Birding often requires one to look at the finer details, especially when a potential rarity is involved. One of the biggest ID challenges in my opinion is Snowy vs Little Egret. Snowy is common throughout North and South America, while Little occupies the same niche in Africa, Eurasia, and Oceania. When Little Egrets wander into North America, as they have done regularly since the 1980s after colonizing Barbados, identification becomes harder, but possible. I usually tell new birders to look at the bill and feet to distinguish between Great and Snowy Egrets (opposite patterns of black/yellow), but the possibility of a vagrant Little Egret makes that rule obsolete when comparing three species (don't get me started on Intermediate Egret, that's a new can of worms I am not ready to open). In an ideal situation, I would distinguish Little from Snowy by looking at the nuptial plumes, which are long on Little but short on Snowy. Unfortunately, both molt their head plumes in mid summer, which makes identifying one from a distance in late summer and fall a challenge. Up close, one has to look at the shape of the head (flat vs rounder) and lores on the bird, the patch of bare skin in between the eyes and the bill. On Little, the lores are dark gray in nonbreeding plumage while Snowy has yellow lores all year round, except for a short period of time in high breeding season when the lores turn bright red in Snowy (Little briefly has yellow-orange lores around the same time, but has mostly yellow lores in breeding season). I wasn't expecting a Little Egret to show up in New York, but when one was reported from Oceanside, I wasted no time getting there. Unfortunately, an hour of searching got me nothing, and one of the birds I considered to be the Little turned out to be a Snowy Egret...
One of the photo misidentifications Ryan caught me on was the Cackling vs Canada Goose complex, which seems to get me every time. To compensate for the one I had in January turn out to be a Canada Goose, I set a goal to find a Cackler of my own instead of chasing one someone already found. I thought I had found a good candidate for a Taverner's Cackling Goose, but after checking with several other birders, it turned out to be a small Canada Goose.
Today was the last day I had to do shorebird counts at the Coast Guard Station this fall, and I wasn't expecting to find anything unusual. However, besides the huge number of staging American Oystercatchers and Black-bellied Plovers, I found a small group of continuing Marbled Godwits, which have been around for a month already.
It was getting dark, and my dad and I decided to call it a day. As we were leaving the barrier island, we saw an unusual white bird fly across the causeway as we were driving. From the brief glimpse we had, the most distinctive feature we could see was the neck. Unlike egrets which hold their necks in an S-shape in flight, this bird was holding its neck straight out. Another feature that made me think it was not an egret was the way it flew; unlike the deep wingbeats of an egret, this bird’s wingbeats were quick and shallow. The only conclusion I could make was that this was an ibis, specifically a White Ibis! I had seen hundreds of White Ibises in Florida, but to see one in New York is extremely rare. According to eBird, there had been three previous records of White Ibis for Nassau County!
I was walking in between classes when I noticed another Canada Goose flock had landed on campus. In hopes of finding a Cackling Goose, I walked closer and managed to get one side by side with a Canada for comparison. This time, I was rewarded for my diligence.
The Evening Grosbeak is a snowbird, but not in the way most people would expect like Dark-eyed Juncos or humans who travel to the southern states for the winter from the northeast and upper Midwest. Typically, they stay in the boreal forests year round, occasionally moving south when seed crops up north run scarce. Ron Pittaway predicted that Evening Grosbeaks would be moving south in large numbers this fall. My first reaction when I found out one was seen at Sunken Meadow State Park was that I had to get over there immediately. When I got there, the grosbeak was gone, although a large group of Purple Finches was already at the same grove of berries where the grosbeak was first seen. There would be other opportunities to see Evening Grosbeak this year, so I was not very disappointed.
When you devote an entire year to looking for birds, one of them will inevitably be your birthday. For my birthday this year, I had talked my parents into taking me to Race Point, which is a renowned seawatching site on the very tip of Cape Cod. We spent the whole day before traveling to the Cape from Long Island. Even before we got outside, I had a Razorbill close to shore from the hotel window we were staying at. The weather report showed that we would be right in the path of a Nor'easter, but this didn't bother me because Tim Swain said it could make for great seawatching. Well, could. In practice, visibility wasn't good when I got to the cape, but I was able to pick out two Dovekie flying west. Seabirds that breed in the high latitudes were the reason I wanted to come to Race Point in late fall; the beach's position on the end of Cape Cod make it ideal to spot seabirds. On a day with considerable winds, one can see either shearwaters or alcids from shore, depending on the time of year. Among the other seabirds I got in the storm were three (that I was able to count) Black-legged Kittiwakes, a flyby Black Guillemot, a Northern Fulmar, and hundreds of scoters, gulls, and Common Eiders. A loon flew over, which I initially considered to be Pacific, but then identified it as Common just to be safe.
From there, we went to First Encounter Beach, where I saw in addition to Brants and gulls, a Manx Shearwater and a Red Phalarope flying in the bay. Then we searched for a Berkshire Hathaway store in Massachussets, where my mom took a picture in front of the store for reasons I will never understand. The last spot we went birding at was not in Massachusetts, but in Rhode Island. There, I managed to get Nelson's Sparrow for the year before it got too rainy and we had to drive home.
The Northern Wheatear is an interesting bird. It resembles a thrush and was even once classified as one; this arctic breeder is a flycatcher, not one related to the tyrant flycatchers farther south, but one of the old world. Widespread in Europe and Asia, Northern Wheatears are also present in disjunct breeding ranges Alaska and eastern Canada in the summer. All populations migrate to sub-Saharan Africa in the winter, even flying over the Atlantic Ocean to get there. Usually one or two gets lost and migrates in the opposite direction south towards the lower 48, and when that happens, birders take notice. I wasn’t expecting to see any wheatears this year, so you can imagine the shock I was feeling when a probable sighting of one in Suffolk county appeared in my New York needs alerts. Initially thinking it was a hoax like the recent sketchy reports of Eurasian Wren, Curlew Sandpiper, and Goldcrest; but when I saw the photos, my heart started racing because this was definitely real. I literally stopped what I was doing and was out the door 15 minutes later. By the time I got there, several other birders were lined up scoping the Northern Wheatear out. We stayed for about 20 minutes to get photos as it flitted between shrubs, fence posts, and a traffic cone before heading out.
As we were leaving, I got an alert for another Evening Grosbeak at Sunken Meadow, this time an adult male. My dad and I were originally going to head home after the wheatear chase, but I decided to go for the grosbeak while we were still on the road. As we got there, I saw the wing flash of the grosbeak as it flew across the road. I soon discovered I wouldn't be alone in the search for the Grosbeak, many other birders had the same idea to go for the grosbeak after the wheatear. We relocated it several times, but only managed to get photos the last time I relocated it, when the bird finally decided to stay put.
To be continued…
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