Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Unintentional Quest for 400

In a fit of frustration with my progress in other more meaningful ventures (like getting into grad school and finishing publications), I recently decided to take a brief break and do something else constructive: organize my birding lists, which I've been putting off for oh... about two years. I skipped updating my life list, because that would involve combining lists from three neotropical countries and correcting the various taxonomies, not a brief project. So instead I just updated my ABA-area list, a much easier venture. When I tallied it all up, I came to 397... awesome! Then, I began noticing a few errors. Common Myna was not on the checklist I was using, but it is countable and I saw some in south Florida this year. 398. Oops, how could I forget Hoary Redpoll? 399. Then, I saw another bird I missed on the list, and my ABA tally reaching 400. 400! I glowed with excitement realizing I had reached a birding milestone. Best of all, the species that I forgot to add to the list, the one that pushed me to 400, was also the latest new ABA bird I had seen, and it was a good one.

Way back in August of 2009, I had a month off in between my old job in Florida (Scrub-Jay intern!) and my new job this fall and winter (Scrub-Jay and Red-cockaded technician!). I spent the month in Ithaca, working hard on wrapping up some research, putting a talk together for the AOU meeting, presenting at the AOU meeting, and writing up my research into publishable manuscripts. I was pretty frantic and I needed just a few days truly off so my 'vacation' from Florida actually felt like one. So, I headed down to Long Island with Shawn to get my shorebird fix.

We really canvassed the island, hitting several far-flung birding locations in several days. First up was Avalon Park in Stony Brook. This little place is good for flocks of tame geese, ducks, and gulls along the pond shore, lots of basking Red-eared Sliders and Painted Turtles, and a nice walk in the woods to escape the madness of suburban Long Island.

Laughing GullPainted TurtleRose-breasted Grosbeak
We took a trip out to the end of the island, Montauk. We ended up not seeing a whole lot interesting bird-wise, but we did find this really awesome Phasmid. Check out its blowing-in-the-wind mimic action.

Farther west along the south shore, we checked the flats near the Ponquogue Bridge on Shinnecock Bay (I love place names on Long Island, by the way). We started tallying up shorebirds, but stayed focused on the tern flocks roosting on the sandbars exposed at low tide in the bay. It had been a while since I had seen a new tern and I was positively itching to find one of the east coast species I've been dipping on for a while.

While scanning through the Commons and Forster's Terns on the distant sandbar, I passed over one tern that was noticeably paler. Taking a closer look... my lifer Roseate Tern was at hand! It was made even better by the fact that I picked it out before Shawn. We found one or two more in the flock, too, before summertime boat traffic stirred up the tern flocks too many times. ABA bird #399... check.

My lifer Roseate Tern, I swear

Jones Beach is a standard stop for my Long Island birding trips, because it is quite close to Shawn's place. I can't admit to liking it much in the summertime though, because so much boat and beach traffic displaces congregating birds. Seriously, why can't everyone else enjoy our shore resources the same way? Well, not much was going on in the bay side of Jones Beach. The little island by the Coast Guard station harbored a few sleeping Oystercatchers and assorted sandpipers. Its a treat for me to get to see Oystercatchers, but after scanning what there was quickly I got bored and started looking at fish and jellyfish in the harbor.

Then the harbor blew up in our faces. A Peregrine came out of nowhere and strafed the little sandbar island, sending oystercatchers, peeps, and gulls flying. The falcon quickly singled out an unlucky Ruddy Turnstone and they began dogfighting over the bay. Shawn and I just froze and watched the two go back and forth. The little turnstone couldn't hope to outrun the falcon in level flight, so the action stayed right in front of us as he twisted and turned. I was secretly rooting for the falcon, but as the chase dragged on without end I had to give that little turnstone some respect. Then the turnstone pulled the craziest maneuver I've ever witnessed*. It turned and actually flew between me and Shawn on the dock. The falcon, slightly more cautious of two birders with their scopes, veered away at the last minute and went sailing overhead. Hot pursuit broken, the falcon failed to relocate the turnstone and wandered off. Looking around, we found the turnstone hiding in the shadow of one of the dock steps. Epic win!

That bit of excitement aside, we could turn our attention to the beach side of Jones Beach, where peeps awaited us. Best birds were Western Sandpiper and Piping Plover (it had been too long since I had seen those, too long...) but I spent the most time just watching the plentiful Sanderling flocks playing in the waves... I already posted about them here. I think I could spend all day watching these beach birds.

Mary Beth walking the beach

This picture was supposed to contain Least, Semipalmated, and Western Sandpipers. I think it only came out with two of those, but the third might be hiding behind that grass clump:

If you think I achieved my shorebird fix with a few quick trips to Jones, you don't know me. Plus, I had yet to find my target bird, the big 4-0-0. So, off to J-bay.

A Pec among Peeps

Unknown photographer getting down and dirty

Least Sandpiper

White-rumped Sandpiper
Can you guess this one?

Look at that schnoz... Western!

Birding Jamaica Bay with Shawn, Drew, Trudy, and Mary Beth was fantastic for getting gobs of up close and personal sandpiper sightings, including a whole bunch of good species (Avocet, White-rumped, Western, etc etc...). On our way out, we had a sighting of a different nature. I ran into Will and Corey, fellow bird bloggers. We stood around, shifty-eyed and uncomfortable at meeting in person instead of the safety of the internet. Then my group left, and Will and Corey went on to take much better photos of the cool shorebirds at East Pond. They even spotted one we missed, an American Golden-Plover, identified by the unique bright blue arrows pointing it out.

Well, by this point Shawn and I had exhausted just about every good shorebirding location on Long Island, and we still hadn't stumbled across my highly desired target species. I had definitely gotten my shorebird fix and was quite sated in that regard. I was also thrilled to have gotten a lifer Roseate Tern. If I didn't get this target though, all of that good fortune would be tarnished by the stain of yet another trip to the coast without finding this common species. I had literally been searching for years, including at least half a dozen similar birding trips to Long Island in multiple seasons and various trips to the coast in other parts of the country. Every trip I made Shawn would swear the locations we visited are reliable, regular locations for this species, but as every trip passed by with no luck this bird began to take on a mythical status in my mind. Never before has there been such a nemesis bird!

We had one more trick up our sleeve - Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area. We walked the boardwalks of this small sanctuary of saltmarsh flats butting right up against suburban sprawl. By the time we reached the preserve, it was already midday and not particularly nice out. As I recall the tides were not in our favor either. At least this Great Egret made a very willing subject:

After scanning the mucky channels as much as possible, we began aiming back for the nature center. Shawn at one point claimed to see my target make a dash across a muddy opening in the marsh, but I laughed at his belief in mythical creatures and shrugged off the sighting. I wandering down one last boardwalk spur, and Shawn stopped at the last bit of marsh before the nature center. Then he started shouting and waving frantically. Rushing back to meet him, clambering atop a bench to get a better look out into a half-hidden channel, was that... ?

YES! A CLAPPER RAIL walked around in the muck followed by six black downy half-grown chicks bathing!!!!!!!! Years of searching and not only do I find my life Clapper Rail, but I get the incredible cuteness factor too! The view into the channel was too reed-choked to get anything better than these pictures, but they are undeniable proof that this species exists, it is no longer just a legend, and yes, I even saw it myself!

This sighting was made even sweeter by my discovery two months later that this long-desired species was #400 on my ABA list. Thanks, Shawn! I owe you big! This almost forgives the infamous Ross's Gull incident. Almost.

Well, I could finally retire to my studies in Ithaca happy. The same could not be said about my boots. Heavy duty saltwater, sand and muck finally killed off what adventures in Costa Rica and Venezuela did not. Farewell, my friends.

Epilogue: This post, a birding trip in late August / early September 2009, was started in November 2009. I set it aside and then picked it up to finish in January 2010. By now, I am at 402 on my ABA list, both of those new birds being lifers. At my current rate of writing, expect a post about those in oh... six months or so.

* The second craziest maneuver - Walking to High School one early morning years ago, a House Sparrow went careening past me and shot up underneath the awning on a house. The Sharp-shinned Hawk right on its tail couldn't maneuver that fast and could only bring up its legs, flare its wings and tail, and it slammed into the wall. That last-second braking action saved the hawk - it bounced off and recovered in a nearby tree, looking more than a little miffed. House Sparrow +1

1 comment:

  1. Nice, Nick. Oceanside is a fantastic place to spot Clapper Rails, though they don't turn up as often as one would like.

    BTW, what kind of gull is that in your description of Stony Brook?