Long overdue, the first confirmed state record of Elegant Tern* was found on 3 July 2013 by a trio of birders on the mudflats at Cupsogue Beach County Park as the tide was getting very high. The next day many New York birders celebrated Independence Day by mobbing the flats where they all dipped. At the very end of the day one intrepid birder found the tern several miles east, roosting on a sandbar on the bay side of Tiana Beach.

My first opportunity to go after the bird was Friday morning, 5 July, and Seth Ausubel and I made the run out to Cupsogue where we enjoyed Roseate Terns, Black Terns, Arctic Terns, Forster’s Terns, Common Terns, and Least Terns. Further east, at Pike’s Beach, we found a trio of Royal Terns. But as diligently as we searched we could not find the Elegant Tern. After we returned home an email went out that the bird had been refound in the evening in the same spot as it had been found on the evening of the 4th. Many birders rejoiced. Seth and I made tentative plans to go looking for the bird again on the evening of the 6th but it seemed unlikely that I would be able to join him, what with family plans to go to the beach for the day.

Roseate Terns making more Roseate Terns

Roseate Terns making more Roseate Terns

Let me pause for a moment and discuss the Elegant Tern. It is a bird of the Pacific coast of North and South America, breeding in western Mexico and southern California. In the winter it is found across a vast swath of the Pacific coast of South America. It does not belong on the Atlantic coast of the northeastern United States at all, though they sometimes wander like the one that was found in New Jersey last year. It is a medium-sized tern, larger than Common Terns but significantly smaller than the tern that they perhaps most look like, the Royal Tern. They also have a thin, drooping bill that is very noticeable with a good look. The fact that I was obsessing over seeing one in New York State shows how absurd some of we listers are. I had, after all, seen quite a few just a couple of weeks ago in southern California. But those birds didn’t count for my New York State list so I had to see this particular tern!

Once we were done at the beach on Saturday I called Seth. He was willing to wait for me to get home before he headed after the Elegant Tern. I got home, unloaded the car, took an amazingly fast shower, and ran downstairs to meet Seth. (I really can’t emphasize enough just how much I owe Daisy for allowing this twitch to go ahead.) While Seth focused on high speed driving I stayed in touch with other birders searching for the tern and used my iPhone to keep track of bad traffic we needed to avoid. The whole ride out to the barrier beaches of Suffolk County was a series of emotional ups and downs as the bird would be found, would disappear, would be refound, and would disappear. And, of course, birders on the scene had to keep us posted about each change in the bird’s status as it related to those looking at and for it, so I urged Seth to drive faster as we shattered land-speed records for Long Island’s highways as we headed east.

Finally, when we were less than five minutes from Tiana Beach, we got a call that the bird was back on the sandbar. We pulled up, got out of the car, and made haste to the skirmish line of spotting scopes. Success!

Elegant Tern in New York

Elegant Tern in New York State

Elegant Tern coming in for a landing

Elegant Tern coming in for a landing

What a bird for New York State! And it was great to catch up with some of the other birders who were streaming in to see this first state record and leaving with happy smiles on their faces. Now, if I could only find one in Queens

*Though Arie Gilbert spotted what he was pretty sure was an Elegant Tern in the same location on 27 June 2013. He didn’t manage to get a picture and wasn’t 100% sure of the bird’s identity. It was almost undoubtedly the same bird.

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.