The first morning of me not doing a big year (let's see how long that lasts), I casually birded the grounds of the hotel. The first bird I heard was a domestic chicken, so the first countable one I saw was a White-rumped Shama.
To save myself the trouble of having to track a Snow Goose down in New York (I am exaggerating a bit here, as they winter in large flocks at Jamaica Bay, but I have seen them elsewhere in the state, such as in Montauk where I got Snow and Pink-footed for the year at the same time), I decided the best use of the first day of the year was to go back to the golf course in Princeville where I had found one the day before. While en route to Princeville, I spotted a large bird on the side of the road crouched in the grass near a picturesque field. "Pheasant!" I shouted. As if on cue, two male Ring-necked Pheasant emerged.
Over the past week, I had seen almost every bird species present on the island except Northern Shoveler (Koloa moha), Black-footed Albatross (Ka’upu), Puaiohi, and ‘Akikiki. The shoveler would only be a state lifer like the pheasants. The best way to get the albatross, according to Mandy, was to go on a boat trip with Holo-Holo Charters to Lehua Crater, just off the island of Ni'ihau.
I had around five hours in California until my flight back to New York. So what was I going to do? Go birding, of course. Southern California was one of the states I had considered birding in on my big year, but unfortunately, my limited time allotted for school breaks and travel restrictions over the summer forced me to prioritize Arizona for November. This layover would be my chance to make up for a missed opportunity, although I had only three hours to bird, so time was of the essence. The first spot I went to was Ballona Freshwater marsh, which is just 10 minutes from the airport. There were ducks and sparrows everywhere, including Golden-crowned Sparrow and California Towhee. Along the marsh, I had also added two more lifers: California Scrub-Jay and Allen’s Hummingbird.
Our last stop was Playa Del Rey, where I had hoped for Pacific Loon and Black Oystercatcher. In a large flock of California and Western Gulls, I found several Heermann’s and a 1st winter Glaucous-winged Gull, two additional species I did not have a chance to see in 2018.
As we were leaving to pick my mom up and head for the airport, I spotted a Lesser Scaup in a pond across from the parking lot and got to see a Peregrine Falcon chasing a flock of pigeons. By the time I left California, I had managed to see 98 species for the year, and heard a Great Horned Owl for #99 when I finally got home. What would 100 be?
The next morning, I filled the feeders and sank into my room to write trip reports and edit photos. I was ready to take a well deserved break from looking for new birds, at least until my next adventure...
On January 20th, the adventurous Great Black Hawk was found on the ground at Deering Oaks park and taken to Avian Haven, where it was placed into an intensive care unit. The next morning, he was alert and in good condition, although the main concern was that he had frostbite on both feet. Frostbite usually occurs when ice crystals form inside the cells of an infected area. When body cells freeze, they expand, burst, and then die, and cannot be brought back to life. The goal of frostbite treatment is to limit further tissue death, though the success or failure of those efforts may not be apparent for several weeks or even months. Deathless would most likely lose some of his toes, but how much he would lose was uncertain. If part or all of his damaged toe is lost, he could still be able to hunt and perch if returned to the wild. Many of us hoped he would be releasable, but reality is often disappointing. A week after he was taken in, the frostbite had spread to both of his legs. Underneath the bandages, both feet were discolored and began to decompose. The idea of amputating the hawk’s legs and replacing them with prosthetics, along with placement in captivity, but this was not realistic. Not only was the damage too extensive, but animals that adapt best to prosthetics are comfortable around people. Unlike with Winter, a Bottlenose Dolphin that is one of the most cited examples by advocates for prosthetics in animals with lost appendages, North American raptors are known to be high strung. The bird had been lying down during the day and was not eating as well as previously. At the end of January, professionals from Maine’s department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and staff at Avian Haven agreed to euthanize the Great Black Hawk, who would never adapt to captivity with only one foot. News of his death was met with overwhelming sadness by the birding community, who had all come to love this great hero among rare birds. More so than other birders, I felt an especially strong connection to him. Like my desire to go to new places to see new birds, the wanderlust of this hawk is a good example of the dynamic nature of birds. Even the most sedentary species cannot be expected to stay within the colored area of a range map assigned to them by a field guide or species account on Birdlife, individuals break free and wander; some succeed, others fail. Life finds a way. Just as my adventures had ended when I returned to school, so had those of the first Great Black Hawk in North America when it was taken into Avian Haven.
To this day, the streak is still going
In the first part of my island biogeography post, I talked about how animals got to islands, giants, dwarves, copycats, and adaptive radiation (I suggest clicking this link if you need a refresher). Now in part 2, I will talk about one of the downsides that animals living on islands face: vulnerability to a variety of threats. Just a warning: I will be talking about touchy subjects including climate change and feral cats in this post, which I have learned from experience is a subject people do not like to talk about and often ends in a fight. Please keep it civil in the comments, otherwise I may have to delete some comments on the subject.
There are examples of how fragile island ecosystems are present in the fossil record long before humans evolved. One such is of one of the many islands bathed in the azure waters of the Tethys Seaway during the Jurassic Period that would one day become the bedrock of Europe. As I mentioned last time, animals living on islands that are normally larger on the mainland are smaller due to constraints of space and resources, and this was no different for the Lagenberg quarry in Germany. Dinosaur fossils found there are mostly of dwarf taxa found elsewhere in Portugal, Africa, and North America such as an island species of the megalosauroid Torvosaurus, diplodocoids, stegosaurs, several indeterminate theropods, and a miniature brachiosaur known as Europasaurus, which was found in a large assemblage which suggests that a herd of these tiny sauropods drowned en masse and were scavenged by crocodilians and fish as evident by tooth marks on the fossils. About 35,000 years after the sediments of the drowning incident were deposited, a series of large tracks suggesting the formation of a landbridge which led to a faunal overturn of the site. The resident Torvosaurus has been estimated to be 13 feet in length, whereas the arriving theropods were estimated to be between 23 and 26 feet long if reconstructed as a relative of Allosaurus, which had been found in North America, Portugal, and possibly East Africa. It's possible that the creators of the tracks hunted the mini dinosaurs, who stood no chance against the larger invaders, to extinction. Sound familiar?
What first made the wildlife of the Galápagos islands recognized around the world was not for Charles Darwin's observations on natural selection, but as a food source. Pirates would use the islands as a hideout from Spanish naval forces while stalking the oceans to plunder cargo ships laden with riches from the Spanish colonies in the Americas sailing to Europe. The islands didn't have much mineral use to the pirates, but instead they served as a limited but substantial source of fresh water for the pirates and more importantly as a source of food. If you guessed that pirates hunted the tortoises for food, you would be correct. Giant Tortoises were a preferred source of food for sailors, pirates, and whalers because they were docile and large enough to feed several crew members. Ship crew members would often capture as many tortoises as they need and bring them aboard to kill later; seabirds and sea lions were often slaughtered on the beaches. Intensive harvesting would take a heavy toll on tortoise numbers, whose late age of reproductive maturity and low likelihood of hatchlings surviving could not keep up with the pressure of hunting.
The animals of the Galapagos weren't the only ones to fall victim to the appetites of sailors, as one of the most famous extinct animals in written history (second only to mammoths if cave paintings count as writing) was also a soft target for hungry seafarers, I'm of course talking about the Dodo. Pop culture has painted a picture of this island inhabitant as so slow and dumb, it was destined for extinction, but the reality about this giant is much different. Comparisons of brain size to body size leads scientists to conclude that Dodos were actually fairly smart, and depended more on smell than sight to find the abundant fruit on the island, supplemented with small land vertebrates and shellfish. Dodos weren't dumb, they had lost all adaptations to avoid predators because there were none on their island home of Mauritius until humans arrived and exploited them as a source of fresh meat like with the tortoises of the Galapagos
When pirates, whalers, and sailors arrive on islands such as Mauritius or the Galápagos, they often introduce livestock such as sheep, goats, and pigs to provide an additional source of food for when they pass through the areas in addition to the native mammals, seabirds, tortoises and/or Dodo. However, introducing such herbivores to an island can have disastrous effects as they trample and browse on native plants down to the roots if not properly contained, preventing the plants from regrowing.
One of the most widespread introduced species on islands is one that was not intentionally released by humans. Rats and ants have found their way to many island groups as stowaways on ships and plants, and with no predators on the islands, they rapidly spread upon making landfall. In large swarms, Little Fire Ants (Wasmannia auropunctata) drive native insects out of forest habitat and attack ground nesting birds and reptiles which have no enemies. Rats are particularly dangerous for native birds because they prey on nests, eating the eggs and chicks as well as the adults and competing with them for food. To protect their sugarcane crops, plantation owners introduced Small Indian Mongooses (Herpestes javanicus) from India to Molokai, Maui, and Oahu and have since spread to every Island except Lanai and Kauai, hoping they would prey on the rats. This did not go as planned because the rats are mostly nocturnal while the mongooses are diurnal and instead targeted the eggs and hatchlings of native ground-nesting animals instead such as chickens, francolins, and Hawaiian Geese. Goose numbers were around 25,000 when Europeans first arrived in Hawaii in 1778, but by the 1950s, they had been reduced to 30
As if two introduced mammalian predators wasn't enough for Hawaii's endemic birds to deal with, they also have to battle mosquitos that transmit deadly diseases such as Avian Malaria. It results when a blood-borne parasite, Plasmodium relictum, is transmitted from infected birds to healthy birds by mosquitoes under suitably (warm) temperatures. Once infected, many birds die. Thus, the introduction of mosquitoes made it possible for native birds to become infected, given that a reservoir of disease was present, such as invasive birds like the Japanese White-eye and Red-billed Leiothrix. It's estimated that P. relictum has caused the extinction of a third of the 55 species of Hawaiian Honeycreepers present when Europeans arrived. The survivors retreated to higher elevation forests where cooler temperatures inhibited the growth of the parasite, but many fell victim to the disease...
If the idea of an entire island disappearing underwater sounds ridiculous, guess what: it actually happened! East Island is a low-lying islet surrounded by shallow reefs in the French Frigate Shoals, part of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and one of the most important nesting sites for Green Sea Turtles in Hawaii, most of which were born on the island. East Island recently made news when storm surge by Hurricane Walaka washed away most of the island, leaving a 150 foot sliver behind. While the reduction in size of East Island has not directly been linked to anthropogenic climate change, it it contributes to the strength and frequency of hurricanes like the one that overtook the island. Part of the theory that hurricanes will become more frequent and stronger is because warmer water provides more energy to feed them, which has been reinforced by computer simulations that produce more intense storms with rising ocean temperatures. To quote an article from the New York Times: “This is probably a forebear of things to come.”
Tropical storms often have massive impacts on tropical islands, and none were nearly as damaging as Hurricane Iniki in 1992 (around the same time Jurassic Park was filmed and may have inspired "Hurricane Clarissa" from The Lost World novel, Steven Spielberg even included footage of the storm making landfall in the associated scene when Dennis Nedry shuts down the parks security system and the Tyrannosaurus escapes). Iniki made landfall on the south-central portion of Kauaʻi, bringing its dangerous inner core to the entire island. Storm surges reached 6 feet high in most parts of the island, sometimes reaching 18 feet with waves as high as 35 feet causing a debris line more than 800 feet inland. Thousands of homes on Kauai were either damaged, destroyed, or lost completely. Agriculture was also heavily impacted by Iniki. Though much of the unharvested sugar cane crop was severely damaged, tender tropical plants like bananas and papayas were destroyed and fruit and nut trees were uprooted or damaged. On the island, one person died when struck by debris, while another lost her life when a portion of her house fell on her. Offshore, two Japanese nationals died when their boat capsized. The Kauai Nukupu'u was abundant until the 1800s when clearing of forests for agriculture destroyed much of its habitat and forcing them to take refuge in the Alakai plateau along with many of the other endemics. The damage caused to the island by Iniki may have led to the nukupu'u's extinction, as they were not seen after 1996.
I added this video of a Kaua'i O'o singing at the end mainly to show how great the impact of humans is on island endemics. One of the few recordings of a Kauai O'o is of the last male alive at the time singing for a mate that will unfortunately never come. "Now his voice is gone"
To end on a good note, I should mention that all hope is lost for island biodiversity, as there are many I've done lots of research on conservation groups whose work focuses on islands, and here are some of my favorites:
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
As many of you know, I will be traveling to the Hawaiian Islands to complete my Young Birder Odyssey big year. I thought this trip would also be a good way to revive my evolutionary biology series that I've skimmed the surface with in my posts on redpolls and feathers, now I'm going to discuss how islands affect the evolution of the animals living there, and I will primarily be using various examples from the Hawaiian Islands to help provide examples of what I discuss, including giant waterfowl, long-legged owls, and of course the native honeycreepers that rival Darwin's finches as an example of adaptive radiation from a common ancestor (sorry if you were expecting me to write a post on them). Because Hawaii unfortunately lacks the dwarf elephants, monitor lizards, tortoises, ratites, lemurs, azdharchids, tiny iguanodonts, and some of the other animals featured in Trey the Explainer's Biology on Islands video, which I have watched numerous times in preparation for this post, so I will borrow examples from Madagascar, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Galapagos, Mediterranean, West Indies, California's Channel Islands, and others to supplement the Hawaiian examples when helpful.
One sixth of all land area on earth is geographically separated from everything else. Unlike continents, islands are small and secluded. This isolation means only a few selective organisms can exist on them, if they can get there in the first place. There are three main ways animals get to islands: by flying or swimming there, by crossing natural land bridges that are now underwater, or as castaways of storms. Many birds were able to fly from the mainland to islands, often blown off course or intentionally, and establish themselves there. Seals are long-distance travelers that in many cases can also swim to islands if they need to. Another interesting case is of the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis), which is theorized to have originated in Australia and moved north to escape the receding forest habitat as deserts took over following a landbridge to New Guinea and Indonesia. However, the islands inhabited by dragons today were never connected to Australasia by the landbridge, so scientists theorize the dragons colonized them by swimming (they are surprisingly good swimmers). Inclement weather can blow flying animals off course on migration, leaving them stranded on islands as well. This is how the ancestors of the native bird species and subspecies got there, as well as those of the native arthropods and Hawaiian subspecies Hoary Bat. In short, most of the native wildlife in Hawaii got there by accident.
A land-bridge is an area of a continent that is exposed when sea levels are lower, allowing animals to travel between the future islands and the mainland. This is how life has been able to cross between the Americas and Eurasia during the many intermittent periods in history from the Cretaceous to the Pleistocene when the Bering Land bridge connecting Alaska and Russia was open due to lower sea levels. Another interesting land bridge relevant to island biogeography is one that existed in northwestern Europe called Doggerland. During the last ice age, sea levels were lower, and the British Isles were connected to the rest of Europe by a grassy plain called Doggerland that will one day rest at the bottom of the North Sea. These plains supported a variety of European megafauna including mammoths, bison, horses, lions, Megaloceros, rhinos, reindeer, and nomadic humans. Over time, as the climate warmed, these humans and animals were forced to migrate to higher elevations in Britain and the Netherlands as sea levels rose due to melting ice sheets and a tsunami off the coast of what is now Norway.
The rafting theory states that animals sometimes trapped mats of vegetation that blow out to sea during storms, and when they reach the nearest island, they are able to colonize the new land. This is how all of Madagascar's native land mammals got there as well as the ancestors of the iguanas and tortoises in the Galapagos.
Foster's rule, also known as the island rule or the island effect, is a biological rule stating that members of a species get smaller or bigger depending on the resources available in the environment. The rule was first stated by J. Bristol Foster in 1964, in which he compared 116 island species to their mainland varieties. He proposed that certain island creatures evolved into larger versions of themselves while others became smaller. He proposed the simple explanation that smaller creatures get larger when predation pressure is relaxed because of the absence of some of the predators of the mainland, and larger creatures become smaller when food resources are limited because of land area constraints.
The more famous residents of definitely the giants. In the absence of predators or competition for resources, animals living on islands have grown enormous, such as the moas and Haast's Eagles of New Zealand or the Galapagos Tortoises. Despite the presence of kiwis in New Zealand, the closest relatives of the giant moas are a clade of South American paleognaths called tinamous, which are still capable of flight. Despite their size, moas had one predator before the arrival of humans: Haast's Eagle, which had a 3 meter wingspan. Like the moas, they became extinct shortly after humans arrived. The Galapagos Tortoises are the most famous of the living giant tortoises, but another species of giant tortoise, the Aldabra Tortoise, lives on an island northwest of Madagascar with which it shares it's name. Earlier, I mentioned that Komodo Dragons evolved in Australia and moved northward, there was an even bigger monitor lizard related to the dragons to inhabit Australia known as Megalania or Varanus priscus, which became extinct due to climate change along with its preferred prey of giant kangaroos and wombats. Even Hawaii had its own giant flightless birds (a common theme on islands in the Indo-Pacific). In addition to living and extinct species of Hawaiian Goose or Nene, the Southeast islands were home to four species of flightless geese known as Moa-nalos and the Giant Hawaiian Goose (Branta rhuax).
Islands can also decrease the size of the animals living there due to limited resources and space. One of the most nocticable examples are the Channel Island Fox and Pygmy Mammoth, smaller relatives of the Gray Fox and Columbian Mammoth that live on the mainland in California. I've included other examples, such as Giant Anteater-sized ground sloths and pygmy chameleons
Convergent evolution is when two unrelated animals evolve similar appearances in response to similar environments. One example of convergence that I find most fascinating is one of two Island species imitating each other. In the absence of rodents on New Zealand, a group of ratites shrunk to fill the role of nocturnal opportunists. Kiwis traded flight for a longer bill and an enhanced sense of smell to hunt for insects and worms on the floor of the temperate rainforest, at the cost of good eyesight. What I find most interesting, possibly even more interesting, is that Hawaii has its own version of a kiwi! The Kaua'i Mole Duck (Talpanas lippa) was a flightless species of Duck related to modern-day stifftail ducks (Ruddy, Andean, Lake, Maccoa, Blue-billed, and White-headed, genus Oxyura) that like the kiwis and Kakapo, also gave up flight to hunt for smaller animals on the forest floor at night. Talpanas is unfortunately extinct, but if they were still around, finding one would have been on my list of birding priorities once I got there. Some other cases of convergent evolution in Hawaii include stilt-owls (genus Grallistrix) which evolved long legs similar to resemble those of phorusrhacids, Secretarybirds, and giant flightless Cuban owls of the genus Ornimegalonyx (unlike these owls, Grallistrix kept the ability to fly); and the Hawaiian Honeyeaters, which resemble the honeyeaters of Australasia so closely, they were considered to be part of the same family before elevated to full family status (Mohoidae)
New Zealand isn't just home to flightless birds and monstrous raptors, the islands also act as a time capsule from the age of the dinosaurs. Dense forests of tree ferns and podocarps similar to those in the Lord of the Rings series are found on both islands, and are where many episodes of Walking With Dinosaurs were also filmed. These ancient forests are home to two ancient creatures from the Mesozoic: the Giant Weta and the Tuatara, both coincidentally appearing in Spirits of the Ice Forest (episode 5). The Tuatara looks like a lizard, but is from an unrelated order called Rhyncocephala. Competition from lizards elsewhere has driven Tuataras into extinction, and now survives only on a few small islands off New Zealand’s coast.
Adaptive radiation is the diversification of a clade from one common ancestor to fill a variety of niches and exploit the abundance of food sources in their new environment. This is the reason I chose to use Hawaii as my example location in this blog post. Most people typically think of the tanagers of the Galápagos when adaptive radiation comes to mind, but I’ve chosen the Hawaiian honeycreepers not just out of personal bias, but also because their bill shapes reflect a greater divergence than that in the Galapagos and they’re more colorful (reds, greens, and yellows are more appealing than different shades of gray and brown, sorry Darwin). About 4 million years ago, the ancestors of the drepanidid finches, most likely a flock of rosefinches from the Asian mainland based on genetic analysis, was blown or flew naturally to Hawaii. Some of these finches had genes that gave them large grosbeak-like bills, others had those for long, thin bills, and others had genes for short, straight bills. Over time, finches would mate with birds that had bills which would best enable them to feed themselves and provide food for their young until they could only mate with birds of similar bill shape. This is called speciation. In Hawaii, most of the native finches can be divided into five categories: Generalists like the ‘alauahios and ‘Anianiau; nectarivores like the I’iwi, mamos, ‘apapanes, ‘Ākohekohe, and ‘Ula‘aihāwane; frugivores like the Rhodacanthis grosbeaks, koa-finches, palilas, ‘Ō‘ū, Telespiza finches, and Lanai Hookbill; gleaning insectivores like common ‘amakihis, ‘ākepas, ‘Akeke‘e, and Greater ‘Amakihi, and bark-picking insectivores like the ‘Akialoas, nukupu’us, ‘Ākiapōlā‘au, Kiwikiu, ‘Alawī, ‘Akikiki, and Po‘ouli. Some, such as the ‘akialoas, ‘amakihis, and ‘Ula‘aihāwane blur the lines between niches, exploiting multiple roles based on avalibility of food, and the Laysan and Nihoa finches have even been known to eat the eggs of seabirds when seeds and insects are scarce
Living on an island can not only alter the physical appearance of a species, but also their behavior. Island species
However, being less responsive to predators can also work against a species, and that is what I will talk about in part 2...
Lifers indicated in bold
This was a trip I should have over the summer. Nearly every resource I consulted about birding in Arizona suggested I go to the sky islands of Southeast Arizona in July or August for my best chance of seeing 500 in a year. These “islands,” which are isolated mountains surrounded by radically different lowland environments, are among the most biologically diverse regions in North America, supporting plant and animal life that is widespread in Mexico and Central America, but is otherwise endangered or not supposed to be in the United States, such as trogons, coatimundis, Jaguars, and some of the highest diversity of reptiles (including birds) in the country. Why would I even think of going to Arizona during the hottest time of the year? The Monsoons. Monsoon rains in July and August create a "second summer" for the sky islands, offering a diverse cast of hummingbirds, flycatchers, mimids, galliformes, owls, nightjars, sparrows, and the alluring Elegant Trogon, much needed relief from the summer heat. The monsoon season can also be a good time to look for some of the rarities for which SE Arizona is famous – including Plain-capped Starthroat, Sinaloa Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, Tufted Flycatcher, and others. I was promised this trip if I could keep my grades up over the spring, but unfortunately, when I learned around finals that there was little hope of turning my grades around, my prospects of going to Arizona were looking bleak, if at all. While other birders were enjoying the bounty of the monsoons, I was in summer school desperately waiting for fall migration to begin so I could have a chance to revive my eBird checklist streak. If I had been able to make it to Arizona over the summer, my next alternative was to go to either Southern California or Albuquerque in November, as I discussed on The Bird Herd with Drew Beamer and Jodhan Fine. When I was offered a chance to go to Arizona in November, I literally jumped at the chance. However, as I would soon discover, there was a catch. We would be staying at a time share in Scottsdale instead of Sierra Vista or Tuscon as I had initially imagined. I would make it to Arizona, but it would not be the ideal southwest trip I had imagined. How would I make this work? To compensate for the less convenient birding location, I had come up with an itinerary that would give me the best of Arizona’s three ecological realms: one day birding around Maricopa County to get all the common species of the Sonoran desert, one day in southeast Arizona with Max Leibowitz for some of the species I had hoped to see over the summer in the sky islands and the dry grasslands of the Chihuahuan desert, and one to head to Flagstaff and back for southern Rocky Mountain birds. This plan felt a little rushed, but with only three days to bird, I had to be as efficient as possible. When there’s a will, there’s a way. Hopefully…
When we got to Phoenix, there was a setback: we didn’t have a place to stay at the time share, and we’re forced to stay at a more expensive vacation club owned by Four Seasons.
My first full day of birding in Arizona was off to a slow start, too slow for someone with intense time constraints. I started by walking around the resort grounds, but it was unsettlingly quiet, not even a Cactus Wren or a Great-tailed Grackle was calling. Was this a sign I was setting myself up for failure? My plan for the day was to work in a circle: start at a Berkshire Hathaway store at the request of my mom, and from there bird at Gilbert Water Ranch, Veteran’s Oasis Park, a neighborhood pond in Gilbert where Clark’s Grebes were often seen, the “thrasher spot” on Baseline road and Salome Highway, White Tank Mountain, and Lake Pleasant, then listen for Western Screech Owls on the resort grounds. As we got on the road, it didn’t take long before I saw my first new bird of the trip: a Say’s Phoebe, followed by a Gila Woodpecker and an Abert’s Towhee. I was off to a slow start, but it was better than no start. While my mom was focused on taking a selfie in front of the Berkshire Hathaway in Scottsdale, I set my sights on the local bird life in the parking lot. I found an Anna’s Hummingbird, a Brewer’s Sparrow, heard a Gilded Flicker, and my most wanted bird from Phoenix: a flyover Rosy-faced Lovebird. Like the numerous parrots of Florida, Texas, California, and northeastern states, suburban Phoenix is home to feral population of these popular cagebirds that either escaped or were intentionally released, originally native to southwest Africa. For these parrots, Arizona is close enough in climate to their native Kalahari Desert for them to thrive, making use of abandoned Gila Woodpecker holes in the absence of weaver colonies. The lovebirds nested successfully, and the feral population is sustainable enough to be counted by ABA birders. Having scored the lovebird, we moved on to the next spot, where along the way, I added Gambel's Quail to the day list...
At first glance, the name "Water Ranch" might be confusing to a person not from Arizona, as I was when I was researching what spots I should go to in Maricopa County on the first day. Instead of raising keeping animals, the "ranch" is part of the Town of Gilbert's effort to balance water resource development with wildlife habitat, eventually leading to the creation of the Riparian Preserve, organized based on plant communities, ranging from marshlands to desert riparian and upland vegetation. As would be expected from a diversity of habitats, the ranch has an impressive list of over 300 bird species as well as many other animals. We started at the pond in the northwest corner of the park, which didn't have any birds of interest, except for a few Mexican Ducks. Moving on, we checked the flowers to see what hummingbirds were attending them, mostly Anna's and a female Costa's Hummingbird. Elsewhere in the preserve, I saw a group of four American Avocets on a pond, a Plumbeous Vireo in the brush, tons of Abert's Towhees and Verdins, a Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a Spotted Towhee, and a Black-throated Gray Warbler. Another birder stopped us to ask about a dark raptor that could've been a Zone-tailed Hawk, but was eventually confirmed as a dark Red-tail.
The next spot we went to is Veteran's Oasis Park, where a late-staying Bell's Vireo had been reported. The first bird we looked for in the park was not the vireo, but Burrowing Owls at a nest site. We didn't see any owls there, so they must have moved on to a winter roost. While I searched for the Bell's, a Prairie Falcon soaring over the trail, a Lawrence's Goldfinch in a flock of Lesser Goldfinches, and a Gray Flycatcher calling from the shrubbery. As for vireos, I didn't get the Bell's, but I did get Hutton's Vireo, an expected species in Arizona which I almost thought was a kinglet when I saw it.
Moving on again, we stopped at a pond in Gilbert which had Clark's Grebe and California Gull, then moved onto the southwest, passing flocks of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Lark Buntings, as well as a Burrowing Owl perched on a bush. When we finally got to a section of Baseline Road and Salome Highway called "the Thrasher spot" on eBird and Google Maps. I'm serious, there a location in Google Maps literally called "Thrasher Spot Parking Area," which is how I found the spot in the first place. This spot in the middle of the desert is one of the easiest places to find most of the thrashers in the ABA Area. With the exceptions of Long-billed and Brown Thrashers, which I saw in Texas and New York respectively, most thrashers prefer desert and chaparral (semidesert) habitat. This spot in the desert supports most the desert species: Bendire's, LeConte's, and Crissal. As we pulled up to the parking area, I spotted a Bendire's Thrasher sulking in the bushes, then a Sage Thrasher, which prefers sagebrush and plains habitats in the summer and winters in deserts. I got out of the car and walked along the sandy areas in search of the other species, which I got brief looks first of Crissal Thrasher, then of LeConte's Thrasher hiding in dense brush, just out of focus range for my camera. Heading back to the car, I flushed a Sagebrush Sparrow in a flock of White-crowns and Verdins. As we left, a Ferruginous Hawk flew over.
The final stop of the day was White Tank Mountain Regional Park, in search of a continuing Gray Vireo. A lot of the birds I looked for today were all in various shades of gray, brown, or tan, which aren't the most exciting to look at, but the fact many of them were lifers makes up for the lack of color. Driving up the road to the trail the vireo was seen on, I pointed out a Rock Wren on the ground and White-throated Swifts flying overhead. Walking up the trail, I found a Canyon Wren and a Green-tailed Towhee. Shortly after, I heard a harsh "charr" call coming from the brush, then saw a grayish bird flying across the trail. As quickly as I wanted to say it was the vireo, I didn't because Loggerhead Shrikes are also in the Sonoran Desert, and. I refound it perched on a small bush, where I saw it flick its tail a couple of times, then I was satisfied with calling it a Gray Vireo before heading back.
As we entered the resort, my mom insisted that we stop to take pictures of the full moon. I had planned to go owling on site anyway, so to hear a Western Screech-Owl right off the bat made my job much easier.
When I planned the southeast Arizona day, I knew I would need help from a birder who is more familiar with the area, which is why I asked Max Leibowitz for help. My dad and I picked him up in Tuscon first before setting out for Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, a grasslands are where I should hopefully get Baird's Sparrow, Sprague's Pipit, and Chestnut-collared and McCown's Longspurs. The first spot we drove around had Lark Buntings, Vesper Sparrows, Lilian's Meadowlarks, Common Ravens, and a Say's Phoebe. The next spot we birded in the grasslands was Curly Horse Ranch Road. First we spotted two bluebirds perched next to each other, one Mountain Bluebird and one Western Bluebird. In the field where Baird's Sparrows had been reported, we trudged around and flushed several sparrows that were good candidates for Baird's, although we didn't call them Bairds without any good looks, which I'm wondering could've been Vesper Sparrows instead, as well as a Savannah Sparrow.
The next spot we tried was the Paton Center for Hummingbirds or Paton's Yard, one of the few reliable spots north of Mexico for Violet-crowned Hummingbird. The original owners, Wally and Marion Paton, began allowing birders to visit their home and view the birds that came to their feeders in Patagonia shortly after moving there. After Wally died in 2001 and Marion in 2009, the birding community was left with an inspiring legacy upon which to build. In 2014, Tuscon Audubon Society acquired the Paton's house and restored it as the Paton center. Shortly after arriving, we saw an Arizona Gray Squirrel and the first of several Broad-billed Hummingbirds. In order to find a Violet-crown, we all split up to cover more ground. We also saw more sparrows (including Chipping), a Bewick's Wren, a Cassin's Vireo, and a Bridled Titmouse, but no Violet-crown. Unfortunately, my camera battery died after this stop, just enough time to get some photos of a mystery hummingbird.
Trying to maximize daylight, we went to four more stops before calling it a day. The first was Patagonia Lake State Park, which many people might recognize from the beginning of The Big Year as where Sandy Komito began his quest with a Nutting's Flycatcher, in search of a Black-capped Gnatcatcher and a Green Kingfisher (I got that in Texas, but Max needed it at the time we went there). There, we saw several Mexican Ducks and Redheads, at least 40 American Coots, singles of Eared and Western Grebes, two Hammond's Flycatchers, and a Pink-sided Junco. Unfortunately, neither of our target species were there. Next, we tried Rancho Santa Cruz, a newly opened spot along the De Anza Trail. Earlier that week, a Rose-throated Becard was reported from this spot. We didn't see the becard, but had more Bridled Titmouse, a Vermilion Flycatcher, a flock of Chihuahuan Ravens, and a raptor that we initially considered Zone-tailed, but left as unidentified without photos. Afterwards, before stopping at a Border Patrol checkpoint, we stopped at another site on the De Anza Trail called Tumacacori for Rufous-winged Sparrow, two of showed up after a few minutes of waiting. Most of our targets were hit or miss, so to succeed on this one after a string of misfortune was reassuring. Lastly, we made it to Madera Canyon, which I hoped was the most promising spot. Just after we arrived, I got several new ones right off the bat at the feeders near Santa Rita Lodge: Rivoli's and Blue-throated Hummingbirds (the latter flew right at my face and hovered just a few feet away), Acorn Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, an Arizona Woodpecker, several Yellow-eyed Juncos, and a Hepatic Tanager. We ran into Ken Blankenship there, who was guiding a client around. From the lodge, we moved down the canyon to look for Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, and Ocotero. Unfortunately, we could not locate them as it was getting dark, but we did hear the Mexican subspecies of Brown Creeper in the canyon, which is a prime candidate for a split from the northern forms. The final new bird of the day was a flock of Phainopeplas on the power lines leading down from the canyon, a species I somehow missed the day before.
After we dropped Max off, I told him that I would definitely come back to southeast Arizona in the summer, when the specialty birds of Arizona are more abundant and easier to find, to fill in the holes from the day list and my ABA life list. My mom texted me asking if there is a bird called a "night hawk," which I asked if one had been seen in Phoenix. She explained that the concierge said that on the lawn they shine lights to attract insects that the nighthawks eat, presumably Lesser. I said it was too late to try for them, but suggested doing so the next evening.
The next day, all three of us traveled north of Scottsdale to look for southern Rocky Mountain species. At the first bathroom stop of the day, I spotted a Band-tailed Pigeon, a Steller's Jay, and a Juniper Titmouse at another stop to grab snacks. We then went to a spot that had Lewis's Woodpeckers and Woodhouse's Scrub-Jays.
The next spot we went to is a trail in Little Elden Springs. There, we saw a flock of Bushtits at the trailhead. Hiking along the trail, I pointed out a whole host of new birds, such as a Mountain Chickadee, Clark's Nutcrackers, Pinyon Jays, a juvenile Williamson's Sapsucker, and most surprising of all, an American Three-toed Woodpecker. Near the car, we came across a mixed flock of Dark-eyed Junco subspecies, of which I was able to identify to Oregon, Cassiar, Pink-sided, and Gray-headed/Red-backed (most likely the latter). Again, these are just subspecies, but sometime in the future, they may be recognized as species again.
We then headed south towards Cave Springs, a spot in Oak Creek Canyon I was hoping to see American Dippers at. On the descent into the canyon, I added Northern Goshawk (finally) and Townsend's Solitaire to the year count. At the bottom of the canyon, I heard Cassin's Finches and a Red-naped Sapsucker. My plan to find a dipper was simple, follow the course of a stream running through the stream, and look for a slate gray bird feeding in the river. Following the course of the stream, I flushed a gray bird from the river. I tried to relocate the bird visually, but to no avail. Fortunately, I heard it singing, which helped me confirm it as an American Dipper.
The final stop we went to was Page Springs Fish Hatchery, where a Common Black-Hawk was wintering, sadly to no avail...
As we were arriving back at the resort, I spotted a bird fly erratically across the headlights. Based on flight pattern and the timing of the observation, I concluded that it was a Lesser Nighthawk. Later, I walked around the resort grounds in the hopes of finding another, but all I could hear was the bouncy-ball songs of Western Screech-Owls and the unmistakable deep hoot of a Great Horned Owl. Great Horns start pairing up and establishing nest territories early in the breeding season to get a head start on incubation, which lasts up to a month, so the owlets fledge when prey is most abundant in mid spring. Hearing this familiar sound was a reassuring sign that spring is on the way, but for me, it also meant that time is running out. Would I get to 500 in Arizona like I had predicted I would?
That night, I was barely able to sleep: I only had 12 hours left in Arizona, was this enough time to meet my goal for the year? Would I even get to 500 at all? The morning before we left for New York, my dad and I tried for a Varied Thrush reported from a campsite in Tonto National Forest, but to no avail, only a Canyon Towhee stirred. On the way back, I noticed a flycatcher on the side of the road, which turned out to be an Ash-throated Flycatcher, putting me at 498 for the year! That afternoon, I left Arizona having seen 158 species, 73 of which were new for the year for my second highest total new birds outside of New York. While Arizona did not get me to 500 for the year as I initially hoped, I had a greater incentive to return in the future and try again for the southeastern specialties I had missed, but more importantly, it put me tantalizingly close to my primary goal for the year: two more to go!
To be continued...
As October transitioned into November, I felt myself run into a familiar problem, one I usually experience in the middle of the summer: there were practically no new birds for me to get. This isn’t to say I haven’t been successful this fall, rather I’ve been too successful. My needs alerts for New York consisted of a combination of stuff I had already seen that was mostly being reported from upstate, birds I actually needed that were also too far upstate, and an escaped Mandarin Duck in Central Park that was making headlines of news outlets everywhere. The only thing that was chaseable was a Cattle Egret at Timber Point Golf Course, which wasn’t even a yearbird. After I had gotten my computer fixed, I convinced my dad to drive me to the course anyway, but after searching for fifteen minutes, I gave up. I wanted to go home. After the crazy October I had, I was birded out, and I wanted the Mandarin Duck alerts to stop
I get why many birders would cancel all their plans to get to the spot where a species rare for their home area, often making local news headlines starting with the obligatory "Birders Flock" (whyyyyyyyyyyy); having done several myself, even crossing state borders and changing my entire plans for the day to revolve around a single rare bird. However, I don't know why some birders would deliberately go out of their way to see a bird that is already known to have escaped from captivity, although I did that with a Tropical Mockingbird in Florida (in my defense, I had planned to see it before it was deemed an escapee, but got there too late to change my plans). Case in point: a Mandarin Duck that was first filmed in Central Park on October 25th, starting a media frenzy in which Gothamist, The Cut, Seeker, Animal Planet, National Geographic, the New York Times, and even BBC covered it.
I did everything I could to resist. I kept telling myself that no matter how much attention this duck got, I was not going to see it under any circumstances. I had seen 5 species not on the ABA Checklist this year in Florida and Texas, but never have I intentionally looked for a species not on the checklist without reason to believe it was wild until now. Well, my original plan was to get this Mandarin Duck out of my needs alerts (unsubscribing and/or switching to daily is too risky, plus Twitter, Facebook, and Discord can only get me so far), but as I was taking the train into Manhattan, I got an alert for a much more urgent sighting: a tweet from Manhattan Bird Alert that read "HARRIS'S SPARROW at NE end of Central Park North Meadow, found by @jhonny_2003" (well, actually his wife found it and he reported it). Fortunately, I was in the train station when it clicked that what was initially identified as a Lapland Longspur was really an even bigger rarity for Manhattan than the longspur. After a short subway ride to the north side of the park, my mom and I ran as fast as possible to get this sparrow, which had moved to the southwest side of the north meadow. Finding the spot was easy, just look for the huddle of birders, but the sparrow I needed was not there yet, only a few White-throated Sparrows. As if on cue, the Harris’s Sparrow perched on a fence and posed for photos then dropped down to forage before disappearing out of sight. “Man,” I thought, “the birders who went on the pelagic are not going to be happy about this.”
After the sparrow, I wanted to look for Barred Owls also reported in the park, but I eventually caved and went to see the Mandarin Duck. It took my mom and I to find a way past the NYC marathon to get back in the park. When we finally got to the Mandarin Duck, it was honestly not worth all the trouble. I’m used to chasing rarities and not having to work hard to find them, but this was different. Part of what disappointed me was the number of people taking pictures of it with phones and selfie sticks, but what disappointed me the most is people were feeding it bread products. To me this didn’t feel like rarity chasing, this didn’t even feel like birding. It was birdwatching. (Don’t give me the “there’s no difference between the two” bullsh*t in the comments, one is a hobby and the other is a commitment). I had succumbed to the hot duck craze and I felt ashamed that I had subjected myself to a level of birding lower than stringing. In order to clean myself of my corrupt appearance, I swore I would hold myself to new standards: be polite, be efficient, have a plan to get as many birds as possible. As I was on the train back to Long Island, the birders who were on the pelagic were also getting back, and as I predicted, they were not happy about missing the Harris’s Sparrow
Save for the Mandarin Duck and a Painted Bunting in Prospect Park in 2015, when I had peaked in an exaggerated “holier than thou” attitude towards rarity chasing taken to the extreme, I don’t like to be left out of a rare bird sighting, especially with one I need. A good case is when there were two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers back-to-back and a Purple Gallinule in Prospect Park on the same day, when my parents were acting holier than thou, and I was melting inside. Scissor-tailed Flycatchers breed in the southern Great Plains and winter in Florida and Central America, with some remaining year round in south Texas, where I saw one this year. I tried to act like it was no big deal, but the appearance of a Scissor-tail and a Gray Kingbird in the same area was enough to break me, I needed a way to cleanse my record after cHaSiNg the Mandarin Duck, even if I had already seen both birds for the year. After lunch, my dad and I drove around Lido beach in search of the flycatcher when I noticed we were being followed. It was Avery Scott and his family! Together we did a loop in search of the rarity until we tried for the kingbird, then headed home as we could not easily find it either.
Since my search for the rare flycatchers had been a bust, I thought now would be a good time to get some work done. I thought so, until I got an alert for Northern Shrike at Fort Tilden. Last winter, I tried for this bird several times upstate, but never had any positive results. I would be headed there later this week with the NYSYBC, but the temptation to chase was too hard to resist. After a concentrated search, I saw the shilouette of what I believed to be the Northern Shrike teed up on a bare tree, which I later confirmed when it called
On the actual trip, I wasn't expecting anything new, but some of the highlights were large numbers of seaducks, Pine Siskins, various gulls, and two late staying migrants; Lincoln's Sparrow and Spotted Sandpiper.
My quest for a goshawk continued, this time back at Jones Beach. All I was able to find were more Pine Siskins, a Merlin, and the Marbled Godwits on the spot that I was convinced would never leave…
As I was preparing for Arizona, I thought it was safe to set my needs alert for New York to daily. Then, I got an alert for a Black-headed Gull in Old Field. By the time my mom and I got there, it was getting too dark, and I was running out of luck.
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…
Lifers indicated in bold
In January, I got the first 100 species for the year within two days birding in Florida, and I had predicted that I would get to 400 for the year before or while my mom and I were back in Florida. Nine months and a 298 additional species later, it seems my ability to predict the future has proven much better than the last time I predicted when I would reach a milestone for the year (am I now Doctor Strange?), I rather boldly (and cautiously) claimed on The Bird Herd Discord server that "Tomorrow might be the day I finally get to 400 for the year." The last time I predicted I would get to a milestone, things did not go as I imagined and the results were, um, explosive for those who did not see my rather unprofessional Instagram story highlighting the trip. Can I prove my ability to see the future? Or will this be another claim that went up in flames?
I’m not exaggerating when I say the first thing we did upon arriving in Florida was look for more birds. Specifically, Florida Scrub-Jay, a species I normally save for last, but couldn’t because I would be in Hawaii in December, not Florida. I knew the “Scrub-Jay death march” at Jonathan Dickinson State Park like clockwork: park at the trailhead between the ranger station and the campground, walk all the way down until you find one, then head back at the trail intersection. A Short-tailed Hawk flew overhead, #399, as we set out for the trail. A Gopher Tortoise crossed the road. I was doubting we would even see a jay by the time we got to the tree where I had seen a pair in the last two years (Florida Scrub-Jays rarely stray far from their birthplace). Near the intersection, I saw the shape of a perching bird, which my mom thought was a mockingbird, but I had other thoughts. The wings, tail, and head were blue, and I could make out an eye stripe and white throat. I had no doubt this was a Florida Scrub-Jay, #400 for the year! Shortly after, I saw another three jays flying around the intersection. We stayed with them for about five minutes before heading back to my grandparents’ house where we would be staying for the weekend. Now that I had proven myself right by getting to 400 on the first day in Florida, I was full steam ahead on to 500.
Usually when I get up to bird the ponds outside my grandparents’ house, it’s on the first day of January and my yearlist is at zero. With the possible exception of Sandhill Crane, which has eluded me in Florida, Texas, and upstate New York, I wasn’t expecting to add anything new, just to get the ball rolling for October big day. I quickly got the usual cast of waterbirds, doves, and passerines (including bonus Magnolia Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo). As I was studying a small group of sandpipers, I saw two Sandhill Cranes fly in and land within feet of me! I was beginning to worry that I would not see them this year, after they had eluded me on previous trips to Florida, Texas, and upstate New York, especially after being at Derby Hill and a birder seeing them after I left.
Being in Florida for October Big Day gave me a good reason to go to as many spots in Miami for non-native species as possible. The trip to go to all the spots for non-natives does not have an official name, but I’ve decided to refer to it as the Miami Exotic Run. Birders who go on the Exotic Run typically go to the following spots: Brewer Park for parrots and macaws, Markham Park for Spot-breasted Oriole, Charles Deering Estate for Scaly-breasted Munia, Kendall Baptist Hospital for Red-whiskered Bulbul, Ocean Bank for White-winged Parakeet, and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens for Common Hill Myna. I had initially planned to go to all these spots as well as Bill Baggs for Thick-billed Vireo, Crandon Park for Wilson’s Plover, Black Point Marina for Mangrove Cuckoo, Lucky Hammock for Smooth-billed Ani, Brian Piccolo Park for Burrowing Owl, the agricultural fields in Kendall where a Zenaida Dove had been seen, and Green Cay to add Purple Gallinule, Gray-headed Swamphen, and Painted Bunting to the day list. Since we were leaving an hour behind schedule (I wanted to leave as early as possible to maximize birding time), I had to cut several spots out in order to be home by dinnertime. Since no recent reports of the ani, dove, or vireo had come in, I cut those spots out. I also cut Deering Estate out because I would have more opportunities to see munias in Hawaii, along with a whole menagerie of introduced species from Asia, Africa, and South America. The first spot we went to was Highland Oaks Park, one of many spots to see them, but I had picked this spot because it also had Gray Kingbirds nearby, which are fairly common in suburbs and coastal areas, but I wanted to get both native and introduced birds efficiently as possible, which meant I would need to get them in the same spots (I could've gotten more at Lucky Hammock along with Smooth-billed Ani, but I did not plan to go there unless an ani stuck around). Almost immediately upon arrival I found a pair of Gray Kingbirds perched on electrical wires, if only I can find the orioles. I first asked a group of birders if they had seen anything of interest, which they replied by asking if I could help them identify a sparrow (which I wasn't ready to call Clay-colored). I then made a path towards a large lake, where I found a Black-whiskered Vireo in one of the trees and a large group of Egyptian Geese and White Ibises on the shore. While checking the perimeter, I heard the screeches of a parrot, most likely Orange-winged, but I ignored it because I could not count it for the year. Two loops around the park later, I finally located a Spot-breasted Oriole.
Wilson's Plover is a shorebird, so by definition, this is a native bird. In Florida, the best spot to look for them is on the Gulf coast, but a few have been seen at Crandon Park in Key Biscayne. I had looked for them at the beginning of the year, fresh off the excitement of the Loggerhead Kingbird, but did not have much luck. My mom and I went back to the spot in hopes of seeing one, but did not see much of anything in terms of birds in the heat of the Florida sun, mostly iguanas basking on the shore.
Most parakeets are not countable in the ABA Area, but a few exceptions, Green, Monk, Nanday, Rose-ringed, and White-winged, have established populations large enough to count. Of these five, the one I needed most was White-winged (I would hopefully get Rose-ringed in Hawaii), the rarest of the seven established parrots in the ABA Area (Red-crowned Parrot and Rosy-faced Lovebird are the other two, while Thick-billed Parrot has been extirpated from the southwest and Carolina Parakeet is unfortunately extinct). Hundreds of thousands were imported to the US until 1972, and many of them escaped and bred. Unfortunately, due to competition with the similar Yellow-chevroned Parakeet and starlings, their populations have suffered a massive blow, declining up to 99% in their introduced range in just 5 years. As Yellow-chevroned and Blue-crowned Parakeets expand in population, Ocean Bank in Miami is the last stronghold of the White-winged Parakeet. My mom and I parked across the street and waited for a parakeet to appear, only seeing a Common Myna, before deciding to move on...
The next species we searched for is even harder than the parakeets to find: Mangrove Cuckoo, among the most poorly known North American birds. As their name implies, they only inhabit mangrove forests of South Florida, but can be found in other coastal habitats in their more extensive neotropical range. Skulking and secretive by nature, it is usually difficult to observe. As a result, most aspects of this species' reproductive biology, ecological requirements, and population dynamics remain a mystery. I was not expecting to see a Mangrove Cuckoo on this trip, let alone hear one. One of the few reliable spots to see a Mangrove Cuckoo is Black Point Marina, which is also home to manatees and crocodiles. Despite the low probability of seeing a cuckoo, I decided to try my luck at the marina anyway. We searched the mangroves along the shore of the marina with no luck, then decided to get lunch because we weren't having much luck with anything other than iguanas (one of which I spooked from its resting spot). As we were eating, I spotted a large gray mass emerge from the marina. This was definitely not a bird, but the closest living relative ever since non-avian dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago: an American Crocodile! Unlike American Alligators, which I usually give a passing glance while birding, crocodiles are the rarer of Florida's two native crocodilians. While alligators prefer freshwater swamps and marshes, American Crocodiles hunt in coastal estuaries and mangrove swamps, one of only two living* pseudosuchians to be comfortable in both freshwater and saltwater, along with the extremely dangerous Saltwater Crocodile of Oceania and Southeast Asia. Both alligators and crocodiles suffered from hunting for their skins to make handbags and belts, until the US government declared them endangered in the 1970s. The alligators made an incredible comeback, to the point of legal, carefully managed hunting to resume, but the crocodiles never made as big of a recovery and are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Many people at the restaurant, including myself, watched as this ancient predator swam through the boat basin, then disappeared below the surface. Having come to my senses that finding a Mangrove Cuckoo was going to be harder I imagined outside of the Everglades and Florida Keys, we moved on to our last spot of the exotic run.
*I say living because a now extinct clade of pseudosuchians, Thalattosuchia, was widespread during the Jurassic and lower Cretaceous.
As we were leaving the marina, I was shocked to see a female Indian Peafowl on the side of the road. I have seen peafowl numerous times in captivity and running free in neighborhoods, but unlike this bird, they were domesticated. Until recently, I would've ignored this bird and kept moving on, but as of May 2018, the ABA deemed feral populations to have been breeding long enough to count for an ABA year list.
The last non-native species I needed from Miami is the Red-whiskered Bulbul. During the 1960s, populations of introduced Red-whiskered Bulbuls became established in southern Florida and southern California, although these populations remain small and limited in distribution. In contrast, a released population O‘ahu has proliferated. In Miami, Kendall is the best area to see the small population bulbuls left in the lower 48, and the preferred spot to see them is even weirder: the grounds of Kendall Baptist Hospital. We first tried driving around the hospital grounds after a mob of Muscovy Ducks attacked us for food, but that didn't get us too far. It was getting late, and in an act of desperation, I walked around a small garden near the entrance. I got a brief look at a Red-whiskered Bulbul before it dropped back into the brush, but as I was searching, a flock of parakeets flew over. These were mostly Mitred Parakeets, another common, but unfortunately non-countable species. In that flock, I spotted a Red-masked Parakeet, which is also not countable, several also non-countable Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, and my most-wanted White-winged Parakeet. My first attempt at birding the Miami Exotic Run has been a success!
I considered two options for birding the next day: either to try another spot on the coast where Wilson's Plovers have been reported, then go inland in search of King Rail, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, and Snail Kite; or try for the inland stuff first then bird on the coast. My mom, however, had a different idea: she wanted to get my grandfather interested in birding, so she insisted on going to Wakodahatchee to get him interested in birding, which I begrudgingly agreed to. Fortunately, as we were arriving, I spotted a Fulvous Whistling-Duck in a ditch across the street from the parking lot at Wakodahatchee, but I eBirded it for the main hotspot. When we got to the spot, I learned that after I explained how to identify a bird, I had to leave future identification on this trip to my grandfather. Among some of the more interesting finds were, aside from most of the stuff I got at the beginning of the year, the continuing Neotropic Cormorant, an also continuing Neotropic X Double-crested Cormorant hybrid (which my mom "accidentally" deleted my photos of), and two acts of predation: a Great Blue Heron stalking a tilapia and a White Ibis wrangling a snake, with the birds succeeding in each act.
In all the years I’ve been going down to Florida for birding, only one relatively easy (for the record, Mangrove Cuckoo and Antillean Nighthawk are not easy, as I've learned the hard way with the former) specialty bird has eluded me: Snail Kite. True to their name, Snail Kites only eat apple snails, which are common in freshwater wetlands throughout the neotropics. In North America, these snails are only found in Florida, preferably away from the highly-developed coast. I had found a reliable spot for one in Wellington that I was eager to try after going to Wakodahatchee. We started on a paved trail that extended to a boardwalk, where I saw many wading birds, including a heard-only King Rail. Shortly after, I picked out a female Snail Kite as it flew over the marsh looking for prey. Success! I decided to continue further on, also finding several Roseate Spoonbills, a Bachman's Sparrow as it flew across the path in a forested section of the preserve, more herons, swamphens, Limpkins, and Wood Storks, another Fulvous Whistling-Duck, and several Blue-winged Teal. As we were leaving for the airport, a Western Kingbird flew over the parking lot, ending a productive weekend in Florida. On to 500!
Back in New York, I found out that not only had Key West Quail-Dove and Bahama Mockingbird appeared in Palm Beach County a few days after I left Florida, but also a Kirtland's Warbler was there while I was there and not reported until after I left. I was slightly irked by this after having missed the one in Central Park this spring by an hour, but I had little power to do anything about it. Next time...
To be continued…
Lifers indicated in bold
Like many birders, the last week of August gets me excited, and with good reason: fall migration begins to pick up. While shorebirds have been passing through all summer, the long distance migrants between the arctic circle and southern South America are beginning to arrive. One of those I’ve been looking forward to is Baird’s Sandpiper. These large peeps are most common in the plains states on migration, but regularly occur in small numbers every fall. One was found on a sod farm in Yaphank, and I had nothing but time on my hands to look for it. My grandmother and I drove out to the spot, where I got out with my scope and scanned the field. At first I saw only Killdeer, Mourning Doves, and European Starlings, but then I spotted the shape of a Calidris through the haze. Long primary projection, buffy face and neck, clean break between buff and white underparts. This was a Baird’s! I got pics through my scope (keep in mind, my camera broke on the pelagic), then my grandmother and I headed back to eat lunch and get my camera fixed.
There are four species of godwit worldwide: Bar-tailed, Black-tailed, Hudsonian, and Marbled. Of those, Hudsonian is both the least studied and the only regularly ocurring one in North America I needed for the year (all four have been recorded in North America; Siberian Bar-tailed also nests in western Alaska and Black-tailed can show up anywhere, including a Black-tailed reported minutes after I booked a surprise flight home this spring). Breeding in disjunct areas across the Arctic from western Alaska to James Bay, they are capable of flying nonstop to the "cone" of South America. Several of them stop over on the east coast between late August and September each year. They can show up at any location on the coast, but one of the most reliable spots for them in New York is Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (managed by the National Park Service, not USFWS). I had signed up for NYC Audubon's Jamaica Bay Shorebird Festival in the hopes of getting one there, and, just as according to plan, one was reported from the east pond. I made sure to get onto the shorebirding trip to the pond for my best bet at seeing the godwit. I trekked out onto the pond with a large group of birders, where many sandpipers, plovers, Double-crested Cormorants, Canada Geese, and a Little Blue Heron. Soon enough, we spotted some of the more desired shorebirds such as Western, Baird's and Stilt Sandpipers, and my most wanted Hudsonian Godwit. As I was walking out the pond, I realized the extent to which my boots and socks were covered in mud, and without a change of shoes handy, I was unable to do anything else for the rest of the day.
Today I really felt like a mess: I first tried to do a shorebird count at the coast guard station, though I saw absolutely no shorebirds at all. Next, I went looking for a Lark Sparrow at West End, but came up empty handed. Finally, I went after a Western Kingbird, which, despite the name, is annual in the east in fall. Unfortunately, I got there an hour after it was last seen and it did not come back...
With Hudsonian Godwit down, there was one shorebird I needed for the year: Buff-breasted Sandpiper. A true "grasspiper," this species prefers sod farms, airports and farmland to mudflats and beaches on their migration from upland tundra to the pampas of South America. One particularly good location on Long Island to check are the sod farms outside of Riverhead. Two days before fall semester started, I ventured out to the sod farms along the Doctors Path, which often gets this sandpiper on migration. When we got there, other birders were already on something, which turned out to be a pair of Baird's Sandpipers. After scanning intently, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper flew in and landed near a tractor in the middle of the field. Having seen every northeastern shorebird for the year except Upland Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, and the always alluring chance of an out-of-nowhere rarity, we headed home to make final preparations for school.
The common names given to birds don't always make sense at first, a lesson taught well by the Connecticut Warbler. One would think the best place to look for them is Connecticut, but they are named for the state Alexander Wilson first collected one on migration. Basically you have three options on how to see one in North America: find one in the midwest in spring, go to their breeding range in central Canada and the northern Great Lakes, or in the Northeast in fall. Unlike most warblers, which hop around through the canopy of forests, the Connecticut is a master skulker, preferring to lurk in dense undergrowth and walk on the ground, making them hard to spot in fall unless you know where to look. I figured my best chance to get one for the year would be in Central Park. I asked Ryan if he would help me look for one after I got out of a bar mitzvah for my cousin (the only reason I went was to bird in the park afterwards), which he gladly agreed to. I considered that the cooler temperatures compared to the last few days would make songbirds more active and visible, and Ryan said these were good conditions to find a Connecticut. All we needeed was one to cooperate. We started near the Conservatory Pond and then weaved through The Ramble, checking out areas with lots of bird activity as we went along; some of which included eight warbler species, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 6 Baltimore Orioles, among others. As we were making our rounds through the Ramble, Ryan got an alert for a Connecticut Warbler in Manhattan. However, there was a catch: it was seen on Governor's Island, in the far south of New York County. Ferries to and from the island leave on the half hour, which left us with a dilemma: do we continue through the park so I can get back to the party so I can head back to Long Island the same time my parents did, or do we take the gamble on the Connecticut? Naturally, I suggested the latter, so we made our way out of the park and towards a subway station to the ferry terminal. En route, Ryan gave me some tips for my upcoming trip to Hawaii in December as well as pointing out some mislabeled photos in previous chapters, which resulted in me taking three species of my yearlist: Franklin's Gull, Cackling Goose, and American Golden Plover. Fortunately, Ryan said, I still had time to find the latter of the two before the end of the year, but if I would find another Franklin's Gull candidate is uncertain. Once we got to Governor's Island, we started our search for the Connecticut Warbler by heading straight for Nolan Park, where the bird had first been seen. To cover more ground and have a better chance of finding the bird, Ryan, Gabriel Willow (the finder of the warbler), and I split up to check different areas of the park. Ryan and I were checking the bushes off to the side of one of the island's many buildings surrounding the park when he said he thought he had the Connecticut, but as I was getting my point-and-shoot ready to get documentation, it turned out to be a Common Yellowthroat, false alarm. We continued to search the island for an hour and 15 minutes before running back to the ferry terminal to catch a boat back to Manhattan and a subway back to Penn Station so I can take a train home by myself. As I was leaving, I told Ryan that I would hopefully be able to drop in next time a rarity was seen either in November or December, to which he said I would be even rarer, "you're still flagged." I got back to the nearest train station to my home around 7 PM, satisfied with a full afternoon of birding despite not finding what I was looking for.
I thought I had all the regularly occurring northeastern shorebirds excluding Upland Sandpiper with the recent addition of Buff-breasted, but with my American Golden-Plover report from this spring turning out to be a Black-bellied Plover, I needed to improvise. After class, I went to Breezy point in search of one but came up empty.
I went to Jones Beach in search of a Connecticut Warbler reported there, but unfortunately came up empty. The next day, I got an alert for another American Golden-Plover, this time at the Coast Guard Station. Upon arrival, I saw a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers take off, and with them was the American Golden-Plover which I picked out by the “to-whit” call as it flew off. I continued to scan the flocks gathering on the spit when I saw three unfamiliar shapes land near a group of Red Knots. At first I thought they were Willets, but then I realized that those upturned bills could only belong to godwits. I quickly identified them as a Marbled and two Hudsonian Godwits! Guess I didn't need to go to Jamaica Bay after all...
I went back to Jones Beach in search of a Philadelphia Vireo reported there, with no luck refinding it. Later, I went to Alley Pond Park to look for a Western Kingbird, but also came up empty handed. To add insult to injury, the kingbird was refound an hour later.
NOAA's radar showed strong winds overnight, so I got up early the next morning to bird in my backyard in the hopes of finding new birds there and save myself the trouble of chasing something I need (if you remember, Max and I found a Mourning Warbler in my yard this spring). I didn't find anything new or rare, but I added two new birds to the yardlist: Black-billed Cuckoo and Red-breasted Nuthatch. While I was in class (thankfully my last one for the day), Ryan texted me about another report of a Philadelphia Vireo at the coast guard station, so I went over after class to check it out. This time, I was much more lucky, as I managed to identify one by call and see it fly across the path.
Finches are starting to move. Up north, seed crops of birch and pine cones are poor according to Ontario field ornithologist Ron Pittaway, who predicts the scale at which northern finches will move south in the winter and publishes his forecast for the northeastern states and eastern Canada through Jean Iron's website every September. He predicted that this would be an irruption year for nearly all finches; redpolls, Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, the highly coveted Pine Grosbeak, but not crossbills, which irrupted last winter (I saw both in the Adirondacks). Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings are also predicted to move south in large numbers. If the irruption is as good for all species as Pittaway predicted it would be, I should not have to go far to find finches and waxwings. For the time being, I had a good bird with a silly name on the brain, Dickcissels. This relative of cardinals is a common breeder in the grasslands of the continental interior between the Rockies and Appalachians, irregularly occuring further east. My best bet to find one on the coast is in fall, where they are scarce but regular in migration. With a fresh report of 3 from a morning flight earlier that week at Robert Moses State Park, I decided to check if at least one was still there. I first checked the volleyball courts, where a Lark Bunting that I missed by an hour was seen last year, and circled the perimeter looking for other migrants, including Blackpoll and Wilson's Warblers. As I was about to move on, I flushed a Dickcissel, which I identified by its "bzzzt" call. In addition to birding the parking lots, we also decided to check out the Fire Island Hawkwatch, which my mom wanted me to go to in October with my local Audubon Society (fat chance), where we totaled over 20 Merlins and over 30 Monarchs
I went back to Robert Moses State Park determined to find a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker before the end of the month. I searched the dunes first, coming up with mostly sparrows (including Clay-colored) and Yellow-rumped Warblers, plus another Dickcissel. As we were leaving, I spotted the silhouette of a sapsucker perched on a tree. Mission complete!
Meanwhile, farther south, birders in Cape May reported an impressive high count of 1,570 Red-breasted Nuthatches from morning flight. Begun, the irruption has.
To be continued...
Lifers indicated in bold
One Sunday night, a team of intrepid birders assembled at a harbor on Sheepshead Bay. This team included Paulagics operator Paul Guris, Field Guides tour leader Tom Johnson, Doug Gochfield, Macaulay Library staff member Jay McGowan, Stony Brook professor Doug Futuyma (who, co-authored the textbook I used for my principles of evolution class), Gail Benson, Peter Paul, Sean Sime, fellow young birder Adrian Burke, and, of course, myself. The plan was to motor out to Hudson canyon, a submarine canyon at the edge of the continental shelf, overnight to get there at dawn, bird in the area for as long as possible, and then return to port around 9 pm. Once at the canyon, we would set up a chum slick in hopes of attracting petrels, shearwaters, and storm-petrels. We would also keep an eye on the skies for terns, jaegers, and the highly coveted South Polar Skua. Our main target is the White-faced Storm-Petrel, a seabird of the southern oceans that has only recently occurred regularly off the continental shelf in the North Atlantic. We were also given the usual ground rules: only biodegradable material goes in the toilets unless it comes out the way it went in, stay out of the cabin if you get seasick, etc… but most importantly, no bananas, an old superstition that bringing a banana on a boat is bad luck. With the rules set and our sleeping arrangements figured out, we boarded and set sail for the open sea…
I could barely sleep through the night with the pitching and tossing of a moving boat, only drifting in and out of consciousness. Just before daybreak, I heard the flight calls of what I thought sounded like a Solitary Sandpiper. Then I saw the shape of a bird flying over the boat through the lights, first thinking it was the sandpiper, then another though crossed my mind: was that a storm-petrel? White-faced? Since everyone else was sleeping and I didn’t have a camera handy, I had no way of confirming my suspicions.
We had barely reached the 1,000 fathom line (1 fathom is 6 feet for anyone who was wondering about the conversion factor) before we had our first Leach’s Storm-Petrel of the trip. Once we set up the slick, we had 3 more Leach’s, followed by a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, four Black-capped Petrels (which I might refer to by a local name used in their breeding range of Hispaniola, Diablotin), several Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and an Audubon’s Shearwater at 6:30. Unlike the oceanitid storm-petrels of the Southern Hemisphere like Wilson’s and White-faced, the storm-petrels of the northern hemisphere are a different family: the hydrobatids. These storm-petrels spend less time dancing on the surface of the water (or hopping like kangaroos in the case of White-faced) and instead spend more time flying over water; Leach’s flies more erratically, almost like a nighthawk and Band-rumped more smoothly. Because of their shorter legs, hydrobatids have to sit on the surface of the water and slurp food from the water unlike Wilson’s which can pick food off the surface. A third hydrobatid, European Storm-Petrel, is rare in North American waters.
Later, many of the same birds were present at the chumslick, as well as a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes that flew over. A pod of Pilot Whales was also in the area.
Later, while we were on the same chum slick, the fishermen also using this boat caught a Blue Shark, which we all got to watch them reel in, measure (8 feet long), and release back into the ocean. I had no doubt this shark was attracted to the boat by the same chum slick we were using to lure seabirds in with, as sharks are among the ocean’s most successful opportunists, a trait that has helped them survive everything from the Great Dying to the K-Pg mass extinction. As for Blue Sharks, they are among the most successful of the pelagic sharks, wandering the oceans from the Arctic to the Antarctic in search of any opportunity the ocean provides from schools of fish to krill swarms to even whale carcasses. They are also often at the scene of shipwrecks and have occasionally attacked humans
Moving towards the mouth of the canyon, about 6,000 feet deep, we began to set up the second chum slick of the trip and then drifted. While the usual cast of seabirds trickled in, a pod of Risso's Dolphins approached the boat, providing good views and many photo opportunities. Unlike Bottlenose Dolphins, Risso’s is a deep water species not often encountered from land, instead favoring the edges of continental shelves and submarine canyons. They dive deep to hunt for organisms that live deep in the oceans, a particular favorite is the Greater Argonaut (Argonauta argo).
We were all focusing on the dolphins when Tom Johnson yelled "TRINDADE PETREL!!" at around 9:25, stirring excitement among the group. Like most of the people on board, this would be a lifer for me, and one that had flown completely under my radar. Fortunately, I did not have to race to one side of the boat or another as I had with the Phalaropes in Montauk, as the petrel circled the boat many times giving everyone on board great looks, obviously attracted to the chum slick, staying for about four minutes. I would later find out that Trindade Petrels are a Southern Hemisphere species most common in tropical waters of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, but Atlantic birds regularly wander northward to the Carolinas and Bermuda. This was the third record ever for New York; previously seen by a cruise ship in NY waters in 2012 and before that astonishingly from upstate in 1933 at Boyer Creek Farm; both under the name Herald Petrel, until it was split in 2013 into Herald and Henderson's in the Pacific Ocean and Trindade in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Note: If you're pronouncing "Trindade" as "Trin-DAYD," that is incorrect. Johnson said the correct pronounciation is "Trin-da-GEE," also remarking that a pelagic operator* in North Carolina had a custom shirt that said "Who's your Trindaddy?"
After the Trindade Petrel moved on, I remarked that I was only one away from ABA 500 for life. What would the lucky 500 be?
The Trindade Petrel wasn't the only tropical seabird we recorded on the trip, as shortly after we spotted two Bridled Terns (yup, the same species I barely saw in the last post) being harassed by an unidentified jaeger (Long-tailed? Pomarine? Parasitic is the least likely of the three to occur offshore, and I had even seen them from land in Cape May and Long Island). Another birder asked me if the Bridled Terns were my ABA 500, which I said was not, referencing the Great Gull Island bird, which other birders said they felt pretty stupid for chasing. If any family of birds were to live the pirate’s life, it would be the skuas and jaegers. Skuas, the barrel-chested marauders of the family, mostly terrorize oceans of the Southern Hemisphere**, although Great Skuas, the unholy offspring of Pomarine Jaegers and wandering South Polar Skuas from generations of hybridization, breed on islands in the northern Atlantic, moving south in winter; South Polar (the one we were looking for) breeds in the Antarctic and prowls the oceans of the northern hemisphere in the austral winter. The more lightly-built jaegers, by contrast, breed in the arctic tundra and winter at sea in tropical and subtropical waters (Long-tailed winters in the same Southern Hemisphere waters prowled by skuas). Both clades will viciously chase and harass other seabirds until they regurgitate their last meal. On land, jaegers and skuas raid the nests of birds, eating the eggs, chicks, and sometimes even adults of waterfowl, terns, ptarmigans, shorebirds, and most famously penguins. Even mammals know better than to approach a jaeger nest. While frigatebirds, which take on a similar lifestyle and are named after warships built to hunt down pirate ships***, patrol subtropical and equatorial seas, no seaway is safe from a skua. Around 10:00, an immature Pomarine Jaeger appeared and repeatedly circled the boat, even catching a piece of fish that was tossed up to it. “That,” I said, “was ABA 500 for life!” With 500 for ABA life achieved, I was now ready to get 500 for year.
Moving along the eastern wall of the canyon, we were still in fairly deep water when we encountered a second Pomarine Jaeger, 105 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, more shearwaters, Diablotins, and Oceanodroma, an unidentified cetacean, and a pod of Striped Dolphins. These are also an offshore species, but unlike the Risso’s we’ve observed, these were more acrobatic.
Around noon, we started to head inshore from the 500 fathom line towards an area with recent reports of cetaceans and fish, hoping to find more seabirds. At this spot, we saw over 50 pilot whales, 8 Risso’s Dolphins, and a Portuguese Man o’ war, as well as many of the same birds we’ve been seeing. Pilot whales are yet another genus of deep water dolphins, and they also dive deep to hunt for prey. Two species are recognized: Long-finned in the North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere, and Short-finned worldwide. The only way to identify the individuals to the species level is by the length of the flippers, which we were unable to get looks at. I have wanted to see either species long before I picked up birding, but unfortunately, our camera broke while trying to save it from the pitching and tossing of the boat. However, the most impressive sighting was a flock of 470 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels! Since the camera was broken, we could not get pictures of the flock
Around 13:15, the fishing crew caught a Mahi-mahi around a lobster buoy, and around 13:38, we stopped to drop the final chum slick of the day. Shortly after, we attracted the tubenoses back, as well as a small shark of uncertain species (Doug said it was possibly another Blue, but I think it was a mako based on the length of the caudal lobes compared to one another, most likely Shortfin, the more common of the two species).
We began to run inshore at 2:00 pm, though still in the canyon, where we saw, in addition to more tubenoses and pilot whales, 3 offshore Bottlenose Dolphins. Bottlenose Dolphins have two population types: inshore and offshore. Inshore populations, which I’ve seen in Cape May this year, typically stay within a fixed home range within 3 km of land, while offshore communities prefer to live >4km from land and travel wider areas in search of food.
As we ventured closer to land, many of the same Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and shearwaters were present, although we had good looks at another Audubon’s Shearwater, at one particularly birdy spot we got our first Sooty Shearwater of the trip. As we entered Nassau County waters, tubenoses became scarce and gulls and terns increased in abundance, although we had a close Cory’s Shearwater in the Queens stretch of the trip, not normally seen in the county. We finally got back to Brooklyn around 9 pm. I was thrilled to have made it on my first real pelagic trip (the ones I’ve done previously don’t count because land was always in sight, although I had some good shearwaters on a whale watch boat in San Diego). This was definitely not the last pelagic I would do, but it’s going to be an uphill battle to convince my dad to go on another one. In total I got 7 ABA lifers, three/four mammal lifers (depending on the ID of the pilot whales), and two fish lifers on this trip. The biggest miss of the trip was South Polar Skua, and I left the Brooklyn VI with several unanswered questions: what species of jaeger was chasing the Bridled Terns (of the three, I needed Long-tailed)? Is the superstition that having bananas onboard causes bad luck invalid because we found New York’s third Trindade Petrel (I saw Doug and Tom eating bananas on the way back)? Could I have actually seen the only White-faced Storm-Petrel of the trip before we even started birding? Part of what makes birding fun is the species that go unidentified as much as the ones you can identify…
To be continued...
*I think Brian Patteson had the "Who's your Trindaddy?" shirt, but I forgot who Johnson specifically said it was
**Great and South Polar are the only two skuas to venture into the northern hemisphere, although the carcass of a presumed Brown Skua from Bermuda may represent the first record of this species from the northern hemisphere if accepted.
***My source for this is Sid Meier's Civilization V, so take it with a grain of salt
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