2021 – The First 100

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. I certainly wasn’t going to let myself miss the mark this year!

It’s a Brand New Year!

The January 100 has to start somewhere, and I confess that I am a touch superstitious about the symbolism about the year’s first bird. 2019 kicked off with a Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the following 12 months featured a number of similarly wonderful surprises, including a long-awaited pair of international expeditions and my move to an apartment in Queens. On the other hand, 2020 was heralded by a flock of Canada Geese, and we all saw how that turned out. This year, I slept in rather than get out birding before the sun, and I was awakened by the caws of an American Crow. An intelligent, adaptable creature that seems ominous at first glance but also provides valuable ecosystem services by cleaning up refuse and carrion…I think we can work with that!

My first outing of New Year’s Day was a trip down to Jones Beach, where I was hoping to introduce Jacqi to my favorite bird of all. I kept track of the species we observed along the drive. Taking the scenic route by the shoreline in Queens delivered a variety of waterbirds, including Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, and Horned Grebe. Larger birds like Red-tailed Hawk and Great Blue Heron were visible along the parkways en route to the South Shore. Once we arrived at our destination, it didn’t take me long to spot our quarry: a Snowy Owl sitting a distant dune. When I noticed that the raptor was lacking the usual attendant mob, I knew that there must be another, more cooperative subject present. We walked down to the beach and saw not one, but two crowds of assembled admirers, each focused on a roosting owl.

The first pair of birds we observed were young females, showing plumage heavily marked with dark flecks and bars. The individual resting on the beach took off and gave us a close flyby as we were approaching the socially distanced semicircle of paparazzi. Further down the shore, a paler immature male was visible on a high perch at the edge of the dunes. We were treated to incredible scope views and lovely photo ops as he shifted about, preened, and surveyed the scenery. Jacqi was duly impressed by her first encounter with these majestic creatures, and I was thrilled that we had the good fortune to start our year with such a fantastic experience. You can always count on Snowies to bring the excitement!

On January 1st, every bird is a new bird. I added Red-breasted Nuthatch, Common Eider, Northern Harrier, American Tree Sparrow, and others to my year list as we continued our exploration of Jones Beach. We started making our home fairly early after a rather late start, closing my first day of the year at 35 species. 2021 was off to a great start!

Another Christmas Count

Saturday, January 2nd, was my last official Christmas Bird Count of the 2020 season. The Southern Nassau Count, where I first got my start with this longstanding tradition, always falls right before or right after New Year’s. The added bonus of year birding potential is a major draw for this survey, which also features some fantastic territory. I usually cover the coastal habitat near the Jones Beach jetty, but this year there were a number of changes to scheduling and participation thanks to the restrictions of public health guidelines. The Feustels asked me if I’d be willing to pick up the slack on some newly abandoned turf on the bayside near Field 10. Though I knew I would miss my usual route, I couldn’t say no to a direct request for assistance, and I was excited to try my luck in this promising area.

I began my count efforts before daybreak, documenting American Woodcocks and a Hermit Thrush while listening for nightbirds. As the skies began to lighten, I made my way to the Field 10 fishing piers, where I set up my scope for some saltmarsh scanning. Ruddy Turnstones patrolled the planks of the docks at my feet, and a group of American Oystercatchers was visible across the channel amidst the gulls and cormorants. Other notable sightings included Peregrine Falcon, Long-tailed Ducks, and a young Lesser Black-backed Gull, but the grand prize was a Tricolored Heron that I spotted flushing from the grassy islands far to the north. This species is inconspicuous and irregular in coastal areas even in summer, so this winter sighting was an unexpected treat and a good find for the count.

I enjoyed the company of a Bonaparte’s Gull flock throughout my vigil at Field 10. The floaty, elegant seabirds danced over the water’s surface just off the edge of the pier, periodically plunging to snap up tiny fish. Populations of this species have declined dramatically in our area, and in recent years this once abundant visitor has occasionally been missed on CBCs. I was pleased to secure them as a checkmark for both the count total and my personal year list, and they made for an easy highlight of my day.

As the morning wore on, I stepped away from Field 10 and began exploring the roadside brush along the Bay Parkway. Red Crossbills were the most notable rarity I discovered, part of the ongoing finch superflight which has brought impressive numbers of northern irruptives to the Northeast. Cedar Waxwing, Northern Flicker, Common Loon, and Green-winged Teal also joined the tally as I wandered through my territory. I observed a Common Raven engaged in an intense dogfight with a murder of American Crows, repeatedly twisting upside-down and croaking loudly in a show of aerial superiority over its pursuers. I later found the bird feasting on a freshly roadkilled pigeon back in the parking lot, which resulted in some wonderfully grim photos. There’s never a dull moment when ravens are around. 

Things slowed down during the afternoon portion of the count, but I still managed to pick up a few more birds. After completing my required territory assignments, I made a quick jaunt over to Baldwin Harbor Park in search of a Spotted Towhee found by Shai and Pat. Unfortunately, the western vagrant proved uncooperative, but the local Monk Parakeets offered a fine consolation year bird. I made a trip back out to the Jones Beach jetty for Purple Sandpipers, and I watched the sun go down over the marshes where I began my day. Overall, participants in the Southern Nassau Count detected a remarkable 140 species, just 2 away from the historical record for this circle. It was a lovely day to be out birding on Long Island, and I was thankful as always for the opportunity to participate in this especially productive count.

Up in the Mountains

Travel options have been understandably limited for the past year, so I haven’t been able to do much birding away from my immediate neighborhood. When Jacqi offered me a chance to join her family at their personal ski lodgings in Vermont, I jumped at the opportunity. My current remote teaching arrangements allow me to work from anywhere, so I was thankful for a change of scenery that still permitted me to do my work effectively. The drive up from NYC added Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Barred Owl, and some waterfowl to my year list, and we arrived at Stratton on the evening of January 3rd. The next day, I was stunned and elated to hear soft, mellow whistles floating down from the frozen spruces during a lunchtime stroll. Pine Grosbeaks, the holy grail of winter finches, can be tricky to track down even during major flight years like this one. It quickly became apparent that the ski resort was hosting a large flock of these northern nomads. I eventually located a grove of ornamental crabapple trees where the birds were gorging themselves on seeds, providing unbelievably close views.

There aren’t many birds to be found in the snowy north woods at this time of year. Over the course of the week, my only other year list additions were a Brown Creeper in a chickadee flock and several Pileated Woodpeckers, the 2021 ABA Bird of the Year. With that being said, the local Pine Grosbeak flock was more than sufficient to keep me entertained at my mountain retreat. I visited their fruit buffet hangout every chance I got, and the photo shoots produced some wonderful results. I recorded a maximum count of 22 individuals at a time, including several downright stunning adult males, which are often a rare sight south of the boreal forest. Having the opportunity to spend some quality time with these beautiful birds was probably the pinnacle of this winter’s irruption for me. 

City Birding

Back in NYC, I resumed the usual routine of keeping tabs on my local patch, Astoria Park. Northern Shoveler and Gadwall joined the year list on the morning of Monday the 11th, but they were quickly upstaged by a Harbor Seal that I spied bobbing in the East River. This was only my fourth non-human mammal for the park, after Eastern Gray Squirrel, Brown Rat, and Common Raccoon. I knew that seals regularly swim up the Hudson in pursuit of prey, and I had been hoping that one might find its way to my corner of the city. It ended up lingering in the area for several days, usually hanging around in the waters just south of Randall’s Island. A bit of unexpected excitement arrived that afternoon in the form of a strange young gull, which briefly gave some of my expert larophile associates pause as a candidate for a European vagrant. In the end, I managed to obtain some spread wing shots that confirmed it was nothing more than a particularly runty Great Black-backed Gull. It’s always worth keeping an eye out to see what turns up in the local loafing flocks.

As much as I love my little corner of Queens, visiting Jacqi’s apartment on the Upper West Side affords me an excuse to explore Central Park more regularly than I used to. A Greater White-fronted Goose which originally turned up at Randall’s Island in late December seems to have settled for the winter in the heart of Manhattan, and I finally managed to connect with it on January 16th at its Reservoir roost site. A few days later, I also picked up a young Iceland Gull, which followed the goose’s lead as a year bird/county bird combo. Other Manhattan-based additions to the year list included American Kestrel outside the apartment, American Coot in Central Park, and both Dark-eyed Junco and Swamp Sparrow in Bryant Park.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the season for New York County came at the very end of the month, when a Snowy Owl turned up on the ballfields at the North Meadow. Discovered on the morning of January 27th, this immature female represented only the second of her species ever recorded in Central Park’s history, over 130 years after the first sighting. I received word of the wayward bird through the grapevine early in the day, and I braced myself for the inevitable frenzy. Once the news hit the mainstream media, the internet exploded. Reporting of owl sightings is a contentious topic in general, and in NYC in particular. They are understandably popular creatures, but they also need peace and quiet to rest during the day, and that can be hard to come by when legions of observers descend upon them. When I stopped by the park during an afternoon walk with Jacqi, however, the scene was unexpectedly mellow. The congregation was well-behaved and well-spaced, with the owl perched over 200 feet away, protected by the field’s perimeter fences.

Considering the chaos that often follows Snowies when they visit our region, I was surprised and relieved that this high profile event resolved itself without any major issues. The fences kept the hordes at a distance, the Central Park Rangers on site managed and educated the gathered spectators, and apart from a swiftly corrected drone intrusion the only disruptions the owl endured were the mobbing efforts of crows and hawks. I had feared the worst, but fortunately everything turned out better than expected. The bird’s presence at this conspicuous day roost was a one-day wonder, though she apparently moved on to an unknown, well-hidden location nearby where she could safely rest without harassment before emerging hunt in the park after dark. There’s no doubt that this bird provided fond memories for the hundreds of people who were lucky enough to observe her initial appearance or subsequent nightly hunts. In my opinion, it’s always a win when people can enjoy such a wonderful sighting with minimal disturbance to the bird.

First Chase of the Year

This month was quite wacky overall in terms of unexpected discoveries. The CBC Spotted Towhee was seen for at least two weeks despite its unaccommodating, skulky behavior and tendency to keep to a dense, tangled hideout. Dovekies made an impressive inshore invasion, showing up at coastal sites from Brooklyn to Montauk. A Brown Pelican was observed at several locations along the Hudson River, making it to Manhattan waters before cutting across the Bronx and turning up in Connecticut. Our neighbors across the Long Island Sound were also treated to a Ross’s Gull record, while Pennsylvania hosted a Tundra Bean-Goose and an Allen’s Hummingbird. All across the Northeast region, folks were enjoying a variety of stellar sightings.

I was unable to successfully follow up on any of the aforementioned vagrants, but I did get a chance to make a proper chase on January 23rd, when I journeyed north in search of New York’s first-ever Ferruginous Hawk. This wandering western raptor was first discovered in the Black Dirt Region of Orange County on January 17th, and during the subsequent week countless birders made the trek to seek out the new state checklist addition. It became apparent that the hawk was ranging widely across the vast private farm fields, and the community came together to develop coordinated communication for the search efforts from various public vantage points. There were some days when the bird didn’t appear at all, and others when it showed off beautifully at close range. I was fortunate that the bird was rediscovered quickly after I arrived, but it was impossibly far away from the road. Views through the scope were distant but identifiable, but my documentation shots are decidedly less so. It’s been over a decade since I last saw this impressive species, though, and plenty of other hopeful searchers missed it entirely. I’ll take what I can get!

Other notable year birds from my time in the Black Dirt included a huge flock of more than 100 Common Redpolls, a handsome dark morph Rough-legged Hawk, and a band of Horned Larks feeding in the fields. I also had the pleasure of catching up with a number of familiar faces from all over the state, which turned the Ferruginous Hawk stakeout into a welcome socially distanced social event. Along the way home, I added Black and Turkey Vultures, Canvasback, Redhead, American Wigeon, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Winter Wren, and more to the 2021 total, rapidly closing in on the triple digit mark. I decided to close out the day at Jones Beach, where I finally recorded my 100th species of the year: a trio of Razorbills floating just beyond the breakers. I’d consider that a solid bird to mark the goal, especially considering the diverse array of creatures included in that total.

Keep on Counting

Though my January 100 officially closed on the 23rd, the year birding excitement is only just getting started. In the wee hours of the following morning, I was standing on a roadside in Suffolk County listening to the eerie wail of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, year bird #101. It was the perfect kick-off to the 5th annual Northport Winter Bird Count, a CBC-inspired survey founded by my friends Brent and Taylor. I’ve been covering the Huntington sector of the count circle for years, and I look forward to the event every winter. The new ticks for my personal total kept on coming, including Belted Kingfisher at Mill Dam Park, Pine Siskin at Fiske Bird Sanctuary, and Golden-crowned Kinglet at West Hills County Park. 

As I explored my assigned territory, I recorded some important species for the count itself, including Ring-necked Duck, Snow Goose, and Merlin. The clear photographic highlight of the day was a marvelously cooperative Fish Crow flock that posed in perfect light at Huntington Harbor. The usual compilation dinner and drinks arrangement had to be replaced by a virtual meeting a few nights later, but the camaraderie and excitement over our record-setting total of 105 could be felt even through the computer screen. I look forward to holding the ceremonies in person again in the future, but it was nice that we could all still enjoy this tradition in a somewhat modified form.

With another January drawing to a close, I’m grateful that I was able to meet my established objective despite the obstacles in the way. Every one of those first 100 birds is part of a memorable story, and there are undoubtedly many more memories to be made in the coming months. Here’s hoping that the rest of the year can live up to the high standard that January’s birding set, and that the rest of the world can step up its game a bit! Better days are ahead, so just keep hanging in there and find your joy where you can. Good birding!