It’s finally May, and May means migration! There is no single month that can top the action and excitement of peak spring birding here in New York. This mad dash to the breeding grounds is the most intense time of the year for many species. As much as I adore fall migration, the southbound movement of birds is a more prolonged affair that spans several months. The blitz of activity when Neotropical migrants surge northwards only last for a few weeks, and birders are always eager to make the most of it. With a combination of sky-high anticipation and a limited window of opportunity, it’s easy to understand the popularity of events like eBird’s Global Big Day. This year, I had the pleasure of partaking in not one, but two high-intensity birding efforts within the first few days of May.
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As the doldrums of March draw to a close, spring migration begins to heat up a bit more rapidly. The excitement of the May peak is still a ways out, but the rising anticipation in both birds and birders is palpable. This year, April kicked off with a bang of legendary proportions! The morning of the 1st brought clouds and light drizzle after a night of southerly winds. I was out at Astoria Park, searching for new arrivals and documenting breeding behavior, when I received the fateful message from Doug Gochfeld on the Kings and Queens bird alert service.   Jose speaks for us all Immediately, my curiosity was piqued. Doug is a keen observer who has birded all over the world, and his commitment to careful identification and thorough documentation is exemplary.
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Like most of the world, I’ve been keeping pretty close to home for the past year or so. I spent over a month confined almost exclusively to my apartment last spring, and several months beyond that entirely within the borders of New York State. Later short-range outings still never took me more than a few states away. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, however, I am cautiously optimistic about the not-too-distant future of travel. I recently found myself in Florida for a brief visit with family, and I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to slip away for some southern style birding. Despite limited time and social distancing restrictions, I was fortunate enough to connect with quite a few quality species that I haven’t seen in years. Even backyard birds in the Sunshine State can be a treat for tourists from the north.
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When Drew first established this blog so many years ago, he christened the new site with a title based on one of the most evocatively named phenomena in birding. The concept of a nemesis bird is something most birders are familiar with, though the exact definition may vary from person to person. It could be that incredible vagrant you “just missed” when all of your friends were treated to spectacular views. A common species in your area that you inexplicably can’t seem to connect with might qualify. Perhaps you were out of town when your nemesis came to visit, or maybe you traveled far from home to search for it and came up short. Nemesis birds are often would-be lifers, but it’s possible to have a state nemesis, a county nemesis, or even a patch nemesis.
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I’ve always appreciated the seasonality of birding. When you’re paying close attention to the goings-on in the world outside your windows, the annual cycle of nature is conspicuous and easy to track. This visible, reliable schedule has been a major boon throughout the pandemic, which has caused weeks and months to blur together and warp all perception of time. The arrival of 2021 brought another reason to be grateful for my non-stop hobby: year listing! The self-imposed resolution to find as many birds as I can each year gives me an excuse to get out there and try to make every day count. Ever since 2015, when I first started keeping track of my annual totals, I have managed to surpass the 100 species mark before the month of January is through. This goalpost provides an added challenge which has set a standard for me to maintain.
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Every year offers a different set of experiences. In 2019, I saw so many lifers that I couldn’t imagine narrowing them down to a Top 10. 2020 stands in stark contrast to last year’s international adventures, and though I managed to make the most of this challenging reality I did not crack into the double digits for new birds observed. Even so, the past 12 months provided plenty of excitement and surprises. With 2021 rapidly approaching, I’ve taken the time to reflect on my best birds of the year. In hindsight, I’m pretty happy with the list overall, and I’m grateful for birding as a source of some much needed levity and stability during this turbulent, trying time. Without further ado, here are my 2020 birding highlights! Honorable Mention: Yellow-billed Cuckoo I would be remiss if I completely excluded this species from a summary of my year’s memorable experiences.
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The cosmopolitan family Cuculidae contains some of the world’s weirdest and most wonderful species of birds. I am not shy about my fondness for cuckoos, and over the years I have enjoyed a number of incredible encounters with this tribe during my travels around the globe. Fantastic creatures like Greater Roadrunner, Squirrel Cuckoo, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Pheasant Cuckoo, Little Bronze-Cuckoo, Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, Greater Ani, Pheasant Coucal, and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo have played roles in some of my most memorable birding days to date. This year, of course, international expeditions have not been an option for most birders. Nevertheless, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of some cuckoo related excitement closer to home in recent months. Two separate sagas, both involving wayward migrants in unusual circumstances, have quickly risen to the top of my 2020 birding highlights.
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Each of the four seasons has something special to offer the birding world. I will always cherish the lively color and music of spring when birds return after months of absence. Winter brings the festive joy of Christmas Bird Counts and new year lists, while summer offers breeding bird surveys and plenty of free time for adventures. Even so, I truly think that autumn may be my favorite birding season of them all. The protracted pace of southbound migration, filled with young birds and surprising vagrants, provides ample opportunity for enjoying the full scope of this natural spectacle. Since my last update, I’ve been pretty busy with a new schoolyear featuring blended instruction and no shortage of uncertainty surrounding my curriculum. Birding, as always, serves a much needed mainspring for my motivation and mental health, even though it sometimes delivers its own unique frustrations.
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New York is home to an impressively diverse array of natural habitats. The Empire State’s various ecoregions run the gamut from the beaches and marshes of Long Island to the grasslands and high peaks near the Canadian border. The Adirondack Mountains are perhaps the wildest, most distinct region of the state, representing the southern edge of the boreal forest biome that stretches across the northernmost portions of the continent. Many of the species that inhabit the Adirondacks can be found nowhere else in the state. This isolated pocket of taiga is one of the countless reasons birding in New York is so special. I typically try to visit the Adirondack Park at least once a year, even if only for a few days. I grew up making annual pilgrimages to Rogers Rock Campground on Lake George, and it’s a rare summer that I don’t return to those shores.
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2020 truly has been a year for the books, it’s hard to believe it’s actually almost over. Back in January, I was happily exploring Florida, running around for rarities and soaking up the sun. But soon the Coronavirus reared its ugly head and we headed for a global shut-down to try and curb the pandemic. We’ve been living socially-distanced from one another for longer than anyone can remember, and I really do wonder when there will be an end in sight. Coronavirus has had an odd impact on me personally, in that I still am able to get out birdwatching, but have had to adjust my days to minimize contact and interaction with as many people as possible. Being a true extrovert, I’ve had to get outside during all of this to keep my mental sanity.
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