The excitement of a rarity chase is one of my favorite aspects of birding, but it’s nothing compared to the thrill of finding something unusual yourself. For me, the feeling of accomplishment that comes with turning up even a minor regional oddity often rivals the triumphant joy of a successful twitch or long-distance trip. That finder’s high is a hell of a drug, a reassurance to yourself and your fellow birders that you totally know what you’re doing. You can find rare birds, you’ve clearly got this whole birding thing on lock. The combined boost to ego and community credibility is a great incentive to get out in the field and search. Who doesn’t dream of fortune and glory?
Making an effort to sniff out rare birds has a number of practical benefits that, in my opinion, help to build a better birder. If you’re serious about making a special discovery, you’ve got do your homework. You have to familiarize yourself with the expected local birds, in all their variation, to be better prepared for the out of the ordinary. It helps to learn about what locations, times, and conditions in your area are conducive for avian surprises. Making effective use of technological tools, like eBird and radar, assists a savvy birder in predicting when and where prizes may appear. The allure of potential rare birds has encouraged many naturalists to get out and regularly pound the pavement at their local patches. Learning a birding hotspot inside and out, filling in the gaps in the collective knowledge base, is a worthwhile pursuit all it’s own.
Fall migration has been a mixed bag here in southern New York so far. Weather patterns are less than ideal, with no real sustained northwest winds or appropriate cold fronts since July. We have yet to see a noteworthy pulse of southbound movement, big morning flights are few and far between, and the skies at night are silent, largely devoid of nocturnal flight calls. All the same, the birds have to move, even if it’s just a trickle. It’s not as if migration isn’t happening, it’s just been a bit slow and relatively quiet up to this point. When numbers and diversity are down, rarities can be tough to locate. If you don’t try, though, you’ll never find one. Perceived poor conditions are no excuse to sit at home grumbling rather than heading out to enjoy some birding. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
September is a pretty big month for teachers, but the school year kicks off in fits and starts. I don’t have a full week of classes scheduled until it’s practically October. As a result, I’ve had ample opportunity to scour the shorelines and shrubberies of Long Island in search of uncommon birds. I’ve been pretty successful in this regard, especially considering the lackluster state of migration thus far. The month’s first find was Buff-breasted Sandpiper on the sod farms out east during the final weekend before school started. I had driven out to chase an American Golden-Plover at a field nearby, and in the interest of being thorough I decided to check other surrounding properties for additional grasspipers. My hunch paid off, and I rewarded myself with a trip to the vineyards for some merlot meatballs.
The rest of my September searching has been focused on Jones Beach, my number one local hotspot. A pair of days off presented a wide open window to do some scouting, despite wet, foggy, breezy conditions. I picked up a pair of Hudsonian Godwits at the boat basin sandbar on the 10th, followed by a Marbled Godwit the next morning. Lone representatives of both species had been sighted at the same location more than a week prior, and additional individuals of each were detected later on the 11th. In most years these birds can be quite hard to come by, which just goes to show that even “bad” conditions can produce quality surprises. While other watchers were busy with the godwits, I turned my attention to terrestrial targets. My pishing lured in a curious Yellow-breasted Chat, always a good bird in our region, and one of my favorites. An hour later, I stumbled upon a young Connecticut Warbler in the thick cover of the parkway’s median strip. This secretive skulker is hard to find anywhere on Long Island, and it was a county first for me. Other birders rushed to the scene, and a few were fortunate enough to get brief views when it popped out of the undergrowth into the mid-height branches of the trees. For many of the chasers, the warbler was a first-time-ever encounter. Helping to add a tricky species to someone’s life list makes you feel on top of the world!
During the work week, my birding opportunities were more limited. I always keep an eye out while commuting or running, and I found the time for some evening stakeouts to conduct Common Nighthawk counts from my back deck. I logged yet another rare sighting, this time furred rather than feathered, when I detected a strikingly large bat migrating south over the house just after sunset: Hoary Bat! When Saturday rolled around, I was right back out at Jones to try my luck. Again, it was comparatively quiet, not the level of activity I’d normally expect for mid-September. All the same, I managed to uncover a few regionally irregular species, namely Philadelphia Vireo and Blue Grosbeak. The latter lingered until the following day, but otherwise Sunday was even quieter. I returned home before noon, satisfied with the fruits of my labors.
We’re just now coming into the second half of the month, and there is plenty more migration excitement still to come. This is still prime time, one of the best periods of the year to get out there and seek the unknown! For my part, I’ll be birding every day on my way to and from work, and I have another day off on Wednesday that will not be wasted. Next weekend, weather permitting, I take my search efforts to the high seas for the second time this year. As I understand it, the Brookline Birding Club overnight continental shelf pelagic still has a few spots available, too, so consider this a PSA for any interested parties! Expect a write-up in the wake of that trip, and more updates from the home front as migrants continue to work their way down the coast. Let’s see what else we can find this fall!
[UPDATE: As feared, the lingering effects of Hurricane Florence unfortunately led to the cancellation of this year’s September BBC Pelagic. I was disappointed that the trip was called off, but I am that much more grateful that I was lucky enough to make the Brooklyn trip in August!]