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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2019 was easily the fullest, most dramatic year of my life for birding. In contrast, 2020 has by necessity been a much more subdued affair. Birding close to home has nevertheless been unexpectedly rewarding, with no shortage of unexpected surprises spotted from my fire escape and at nearby Astoria Park. As the end of the school year drew nearer, the responsibilities of remote teaching gradually began to wind down. I was able to take a few small-scale trips away from my immediate neighborhood over the course of June, tracking down some old familiar favorites like Yellow-breasted Chat, Least Bittern, Black Skimmer, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Once our virtual graduation ceremony was behind us, I set my sights on a particular long-overdue target. My 2020 efforts have unsurprisingly lagged behind my usual pace for scoring the first lifer of the year.
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When I first moved into my Astoria apartment in early December, I immediately began keeping a “yard list” of birds seen around my new home. My expectations for the potential of this urbanized neighborhood weren’t particularly high, but I reasoned that watching for birds of note outside my window would be a fun way to pass the time between proper birding outings. Now, of course, the current state of the world is rather different than it was at the start of 2020. I wouldn’t have guessed that apartment birding would swiftly become the only kind of birding I could regularly partake in.  When New York first implemented social distancing regulations, I was concerned that the struggles and stresses of this challenging new reality would be amplified by a lack of access to nature.
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My fondness for Snowy Owls is well-documented. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to live in a corner of the continent where sightings of these nomadic raptors are an annual occurrence. I’ve spent many a winter’s day trudging about on the barrier beaches of Long Island in search of Snowies. It was through such scouting efforts that I honed my field craft skills, gradually growing from a curious kid into a proper birder. Nowadays, my non-birding friends are quick to turn to me when they want to see an owl in the wild. I’ve managed to successfully connect a number of interested parties with Snowy Owls over the years, providing awesome looks at remarkable birds from a respectable distance. Most recently, my coworker Max accompanied me down to the South Shore for a February break owl prowl.
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Chasing Florida State Vagrants in January 2020 Birding has many facets, as many of us know. It gets us outside, exploring new and fascinating places we wouldn’t normally visit. It connects us with people we may never interact with otherwise. But one part of the hobby that really drew me in nearly 11 years ago and continues to do so now, is searching for and chasing vagrant birds. Anywhere in the world I go, I always try to put myself in the mindset of a local and shift my thinking to encourage myself to be fascinated with rare species that shouldn’t be in that region. From looking for an American Tree Sparrow in California (a bird common in Illinois in winter) to seeing a Spotted Redshank in Hawaii (after already having seen one in Indiana of all places), I always am up for a chase.
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My recent move from Nassau to Queens was one of the final big events in a very eventful 2019. A few months out, I’d consider myself comfortably settled in, and the pros certainly outnumber the cons so far. Somewhere in between “notably shorter, easier commute” and “return to reliance on laundromats” on the Cool-to-Lame Scale lie the changes to my birding schedule. Birding is such a major aspect of my life that it comes as little surprise it would be dramatically affected by a major lifestyle shift. As with the general process of relocation, the differences noted so far are a mix of good, bad, and unexpected. My new abode has a clear and present contender for a primary patch just a few blocks away. Astoria Park lies along the shores of the East River in northwestern Queens, directly southeast of Randall’s Island.
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Like many nature-based bloggers, I enjoy closing each year with a retrospective highlight reel. Ever since 2016, this personal countdown has taken the form of a Top 10 Lifers post, detailing the best new species I tallied during the preceding months. 2019, however, has been the undisputed biggest year of my life thus far. A pair of long-awaited dream trips finally became reality, and through these international adventures I racked up a year list of 753 species that includes 422 incredible lifers. That total also fails to take into account all of the wonderful people, places, and non-avian wildlife that I found along the way! To limit my celebration of 2019’s natural marvels to just 10 specific life birds seems unthinkable. As a result, I will instead detail the more general experiences that made this year so memorable.
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