2023 and Me

When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, a full twelve months of untold potential lie ahead. eBird resets the year list totals to zero, and the annual cycle of the seasons begins anew. For birders, each new year presents new opportunities for exciting encounters and unexpected discoveries. 2022 was undeniably one for the record books, and I am looking forward to seeing what 2023 has in store.

In keeping with tradition, Jacqi and I celebrated the changing of the calendar in the company of friends, this year in Providence, Rhode Island. The highly anticipated honors for First Bird of 2023 went to a Northern Cardinal that I heard chipping outside our window at daybreak: a delightfully welcome surprise considering our temporary residence’s location in the heart of the city. I spent most of January 1st relaxing and milling around town, racking up an incidental list of 20 expected urban birds over the course of the day’s activities. We parted from our pals and began the journey home on the 2nd, and I was able to add classic roadside species like Common Raven, Peregrine Falcon, and Black and Turkey Vultures along the way. The first addition to my 2023 New York list was an adult Red-shouldered Hawk that I spotted circling over the highway just after we crossed back into the boundaries of my home state.

As soon as we arrived back at our apartment in Queens, I set out on foot across the RFK Bridge to Randall’s Island. A wonderful whirlwind tour of holiday celebrations had kept me away from my beloved patch for over a week, and I was eager to kick off my 2023 year list with some proper City birding. I quickly connected with local winter specialties like Brant, Common Goldeneye, and Orange-crowned Warbler. I also noted a distant Ruddy Turnstone scuttling amongst the rocks at Lawrence Point Ledge and a late-lingering Palm Warbler working the western end of the Bronx Kill. A non-countable but nevertheless notable find was a hybrid drake Mallard x American Black Duck that has been hanging around the area, and a young Great Blue Heron posed cooperatively for a photoshoot. A harsh, rattling cry announced the arrival of a male Belted Kingfisher, the 2023 ABA Bird of the Year. For my money, this was a fantastic selection: a widespread but charismatic species that never fails to make a birding day’s highlight list. I spent several minutes admiring the kingfisher as it noisily hurtled up and down the shoreline before continuing on my way and slowly meandering homeward.

The first work week of 2023 was a busy one, but it still provided some lovely birds around town. Encounters with the resident pair of American Kestrels in Elmhurst brightened my morning commute, and I also spotted several of the friendly neighborhood Monk Parakeets from my Astoria rooftop. A post-work trip into Manhattan furnished me with a new county bird in the form of a Redhead drake at the Central Park Pool, and I briefly teamed up with Liam as we raced sunset to visit the local Great Horned Owl before she headed out hunting for the evening. As the weekend drew nearer, I solidified my schemes for a proper birding outing. I coordinated my efforts with Adam, and Friday afternoon saw us heading out to Long Island to crash with my family for the night.

We awoke well ahead of dawn on the 7th, setting out for the eastern terminus of Long Island under cover of darkness. By the time we reached the town of Montauk, the first hints of light were just beginning to color the landscape. We paused along the roadside to listen for owls just before sunrise, and we were rewarded by several whinnying Eastern Screech-Owls. At the official break of day, we were already in position for a seawatch from the Point. It didn’t take long for the action to get started. There were plenty of Northern Gannets and various seaducks moving past the overlook, and a steady procession of Razorbills out of Long Island Sound produced a tally of several hundred birds. As flocks of alcids began settling in the surf, we were able to pick out a handful of smaller Dovekies among them. These tiny seabirds are normally quite rare from shore in New York, but this winter’s conditions have produced an impressive incursion all along the coast of Long Island. Watching these dapper, diminutive divers bobbing on the waves below our vantage point was a delightful treat considering that this species is most often observed as a fleeting flyby. By midmorning, this seabird spectacle had unsurprisingly drawn quite a crowd of birders. You can always count on a quality wildlife show out at The End!

Satisfied with the spoils of our seawatch, Adam and I started making our way back towards the parking lot. Amidst the trilled squeals of high-flying robin flocks coming off the Sound, I heard a series of distinctive chipping flight calls. I wheeled around to see a group of chunky finches bounding through the sky overhead: Red Crossbills! Considering the somewhat patchy state of this winter’s irruptive finch flight, I wasn’t expecting to cross paths with these northern nomads so early in 2023. Following up on this serendipitous encounter, we set out to search for more of Montauk’s winter specialty birds. A visit to the inlet at the north end of Lake Montauk netted us several Great Cormorants hanging out in their preferred perches at the end of the jetty, and I briefly spied a Virginia Rail furtively peering out of the vegetation at Big Reed Pond before it dashed back into cover. We hit a short-lived rough patch when our attempt for Harlequin Ducks at Ditch Plains Beach was thwarted by a congregation of surfers and off-leash dogs, and we similarly struck out in our efforts to locate the Black Guillemots which had been recently seen on Fort Pond Bay. Thankfully, our luck took a turn for the better once again when we successfully connected with the overwintering Trumpeter Swan on Fort Pond, a spectacular regional rarity which was initially discovered by Brent during the Montauk Christmas Bird Count a few weeks prior. In the early afternoon, fueled by our hearty haul of excellent birds and some delicious lobster rolls from LUNCH, we finally began the long drive back to the City. A trip to Montauk is always a fantastic way to start the year!

On Sunday the 8th, Adam and I were up and at it again, patrolling Randall’s Island in pursuit of noteworthy birds. We bumped into Xander about halfway through our circuit, and the three of us spent the rest of the morning birding together. Once we finished up exploring the Island, we headed over to Central Park to see what else we could find. Moments after we arrived, I received news of a shocking discovery: there was a Swainson’s Hawk on Staten Island! The wayward bird had been discovered along the Front Street waterfront by a photographer named Maureen Seaberg, and it wasn’t long before stunning photographs of this cooperative individual began popping up on all the bird alert groups. I was initially hesitant about dropping everything for an interborough chase, but when I texted Jacqi about it she enthusiastically suggested we go for it together. I bid my friends farewell and rushed home to Astoria, coincidentally arriving at my doorstep just in time to see my first-of-year Yellow-rumped Warbler moving through the treetops across the street. Jacqi and I loaded up the car and started driving south, making great time on our journey through Brooklyn and across the Verrazzano. 

As we approached the stakeout site on Front Street, I was a touch nervous about whether the bird would still be present. Swainson’s Hawks are notorious for being difficult to track down when they turn up in New York, most often showing up as transient birds during migration and rarely sticking around long. Once we pulled into the parking lot, however, I immediately spotted the rare raptor perched on a telephone pole a short distance down the shore from a crowd of birders with many familiar faces among them. Just over a week into 2023 and I’m already checking off New York State bird #401! This remarkable vagrant proved to be a stunningly confiding subject, repeatedly making close, low passes as it cruised up and down the waterfront. Jacqi was absolutely in awe, gasping with amazement when the hawk first spread its long wings and exclaiming excitedly whenever it flew in our direction. When the bird finally made an extended flight out of view, we said our goodbyes to our friends and headed out to take care of our Sunday afternoon errands. Not a bad way to close out the first weekend of the new year!

A few days later, on the evening of the 11th, Jacqi and I were taking a stroll along the river’s edge at Astoria Park when we happened upon a gaggle of Brant foraging in the intertidal zone. As she scanned through the geese with my binoculars, she announced that one of them had something colorful attached to its leg. I quickly zeroed in on the bird with my camera, confirming that she had indeed spotted a plastic field-readable band through reflective surface of the water. It proved to be a bit of a challenge securing legible photos as the bird paddled around, especially since it refused to haul out onto the rocky shoreline, but I eventually managed to snap a few shots where the unique code could be clearly discerned. I reported the observation to the North American Bird Banding Program, and within hours I received a response. Our goose is evidently an adult female, first banded in Nunavut back in August 2018. Considering that I most frequently encounter Brant in dramatic hordes of hundreds or thousands of birds, this was the first time I had ever managed to get a read off a banded individual in the wild. Of course, I have Jacqi’s sharp eyes and burgeoning birding skills to thank for this particular sighting!

The remainder of the work week passed fairly quietly, though I did make a short commute extension to visit Bryant Park on my way home on the 12th. A late-lingering Ovenbird scrounging around the dining area was a welcome early addition to the 2023 year list, and I also saw several Gray Catbirds tussling for scraps amidst the throngs of hungry sparrows. This micropark is a famous migrant trap where many half-hardy species hang on well into colder months, and the mild conditions thus far this season have undoubtedly aided the overwintering attempts of these tiny lost creatures.

Our original plan for the second weekend of January was to head up to Vermont with Jacqi’s family, but when Friday afternoon rolled around several of them were feeling under the weather. We elected to push our ski trip to the following week and started working to restructure our itinerary on the fly. This unexpected schedule change presented me with an opportunity to make good on a long-held promise to my aunt, who has been dreaming of meeting a Snowy Owl for years. This species has held top honors as my favorite animal for my entire life, so I’ve always been the go-to guy for friends and relatives who want to try their luck at searching for these incredible Arctic predators. However, this winter has proven to be a historically slow season for Snowies thus far. I’d heard a handful of scattered reports of an owl moving around some traditional South Shore haunts, so I figured it was worth taking a shot at trying to track the bird down.

Jacqi and I met up with Auntie at the West End of Jones Beach on the morning of the 14th and slowly made our way down the shore towards the jetty. As I scanned the surrounding dunes, I somehow managed to pick out a tiny white speck a full mile away across the inlet. My long-range photos suggested that the distant form was suspiciously owl-shaped, so we decided to relocate to Point Lookout for a closer view. Upon our arrival, we promptly found our quarry: a gorgeous adult male Snowy. The bird was nestled close to a tussock of grass that it was using as a windbreak, solemnly regarding the small crowd of observers that had begun gathering a respectful distance away. We quietly celebrated our victory and basked in the presence of the magnificent raptor. A low-flying helicopter caused the bird to briefly become alert, showing off its arrestingly golden eyes as it watched the noisy aircraft roar past the beach. As the owl settled back down and made itself comfortable again in the wake of this intrusion, it delivered a soft shrieking cry, the first time I have ever heard this species vocalize in the wild.

While we were admiring the Snowy, I kept a weather eye out for other coastal birds of note. When a lone duck popped up in the surf just offshore from where we stood, I was struck by its unexpectedly light brown plumage. My suspicions about its identity were confirmed when I raised my binoculars and was greeted by the gently sloping bill and distinctive sail-like back plumes of a King Eider hen. It had been several years since my last sighting of this regionally uncommon seaduck, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to stumble upon one by sheer happenstance. Flocks of shorebirds periodically raced past our vantage point, with good numbers of Purple Sandpipers and a handful of Red Knots mixed in with the masses of Sanderling, Dunlin, and Black-bellied Plover. Other local specialties seen during this outing included Northern Harrier, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Tree Swallows, as well as a few Harbor Seals periscoping above the waves. Once we’d had our fill of beach birding for the day, we started back towards the parking lot and left the Snowy Owl where we found it, resting peacefully atop its prominent perch. I was glad that I finally made good on my promise to Auntie, and grateful as ever for another memorable encounter with this magical species.

The remainder of the weekend was filled with delightful date nights, fun with friends, and plenty of time for some much needed relaxation. On the morning of the 16th, I was up and out of bed in the wee hours of the morning so I could make it over to Randall’s Island in time for sunrise. The Randall’s Regulars know all too well that our favored patch often produces its best birds at the extreme northeastern corner of the Island at the precise crack of dawn. One of the most reliable examples of this phenomenon is a locally rare Black-headed Gull which has been wintering in our region. Since late November, this individual has kept a remarkably consistent schedule, commuting down the East River from its night roost to its preferred foraging grounds alongside the flocks of more common, expected species. I had missed Adam’s early morning observation of the bird by mere minutes the previous week, and I was determined to settle the score this time. I was in position at the stakeout site for dawn patrol, and Dmitriy joined us soon after. The first noteworthy species we spotted was an Iceland Gull following the same route downriver, placing me just one species away from closing out the January 100. The Black-headed Gull evidently elected to sleep in a bit and keep us waiting, finally showing up a full half hour after the official start of the day and securing its spot as my 100th bird species for 2023. The rest of the morning proved to be delightfully productive, including close observations of displaying Bufflehead pairs, a family of Mute Swans, and a Common Loon feasting on crabs. I also picked up an unexpected life fish: a small American Conger caught in the clutches of some squabbling Herring Gulls. You truly never know what you’re going to find on Randall’s!

Yet another outstanding highlight for the start of 2023 was a repeat performance by one of the last major birds of 2022. My quest to observe 400 species of birds in New York State finally came to fruition when Winter Storm Elliott rolled through NYC on December 23rd, inundating Randall’s Island and attracting incredible concentrations of gulls. The ever-vigilant Andrew Farnsworth discovered a vagrant Short-billed Gull among the swarms of storm-driven seabirds, and I had the incredible fortune to mark the long-awaited milestone of reaching 400 at my own beloved patch. Regrettably, the rest of the Randall’s Regulars were all out of town for the holidays, which cast a slight pall over my celebration of this record. To my great relief, similarly rainy weather on January 3rd drew the gull flocks back to the soggy ballfields, where Adam managed to refind the adorable visitor from the West Coast. Dmitriy, Efua, and a number of other birders were granted a second chance at redemption, and there was understandably much rejoicing.

This reappearance inspired hope that the Short-bill might fall into a predictable pattern of occurrence whenever the conditions were suitable, and a forecast for dreary drizzle on the 19th had us all waiting with bated breath. Sure enough, Xander reported that the gull had come through yet again, and I made haste to chase once I returned home from a school field trip. The steady precipitation, dwindling daylight, and constant reshuffling of birds complicated the search effort somewhat, but I eventually managed to locate the correct subflock and was reunited with my little buddy. It’s always a treat to encounter the same wild animal more than once, especially when it’s such a personally significant individual! The other assembled birders who’d braved the weather to chase the gull were grateful for my last minute rediscovery, and Mack was gracious enough to give me a ride back to Astoria. Sure beats walking across the RFK in a storm!

Our postponed trip to Vermont proved to be well-worth the wait, and although it was fairly light on wildlife we did spot several groups of Wild Turkeys on our long drive home. For the last weekend of the month, I look forward to partaking in the esteemed Northport Winter Bird Count, a CBC-style survey spearheaded by Taylor and Brent. This will be the 7th year that the Count is conducted in an official capacity, and I am eager to get back to my assigned territory and see what surprises I can turn up. Though the end of January is fast approaching, there’s no denying that the fun has only just begun for 2023. Here’s to hoping the remaining eleven months are as productive as the kickoff turned out to be!