Sunday morning saw me up and out of the house before 4 AM for a big trip with two of the other Big Year birders from the Albany area, Rich and Jory. Our destination? Jones Beach and Jamaica Bay, two exquisite birding destinations with which regular readers of this blog are probably altogether too familiar. Our goals? The birds that any of the three of us needed: Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Hudsonian Godwit, Eared Grebe, White-eyed Vireo, White-rumped Sandpiper, and Western Sandpiper. Also joining us on this expedition was another ace upstate birder by the name of Christine, who we picked up in New Paltz on our way to the Big Apple.

On our way down I started cleaning my binoculars, mostly for something to do in the pre-dawn darkness in the van. I offered to clean everyone else’s as well, and they agreed, joking that I was actually painting images of rare birds on them (which would turn out to be kind of prophetic). Anyway, it was with clean optics and hopeful hearts that we exited the van at West End 2 of Jones Beach and headed to the grassy swale where we hoped to find the Buff-breasted Sandpipers that both Jory and Rich needed for the year. Within thirty seconds we had two of them, easily found by looking where a wildlife photographer’s lens was pointing. Interestingly, they looked nothing like Least Sandpipers.

actual Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Once we had drank the birds in for awhile we decided to head over to the Coast Guard Station to see if anything interesting had shown up there. But first Christine wanted to check the brush and trees on the north side of the parking lot for wind-blown migrants, an endeavor I was happy to join her in while Jory and Rich got the van and drove it over to us. It turned out to be a great idea as Christine magically turned a bird I would have dismissed as a Chipping Sparrow into a Lark Sparrow! It was a year bird for all of us and a heck of a find, though it was rather dully-colored for a Lark Sparrow. It would never have been identified if Christine hadn’t taken the birder’s maxim of “Bird every bird” to heart (and it also didn’t hurt that she knew all the field marks, including the white tail corners that are very conspicuous in flight). And how good of a find was it? Well, though it used to breed in the east, it now breeds almost entirely to the west of the Mississippi River, and that’s a lot of wing flaps to get to Jones Beach!

After that we had a brief thrill when we spotted a perched Great Horned Owl, a bizarre bird for Jones Beach, but then we realized that it was a dummy being used by a pair of photographers trying to entice raptors close enough to photograph.

Great Fake Owl

Who’s the dummy?

We all piled back into the van and headed over to the Coast Guard Station, scrutinizing the shoulders for more birds. Halfway there Christine and I got out to walk the rest of the way, again hoping for migrants, but only finding the common residents like Red-winged Blackbirds and Northern Mockingbirds, though we did have a great time watching a young Red-tailed Hawk up close.

juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

such a confident young bird!

As the two of us walked over to the parking lot where Jory and Rich were scanning the bay and sandbar for shorebirds, terns, and whatever else was around we detoured slightly to walk along the brush that separates the grassy area west of the parking lot from the Coast Guard Station. A sparrow was perched on a dead limb but we had an awkward angle on it and couldn’t get a clean look at it in profile. I jokingly said “It’s another Lark Sparrow” and chuckled to make sure Christine realized I was kidding.

No sooner had she said something along the lines of “Don’t be surprised if it is” than the bird turned its head and the sun hit its full profile and angels sang and we beheld a gorgeously-plumaged Lark Sparrow in all of its brilliant beauty! Two Lark Sparrows? Are you freaking kidding me?

The bird flew but when two other ace birders, Shai and Pat, arrived (after being summoned via cell phone by Rich to see the first Lark Sparrow), we quickly refound the bird and we all enjoyed great looks at the sparrow, Great Crested Flycatchers, and Baltimore Orioles.

lousy Lark Sparrow pic

an ugly shot of a gorgeous Lark Sparrow

We didn’t think we would be able to top that but high tide wasn’t for a couple more hours and we didn’t want to stand around on the mudflats at Jamaica Bay’s East Pond waiting for shorebirds to fly in so we continued birding Jones Beach. Shai took a break from tern-watching and gave Jory, Christine and me a valuable lesson on the varying plumages of juvenile Song Sparrows when Christine and I couldn’t figure one out that was dashing from bush to bush (with a high-pitched call note that sounded more like a White-throated Sparrow than a Song Sparrow).

When we arrived we discovered that two more top birders, Tom and Gail, had arrived, eager to see the Lark Sparrow which they managed to do. Then someone’s cell phone rang and we found out that Pat had walked over to the Buff-breasted Sandpiper location and found a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper feeding with the buffies! We headed back over, as it was a year bird for all of us except for Rich, and quickly saw the rather difficult-to-find bird.

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper

Rich was also nice enough to help a random woman and her young daughter who were on their way to the beach and had inquired what we were looking at to see the sandpipers. If more birders took the time and put a little effort in like he does there would be even more birders. And that would be good.

What a day’s birding! And it was only 11 AM! I bet you can’t wait to find out what we found at Jamaica Bay, can you? Well, keep your pants on, as you’ll have to wait…

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.