Saturday, 12 November 2011

Different day, different boys.

If you participate in a hobby or pastime, it is only natural that you should aspire to reach a level of competence that will enable you to mix and confer with other adherents to your chosen pursuit. Until, that is, you meet ‘Doug’. In every hobby where single, middle-aged men gather together in the spirit of gentle competition to follow a mutual interest, there is a ‘Doug’; someone who raises the bar and makes the most basic concept of competence seem a distant prospect. Doug is an “absurdly good birder” who appears to eat, breathe and talk…and talk and talk birds and birding.

It was a real experience to join him and Corey from 10000 Birds, for a day’s birding along the barrier islands of Long Island. I had sent Corey a wish-list of birds that would enhance my life list and he had enlisted the help of Doug to plan a military-style campaign to wring every potential bird from the day and so it was that I found myself trailing in their wake as we launched an assault on the birds of Sussex, Nassau and Queens Counties, New York. The day passed in a blur. We were in and out of the car, striding along beaches and boardwalks, criss-crossing car parks and county lines, visiting and revisiting sites with a commendable sense of urgency. Do we need the scope? What are we looking for here? Shall I bring the camera? Have I had my breakfast? All this just to find me a few birds; I felt very honoured until I found that this was the normal pace of a walk out with Corey whose outings have been likened to “route-marches”.  

I cannot give directions to any of the sites, as I had no input into where we went or how we got there, but I have identified a few on Google Earth and given the coordinates with each one. Cut and paste the co-ordinates and it's almost like being there yourself.

There was much discussion about where to start, but the decision was made to go to the nearer Jones Beach State Park and look out from the Coast Guard Station there (Google Earth ref; 40 35 23N 73 33 10W). A small sand bar, conveniently located close to a shady pagoda and viewing platform, held a few waders, such as American Oystercatcher, Sanderling and Black-bellied Plover with a few Herring Gulls  and an American (Buff-bellied) Pipit flying over. On the water were plenty of Brant Geese, a couple of Horned Grebes and a Common Loon.

Retracing our steps back past the car and close to the Coast Guard’s gate was a patch of scrub that I heard referred to as the West End. Apparently good for migrants and sparrows, it was well stocked with Song and Savannah Sparrows today with approachable Golden-crowned Kinglets feeding in the verge and grass by the pavement.

Further along at the western-most end of Jones Beach Island, Doug pulled a few Black Scoter females from a flock of Surf Scoters. Looking back, I am ashamed to have questioned him, but he set up the scope and sure enough, the pale cheeks of the female Black Scoters and the more delicate bill were apparent. I suspect that he had finessed them with an experienced eye for size and habit and nevermore did I call his identifications.

To the east is an open air stadium sponsored by Nikon, accessed by an underpass beneath the freeway. A flock of Boat-tailed Grackles were seen here with a female sitting nicely and this may also have been the spot where we saw the Merlin chasing grackles. Nearby but, I think, on the ocean side of the barrier island, a Common Tern was seen at the water’s edge.

Next, on to Robert Moses State Park on Fire Island, characterised by the parkway and some huge parking lots. Doug became very excited by a ringed American Kestrel perched on a sign here.

There is a hawk watching platform (Google Earth Ref; 40 37 49.48N 73 13 29.51W), used to monitor migrating birds of prey and the low scrub and ocean give access to a whole lot of sky to watch, interrupted only by the Fire Island Lighthouse. We approached it along a very birdy boardwalk with more sparrows, House Finch and a Cooper’s Hawk seen from it. The hawk watchers had had very little success, but a Sharp-shinned Hawk passed low as we left.

Perhaps it was about now that we returned to the Coast Guard station to check the sand bar again. The tide had been coming in all morning and was nearing its highest point now, bringing lots of wading birds in with it. The bar was now covered with birds.

Dunlin, Red Knot, American Oystercatchers and Black-bellied Plovers were especially abundant with a single Marbled Godwit and a few Semi-palmated Sandpipers. Doug called a Western Sandpiper which accommodatingly went to roost beside the Semi-palmated and I am sure that the differences are obvious to the trained eye. Actually, I had to ask and found that the slightly bigger Western Sandpiper (on the left) roosts with a slightly more upright posture than the Semi-palmated Sandpiper.

These two images were digiscoped, a discipline that I have yet to master, but thanks to Corey for giving me a go. I tried and failed to get a shot of Doug’s Yellow-billed Cuckoo that came in off the water into the bush at the top of the sand bar.
We may have achieved a sub and a drink on the go before reaching a rather fetching salt marsh, the Marine Study Nature Area (Google Earth ref; 40 37 11N 73 37 16W), with a boardwalk running through it. We were hoping for some Ammodramus sparrows here, but had to content ourselves with some Brant Geese and a Great Egret. The theory as I understood it is that the sparrows would be driven to the dry ground in the margins as the tide flooded the salt marsh, but we may have missed the top of the tide and the sparrows could have retreated back into the long grasses.

And so onto Fort Tilden (Google Earth ref; 40 33 55N 73 53 05W) with an eye for a Vesper Sparrow. One had been seen recently in the community gardens, or allotments as they would be known in the UK, but it appeared to have moved on. Corey published a couple of pictures of the said chunky sparrow on 10000 Birds and I could recognise the stump and the car on which it had posed for him, but of the bird itself, there was not a feather to be seen.  An overgrown patch close by was popular with the Song and Savannah Sparrows again with a Northern Cardinal putting in a brief appearance too. Corey had found some White-footed Mice under some corrugated moulding and in so doing added Peromyscus leucopus to my mammals list.

In what proved to be my favourite part of the day we stopped at the southwest corner of Fort Tilden, looking out to sea. Close in were a few more Black Scoter and I was able to get a good look at the yellow-knobbed bill of the male. There were three species of scoter flying by further out and Doug happily called my attention to a slightly smaller bird here or a more defined line and pattern of flight there to indicate the differences between them. One day, one day.

The light was fading now and Corey made a last dash for Jamaica Bay’s West Pond where a good head of Ruddy Duck was seen. Other species mixed amongst them included a Shoveler, an American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Pintail, some Bufflehead and some Red-breasted Mergansers. Laughing Gulls were seen in higher numbers here than at any time during the day and a huge flock of Boat-tailed Grackles came to roost in the reeds.
I am indebted to Corey for inviting me along, organising the day and driving us around and to Doug for his boundless expertise. Thanks for a great day out guys. The list below reflects only my misty memory of the numbers of birds seen and is certainly wildly inaccurate. Doug took copious notes during the day which I had hoped to cheat from, but forgot to ask at the end of a long day. To separate the sites with a list for each would be impossible at this stage with no notes, so the whole day has been melted into one big list.
Species seen; 73
Red-throated Diver 1, Great Northern Diver 4, Horned Grebe 2, Northern Gannet 80, Double-crested Cormorant 80, Great Egret 1, Black-crowned Night Heron 1, Mute Swan 4, Canada Goose 50, Brent Goose 2000, American Wigeon 1, Gadwall 4, Green-winged Teal 2, Mallard 25, American Black Duck 60, Northern Pintail 3, Northern Shoveler 1, Greater Scaup 600, Common Eider 1, Black Scoter 8, Surf Scoter 150, White-winged Scoter 6,Bufflehead 10, Red-breasted Merganser 30, Ruddy Duck 3400, Sharp-shinned Hawk 1, Cooper’s Hawk 2, American Kestrel 1, Merlin 2, Peregrine Falcon 1, American Coot 20, American Oystercatcher 370, Grey Plover 60, Marbled Godwit 1, Willet 2, Red Knot 330, Sanderling 50, Semi-palmated Sandpiper 2, Western Sandpiper 1, Dunlin 500, Ring-billed Gull 15, Great Black-backed Gull 15, Herring Gull 60, Laughing Gull 35, Common Tern 1, Mourning Dove 2, Yellow-billed Cuckoo 1, Downy Woodpecker 2, Northern Flicker 1, Eastern Phoebe 3, Tree Swallow 150, Buff-bellied Pipit 1, Northern Mockingbird 6, Eastern Bluebird 1, American Robin 12, Hermit Thrush2, Golden-crowned Kinglet 15, American Crow 20, Common Starling 150, House Sparrow 8, House Finch 2, Yellow-rumped Warbler 12, Palm Warbler 2, Chipping Sparrow 4, Savannah Sparrow 8, Song Sparrow 25, White-throated Sparrow 15, Dark-eyed Junco 26, Snow Bunting 1, Northern Cardinal 1, Red-winged Blackbird 15, Boat-tailed Grackle 450, Common Grackle 15.

Actually, I have just found how to access Doug’s notes from e-bird www.ebird.org but if I compare what I recall with what he recorded I begin to wonder if we were looking in the same direction, so I have selected a few pertinent counts and relied on my own inadequate memory for the rest.

To find more posts from New York, New York; follow the links below;
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2009/03/hooded-merganzer-lophodytes-cucullatus.html
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2009/10/central-park-new-york.html
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/03/approach-to-broad-channel-train-station.html
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2010/04/central-park-new-york-new-york.html
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2011/01/out-of-towners-central-park-new-york.html
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2011/06/central-park-new-york-xena-and.html
http://redgannet.blogspot.com/2011/08/new-york-new-york-so-good-they-sent-me.html

Visit the dedicated USA and Canada page for more from the continent of North America

JFK, New York, Jones Beach State Park, Black Scoter