Sunday, February 3, 2013

Western Winter Birds on the East End.

After spending almost a week in the City I was very excited to head Out East (to the East end of Long Island) on Wednesday afternoon.  I was thinking that I might go out on a 'deep sea' fishing boat on Saturday but hadn't confirmed any plans and was waiting to see how the weather looked.  In the meantime there were a few things around that seemed worth spending some time trying to see.

While this wasn't the original plan, as I passed Manorville I realized that I was a bit ahead of schedule and so, with a little push from Derek Rogers, I decided to go and look for the Ross's Goose that had been found in Riverhead.  It seemed a little early to go straight to Merritt Pond where the bird had been roosting, so I ran some local roads and checked goose flocks hoping to pick it up.  With no luck on that front I headed over to the pond feeling pretty confident that I just had to wait it out.  On-site with a couple of other birders by 4pm we stood and watched as geese started to dribble back to their roost site, first in small groups, but later in a constant stream.  I had promised to leave by 4:30pm but, upon hearing that the bird had been seen closer to 5pm the night before, I called home and adjusted my leave time back half and hour.  There were lots of Canada Geese, perhaps two or three thousand on the pond, and as the light faded they kept streaming in.  I picked out a single Snow Goose and kept scanning each incoming flock for a small white bird, but none had come by 5:00pm.  Finally, at about 5:20pm I realized that I was late, and was probably going to dip this bird as even if it did show up now I wouldn't be able to ID it for certain in the failing light.  So I headed home to NorthWest Harbor and made plans to return another day.

Thursday was filled with work and errands but Friday looked good for another try for the goose.  The weather had been awful with gale-force winds battering the house for days so I'd given up on any pelagic aspirations.  There were also a group of Brooklyn and Queens County birders coming out to Montauk so I figured I might meet up with them for a bit.  Then I got a text from Frank Quevedo that changed my plans completely and I re-routed to look for the Yellow-headed Blackbirds that he had found near Calverton the day before.

At about 10:00am when I got into the Riverhead area I figured I'd make a quick stop at Merritt Pond to see if the Ross's Goose was about.  As soon as I pulled up though I got a call from a local birder (who shall remain anonymous given that it was 10:00am on a work day) to say that he and another local were watching a Yellow-headed Blackbird right then over on Edwards Avenue in Calverton.  So I jumped back in the car and zipped over there only to arrive ten minutes late and hear that the flock had moved on up the road.  We checked Edwards Avenue and then split up to look for the blackbird flock.  This was a really good chance to see the blackbird as it was with a feeding flock of only several hundred mixed icterids so, while it might wander widely during the day, it was probably  still in the area, at least for a while.  I ran North, then West, then South, then back East and got nothing so decided to widen the circle and ran North again, then East, then South, and bingo .... blackbirds.  A flock of about 300 birds flew over me just East of where we'd started out originally.  I jumped out of the car and got bins on them quickly picking up a YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD (they stand out) and then was able to get scope views of it when they briefly landed.  I called (anonymous birders) and, as the flock moved South, tried to get ahead of them again but the road and the birds quickly parted company and I lost them.  Still, great bird, and species number 302 for Suffolk County.

A typical birding scene in Suffolk County.  1,800 Canada Geese and a white goose
(through a 400mm lens),  through a scope this white goose turned out to be a Ross's
Goose (the second shot is heavily cropped but you can get the ID at least).

So onwards, and I decided to follow up on a Nelson's Sparrow report down at Cupsogue so drove down there and spent a few happy hours spishing and stomping the marshes.  No ammodramus sparrows on any type that day, but that might not be surprising given the howling winds.  So back to the goose fields for one more try and I started to slow and painful slog of 'detailing' goose flocks, working East from Calverton.  There is a lot of goose-hunting on Long Island so the geese are skittish and move around a lot which can make finding a specific bird a bit of a challenge, but still I figured I'd bump into it eventually and if not I planned to go back to the roost site.  Throughout the day I'd kept in touch with the City birders by text so I was thrilled when an hour later Corey Finger reached out to say that he, Doug Gochfeld and Shane Blodgett had re-found the Ross's Goose over on Doctor's Path in Riverhead.  Within minutes I was over there and looking at distant, but very satisfying views of species number 303 for Suffolk County, ROSS'S GOOSE.

Kumlien's Gull near Montauk Inlet.
Saturday was quiet, although I did see two Barrow's Goldeneye and a Kumlien's Gull in Montauk.    Montauk has been quite quiet bird-wise this Winter, and the normally massive scoter and eider flocks don't seem to be here this winter (did Hurricane Sandy scrape the sea-floor clear of mussel-beds?).  Good birds did show up elsewhere on the island, including another Ross's Goose found by Derek 'Goose-man' Rogers, but I had to stay local that day.  Still with two Western wanderers, both life birds for Suffolk County on Friday, I'm not complaining about the weekend.

The surviving Trumpeter Swan at Yaphank.
The last interesting bird of the weekend also had a bit of a Western flavor in that these days it's a bird more readily associated with Yellowstone than with Long Island.  Trumpeter Swans were once common here though and a lot of work has gone into what has become a successful restoration effort for this species which had been missing from the East for some time.  On Long Island they are still a rarity but we have had a pair winter in each of the last three years in Yaphank.  I've seen them a few times and I have to admit that I have a soft spot for this species, especially when they are beating up on the local Mute Swans.  In fact, when you see these impressive birds one wonders how we ever lost them in the first place .... I mean, what kind of person would shoot a Trumpeter Swan?  Unfortunately we recently learned that this type of 'person' is still very much alive and well on the island when one of the Yaphank swans was found with shotgun injuries and a broken wing.  The bird subsequently died in the care of a rehabber so today I felt I should stop by and visit the remaining, and last Trumpeter Swan on Long Island.  A very sad story.

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