Saturday was to be a day during which I would help Mike gain a species on me in our neck-and-neck battle for supremacy on our ABA-area life lists.  Our goal was to be Nelson’s Sparrow because, well, as readers here might recall, there is a good spot to see them nearby and Mike had managed to always miss that specific orange Ammodramus.  If was fortunate for me* then that the wind was scheduled to blow so strongly that I convinced Mike that trying to find his sparrow in the wind-blown marsh grasses would be either a wild goose chase or a snipe hunt but either way it would end without the bird.  He graciously agreed to my suggestion to alter our plans and make for the barrier beaches in Queens and the familiar and friendly confines of Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden.

Mike was exactly on time picking me up in front of my house and we made our way down the Van Wyck Expressway and to the Belt Parkway as an astoundingly beautiful sunrise unfolded.  Once we arrived at the big parking lot at Jacob Riis Park I snapped shot after shot and think that the image above best captured the colors, to say nothing of including migrating Brant.

The northwest winds were blowing hard and a trickle of birds were coming back to land after having been blown out to sea while migrating overnight.  Most of the birds that we spotted during the morning in the hedges, bushes, and other assorted cover were Yellow-rumped Warblers,** White-throated Sparrows, and Eastern Phoebes.  Other sparrow species were around in smaller numbers and an occasional wren, cardinal, or kinglet enlivened our search for hoped-for rarities but the big three were dominating our fields of view.

Yellow-rumped Warbler Dendroica coronata

It rapidly becomes frustrating when it seems that every single bird that one sees in the bushes is a Yellow-rumped Warbler and every bird in the air is either a Canada Goose or a Brant.  More so when visions of possible rarities that can show up on the barrier beaches after a night of northwest winds are taken into consideration.  But no matter how hard we worked we kept coming up with common birds.  Not that there is anything wrong with the three common birds below but we really wanted to see something exciting!

American Robin Turdus migratorious

Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus

Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana

The robin above was quickly chased off by a bird that is not rare but is pretty exciting.  One doesn’t often get great looks at a male American Kestrel perched up in a tree in gorgeous morning light at close range but so we made sure to drink the bird in and fully appreciate it.

American Kestrel Falco sparverius

The kestrel was only at Fort Tilden, of course, because the strong northwest winds forced it out there.  We figured that those same winds would move other raptors so we headed to the hawkwatch platform where we found four other birders but didn’t see many hawks so we vamoosed pretty quickly.  Sadly, and I have not yet told Mike this so he is learning this depressing story with the rest of you, within five minutes of our leaving the platform a Short-eared Owl was spotted coming in from over the ocean and landing in the dune field.  The path we took brought us within relatively close range of the bird and we must have just missed seeing it.  Sigh…

Despite our unknowing owl dip we did enjoy our morning out in the bright sun, bracing wind, and beach habitat.  A brief stop at Big Egg Marsh at the end of our birding outing served only to provide a nice backdrop for a picture of Mike and to prove that finding skulky sparrows in a marsh in strong wind is impossible.

It was a fun seeing Mike again and getting out and about after birds.  Despite not seeing any spectacularly rare or crazy birds it was well worth it to spend a morning on the coast of Queens.

Brant Branta bernicla filling the sky at Big Egg Marsh

*Because now I am still free to email him pictures and send him mocking text messages whenever I see a Nelson’s Sparrow.  And, really, isn’t that what birding is all about?

**Yes, I know that they have been unlumped and I should be referring to our east coast yellow-rumps as Myrtle Warblers but I haven’t adjusted to the change.  Judging by the number of older birders who say Oldsquaw and Marsh Hawk I might never alter my vocabulary.

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Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.