I’ve often said that people who are more actively observant of the natural world around them are more acutely aware of the seasonal cycle. When you spend most of your free time watching the comings and goings of animals, you can’t help but notice the gradual, steady changes each day brings on our yearly journey around the Sun. This is doubly true for me, since my annual calendar is structured around teaching and the various vacation days interspersed throughout the schoolyear. Summer break is the crown jewel in this trove of holidays. I always strive to make the most of my time off from work, and 2021 provided a pretty spectacular season in the world of birding. Late summer means shorebirds, and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in southern Queens has historically been one of the best stopover sites for migrant waders in our region.
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Summer vacation is always a crucial window of opportunity for adventures, but it is all too short and often too busy. This year, I was thankfully able to find the time for a brief getaway. Although international travel still poses a bit of a thorny logistic challenge, we were content to set our sights on a domestic destination. It didn’t take us long to decide on Seattle. Jacqi had yet to visit the Pacific Northwest, and both of us have multiple friends who live in or near the Emerald City. My last trip to Washington State was back in the summer of 2007, an especially memorable segment of a cross country family road trip.
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The long-awaited Third New York Breeding Bird Atlas officially kicked off at the start of 2020. Last year, for obvious reasons, it was difficult to engage in as much exploration as I would’ve liked. My reduced vehicle access and the various travel restrictions made it difficult for me to venture beyond NYC for much of the breeding season. Even though I started strong with a variety of early nesting confirmations ranging from Great Horned Owls and Common Ravens to House Sparrows and Monk Parakeets, my rate of contributions faltered during the spring and only barely perked up over the course of my summer expeditions. This year, I was determined to be a more active participant. As the excitement of May migration comes to a close, some birders enter a period of dormancy that only ends when shorebirds begin their southbound journeys in late summer.
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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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