This is the story of the quest for one of my most wanted birds in the entire world. As a curious kid who was obsessed with wildlife from the moment I opened my eyes, I devoured countless books and documentaries about the planet’s amazing animals during my childhood. The Steller’s Sea-Eagle was one of those iconic species that stood out in my early memories due to its striking appearance and seemingly unattainable rarity. By weight, this species is the largest extant eagle, clocking in at up to 20 pounds. It’s also in the running for top honors by length and wingspan, measuring “a third as big again” as the mighty Golden Eagle, as Sir David Attenborough so eloquently put it in a memorable Blue Planet sequence.
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When I shared my traditional annual wrap-up post in the final days of December 2021, I did so knowing that I wasn’t quite done with birding adventures for the year. For the first time since I started seriously year listing in 2016, I had New Year’s Day plans that didn’t include a visit to Jones Beach! This holiday season, I had the honor of joining Jacqi and a few of her old college buddies for several days of celebration in Arizona. I hadn’t visited the southwestern state since my solo trip in the summer of 2018, so I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit this corner of the country. This vacation was predominantly focused on festivities and friendship, but the itinerary nevertheless featured some wonderful opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors.  After an overnight flight from NYC, Jacqi and I arrived in Phoenix early in the morning.
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Birders have been captivated by sightings of (presumably all the same) Steller’s Sea-Eagle from Alaska in August 2020 to Texas, the Canadian Maritimes, and most recently Massachusetts.  Watch this summary of what we know, and then help find it again, to create the next chapter of this bird’s journey.  Personally, I am hoping it shows up with the large numbers of Bald Eagles at Conowingo Dam in Maryland, and then moves north in the spring, hitting the south shore of Lake Ontario and Derby Hill.
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With the end of the year mere days away, I once again find myself reflecting on the events of the past 12 months. 2021 definitely saw its share of extreme highs and lows, fortunately not quite as volatile as 2020, and it has gradually trended towards the better despite some chaos along the way. In keeping with tradition, I’ve compiled a list of the best birds I observed over the course of the year. There were certainly more opportunities for travel compared to last year, including a trip to Seattle where I finally connected with Orcas and an imminent visit to Phoenix with plans to spend New Year’s at the Grand Canyon. Even so, many of the year’s most remarkable avian sightings still took place in my home state. On the whole, I am incredibly pleased with my collective birding experiences in 2021.
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Endings are often emotional experiences. My time in Astoria, which began 2 years ago in December 2019, is rapidly coming to a close. Although I am looking forward to the beginning of a new chapter in my life, it is still difficult to close the book on all of the wonderful memories I’ve experienced in this little corner of Queens. The past few years featured some painful lows as well as plenty of pleasant highs, and there is much that I’ll miss when I leave this neighborhood behind. I’ll miss my awesome roommate, Matt, I’ll miss the fantastic bars and restaurants, and, of course, I’ll miss Astoria Park. My very first visit to Astoria Park was on January 5th, 2020. My initial impressions of this well-manicured, anthropocentric greenspace were not particularly optimistic.
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My list of favorite birds is fairly extensive. I’ve been fascinated by the stark beauty and nomadic lifestyle of the Snowy Owl my entire life. The primeval splendor of the legendary Southern Cassowary surpassed my sky high expectations when I finally met the beast in the flesh, and the dashing Rainbow Bee-eater earned extra significance for me when it marked the milestone of my life list reaching 1,000 species. The brilliance of the Common Raven, the elegance of the Swallow-tailed Kite, and the haunting song of the Common Loon all speak to me on a deeply personal level, to say nothing of the various cuckoos, nightbirds, seabirds, and others that fill out the upper levels of my quality rankings. A common theme I’ve noticed is that many of my preferred birds combine striking appearance with unusual ecology or behavior.
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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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