Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mopping-Up the Geese

A January Ritual - Getting all 8 Species of New York Geese on the Year List

Saturday, January 21 - Nassau and Suffolk Counties

Haven't really had a lot of free time and anyone could tell that just by looking at my year-list which is trailing way behind the top birders on this year's eBird "Hot 100" for New York.  I had a few hours in the middle of the day on Saturday though so decided to get out and try and grab some of the Winter species that might not stick around until I had more time to bird.

First stop was a 'gimme'; the PINK-FOOTED GOOSE in Valley Stream has been simple and reliable all Winter (although it's the first one ever seen in Nassau County) and was a quick and easy add to the year list along with a Cackling Goose that has also been at the site for weeks.

Pink-footed Goose
With that being so easy I decided to venture further East, and headed an hour of so to the Farmingdale area which had recent reports of Barnacle, Cackling and Ross's Geese ..... and after two hours of searching ... I saw none of them.  Oh well ...

Feeling a little frustrated, I decided to go another hour or so further East again to search for a Sandhill Crane in Wainscott.  Not sure why I did that to be honest as Sandhill Crane wouldn't have been a County Bird for Suffolk County, and it's not a bird I'm ever likely to miss in New York in any given year.  As a species, they really aren't all that uncommon in New York but they are quite rare on Long Island and they certainly don't show up here every year ... and I like cranes.  The debate was academic though as I managed to dip that bird too, and also struck out on a search for Short-eared Owl and American Bittern along Dune Road.  Some days you don't have good karma I guess, but at least I managed to connect with some Ross's Geese for the year.  Seven of New York's eight goose species accounted for, one to go ....

Sunday, January 22 - (mostly) Richmond County

Awoke to a city shrouded in fog but decided to head out anyway and try to add a few more of the interesting lingering birds around New York.  First stop was on Staten Island (a borough I visit rarely even though it's quite close) and a stake-out for a PAINTED BUNTING that had been hanging out for a couple of weeks in some beach-side scrub.  Despite all the hoopla about the celebrity Painted Bunting in Brooklyn last Winter, the species shows up most years in New York State, although they are often found at feeders with limited access, and more usually 'little green jobs' rather than showy adult males.  This bird was billed an an immature male, but basically a (mostly) 'little green job'.

Painted Bunting and Lesser Black-backed Gull
Terrible photos on a dark foggy morning

The bunting turned out to be quite easy to find so I moved on to try for a Red Crossbill that had been hanging out nearby.  I'm always fascinated by Crossbills and love to see them but, after two hours of carefully scanning pine trees and pine cones, I had to admit defeat with this particular bird.  This bird was reputed to be difficult to see, feeding quietly in the pines and not moving much or calling.  I had expert directions from Michael Shanley and Isaac Grant, but still couldn't managed to winkle her out.  I did however add a total of 9 species to my (albeit tiny - 106) Richmond County list though, and made a mental note to get over there again in the Spring to work on that county list total.

With a few hours to spare before a commitment in the City I worked out that I could run back out to Suffolk County and have a quick second shot at the BARNACLE GOOSE.  This time the 'twitch' turned out to be incredibly easy and quick.  Pulled up to the site ... saw the goose and shot a few distant record shots through a metal fence and an orange wooden fence that separated the geese from the road ... watched as another birder/photographer walked up towards the geese ... and flushed them all.  Oh well, didn't have much time to spare anyway.

Barnacle and Canada Geese shot through two fences ....
So mission (sort of, mostly) accomplished.  My NYS year list is still just 120 species, 20+ species behind the early leaders, and 30 species behind my Big Year pace.  Still 2017 is going to be a year of birding travel, not a local big year, so I can't get too obsessed about any of that (I promise I won't get obsessed .. honestly ...).  Plus I did get all 8 New York goose species, something that has now become a January ritual, and added a few county birds to one of the counties I want to build up list-wise.  Not a bad weekend considering how little time I had.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Puffins, Dovekies, Razorbills and Murres

A Winter Pelagic out of Brooklyn

Until yesterday I had never managed to go out on a Winter Pelagic birding trip in New York State waters.  That's not to say that I hadn't tried to go out - in fact I'd booked on at least four or five boat trips that had been cancelled due to weather - I'd just never actually managed to get out there.  So the omens were good for January 2017, with Paul and Anita Guris organizing a trip on January 7th out of Brooklyn ... which was to course cancelled due to weather (!).  Luckily this time though, the boat captain gave us an alternate date, and despite the threat of another snow storm, at 3am on Friday morning I was driving to Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn in search of a boat and a whole bunch of similarly judgement-challenged birders planning to spend a brisk January day out on the Atlantic Ocean.

The plan quite simply was to motor out fifty miles into deeper water, hopefully arriving in an area frequented by working scallop dredges and other fishing boats by first light.  Then we'd lay a chum slick and 'tow' a bunch of gulls around with us while we looked for other species.  The trail of gulls would make us look like a fishing boat discarding by-catch and hopefully attract other, rarer species to join the gulls.  Well that was the plan anyway ....

Black-legged Kittiwake (2 shots)

By 7:30am, the sun was up, and even though it was cold, gray, and cloudy, there were birds to be seen around the boat.  We did establish a chum slick (diced Menhaden and Beef Suet) and had a bunch of gulls behind the boat all day.  Most were Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls but we did have a single Lesser Black-backed Gull and a lot of Black-legged Kittiwakes stay with us for part of the day.  The gull flock was also supposed to attract Northern Gannets and NORTHERN FULMAR, and both species did show up in very small numbers, but neither species stayed long  The Fulmar was a State Bird for me (#392) and one of my main reasons for coming out on the trip, so I was very happy to see a couple of them even if they didn't put on the kind of show we were hoping for.  The gulls were also supposed to attract Great Skuas, an almost legendary bird in the Western North Atlantic.  Almost every birder on the boat wanted this species, and all but a tiny handful need it for their New York, ABA, or even Life List.  I definitely need it for New York and would love to have seen one, but despite hours or scanning, today was not our day.

While the Skua did not cooperate, the Alcids most definitely did.  As the sun came up we were treated to many fly-by Razorbills and quite a lot of fly-by Dovekies.  Dovekie, a starling sized puffin relative, are really very hard to see from shore.  Experienced sea-watchers in New York might get a couple of distant ones zip by in their scopes in the average year, but for many of the riders on the boat this was a highly desired state/ABA/Life bird.  And we saw lots and lots of them ... I'm guessing perhaps 75 Dovekies, with the captain making an effort to get the boat close to several individuals on the water for photographs.

Nice as Dovekies are, they weren't my target bird.  I'm one of the lucky ones who gets to see Dovekies most years while sea-watching at Montauk, but the same could not be said for ATLANTIC PUFFINS which never come close to shore.  I've waited a long time to see a puffin in New York (a species I've seen only in Maine, Canada, Iceland, and in the UK) and as the day wore on with no sightings I was starting to get stressed that this might not be the day I got them after all.  Then around lunch time, the boat slowed and voices were discussing a bird visible from the bow.  When I heard the words "dusky face" I knew what the bird was and, after a tense few minutes trying to get on the bird, Atlantic Puffin joined my New York State list (#291).

Dovekie (above) and Atlantic Puffin (below)

While birds were the main goal, and it being Winter we weren't expecting much else in terms of vertebrate life out in the cold sea, we did actually see a few non-bird highlights.  Best for me were a pod of BLUEFIN TUNA mixed with a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins.  Others apparently saw a whale spout (I missed it) but I did get good views of a couple of Harbor Porpoises ... a species I'm always happy to see.

By 2:30pm, with only a couple of hours of light ahead, it was time to come back in and once again admit defeat in the search for Great Skuas.  On the way in though we had to pass through the 'Murre-Zone' and would add another bird that would be a lifer or state bird for many on the boat.  Common Murres are remarkably loyal to a band of water 23-25 miles offshore in New York in the Winter.  I've seen them before in this zone, and as soon as we motored into the right area, we started to see Common Murres and saw in the end perhaps ten of them.

Common Murre (3 shots)

Darkness overtook us before we reached land, and as we pulled into the dock in Sheepshead Bay, we arrived to several inches of fresh snow that had fallen while we were out at sea.  Not the most fun drive back to Manhattan, but it was a very fun day at sea.  Two state birds (Atlantic Puffin and Northern Fulmar) and four year birds (Lesser Black-backed Gull and Common Murre) made it worthwhile.  I took the opportunity to book myself on two additional Paulagics (June and August) and I guess I'll keep doing the Winter ones and hoping one day for a Skua.  I will get my New York State list to 400 one day (392 currently) and who knows, maybe Great Skua will be that 400th bird.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Hummingbirds in the Snow

A truncated day of Winter Birding in Suffolk County

Plan A today was a Winter Pelagic trip out of Brooklyn with hopes of adding Atlantic Puffin, Northern Fulmar, and who knows maybe even Great Skua to my New York State Life List.  An approaching Winter storm killed off that plan yesterday though so on to Plan B.

Plan B was a quick, pre-storm, goose chasing trip in Nassau and Western Suffolk Counties and I started at Lake Ronkonkoma, the furthest East I'd planned to go, adding two Tundra Swans to the year list.  This pair of birds had wintered for several years at Hook Pond in East Hampton, but after arriving as scheduled this year seem to have found the pond not to their liking and moved on a new Winter venue.   Checked them off quickly there and then checked my emails and decided to move over to a new Plan C.

Plan C involved running much further East to the North Fork in Eastern Suffolk County (on the assumption that the snow would hold off for a bit longer) and chasing a TOWNSEND'S SOLITAIRE that had been found there the night before.  The email updates from the NYS Listserve this morning included one from Mike Higgiston that said the bird was still present.  And so off Out East ...

An hour later I joined a group of very cold birders, including Pat Lindsay who was nursing pneumonia but still keen to get this bird (the first in Suffolk County for 10 years?).  After a cold 25 minute wait, a couple of "beep" calls and the solitaire popped up on top of a dead tree, giving me Suffolk County Life Bird number 316 and another opportunity to take bad, silhouetted record shots of this species.

The distinctive silhouette of a Townsend's Solitaire - I have a history of
taking bad photos of this species.
By now though it had started to snow and a quick check of the weather indicated that, while New York City was expecting maybe 5 inches of snow, the East End of Long Island was due for perhaps 10-12 inches.  Clearly time to head back West before conditions got too dangerous.

There was one more stop I wanted to make though.  Not one, but two RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS had been wintering in a yard in Aquebogue (which was sort of on my way) and with the snow coming, this could well be my last chance to see these birds.  A quick call to Margaret, the very generous and gracious home owner, granted me permission to visit and so 20 minutes later I was standing in a very bird friendly yard with Margaret, Bob Adamo and Pat Paladino in what was now a driving snow storm looking for hummingbirds.

Margaret has at least four hummingbird feeders, two of them heated, and had even put up heated roosting areas for the birds.  Sure enough we quickly saw a Rufous Hummingbird visit one feeder, then (another?) visit a second.  Not sure I've ever seen Hummingbirds in snow, except perhaps in the high Andes, and these were only my 3rd and 4th individual Rufous Hummingbirds ever in New York State.

So heated feeders do seem to work ...
Shivering, and worried about the snow, I decided to call it a day and crawled back to the city behind snow plows, dodging car accidents and two-wheel drive cars skidding all over the road.  A little bit of a white-knuckle experience, but I'm very glad I got to be outside for a while.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Early January on Long Island

A few days of Year-Birding to start 2017

Sunday, January 1 - Montauk and Shinecock

I think by now I can categorize it as a ritual.  I have started my year list in perhaps 7 of the last 15 years with a sunrise sea-swatch at Montauk Point, and it never disappoints as a great way to start a year of birding.  This year was relatively mild, and after a quick stop en-route to add Great Horned Owl, the day started there with a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic as it got light enough to distinguish the birds.  And there were plenty of birds ... highlights including thousands of scoters of all three species, hundreds of Common Eider and a scattering of other sea-ducks, loons and grebes.  Specialty birds also put in an appearance with a couple of Black-legged Kittiwakes, a Red-Necked Grebe, nearly 75 Razorbills and a fly-by DOVEKIE (plus a Gray Seal).  Not a bad start.  23 species in all, and the year-list 2017 was officially on it's way.

After Montauk I worked my way back West, stopping at a number of local spots picking up more species at each of them.  Highlight for me was a GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GOOSE at Further Lane Fields in East Hampton (it's hard to tell but the picture below is a mansion lawn, not a  grassy field ... it's a big lawn and a big mansion).

Greater White-fronted Goose in a Canada Goose Flock
By lunch time I'd worked my way to Shinecock Inlet where a couple of Harlequin Ducks and a Glaucous Gull were both good close views.  The local Snow Buntings were also quite confiding, but unfortunately, the only Snowy Owl of the day stayed at a very respectable distance.

Harlequin Ducks

Can you spot the Snowy Owl?
Glaucous Gull
I finished the day off back at the house in Northwest Harbor watching my feeders and drinking wine on the deck, coming out again just after dark to hear my local Eastern Screech Owl become Owl species number three for the year.  Not a bad way to start 2017.

Monday, January 2 - Robert Moses State Park and Cammann's Pond

Up early, but unfortunately I had to head back to the City with the dogs in the car, allowing me only two or three quick stops on the way back in.  Stop one was Robert Moses State Park where I managed to dip a couple of Ross's Geese that had been present for several days but had apparently moved on.  There was a nice consolation though in the form of a single Lapland Longspur, a bird I rarely see more than one or two of in New York in the average year.

Lapland Longspur
Last stop of the day was Cammann's Pond in Nassau County, where I'd dipped a BLACK-HEADED GULL a few days earlier.  No problems this time though as the bird was on the water near the parking lot and I saw it before I'd even turned off the engine.  A new species for me for Nassau County (#214) and a bird I missed altogether in New York in 2016, so I was happy to call it a day and had back to the city with a nice haul of 92 species on the year list.

Black-headed Gull
Not a bad start to the year ....