Friday, September 9, 2016

Last Gasp for Shorebirds and a Hurricane Of Sorts

A Big Weekend Year-Birding Blitz on Long Island

Well after a spectacular pelagic trip, and three State Birds (plus 8 year birds) I turned my attention back to New York State year birding.  I'd set a goal this year of 300 species in the state (after the pelagic I was at 290) and staying in the Top 10 of the "Hot 100" top eBirders for the state this year (before the Pelagic, I'd dropped to 10th.  Two things quickly sunk in:

1. It's going to take a lot more than 300 species to stay in the Top 10 this year, lots of people seem to be birding hard so I'm guessing 310 or 315 will be required.
2.  I'd almost completely missed shorebird season (and most of tern season) so had missed a dozen relatively easy birds to add to my list.

Friday, September 2 - Jamaica Bay

So how to salvage some birds.  Step one, off to Jamaica Bay on Friday morning for a mid-morning tide and hopefully some catch-up shorebirds.

Heading into the East Pond (with my super cool French knee-high mud-boots and lots of sun-block and bug spray liberally applied - I felt very prepared) it was quickly obvious that it wasn't going to be an amazing shorebird day.  There were lots of Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, quite a few Short-billed Dowitchers, and a scattering of Oystercatchers, both Yellowlegs and a few Semipalmated Plovers ... but not much of the good stuff.

Short-billed Dowitcher and Lesser Yellowlegs

But patience is a virtue, so over the next three hours I slowly worked North along the East side of the East Pond and scoped every single shorebird I could find.  And that kind of thorough scope work, does produce, adding a single WESTERN SANDPIPER (291), two WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPERS (292), a PECTORAL SANDPIPER (293) and a solitary juvenile STILT SANDPIPER (294).  I was hoping to come up with a Baird's Sandpiper too but one one eluded me, still four year birds was worth the long walk in the mud.

White-Rumped Sandpiper - not the spiffiest shorebird
Apart for the shorebirds, there was the usually selection of gulls, ducks, etc.  plus a very aggressive Peregrine Falcon that delighted in torturing the shorebirds at regular intervals.  Birds of the day though were probably two CASPIAN TERNS which were my first ever at Jamaica Bay and my first for Queens County (#235).  Always good to add a county bird.

So six more species to go ....

Saturday, September 3 - Riverhead "Sod Farms" Suffolk County

With the dogs in the car, and plans in East Hampton, the idea of birding on the way out East on Saturday was a bit impractical, but having made good time on the drive out, I figured I could grab a half hour to see if I could get some of the recently reported "grasspipers".  For this to work though, it had to be a 'surgical strike' so I ran up Doctor's Path and crossed Sound Avenue, as much hoping for birders with scopes as actual birds (I really didn't have time to do thorough scans).

Today my luck was in, I bumped into a group of birders who'd found a flock of birds including many Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers, a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER (295) and two BAIRD'S SANDPIPERS (296).  This group also had heard rumors of plovers over near Osborne Avenue so, not three minutes after jumping out to scope their birds, I was on my way again looking for my third target.  As it happens, I didn't quite make it to Osborne Avenue, as just before I got there, I passed a field full of 50+ AMERICAN GOLDEN-PLOVERS (297) ... and I was on my way again in under 25 minutes.  Efficient listing ....

American Golden-Plovers just hanging out next to the road
Now, I was on a roll so, after I dropped the dogs off at the house, I decided to see if I could find a lingering Roseate Tern at the Fish Traps (a spot where terns hang out) at Sammy's Beach near the house.  There was in fact a ROSEATE TERN (298) there along with 50 Common Terns and a surprise of two ROYAL TERNS (299) a bird I've never seen at Sammy's Beach before.  And at 299 I obviously wanted to end the day at 300 species to checked a few more local spots before setting up for a nighthawk vigil (someone I've done many nights so far this year without luck) and was rewarded this time with a COMMON NIGHTHAWK (300) at dusk.  Perfect birding day.

Monday, September 5 - Amagansett Beach, Suffolk County

The weekend forecast has been wind and rain, but Hurricane Hermine was staying well offshore and not really producing the kind of weather that leads one to expect storm-driven seabirds.  Still, it's always worth sea-watching so I slogged down to Amagansett on Monday morning and put in a three hour sea-watch over messy, swirling surf in decent, but hardly storm-force, winds.

It was obvious pretty quickly thought that something was up.  Being the swirl of gulls offshore there were tubenoses moving, but most were too distant and to too briefly seen to identify to species.  Over the course of the watch though I did pick up a couple of Cory's Shearwaters, 2 Sooty Shearwaters (301) and a single Manx Shearwater (302) plus some gannets, and a Parasitic Jaeger (303).  All good sea-watch birds Out East, but soon quickly eclipsed by a bird that I immediately 'felt' was a pterodroma based of flight style.  The bird arched and power glided effortlessly across the waves, making the shearwaters look sloppy and sluggish by comparison - brown uppers, dark heard, and a big white rump could mean only one of two things and as the other one was too super-rare to really consider seriously, I went with BLACK-CAPPED PETREL (303), a very, very good bird from land in New York.

Turns out that others were having a good day too, and others also had shearwaters and Black-capped Petrels.  Ironically, the weather didn't really suggest a great sea-watch day, and birders closer to the city struck out.  Right time, right place I guess ... until I heard about the booby!

Turns out that Nadir Souirgi, who was just a few miles to the West of me, had an adult BROWN BOOBY pass him, heading East.  That would have been a state bird for me, and a very much wanted one ... but alas I never did pick it up and missed out on what was probably the best bird of the day.  Can't win them all I guess ....

Thursday, September 1, 2016

To the Gulf Stream and Beyond!

A Successful Pelagic Trip out of Brooklyn.

My track record with New York State Pelagic Trips has been mixed, at best.  One of the reasons I have such a terrible State List is all the pelagic birds I've been missing over the past few years, largely for lack of actually getting out on the water.  While I did go on a few trips back in the 90's, they were frankly terrible - trolling endlessly through a brain-numbing birdless dead-zone - but over the past few years things seem to be getting better out there, and so this year I figured I'd give it another shot.

To be honest, I'm not sure that the birds are getting better, rather I think the birders are getting a lot more knowledgable about when and where to go look for seabirds.  Paul Guris of Paulagics (really the only people doing group trips in the mid-Atlantic) in particular has been refining the New York pelagic trips that he offers and seems to be hitting more productive spots at more productive times.  The results have been impressive with several species, not really on offer years ago, now seemingly real possibilities on a group trip.   So this year I decided to give it a go.  I booked on the Winer Pelagic trip, which was cancelled due to weather, leaving me still needing Atlantic Puffin and Northern Fulmar for the State List.  So I tried the June trip, hoping for South Polar Skua, but that was also cancelled due to weather.   Then I rolled over my booking to the August trip ... and this one actually went out!

5am on Monday morning, and instead of crawling out of bed to go to the gym, a sharp poke in the leg from Nathan Goldberg (who'd spent the night sleeping on the metal floor under my comparatively luxurious plastic bench) woke me from a couple of hours of crappy sleep on a fishing boat 125 miles out in the Atlantic.  Time to go!  Hoping for petrels in the chum at dawn and, as the light slowly came up, we started a great morning of pelagic birding off the Hudson Canyon, in a 80-degree eddy of 'Blue Water' - perfect conditions for some gulf-stream specialties, and state birds for me.

I look thoughtful, but I'm actually half asleep and wondering why I'm
 out here (Photo: Sean Sime)
Pre-dawn there ween't any birds to be seen while the crew busily chopped chum and started to lay a slick.  I did see a couple of squid come to the boat lights and some off gelatinous critters, some I thing were shell-less pelagic snails, one I had no idea but didn't really want to get much closer to.  Once the light started to come up though, revealing a flat sea with beautiful blue water and scattered sargassum weed, things started to get interesting.

Fist birds of the day were a couple of Leach's Storm-Petrels (283) bouncing around in the dawn light like crazy ocean nighthawks.  They were closely followed by some Audubon's Shearwaters (284), Cory's Shearwater (285), and a couple of Great Shearwaters (286).  Not a bad start to the day!
Next up came some BAND-RUMPED STORM-PETRELS (287) a NYS State bird (#388) for me and a few Wilson's Storm-Petrels (288).  And then a presumed Great Shearwater seemed odd and invited  a second look ... BLACK-CAPPED PETREL! (289) and another NYS State Bird (#389).  With the Band-rumps and more Black-caps, you could have been forgiven for thinking we were in North Carolina not New York, but I didn't really care because I'd just racked up 7 year birds and 2 State birds in a couple of hours.  Good times .....

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel and Black-capped Petrel
Both State Birds for me.

While the birding was pretty awesome, we also had some visits from groups of dolphins (I don't care how experienced a birder you are, dolphins in the bow wake makes a giggling kid out of even the most jaundiced old hand).  First up a couple of groups of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, then a big pod of smallish dolphins that didn't easily fit an ID.  At first I thought they were going to be Short-beaked Common-Dolphins, then maybe one of the more pelagic species, but when we got closer we realized that these were STRIPED DOLPHINS ... a life mammal for me (and I'm guessing for most others on the boat as they were only the second sighting ever for Paul Guris!)

Striped Dolphin ... a life mammal!
With everything going so well, the next episode was a bit of a turn around that soured the mood of most of the participants on the boat, at least for a while.  A few of us got glimpse of a small gray petrel low to the water, and Tim Lenz, looking at photos of an Audubon's Shearwater, noticed another bird photobombing his shot ... a WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL.  There was lots of chatter and everyone was rushing to the other end of the boat, so I assumed that people were on the bird, but apparently not, and long story short ... only 3 or 4 people got views of the bird, and 50+ people were very unhappy.  Awkward ....

White-faced Storm-Petrel was a major target for the day, seen in New York only a handful of times ever (and indeed almost never seen in the Western North Atlantic away from a single Massachusetts pelagic trip that has been 'the place' to see this species historically).  Recently, there had been a few sightings in New York waters, and this trip was largely designed to have a chance at this rare (ABA Code 4) species.  The fact that some had seen one, and in the confusion not called it out, made some people very unhappy and much grumbling ensued.  Things soon blew over though and everyone got back to looking for seabirds.

So having been guilty of not shouting out (what was at best a 'maybe' sighting of) the bird, I set myself to make amends and scanned intensely for another one.  About an hour later I saw a small gray bird heading towards the boat, got bins on it, then proceeded to yell like a mad man ....

"White-faced Storm!  Twelve O'Clock ...
White-faced Storm!  One O'Clock ...
White-faced Storm!"

And people sort of got the point (it's hard to ignore a large Welshman bellowing at the top of his lungs), and the captain was able to keep us close to the bird for a good ten minutes so everyone got amazing looks at what I'm sure was a lifer for many (followed by a second bonus bird for good measure).   WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL (290) and NYS State Bird (#390).

Two different White-faced Storm-Petrels.

So what do you do to top three White-faced Storm-Petrels?  Well apart from an Albatross, there really isn't much you can do, and besides with a seven hour run back to the dock ahead of us, it was time to head to shore.
Short-finned Pilot-Whales (guessing short-finned based on water temp)
So back to Brooklyn we went, and I took the opportunity to get a long nap after a largely sleepless night.  From time to time I'd wake to a scramble where someone outside had called a bird out (causing nappers from the cabin to run outside, usually too late to see anything) but the ride in was not terribly eventful bird-wise.  There were however lots of other critters, most notably over 300 SHORT-FINNED PILOT-WHALES in scattered groups, but all basically lounging that surface.  Then there were some other 'non-avian' highlights ... a large Hammerhead Shark sp., a Loggerhead Sea-Turtle, a breaching ray, a breaching Basking Shark, flying fish, etc.  So much life out on the ocean ...

Great Shearwater.
And so all too soon the adventure was over.  But everyone was thrilled with the day, and I can't wait to get out there again.  New York is redeemed in my mind, no longer pelagic bird-dessert, this had been a really high quality pelagic trip.

Special thanks to Paul and Anita Guris for organizing, and for the various spotters for helping get people on birds.  Now if only I can actually get some calm weather to finally get the damned Atlantic Puffins on the New York State List !