When Daisy let me know that she was ahead of schedule on her midterm preparations I decided a visit to the Big Apple was a necessity. The fact that she still had some studying to do left me with the opportunity for some birding during the daylight hours. So of course I woke up at 5 am on Saturday morning and took the long drive to Jones Beach, where the Smith’s Longspur was still being reported daily. The elusive little guy might have avoided me once, but there was no way it could dodge me twice, right?

I arrived at Jones Beach shortly after 8 am and was heartened by the crowd of birders already there. I figured they must have the bird in their scopes and I could just walk up and ask for a look…well, no, no one had seen the bird yet. I discussed possibilities with some of the other folks, and a local birder named Sam and I moved to check out a couple other vantage points and spots the Smith’s might be. While unsuccessful in regards to the Smith’s Longspur, we did spot a couple Killdeer, my first of the year in New York State.

After staring into dune-fields full of Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and Black-bellied Plovers for a good hour, hoping to pick up the streaked chest and buffy belly of the Smith’s Longsur I started to get antsy. So when Sam pointed out that previously reported Razorbills and a female King Eider might still be over at Point Lookout I quickly agreed to accompany him on the search.

No, we didn’t see King Eiders or Razorbills. The strong southwest wind was whipping the water into a jetty-pounding frenzy and apparently neither species appreciates being dashed against the rocks. Common Loons lived up to their name though; at one point I had three in my field of view at the same time. Red-breasted Mergansers and Horned Grebes rode the waves and then a Great Cormorant gave great looks (finally, a decent look at one!) as it flew in, followed quickly by my first American Oystercatcher of the year that came in from over the waves and flapped quickly up the inlet.

None of these birds could compare in numbers to the Dunlin that had taken over a big chunk of the beach with a bunch of Sanderlings.

I guess Dunlin are a pretty bland bird but in big numbers they are impressive. After watching and photographing the Dunlin I was chomping at the bit to get back to Jones Beach to see if the longspur was showing itself yet. But I wasn’t in so much of a rush that I would fail to investigate a little brown bird perched on a plant. And it turned out to be an “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow, a subspecies that breeds on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, and winters along the coast of the eastern United States. It was readily identified by Sam, who pointed out its paler, greyer color when compared to a “normal” Savannah Sparrow.

Back to Jones Beach where I spent some more time looking for the cursed longspur before being tempted to make another short run to the town of Baldwin, where a Western Tanager has been visiting the feeders in the backyard of a private residence since December 31st. Two other birders were with the homeowners, waiting to see the bird from the back porch. Less than a minute later the tanager flew in for some seed.

Thanks to the gracious hosts of this beautiful, out-of-place bird and kudos to them for hosting people in their gorgeous backyard over the last couple of months.

After ogling the tanager we birders began to discuss other birds, as birders often do. I lamented my lack of success with the Smith’s Longspur and mentioned I was headed back over to try again. This piqued the interest of Phil, a British birder temporarily based in the U.S. I agreed to give him a ride over to continue the search, which, again, was unsuccessful (though I did see my first Eastern Phoebe of the year).

As if to mock the fifteen or so birders looking for the Smith’s Longspur a Lapland Longspur put in an appearance about twenty feet from the crowd. No one saw it arrive; it just popped up out of nowhere.

So after walking around looking for the $&#! Smith’s Longspur for about another hour, and meeting Patrick from The Hawk Owl’s Nest (recognizable with his New Jersey Audubon cap), Phil and I decided to take the ride up to Cold Spring Harbor on the north shore of Long Island for another shot at the reported Eurasian Wigeon and Greater White-fronted Goose on St. John’s pond.

On the ride Phil (who is great company and a good birder) regaled me with tales of international birding adventures (his North American list is larger than mine) and we had interesting conversations about the differences between the U.S. and the U.K. Despite our best efforts he remained the only “Eurasian” in sight. And no goose either.

Not that the ride up there was a total loss, we saw a wide variety of waterfowl and enjoyed the antics of a pair of Canada Geese who were acting very territorial about their corner of the pond.

After failing in our search for the rare waterfowl we realized that there was still light left in the day. So back to Jones Beach, only to hear the dreaded phrase, “You just missed it.”

Yes, the Smith’s Longspur had appeared for about thirty seconds directly in front of the array of spotting scopes. Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!!!!

We continued to try to find the-bird-whose-name-will-no-longer-be-spoken-or-typed, but had to pack it in when it became too dark (a distant Peregrine Falcon was a small reward). I dropped Phil off at the 7 train and went on to Daisy’s, exhausted and mildly disappointed despite a day that got me four year birds and wonderful visitors from the west coast and from across the Atlantic.

Oh, and by the way, “cracking” is my new word, as in “That was a cracking look at that Western Tanager.” British slang is so cool.

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 and Desmond Shearwater. 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.