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...
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