Saturday the 29th was the last day of my New York State Big Year seeing as Sunday saw me on a plane bound for sunny southern California. Because we were flying out of LaGuardia Airport Daisy and I were in Queens, the perfect base of operations for finding the vagrant and reliable Townsend’s Solitaire that has been hanging around for over a week on the south shore of Long Island ten miles west of Jones Beach, and the also-out-of-place juvenile Black-headed Gull that has decided it would rather be on the north shore of Long Island than its proper place in Europe somewhere. The original plan was for Daisy and I both to go out searching for the birds but when I set the alarm for 6:30 AM she opted out of the birding mission.

The morning was foggy and wet but I managed to spot a large flock of Tree Swallows and a perched Merlin along Ocean Parkway before I arrived at the Townsend’s Solitaire spot at the dead end of Oak Beach Rd, which essentially exists so rich people can have houses near the beach. No Parking signs were ubiquitous but I didn’t think enforcement would be too tough at 7:30 on a Saturday morning at the terminus of a dead end road a mile from any traffic. I parked, rolled down the windows, and waited.

House Finches, Mourning Doves, Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, and European Starlings were around, each bird giving me a momentary thrill as I tried to fit the field marks of the solitaire to it. Reports on the listservs had indicated that the bird could be absent or skulking for long periods of time before suddenly appearing so I sat patiently, drinking my coffee and eating my Pop-tarts. Finally, on a bare deciduous tree about 50 yards off of the road, a bird that seemed to have the right shape appeared. Putting the bins on it didn’t help but I had Mike’s scope ready (yes, I still have it) and managed to get it focused and the bird identified just before it disappeared into the bushes. Not the look I wanted at a lifer and bird number 315 for the year in the state but hey, you take what you can get.

Rather than wait around hoping for another look I made my way due north across Long Island to Sunken Meadow State Park where the aforementioned juvenile Black-headed Gull has been keeping company with the usual gulls in the parking lot. Upon my arrival I noticed a car parked near a flock of gulls and my suspicion that it was full o’ birders was proven correct when I spotted the best field mark of our species: binoculars. A discussion revealed that they were in from Ohio and had managed to track down the Pink-footed Goose and the Barnacle Goose that are still at Montauk and were hoping to bag the Black-headed Gull but hadn’t had luck yet. We exchanged cell numbers and split up: I drove around the parking lots for awhile before deciding to get out and check the wetland-type area.

Greater Yellowlegs

rather late yellowlegs

The weather, though it was still overcast, was about as warm as one can hope for in New York in late December, and finding a Swamp Sparrow, three Great Blue Herons, a Belted Kingfisher, two Greater Yellowlegs, and a juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron was enough to make me think it was March. Then, on the wooden bridge over the water, I spotted what I was pretty sure was the Black-headed Gull. But, embarrassingly enough, even after writing about Bonaparte’s Gulls, I couldn’t remember if maybe juvenile Bonaparte’s Gulls had a bill like the one on the bird I was looking at and I hadn’t brought my field guide with me. So I called Will, who was busy on his fourth CBC of the year upstate, and got him to look in his field guide and confirm my ID. I watched the out-of-place gull for a bit, including when a Herring Gull pushed it completely under water (you’d think a Black-headed Gull would find a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls to hang around with rather than getting bullied by bigger birds). Then, as I was about to call the Ohioins (Ohioers?), they appeared just down the trail and quickly got on the bird. Big grins and checkmarks all around, exactly as a search for a rare bird should end!

juvenile Black-headed Gull in New York

best shot I could get

I wanted good pictures, and, while trying and failing to get them, came across two Gray Catbirds, Song Sparrows, American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, a singing Carolina Wren and some Northern Mockingbirds. A very weird suite of birds for December but I didn’t complain. They were a nice contrast for the winter waterfowl like Red-breasted and Hooded Mergansers that were on the water.

Hooded Merganser in flight

Hooded Merganser taking off

A subsequent search for a previously reported Orange-crowned Warbler at Jones Beach ended with no luck so 316 is my total for the year in New York State. Not bad for a Big Year that started in June with a goal of 300.

Have a Happy New Year everyone! May it be bird-filled, healthy and happy! And Charlie, you better track down at least ten percent of the world’s species

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.