The weekend began for me with a Friday night for the ages, if I could only remember it. Daisy, her two sisters, her brother-in-law and I went to a karaoke bar and I made the mistake of trying to keep up in terms of drinking soju, a Korean liquor. I learned that large quantities of soju, when drank by one of the Caucasian persuasion, like me, can result in a very bad, but very entertaining, or so I’m told, singing of Skid Row’s Youth Gone Wild, among other, much less pleasant consequences.
But you didn’t come here to read about the dangers of overimbibing: you came here to read about birds! So let’s just skip Saturday’s hangover and fast-forward to Sunday’s birding adventure.
I had been driving Daisy crazy with my incessant playing of the songs of Seaside and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows and the staccato call of the Clapper Rail, trying to drive them deep into my brain so if I heard them, even faintly, I would immediately recognize them. This is because I had never seen either of the coastal, skulking Ammodramus sparrows or a Clapper Rail, so they were my primary target birds for Sunday’s morning of birding (I’ve never seen a Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow either but they rarely if ever breed in New York and how many Ammodramus sparrows can one expect in one week?).
Daisy had agreed to accompany me on the outing so we left a little later in the morning than I would have liked, not getting to Jamaica Bay until 7:30 am (never try to negotiate with a law student that is also your significant other). Gulls and terns and herons were flying overhead and before we left the parking lot we already had seen Common and Least Terns, Laughing and Great Black-backed Gulls, and Great and Snowy Egrets.
Walking clockwise around the west pond quickly got us the mimid trifecta of Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, and Brown Thrasher. We also heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, saw and heard several each of Common Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds. A Boat-tailed Grackle, Tree Swallows, a Gull-billed Tern and Forster’s Terns were flying around, and we also had an active Osprey nest on a platform out in the marsh to enjoy. Then a Clapper Rail called from the marsh, just once, but I’m sure that’s what it was. I really wanted to see one but it didn’t even call again, much less poke its head out of the large thick marsh.
Continuing along the trail we looked out over the east pond and saw more gulls, all of them Great Black-backed, Laughing, and Herring Gulls and found it odd that no Ring-billed Gulls were around to be seen. We didn’t see one all day, as a matter of fact (not that we carefully examined every gull we saw). A couple Northern Shovelers were mixed in with many Mallards, Canada Geese and Mute Swans. Glossy Ibis were also foraging in the pond and the marshes, and flying over continuously. A flyover Little Blue Heron, heading north, was a treat, and only the second time I have ever seen one. The only other one I ever saw was also a flyover at Jamaica Bay. We occasionally spotted Black-crowned Night Herons flying over, and in the marsh between the north side of the west pond and the bay we spotted a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
The north garden didn’t have much going on, and neither did the east pond. Sure we spotted a couple Greater Yellowlegs, some lingering Ruddy Ducks, more of some of the birds mentioned above, raccoons and a snapping turtle, but nothing to write home about.
Back at the car we ate a snack and headed south on Cross Bay Boulevard to the last turn on the right before the Cross Bay Bridge, West 22nd Street. Parking by the ballfields, we walked into Big Egg Marsh after carefully crossing over the construction debris with poison ivy growing on it…fortunately I had been warned about the poison ivy and the need to be at the marsh at high tide to find the sparrows, and, in fact, been provided GPS coordinates, labelled google maps, and exact directions to the marsh, all by kind birders who responded to my plea for assistance on the state listserv. Unfortunately, I misread a tide table and so we missed high tide and the sparrows. Doh!
We did get to watch Horseshoe Crabs doing what Horseshoe Crabs do this time of year: coming to shore, laying eggs, and being Horseshoe Crabs. Of course, gulls and Semipalmated Sandpipers were feeding on the eggs, as were House Sparrows and European Starlings. Incidentally, it is really annoying to see lots of House Sparrows when you are looking for rarer little brown jobs. It’s also annoying to visit a salt marsh and sandy beach and see them both covered in all kinds of garbage.
Leaving Big Egg Marsh we decided to head over to the backup location, the Marine Nature Study Area in Oceanside, which I had been informed of by a helpful birder on the state listserv. This gem of a preserve, tightly bordered by a golf course and a residential development, is only 52 acres in size but it is huge in terms of great habitat and birds. An Osprey platform mere feet from the trail is active and monitored by a nest camera (the image appears in the nature center). Semipalmated Sandpipers, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets foraged in tidal creeks and marsh grasses while Tree and Barn Swallows foraged in the air. As we wandered the sturdy, low boardwalks and well-maintained trails we scrutinized every song and put the binoculars on every brown bird we saw. But the songs were all familiar species and the brown birds were all female Red-winged Blackbirds. Finally, I picked up a sparrow on a short low flight and got the yellow dot on the front of the eyebrow and overall dark color. I was pretty sure it was a Seaside Sparrow but I certainly wanted a better look. The bird did not cooperate.
Daisy and I wandered around some more and then realized we hadn’t hit one small part of the preserve, the north-eastern most section a mere 50 yards or so from the parking lot. Daisy spotted a small bird flying left and pointed it out as it landed. Orange-ish eyebrow and more orange-ish on the side of the face surrounding a gray cheek. Streaked breast and side. Overall low profile and shape of an Ammodramus sparrow. A Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow! I was ecstatic! Daisy was amused. The bird was unimpressed. It sang, further confirmation of its identity.
Then, another sparrow across a tidal creek, perched in plain view. A Seaside Sparrow! It sang, sounding kind of like an unenthusiastic Red-winged Blackbird. Instead of the Red-winged Blackbirds “Honk-a-ree!” it sounded to me like it was saying “Trick-or-treat” in a calmer tone.
As we made our way towards a Yellow-crowned Night Heron that was foraging where the boardwalk crossed some open water (the one pictured above) a staccato call came from the marsh not thirty feet from us. Daisy and I looked at each other and then up the small creek that we were standing next to. My height let me see over some marsh plants to where I could see the water rippling, like something was disturbing the water, but I couldn’t see what was making the ripples. We relocated along the trail, quickly and quietly. We spotted this:
A Clapper Rail! Sweet! After five hours exploring the marshes of Queens and Nassau County we spotted the three targeted species in five minutes.
Daisy was quick to point this out, suggesting that next time maybe we could sleep in a bit more and just head straight to Oceanside. I’m telling you, she’s gonna be a heck of a lawyer.