Lifers indicated in bold
While I was looking through my photos from Arizona, drawing on my computer, and debating if I should go for the Great Black Hawk in Maine, I noticed a photo of a hummingbird taken at the Paton Center right before the battery died that didn't fit with Broad-billed. "I think this is a Violet-crown..." I muttered to myself. It didn't have the violet in the cap, but the white throat was enough for me to identify this as a Violet-crowned Hummingbird, although southeast Arizona is short on similar Amazilias that I could confuse it with; one which is Green-fronted Hummingbird, which has a deep green crown, the two rarely overlap in range. Make that one more until I hit 500!
By this time, I had seen a nice variety of local and continent-level rarities for the year. However, the one bird that I’ve dipped on more this year (and my life, as a matter of fact) than any other is Black-headed Gull. Over the course of 6 months (January-April and October-now), I had chased any reported Black-headed Gull I could get word of and checked every flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls I came across on the off chance I would find one myself, to no avail (although one Bonie flock in Montauk yielded a Little Gull), only beat out by Sandhill Crane and Eastern Screech-Owl for the number of times I struck out this year. The first nemesis bird I ever had, and the only one comparable to the number of times I failed to find it, was the Peregrine Falcon. For years, I kept looking upwards until I finally saw one at Hawk Mountain in 2015. Next was Golden Eagle, which I thought I had until a reviewer for Wyoming told me the photos I uploaded were actually that of a Bald Eagle. Then Merlin, Long-eared Owl, Henslow’s Sparrow, Black-headed Gull, and Connecticut Warbler found their way onto the nemesis list; I had scored on the falcon, the eagle, the owl, and the sparrow in that order, but having given up on looking for the warbler after a month, the gull stood as my ultimate nemesis. Kenny Bostick and his search for a Snowy Owl in The Big Year had nothing on me and the Black-headed Gull (which ironically, I often see Snowy Owl on my first try for them). In a text chain with Ryan Zucker about my stats, he told me that I should “look for the BHGU at Jones Beach for #500,” which I agreed to, having set up a 500th species teaser icon with a generic flycatcher silhouette with a large question mark in the center, and several species that had the potential to be #500 hidden from view, one of which was the gull, the other was a Barnacle Goose. When I got to the coast guard station, there were several gulls there, but none had the red legs or dusky underwing I was looking for.
Like the Pink-footed Goose I've mentioned earlier, Barnacle Geese are a common "wrong way" migrant in North America. The majority of them winter in Europe, but breeding populations in Greenland sometimes get confused and fly south with Canada Geese. On migration and their wintering ground, Barnacles act no different from other geese; in their Arctic breeding grounds, however, they take nesting to the extreme and choose to lay their eggs on high cliffs where Arctic Foxes can't reach them. This means newly hatched young have to jump from heights that rival the nest-falling antics of Wood and Mandarin Ducks. I had planned to look for a Barnacle Goose that chose to winter in eastern Long Island for a few weeks, and I needed to break up the monotony of looking for the Black-headed Gull. I scanned flocks of Canada Geese at two separate locations before calling it a day, but by the time I realized I had been checking the wrong spots, it was too late for me to turn back...
The morning after, I went back to the coast guard station, but once again, there was no gull with little red feet to be seen. I was wondering if I would ever get Black-headed Gull…
Well, now we know how it's surviving.” - Nate Swick
You knew this was coming, with a notable lack of any easy birds in NY left, how could I resist chasing the rarest bird in North America at the time? Of course, I am talking about the Great Black Hawk in Maine. For birders, this rarity’s tale needs little explanation, but for everyone else: In late April, a Buteogallus was photographed at Sheepshead lot on South Padre Island, later identified as a Great Black Hawk by the lack of a thick subterminal band, white uppertail coverts, and its size; larger than a Common Black and smaller than a Solitary Eagle. The bird was last seen flying to the northeast, destination unknown… Later, in August, another Black Hawk was supposedly photographed in Biddeford, Maine, of all unlikely places. At first, birders considered the sighting to be a hoax, but subsequent identification of the plants in the photo as Japanese Knotweed and Red Maple confirmed it was in the Biddeford area, which, coincidentally, also is where the ABA area’s first Variegated Flycatcher was found. Many birders had toyed with the idea that it was the same Great Black Hawk seen in South Padre Island earlier in the year, and was confirmed through comparison of Alex Lamoreaux’s photos from Texas and Francis Morello’s photos from Maine (see footnotes). The hawk stayed for two days before flying out to sea, heading for a still unknown destination, then turned up in Portland towards the end of October before disappearing again. Surely it would be headed south now, which is what we thought, until it was posted to What’s This Bird? again, in a video of it eating a squirrel and flying off with it. Unlike the last three times it was seen, black feathers were noted, and there was snow on the ground. However, an urban park in Maine is not an ideal place for a tropical bird of prey, which was additionally identified as the Central American subspecies. "This bird is doomed," I thought as temperatures in Maine steadily dropped...
I anticipated the worst when I saw that snowstorms were in the forecast for Portland, but as finals were drawing to a close for me, I read an article on Audubon saying that this bird was STILL ALIVE after two snow storms! I decided that was enough incentive for me to go up to Maine to see this survivor. After a night of sweet talk, my mom finally agreed to go after finals. I had initially planned to go to Maine over the summer to get all the Atlantic alcids, Arctic Tern, Spruce Grouse, and to clean up breeding birds that I missed in migration; but that didn't work out, but if it had, this would've been my second trip to Maine this year. I don't let most rarities go until I have no other choice, except maybe the Barnacle Goose, so as a fail-safe on the off chance the hawk was gone when I got there, I planned backup stops to ensure I would get to 500: one on the way up in Rhode Island for a Black-headed Gull (I was getting tired of missing the Jones Beach bird), and two on the way back to seawatch for murres in Massachusetts and for Tufted Duck in Connecticut respectively. Straight off the ferry, we headed right to the spot where the gull has been seen. As we were arriving at the spot, I shouted "THERE!" in excitement when I saw the white stripe on the primaries characteristic of Chroicocephalus gulls, but I wanted a closer look to make sure it wasn't a Bonaparte's anyway. Upon closer inspection when the bird had landed, this one definitely had the lighter mantle and most importantly, deep red legs and bill. "This is it," I said, "This is a Black-headed Gull!" What an excellent bird for #500 this was. Satisfied with having conquered a major nemesis, we headed north for an even bigger prize.
The next morning, my mom and I went straight to Deering Oaks Park after breakfast to look for the Great Black Hawk. I checked every tree it could be roosting in, then when another birder came up to me, I learned it was seen on Grant Street, not in the park itself. I followed him to a line of other birders with their optics trained on this hardy little Great Black Hawk as he feasted on a recently killed squirrel. I capitalized on the opportunity and did something I rarely do: captured video of the bird in action. After months of following the story of this legendary vagrant, I was genuinely thrilled to finally see this bird for myself and experience it with other like-minded birders, which was a far better experience than with the self-proclaimed "Hot duck." As we walked back to the park, a Bohemian Waxwing flew over, 501 and 502 respectively, but depending on the taxonomy you follow, the Great Black Hawk could be 500 for the year instead of 501. I follow eBird's taxonomy/the Clements Checklist, which splits the Mexican Ducks I saw in Texas from Mallard, while the American Ornithological Society treats them as conspecific (I changed taxonomies after this year's lack of favorable splits). Using Clements/eBird, 500 would be Black-headed Gull, while it would be Great Black Hawk under the AOS Check-list. If you follow the International Ornithological Union's taxonomy, which splits a bunch of stuff that AOS and Clements don't such as Audubon's Warbler, Mangrove Warbler, and Scopoli's Shearwater, 500 would be Lesser Nighthawk; not as exciting of a 500 as an ABA first or your former nemesis. Irregardless of what taxonomy you use, one thing is constant: just as I had begun the year with a code 5, I was about to end it with a code 5.
On the way home, we drove through a storm that was equally intense as the one on the way up to get to a seawatch spot in Rockport, which has had some excellent alcid movement earlier in the week. Most of the birds I saw here were scoters and more Common Eiders, along with a few surprises, such as a male Harlequin Duck and a flyby Thick-billed Murre. As it was too dark to try for the Tufted Duck when we arrived in Connecticut, the murre would be my last new bird in the continental ABA Area without a literal Christmas miracle.
On Christmas Morning, I went out to Montauk in search of a Common Murre reported there, but had no success. That night, my needs alerts were silent. There were no more easy birds for me to get on Long Island. The resident pair of Great Horned Owls was calling to each other, another sign that spring was on the way. For me, it was a sign that it's time to move on and finish the big year with a bang…
To be continued…
Link to What’s This Bird? posts: https://www.facebook.com/groups/whatsthisbird/permalink/1941890982526285/
Francis’s map of the hawk’s sightings: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1pH6FQm-bacY-L0K8Mzk4ktEKPEVskA1J&usp=sharing
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