On Saturday I managed to drag Daisy from bed at 6 am and out the door by 6:30 on our way to some extreme Suffolk County birding. The plan was simple: drive out the Long Island Expressway to exit 70, head to a DEC bike trail where Yellow-breasted Chat and Northern Bobwhite were recently reported, then go to Cupsogue County Park to track down some of the recently-reported but difficult to find terns that have long eluded me.
Daisy was happy with the plan as Cupsogue County Park is on the ocean and so long as she can hear waves she doesn’t care if I am staring through binoculars rather than, oh, I don’t know, paying attention to what she’s saying (please don’t hurt me Daisy).
So we got to the DEC bike trail, a narrow shrubby grassland bordered by farm fields on one side and route 51 on the other, and quickly heard the Northern Bobwhites calling. For those who don’t know, bobwhites are a small, native quail named for their clear “Bob-White” call. If they are present you can’t help but notice them. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the good fortune to see any but those are the breaks.
Once we heard the bobwhites calling our attention shifted to the secretive but usually vocal Yellow-breasted Chat. This largest wood-warbler, which I have only managed to track down once, in Connecticut, is much like a catbird in that it tends to hide in thick vegetation and sing. Tough for us that we never heard the bird sing. It was nice being there, getting great looks at Orchard Orioles, watching House Wrens popping in and out of their nest boxes, listening to Indigo Buntings singing “Fire, fire! Where, where? Here, here” but we were disappointed by our failure to find a chat. We were also amazed at the variety and number of ticks that we attracted, with multiple dog and lone-star ticks and a single deer tick. Fortunately, we discovered all of them before they managed to start dining on our blood.
After carefully removing all of the ticks from our clothes we headed south to the barrier beaches on the south shore of Long Island. Cupsogue County Park and its terns was our goal and we paid our ten bucks admission and pulled into the lot to see a woman with a spotting scope. An inquiry as to what she had found was answered with, “Oh, a Parasitic Jaeger and some Wilson’s Storm-Petrels.”
As I lifted my jaw from the pavement I managed to ask where I should go to see such birds and was directed to the boardwalk where “a bunch of other birders” were scoping the ocean in the hopes of seeing sea-birds from land. Daisy and I strolled up to the boardwalk and I was pleased that the first birder I saw was Rich Guthrie! He was there with his son, Andy, Jory Langner, Angus Wilson, and several other of New York’s finest birders. Shai Mitra, who I first met when searching for a not-so-Common Gull in Brooklyn, was kind enough to share his scope with me, for which I am eternally grateful, as I used it to see my first ever Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, which I picked out on my own (though other birders spotted other individuals), and my first-ever Greater Shearwater, which Andy spotted first and patiently tracked for quite some time through his scope while helpfully directing everyone else to get on the bird. Northern Gannets were regularly patrolling and plunge-diving, and Common and Least Terns and Piping Plovers were almost always around the vicinity.
I have no idea how the birders there managed to spot and identify so many seabirds but in addition to the aforementioned jeager I also managed to not see Manx and Cory’s Shearwaters. These birders were on a level that I can only aspire to, but most of them also have the advantage of living down by the water so they get lots of time to practice.
After watching seabirds for awhile and being shown a couple other spots by Shai and another birder, Pat (who had told us about the jaeger earlier), Daisy and I took a walk to the bay side of the barrier island and enoyed terns and gulls, but none of the rarities we wanted to see. We then returned to the boardwalk and ate some snacks and drank some beer, and went back out into the dunes and marshes where we heard Willow Flycatchers and saw Seaside Sparrows and Boat-tailed Grackles. The habitat, similar to what I am used to from Jones Beach and Jamaica Bay, was almost entirely free of litter, though it was crowded with sunbathers, fishermen, and boaters.
After our last foray out to the dune habitat we returned to the company of the other birders and, as the tide was getting low and exposing sandbars, prepared to go in search of rare terns. Once Daisy heard that this would involve walking through potentially deep mud she elected to stay behind, and I promised I would be right back.
When I returned two-and-a-half hours later, muddy and sunburnt, she was rightly not happy, so no birding for me next weekend!
So what happened out in the marshes and mudflats of Cupsogue County Park? Well, the goal was rare terns. The rarely-seen-on-shore-except-when-nesting Arctic Tern failed to make an appearance. The never-before-seen-by-me Roseate Terns also failed to make an appearance. We did, howeer, see Common Terns and a Forster’s Tern. Least Terns were relatively abundant. Two Royal Terns were the first I had seen in New York and were easy to pick out from the smaller terns. A single non-breeding plumaged Black Tern was a lifer for me (sweet). Two Black Skimmers skimming for food were a treat and my first of the year in New York. Clapper Rails sounded off regularly from the marshes. And the shorebirds…
And while I loved the birds and the birding what was more amazing to me was the habitat. We walked far out onto the mudflats, through ankle-to-knee-deep water, water that at times concealed mud that was itself up to knee-deep.
Again, I was amazed by the skills of the birders I was with. They knew every bird out on the flats and could put a name on a bird before I could even say if it was a bird or not. It was a humbling experience but also an extremely educational one. I believe I can confidently age young Common Terns now, and I also picked up some pointers on shorebird identification.
One of the major highlights was watching a Peregrine Falcon put all the birds in the area up in the air, and then segregate out a seemingly hapless Mourning Dove. The dove had the last laugh though, as it made an amazing evasive maneuvers and prevented itself from becoming dinner.
After enjoying the birds for awhile Jory, who had a sore back, decided to head back. I asked what time it was…five to four, two hours after I had left Daisy! Even though we hustled it still took us a half-hour to make it back to the car…and did I ever catch it, deservedly so. In my defense I thought I had only been out there for about a half-an-hour when I asked what time it was. That’s how good the birding was.
And on the way home we saw four Northern Bobwhite on the side of Route 51.
Also, thanks to the birders I named above, and to the birders whose names I did not catch or managed to forget…I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Birders Rule!