As sad as I am to say it, I must: 2021 was one of my worst years for birding since I started looking at feathered creatures with intent in 2006. COVID kept me from traveling internationally, and my only major domestic trip of the year was to California where I have birded quite a bit already. My total of two lifers for the entire year is easily the lowest number I have ever achieved.

All that said, 2021 was not a total loss. I still saw some amazing birds and had amazing encounters with others. It’s always hard to figure out what the ten best birds of the year are but this year it is a little easier than others. Here’s hoping 2022 offers more birds and more lifers!

Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Honorable Mentions

Spotted Towhee, 05 January, Baldwin Harbor Park, New York (state bird)

Lark Sparrow (photo above), 30 January, Fort Tilden, Queens, New York (self-found, way out of season)

Rough-legged Hawk (2 of them), 13 February, Breezy Point, Queens, New York (2nd and 3rd Queens sightings)

Wood Stork, 08 May, Suffolk County, New York (state bird)

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, 11 July, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, New York (2nd Queens sighting)

Roseate Spoonbill, 25 July, Poughkeepsie, New York (state bird)

Mountain Quail, 12 August, Lake Tahoe, California (2nd sighting and first in over a decade)

Ruff, 21 August, Upper Santa Ana River, California (really cool bird)

Rufous-crowned Sparrow, 26 August, Eaton Canyon, California (2nd sighting and first in over a decade)

Short-billed Gull, 28 December, Brooklyn Army Terminal Pier, Brooklyn, New York (state bird)

Number 10

Dovekie(s) – 16 January, Rockaway Peninsula, Queens, New York

After a major storm I had a hunch that there would be good birds on the coast so I went out to my favorite patch on the Rockaway Peninsula and scanned the ocean. And scanned the ocean. And scanned the ocean. I saw quite a few Razorbills, which are cool, but then I saw a much smaller alcid zooming along well offshore. DOVEKIE! I quickly reported it to the local WhatsApp group and was disheartened by a bunch of responses from other birders saying they were seeing only Razorbills. Had I screwed up the identification? Then, the dam broke, and suddenly everyone was finding Dovekies along the Queens and Brooklyn coasts. I found a second with my friend Eric shortly thereafter, and this one was in the surf and almost crashed into a surfer. Then we relocated to a spot where people were seeing several and arrived just in time to see the last one present get snatched by a Peregrine Falcon. A sad ending but a wonderful new bird for my Queens list!

It’s a horrible photo but if you squint you may be able to make out the dead Dovekie in the falcon’s talons in this image.

Number 9

Upland Sandpiper – 6 September, Rockaway Peninsula, Queens, New York

I was out on Labor Day morning, enjoying the holiday, hoping to find grasspipers like Baird’s Sandpiper or Buff-breasted Sandpiper in the large patch of beach vegetation that has nicely grown up the Beach 40s area of the Rockaways. There was a lot to look at in the area but I spent time searching through the beach grass, convinced I was going to find something good. And I did! The Upland Sandpiper I found was only the second I had ever seen in Queens and it stuck around for the rest of the day, allowing dozens of birders to see this declining and hard-to-find-in-New-York-City shorebird. It was one of my best self-founds of the year and a real pleasure to watch.

What’s not to like about a bird this cool?

Number 8

Eastern Screech-Owl, 22 March, Alley Pond Park, Queens, New York

Before this year I had only ever encountered a single Eastern Screech-Owl in Queens and that was essentially a heard-only in the wee hours of the morning on a Christmas Bird Count. They just aren’t found often in Queens, despite there relative abundance just over the border in Nassau County. The last chaseable Eastern Screech-Owl in Queens was in Forest Park back in the mid-2000s and I moved to Queens too late to see it. The lack of owls was a real bummer. But then this spring one was found roosting in Alley Pond Park and, after a couple of attempts, I saw it. Even more amazingly, another was found roosting in Cunningham Park a couple weeks later. Going from no known screech-owls in Queens to two was kind of awesome!

What a cutie!

Number 7

Cassin’s Vireo, 13 August, Blackwood Canyon, California

While preparing for my nearly month-long visit to California in August I was shocked and amazed to realize that I had never seen a Cassin’s Vireo. They are not uncommon and my lack of one was kind of embarrassing considering how many times I have been in their habitat. Fortunately for me, I came across one in a mixed-species flock while out birding one morning in the vicinity of Lake Tahoe. It’s not the most exciting of birds, being one-third of the three-way-split of the Solitary Vireo, but a lifer is a lifer.

I wonder if any of these ever sneak past eastern birders who think they are just Blue-headed Vireos?

Number 6

Gray-breasted Martin, 4 April, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York

A first state record? Yes. An amazing find by the Brooklyn birding savant, Doug Gochfeld? Yes! Was I extremely lucky to see it? YES! Doug found this bird while my whole family was sick with COVID. Despite being vaccinated I didn’t think it would be a good idea to go join the throngs of birders in case I harbored a breakthrough infection. So I waited until my quarantine period was up and I had a negative test and then went for the bird. It turns I saw it on the last morning it was present. That was close! And it’s a good thing Doug laid eyes on the bird because almost anyone else would have just thought it was a Purple Martin.

This is not a Purple Martin.

Number 5

Ferruginous Hawk, 23 January, Black Dirt Region, Orange County, New York

This was an entirely unexpected state bird, and one that stayed long enough for me to make a second attempt after my first failed. It was around for a looooong time. The views I eventually ended up with left a lot to be desired but birders can’t be choosers and I’ll take what I can get.

If you carefully go to Google and do an image search for “Ferruginous Hawk” you’ll see a much better picture.

Number 4

Sandhill Crane, 17 July, Breezy Point, Queens, New York

As annoying as it is that I owe adding Sandhill Crane to my Queens list to two Brooklyn birders I can’t deny that it’s the truth. First, Max Epstein found the bird on the beach out at Breezy Point, a bizarre location for such a species. Second, Tripper was nice enough to offer me a ride, delaying his own chase, so I could get get there in a car that had the proper permits to park at Breezy Point. It was a quick out-and-back to get this bird and it made me very happy to finally add it to my Queens list!

What a weird shorebird!

Number 3

Sooty Grouse, 13 August, Blackwood Canyon, California

This is the second of my two lifers for the year (both on 13th August), and the one I was specifically searching for when I found it. I had essentially given up on finding one when a female with her mostly-grown young crossed the road in front of me. I braked hard, took some photos, and then jumped out of the car and took some more. Adding a new game bird to the life list happens far too infrequently and this is a particularly good one.

I wonder if they taste good?

Number 2

Gray Kingbird, 02 December, Great Kills Park, Staten Island, New York

This long-staying bird finally made up for the one I missed several years ago after a very long car drive. State bird! Even better, I had to go to Staten Island for work anyway so this was essentially a free twitch. (And a good thing, too, as those Verrazzano Bridge tolls are pricey and no one wants to go to Staten Island repeatedly!) It was nice to finally connect with this bird in my home state and it was made nicer by the King Eider that was hanging out in the same park.

Such a snazzy gray-black-and-white bird.

Number 1

Purple Gallinule, 01 July, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, New York

A self-found bird? A new bird for the list at one of my favorite birding spots? A new Queens bird? A striking species in full adult plumage? Yes, yes, yes, and yes! I was over the moon about this bird, especially because it stuck around for several days for other birders to see. I still remember debating with myself if I was really seeing a Purple Gallinule, was hallucinating, or somehow trying to turn something else into a Purple Gallinule. I don’t know why my brain refused to accept the evidence coming up the optic nerves, but I’m glad it eventually did.

Look at those colors! Look at those feet! What a bird!

What does 2022 have in store? Who knows? Even if I don’t get any major travel in I’m sure things will work out alright and I’ll see some good birds. Hope to see you out in the field!

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.