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. After several sightings at birding hotspots in late spring, I added this sought-after patch bird to my Astoria Park list in August. Most notably, I discovered a window strike victim outside my school in early October. The rescue effort that followed worked out favorably for both of us. Last I heard, the bird is evidently recovering well in long-term rehab, and I enjoyed an unforgettable up-close-and-personal encounter with a species I’ve long been fond of. I’m thankful to the folks at the Wild Bird Fund and Tri-State Bird Rescue for their help getting this wayward traveler the help it needed.
#10. Nashville Warbler
Birders in eastern North America eagerly look forward to the return of the Neotropical migrants each spring, and this year’s challenges made that anticipation feel that much more intense. This species was among the first returning warblers I spotted in May, and I was lucky enough to add it to both my patch list and my fire escape list. It was also a part of my first 20 warbler day at Astoria Park, a diversity total that indicates a fantastic day of migration which I wouldn’t have thought was possible at this small greenspace. What’s more, I got to observe these birds on their breeding territory in the Adirondacks over the summer.
#9. Seaside Sparrow
I observed more than 30 species of birds that were new for my Queens County list over the course of 2020. This species, along with its cousin the Saltmarsh Sparrow, was among the highlights of my Global Big Day efforts on May 9th. My first major outing of the season, the World Series of Birding afforded me a chance to participate in some socially distanced competition alongside some fellow birders from Cornell. It also marked the final voyage of my decade old hiking boots, which sadly succumbed to mud and mold following a foray into a tidal marsh. The Seaside Sparrows at this site were remarkably cooperative, showing well at close range. I even got to see an individual that had been banded in a scientific research study.
#8. Caspian Tern
I first visited Astoria Park on January 5th, 2020. It quickly became my primary patch, and I ended up documenting 151 species at the park over the course of the year. There were a number of surprising observations over the course of the past 12 months, including Bobolink, Connecticut Warbler, Philadelphia Vireo, Nelson’s Sparrow, Long-tailed Duck, all of the eastern Empids, and many of the irruptive winter finches. The most unexpected patch bird of them all, however, was a Caspian Tern that I spotted winging its way south along the East River on September 6th. Though encountered with some regularity at coastal staging sites on Long Island, it is a rare treat to see this species in active migration. It also counted as a tick for New York County, an especially noteworthy record outside the context of major storms.
#7. Canada Jay
This is a species that is always a treat to see, consistently counting among the highlights of any visit to the boreal forests they call home. My July trip to the Adirondacks was no exception. We met a family group of these charismatic corvids at Sabattis Bog, which allowed me to contribute observation data to the Third New York Breeding Bird Atlas. In addition to snagging some peanuts and granola, it became clear that the Camp Robbers had stolen Jacqi’s heart. They quickly claimed their spot as her favorite bird she’s seen, and they come up frequently in conversation whenever she tells friends about our adventures together. Hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to revisit these lovable bandits sometime soon!
#6. Black Vulture
April was a rough time for everyone in NYC. When I was completely confined to my apartment, my fire escape provided a critical lifeline to the natural world. Though the view from my windowsill was limited, it proved to be more productive than I had expected. Spotting a Black Vulture from this vantage point was a welcome surprise. Though common on the mainland, the species is rare enough on Long Island that it was a Queens County first for me. A tallied a total of 6 individuals on 3 different occasions during the spring skywatch season, mixed in with a variety of other raptors, plenty of waterbirds, and some Neotropical migrants, resulting in a “yard” total of 81 species. Cliff Swallow and Bank Swallow also joined my county list during this time period. These sightings were much-needed bright spots during the height of lockdown.
#5. Snowy Owl
This is a lifelong favorite animal of mine, so it always ranks highly on my annual highlights lists. However, this year was particularly special. My coworker Max, who eventually moved away from the City over the summer, had talked for years about how he wanted to accompany me on a search for this species. We finally made that plan a reality in February. In addition to successfully tracking down an owl, we also discovered a pellet on the beach nearby. I later dissected the casting and found it was full of Northern Flicker feathers and Meadow Vole bones. While I’d hoped to find something unusual during the dissection, I certainly wasn’t expecting such an odd blend of prey items. This intriguing and intimate look into the life of this incredible Arctic predator was undoubtedly one of the most scientifically noteworthy observations of my year.
#4. Common Raven
This is another long-term favorite that took on added significance in 2020. This species has gone from a major rarity to a regular nesting species in our region over the course of my birding career. This year, I had the pleasure of sharing my new neighborhood with a breeding pair. I watched them progress from courtship flights to nest construction to incubation, keeping close tabs on their nest site atop the Hell Gate Bridge. When social distancing measures took effect, the ravens were a near daily sight, with their primary foraging route frequently taking them past my apartment window. In May, I finally met their young chicks, who soon fledged and spread out across Astoria. Getting to know this delightful family was an easy highlight of my first year in Queens. Their entertaining antics never got old, and they provided some valuable Atlas data, too.
#3. Bicknell’s Thrush
This was my long overdue first lifer of the year, both in terms of how many months it took to break that seal and how glaring the bird’s absence from my life list was! I’ve talked about making the pilgrimage to the higher peaks of upstate New York in search of this bird for years, and I finally ran out of excuses and obstacles in 2020. Taking my new hiking boots on their maiden voyage, I made a socially distanced day trip up to Slide Mountain in the Catskills once the school year ended. The early morning trek up the slope to the balsam fir groves on the summit was truly wonderful. I heard and saw several male thrushes singing to defend their territories in a spectacular setting. This outing was certainly worth the wait!
#2. Spruce Grouse
Once Bicknell’s Thrush was in the bag, there was only one remaining species that breeds in New York State which I still needed for my world life list. I knew tracking it down would be no small feat, since Spruce Grouse has long been considered a near mythical cryptid in the Adirondacks. With a bit of encouragement and intel about recent sightings provided by my friends, I decided to make an honest attempt for this legendary bird. Jacqi and I enjoyed the entirety of our Adirondack expedition, and we were both treated to separate fleeting glimpses of our quarry. Having a brief but identifiable view of a grouse disappearing into the dense branches of the conifers certainly reinforced the mystique of the species. I always appreciate an excuse to explore the north woods, and I hope to enjoy another encounter with this boreal specialty in the near future!
#1. Common Cuckoo
This was the big one. Bird of 2020, hands down. I considered myself incredibly lucky to check off the pair of aforementioned lifers in my home state this year, and I certainly wasn’t expecting anything else. Hearing news of this mind-blowing megararity turning up within easy chasing distance caught me completely off-guard. Early November was a bit of a chaotic time, and I feared I might miss the opportunity to connect with this iconic species. Fortunately, Jacqi and I managed to find an opening for a short, safe jaunt up to Providence. The cuckoo proved to be incredibly cooperative, offering fantastic views and photo ops as it slaughtered caterpillars in the Snake Den Farm fields. This bird absolutely exceeded my already high expectations. I always have been and always will be a big fan of all the world’s cuckoos. This was a once-in-a-lifetime vagrant that stands out as the clear highlight of a complicated, crazy year! Despite its ups and downs, 2020 delivered its share of positive surprises, and this memorable adventure undoubtedly earned its spot at the top of the ranking. Here’s hoping for happy, healthy days ahead in 2021!