'd crossed over into Nassau County, but I think I'll wait for the Harlequin Ducks to come to me.

Barnacle Geese do stand out, even among hundreds of Canada Geese.  Photo -
Derek Rogers (used with permission)
Away from the ducks and geese there has been plenty to see this week.  From scarce wintering birds like Lapland Longspur, American Bittern and Red-necked Grebe to exotic goodies like Black-headed Gull, there always seems to be something going on in Suffolk County.  I've also really enjoyed just pottering around tracking down half-hardy passerines like Yellow-breasted Chat and Common Yellowthroat.  This morning when I woke up I was serenaded by my local pair of Great Horned Owls and, rather than rush off in search some critical year bird,  I decided to take my coffee on the back deck so I could listen to them for a while (and they obliged me by duetting from 7am through to a little after 8am).  It's nice to be listening and not listing.

American Bittern is a scarce, but regular, wintering species in Eastern Suffolk
County, NY.  This one was on Dune Road in Hampton Bays.
So my time is up tomorrow and I have 'grown-up' things to do for the rest of the week, then house guests next weekend.  Won't be able to do any birding this week but I'm happy with my haul.  I saw 120-species in Suffolk this week (Jan 1st - 5th) and had a lot of fun doing it.  Who knows, maybe a Suffolk County Big year is on the cards ..... nah.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

January 1st 2013 - Not Doing a Big Year!

So on New Year's Eve I put my 2012 New York State Big Year to bed.  I had mixed feelings about it if I'm honest.  At one level I was very glad to be done with the obligation part of project but at another level I knew I'd miss the adrenaline that comes from the hunt and the chase.  It was going to be really odd not chasing reported rarities and even odder getting what would no doubt be (and were) voluminous 'Needs Alerts' from eBird.  All these birds would in fact be seen by others, but the truth was that I didn't really 'Need' them any more.

Since I was a kid I've always gone out birding on January 1st, even in years where I really wasn't all that interested in birds I still found a way to get to Central Park or to the Hudson River for a couple of hours and to get a few species on the year list.  Some years I mounted a full-on birding day with a real list, while on others just getting something beyond House Sparrow, Rock Dove and Herring Gull was enough.  This year though I had to think about it and whether it was a good idea to keep birding or to perhaps take a break.  After folks started speculating that 2012 was just a dry-run for the real big year in 2013, I thought I should definitely take a break (!) but then when Slaty-backed Gulls showed up at Niagara and the Common Pochard at Lake Champlain, I knew it was safe to do some local birding.  No-one doing a big year would miss out on a chance of getting Common Pochard on their New York State list.

So at Dawn on Tuesday I pulled into the parking lot at Montauk Point SP for a the almost mystic experience of birding at first light on January 1st.  The experience wasn't quite what I'd expected as it seems that several hundred Asian Christians had had a similar idea and the parking lot was crammed with Church busses from Long Island and from the City.  Still, whatever religious thing they had going on seemed to be happening at the point so, absent a small stream of middle-aged ladies looking for a rest room, I more or less had the Concession Sea-watch to myself.  Not quite a mystic wilderness experience but it would have to do.

Despite the fact that this species had apparently started to Winter in Florida,
we still have quiet a few Razorbills at Montauk Point.
The sea-watching wasn't epic, but it was nice.  Eiders and three Scoter species were present along with Northern Gannets, Red-necked Grebes, and Razorbills.  Nothing unusual but a nice tally of common Winter species and a pleasant time.  I was joined for a while by Menachim Goldstein and his mom and they tagged along as I wound my way West so that they could learn all the local sites.  We had American Pipits at Teddy Roosevelt County Park, 2 Iceland Gulls at Montauk Inlet and a nice mix of Crossbills at Kirk Park.  Heading over to Napeague I was able to pick out a super-distant Snowy Owl and a closer Lesser Black-backed Gull.  And then Angus Wilson texted that he had re-found 'my' Black-headed Gull at the South-End of Lake Montauk.

This gull has been a challenge.  I found this bird on December 1st and then saw (and photographed it) again in December 4th.  It then wasn't seen again until December 17th when Andy Guthrie and I saw it just West of the Inlet.  Then it vanished again until Angus found it yesterday.  So we backtracked and had distant inconclusive views of the bird in a blasting, freezing wind (although I went back today, got better views and got some more bad photos).

Black-headed Gull at Montauk (2 shots).  

Not a bad haul for Montauk in January but it was time for me to head home (via the grocery store).  On the way back I stopped at the ECO Farm in East Hampton where I met up with Angus and we saw 2 Clay-colored Sparrows and 2 White-crowned Sparrows among the common skulkers.  Clay-colored Sparrow seems to be expanding rapidly, unless this was just a remarkably good year for them.  We had a lot in NYS this year and there are currently 5 wintering birds in down-state New York.  They used to be rare but seem to be almost regular now and, from my perspective at least, they're a nice addition to our regular birds.

Clay-colored Sparrow used to be almost unheard of New York in the Winter.
So I birded all day, saw 70 species, and didn't succumb to any urges to rush off to Buffalo in search of Slaty-backed Gulls.  Looks like I survived the Big Year and can get back into 'normal person' birding.  Looking forward to seeing what that's like ...