With the beginning of 2023 fast approaching, it is time once again to reflect on the most memorable birding experiences of the past year. These annual highlight reels have been a tradition since I first started chronicling my adventures on this site, and there are plenty of amazing experiences to choose from this time around. 2022 has been a wild success on the birding front, easily ranking among the best years of my career to date. I added 17 new species to my state list, encountered 8 life birds, and boosted my county totals for each of the 5 boroughs of NYC as well as Suffolk County. It’s difficult to sum up the spectacular stories of the past 12 months in a single retrospective post, but there are absolutely some standout encounters that deserve another moment in the spotlight before we ring in the New Year!
Disclaimer: I apologize for the wildly discrepant photo quality in this countdown. A few of my favorite shots I’ve ever taken are represented here, supplemented by a healthy harvest of grain.
Honorable Mention #1:
For the first half of 2022, I lived on the Upper West Side just a few blocks from Central Park. My brief stint as a Manhattan resident produced a number of unforgettable memories, and residing a short stroll away from the North Woods definitely had its perks. Spring migration is always an exciting time in New York City, and this year was no different. Between Big Days with friends, guided walks for kids, and solo outings before and after work, I logged countless hours in the Park over the course of the season. Of the many winged visitors I crossed paths with this spring, the flashiest of them all was a stunningly cooperative male Prothonotary Warbler. This glorious golden bird wound up hanging around the North End for over a week in late April, putting in regular performances at the trails through the Loch and along the shores of the Pool. Jacqi and I were delighted by the opportunity for an extended photo shoot with this handsome southern songster, who posed wonderfully while foraging along the water’s edge mere feet from an awestruck crowd. Close encounters like this are among the best experiences that birding in the City has to offer.
Honorable Mention #2:
2022 was an especially good year for state listing here in New York, but I did make a few forays to track down noteworthy vagrants in other parts of the Northeast. The discovery of a Garganey along the coast of New Jersey was an exciting enough event to lure me across the GWB for a chase. This handsome European duck always draws a crowd when it shows up on our shores, and this dapper drake was no exception. The only snag was that it was favoring an overgrown, weed-choked pond at the National Guard Training Center in Sea Girt, which meant that viewing opportunities were frustratingly limited for civilians. Visiting birders were reduced to standing along the border of the active military base and gazing forlornly through the fence, waiting impatiently for the Garganey to emerge from the dense vegetation. I put in several hours of effort and needed to return for a second attempt before I finally laid eyes on this transatlantic traveler. The disappointment of dipping on a rare bird can be crippling, but it serves as strong inspiration to try again at the next available opportunity. The sense of triumph that comes with the eventual success is always worth the wait. Fortunately, this particular individual was kind enough to provide me with a shot at redemption promptly after the initial failed twitch. It may have landed a bit higher up the rankings if it decided to visit New York instead, but I’ll take what I can get!
#10: American Dipper
I am always delighted to cross paths with a dipper. There’s something inherently magical about a passerine that has adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, and the chunky form and slate gray plumage of our own American species makes for an especially endearing creature. I strongly associate these birds with wild places like mountain forests and glacial outflows, which only enhances their intrinsic appeal. Regrettably, I had not encountered this charming western specialty since the summer of 2013, when I worked for the Forest Service in Alaska. An August trip to the Greater Yellowstone Area with my family set the stage for a long overdue reunion. We were fortunate enough to find a pair of these swimming songbirds tending to their fledglings along the trail to Hidden Falls in Grand Teton National Park. It was a treat to watch the youngsters bounce around on the streamside boulders, fiddling with debris as they waited impatiently for food deliveries from their parents. Even when set in direct comparison with sightings of iconic megafauna such as bears and Moose, this observation stands out as a clear highlight of my return to the Rocky Mountains. I only hope that I won’t have to wait so long before my next dipper experience!
#9: American Golden-Plover
I’ve harbored a soft spot for golden-plovers ever since my first observation back in May 2013, when the arrival of a large flock at Juneau’s Mendenhall Wetlands marked a major milestone as my 500th life bird. These Arctic-nesting shorebirds are regular but declining migrants in New York, such that I consider myself lucky if I manage to encounter them once or twice a year. Fall 2022 proved to be an exceptional season for this species in NYC. I finally added the species to my Queens County list during a productive visit to the Jamaica Bay at the end of August, and I spotted the second New York County record a few days later in migratory flight over Randall’s Island. The biggest surprise of all, however, came a few weeks later. Towards the end of a routine morning skywatch atop the roof of my Astoria apartment, I was stunned by the sight of a high-flying plover working its way down the East River with a band of pigeons. To my shock and amazement, I managed to secure distant but identifiable photographs before it disappeared from view. I’d already fallen in love with rooftop stakeouts at my new home, documenting a variety of awesome species ranging from Blue Grosbeak to Northern Harrier, but this remarkable rarity undoubtedly takes top honors. I’m eager to see what other surprises will join my yard list in 2023!
2022 was a year of marriages. Jacqi and I attended a staggering 9 nuptial ceremonies over the course of the year, and I was honored when my close friends Dylan and Aly asked me to officiate their wedding. This long-awaited celebration required a fair bit of travel, to California for the bachelor party and Colorado for the big event itself! Both vacations presented opportunities to connect with new birds, which were a welcome bonus for these exciting occasions. Dylan’s June stag weekend found us in Linda Mar, a quiet coastal town just south of San Francisco. The hillsides surrounding our temporary lodgings were wreathed in chaparral, and the bouncing song of the Wrentit made for a memorable soundtrack to our revelry. I had somehow missed this distinctive species on my previous visits to California, so I was thrilled to mark this special occasion with such a highly anticipated lifer. Though they weren’t keen on posing for photos, the local Wrentits offered closer views than both their Allen’s Hummingbird neighbors and the Brown-capped Rosy-Finches that I sought out in Rocky Mountain National Park in the days leading up to the wedding in August. Each of these encounters are now inextricably linked to the memory of my experience as officiant, and I will always look back fondly on our weekend of drunken debauchery in the realm of the Wrentit.
#7: King Rail
The ongoing New York Breeding Bird Atlas has presented a number of unique opportunities to get to know our local birds a little bit better. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experiences watching for courtship behavior, evidence of nesting, and freshly-fledged babies during the warmer months of the past few years. 2022 provided an even more remarkable opportunity: the chance to observe the breeding activity of a visiting regional rarity. When a King Rail was first reported from the marshes at the famously productive Timber Point Golf Course this May, I was not expecting it to stick around long enough for me to see it. My only prior experience with this bird was limited to disembodied voices ringing through the wetlands of southern Texas in 2016, and my previous efforts to connect with the species in New York had come up empty. Word eventually got out that this royal rail had been seen closely associating with a local Clapper, and rumors began to fly about the true nature of their relationship. The prospect of documenting the hybrid offspring of this interspecies couple was too exciting to pass up. I partook in multiple lengthy saltmarsh stakeouts at the start of this summer, finally confirming that the birds had shacked up together and produced an adorable brood of fluffy black chicks. The arrival of this single vagrant furnished me with a new state bird, my first visual observation of said species, and a lifer hybrid encounter all packaged neatly together. That’s a deal fit for a King!
#6: Slaty-backed Gull
I don’t know that I have ever worked harder to see a specific individual bird than I did for this maddeningly elusive gull. I suppose that’s bound to happen when a continent-level rarity starts putting in regular appearances a few blocks from your apartment but only shows up while you’re busy at work. Although the species hails from the Pacific coast of Asia, Slaty-backed Gull is a surprisingly widespread and regular vagrant throughout North America. There have been over a dozen accepted reports in New York State to date, with most coming from upstate regions near large bodies of water like the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes. However, this Manhattan record represented the first confirmed sighting for Region 10, which encompasses New York City and Long Island. The downstate birding community was understandably amped about this long anticipated sighting. Hordes of twitchers converged on Central Park, and it quickly became apparent that the gull was stopping sporadically at the Reservoir to bathe as it traveled to and from its preferred roosting and foraging sites. My social media feeds were filled with photo after photo of it happily splashing in the spray of the fountain and loafing about on the ice sheets, which made my repeated strikeouts all the more frustrating. This species rapidly approached top Nemesis Bird territory solely based on my experiences in the first half of February. At the end of a grueling Saturday morning stakeout, just when all hope seemed lost, the bird suddenly appeared and graced us with its presence for just 40 minutes before vanishing yet again. It took me 17 hours of search time over the course of 7 trips to the Reservoir, but it all proved to be well-worth the effort when our schedules finally aligned. As it happened, that observation turned out to be the last time this individual was seen in New York. Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat!
#5: Bar-tailed Godwit
Rare vagrant sightings are made possible by the remarkable ability of birds to travel long distances under the power of their own wings. Of all the world’s magnificent migrants, there is no feat more awe-inspiring than the journey of the Bar-tailed Godwit. In fact, this world champion smashed its own record just this year, with a young bird who flew non-stop for 8,435 miles between Alaska and Tasmania over the course of 11 days! This species has shown up in New York a handful of times in the past, with all prior records involving the European subspecies which migrates to Africa. I was thrilled by the news that a Bar-tail had been spotted on Long Island this July, but the revelation that it was an individual from the famous Alaskan population floored me. I’d previously observed this bird on the coast of northern Australia, and the possibility of adding that same subspecies to my state list was an exciting prospect indeed. As I was solidifying my schemes to make chase, I received word that yet another incredible rarity had turned up in the form of Anhinga spotted just north of the City. I couldn’t pass up on the unique opportunity to savor this most incongruous pair of vagrants in my home state. Each of my targets cooperated marvelously for a spectacular doubleheader day. Both individuals ended up lingering for a quite a while at their selected summer sites, and I was fortunate enough to enjoy a second, even closer encounter with the godwit while relaxing in the cool tidal waters at Cupsogue Beach about a week later. Pure birding bliss.
Birders across North America celebrated 2022 as the official kickoff of Hot Limpkin Summer. These distinctive denizens of southern swamps have undergone a dramatic range expansion of late, with 4 states adding their first observations of the species in 2021 and a whopping 9 states joining the party this year. This species went from impossible to inevitable in very short order in terms of projected next records for New York. There was a great deal of speculation about when and where our first Limpkin might show up, but I don’t know that anybody had the combination of “November” and “along the Canadian border” on their bingo card. When news of the long-awaited inaugural sighting broke, I wasted no time in making plans to chase. I ended up taking an overnight Greyhound Bus from NYC to Buffalo with my good friend Brendan, arriving at the stakeout site in Lewiston just in time for sunrise. The wayward wader proved to be unbelievably accommodating, crushing all-you-can-eat snails as it foraged fearlessly at our feet. The surreal scene of a subtropical vagrant foraging on the shores of the Niagara River in near-freezing temperatures with both a Little Gull and a tiny, sweater-clad dog passing by at close range made for an unforgettable experience. This particular individual, far from home and decidedly out of its element, was rescued from certain doom by local rehabbers as a snowstorm bore down on the region. After a brief recovery period in captivity, it was successfully released into the wild back in more agreeable, southerly climes. I can only hope that any future New York Limpkins visit during the warmer months and manage to find more suitably productive habitat. All the same, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of being part of a first state record!
#3: Short-billed Gull
To date, there have been 508 species of birds documented in New York State. Reaching a personal tally of 400 is a major milestone that many state listers hope to achieve. It takes a great deal of dedication and effort to reach this lofty goal, signifying one’s commitment to chronicling the Empire State’s avian residents and visitors. I have been striving towards this total in earnest since I returned home from college in 2014. I began 2022 with 383 species on my New York list, and I certainly didn’t think that I had a realistic shot of reaching the long-awaited landmark before year’s end. A cavalcade of excellent state birds briefly got me wondering whether this could be my year, but by the middle of December it looked as though the window of opportunity was closing. I had mostly resigned myself to #400 being the first new addition of 2023, but the birding fates saw fit to deliver a final surprise for a mind-blowing buzzer beater. At the end of the last work week before vacation, a report came through that Andrew Farnsworth had discovered a vagrant Short-billed Gull at Randall’s Island. The fearsome weather associated with the passage of Winter Storm Elliott had evidently produced ideal conditions for masses of gulls to congregate on the flooded ballfields, bringing a remarkable state rarity to my own beloved patch. I first met this species, then known as the American population of Mew Gull, during my childhood visits to the Pacific Northwest. I have fond memories of watching these dainty seabirds tending to treetop nests and scrounging around campsites under the midnight sun in Denali, and we became more closely acquainted when I worked as a ranger in Juneau. An attempted twitch in Brooklyn last December saw me missing this bird by literal seconds, but that strikeout set me up beautifully for redemption at Randall’s. And thus, at 1:40 PM on Friday, December 23rd, with gale force winds whipping across the open fields of my favorite local birding site, I finally laid eyes on my 400th species for New York State. I couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present!
2: Bermuda Petrel
“CAHOOOOOWWWWW!!!” I’ve been dreaming of one day shouting out that oh-so-evocative name ever since I began birding by boat. The saga of the Bermuda Petrel is one of the most remarkable tales in the history of wildlife conservation. Nesting exclusively on the archipelago for which it is named, this species was believed to be extinct for some 300 years before it was formally rediscovered in the early 20th century. Bermudian biologists have worked tirelessly to rescue the Cahow from the brink of oblivion, and their continuing efforts have resulted in a slow but steady population increase. Though no longer considered to be a ghost lost to time, this species remains the indisputable Holy Grail of all the regularly occurring seabirds in the North Atlantic. East Coast pelagic birders from Florida to Newfoundland fantasize about crossing paths with this incredible oceanic voyager. To encounter a wild creature that was once thought to be gone forever is an experience unlike any other. After a forced multiyear pelagic hiatus, 2022 finally saw our triumphant return to the continental shelf, where our long-held dreams became reality. I have never witnessed a more emotional birding celebration than the jubilant rave that unfolded on the decks of the American Princess when the Cahow sailed past our starboard bow. We cheered, we laughed, we embraced, and we reveled in the splendor of the mythical creature that had graced us with its presence. Considering that this October expedition marked our second reschedule attempt for a trip that came uncomfortably close to being cancelled altogether, I am grateful beyond measure for the chance to have met this legendary Lazarus species in the flesh. Our dramatic victory at sea was made possible by the continuing hard work of our wonderful birding community, not least of all Paul Guris and the rest of the former Paulagics team. Pelagic trips will always be one of my favorite forms of birding, and this awe-inspiring state first record is undoubtedly the grand prize of my time at sea thus far.
In most other years, this sighting would be the unchallenged favorite for Bird of the Year. It is a strong contender for my all-time best birding experience in New York State, and it easily secures a place for itself among the ranks of the most spectacular and memorable wildlife encounters of my entire life. But 2022 was no ordinary year…
#1: Steller’s Sea-Eagle
If you had told me, back in 2017 when I started regularly attending pelagic trips, that I would eventually see a Cahow in New York waters, I would be overjoyed. If you had told me that I would someday encounter a Steller’s Sea-Eagle at one of the towns in Maine where I used to work on puffin tours, I would be downright incredulous. While finding the Bermuda Petrel was a hard-won and long-awaited victory for myself and a small group of friends, the story of the Steller’s Sea-Eagle is an unprecedented, ongoing epic that has impacted the entire birding world and turned the heads of curious non-birders across the continent.
This regal raptor has been one of my most wanted species on the planet since I was a child. Larger by weight than any other eagle, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle is a strikingly beautiful and imposing creature. I always found myself awestruck whenever I saw this magnificent bird of prey staring at me from the pages of a book, and I marveled as I watched them in action in sweeping, slow-motion wildlife documentary sequences. I dreamed of one day coming face to face with this living legend, imagining a winter trip to the frozen coasts of Hokkaido or a chance meeting in the wildest reaches of Alaska. The arrival of the now internationally famous celebrity sea-eagle along the East Coast of North America shook me to my core. Over the course of 2021, I watched this astonishing story develop with a mix of disbelief and wonderment. I hoped against hope that the far-flung vagrant would eventually wander within striking distance for a chase. This January, the opportunity to take my shot at this roving megararity finally presented itself. I made the journey north from NYC in the wake of a Friday snowstorm with my fantastic travel buddy Ryan, and at daybreak the following morning we received a call from co-conspirator Zac that our quarry had just been sighted. At long last, we found the bird perched on a towering pine overlooking the icy waters of Boothbay Harbor. It was truly an incredible spectacle to behold. The majestic sea-eagle somehow managed to exceed my sky-high expectations, delivering an amazing experience worthy of the lifetime of hype leading up to this observation. Watching this gorgeous predator from the opposite side of the world soaring high above a snowy port town in Maine, dwarfing the ravens and Bald Eagle that rose to meet it in flight, instantly became one of the most unforgettable experiences of my career as a naturalist. I have since followed along with the sea-eagle’s continuing journey from afar, sharing in the excitement brought by each new sighting. There’s always a small chance that our paths may cross again someday, but if this is to remain a once-in-a-lifetime bird for me I am beyond satisfied with the magical moment we shared this past winter. The Steller’s Sea-Eagle is among the most renowned individual vagrants in the history of North American birding, and it has certainly earned its place as my #1 bird of 2022. Long may it roam!
Next year has a tough act to follow after all of the awesome experiences provided by 2022, but I am nonetheless as eager as ever to see what comes next. There will always be new surprises to discover, new milestones to achieve, and new memories to make. That promise of endless adventure is a huge part of why I love birding so much, and there’s no doubt that this joyous unpredictability was on full display in 2022. Thank you to everyone who helped to make this year so wonderful. Here’s to a Happy New Year! Bring on 2023!