A May in the Life of a Birder

A cut above the rest!

Week 1: So it begins

Even though the first waves of Neotropical migrants typically arrive before the calendar changes to the fifth month, most East Coast birders would agree that May is the peak of the excitement. This year, some of my migration highlights came a little early. A few advance bouts of favorable conditions brought Prairie Warblers, Northern Parulas, and more back to the area ahead of schedule. The last days of the month featured a prolonged southwest wind. This “southern slingshot” resulted in a notable northward push of species that normally breed further south than Long Island. I enjoyed repeated encounters with a handsome male Prothonotary Warbler at Hempstead Lake State Park. Many of my friends were fortunate enough to locate regionally uncommon treats like Summer Tanager and Blue Grosbeak. A nice appetizer of semi-rarities was just what we needed to break up the monotony of the doldrums.

Once May officially began, I started getting easy year birds like Warbling Vireo and Baltimore Oriole on my commute to work. The first big push of new arrivals hit the NYC area just in time for the weekend. I made a trip into Central Park on Saturday to join in on the fun. Once I reached the Ramble, I was greeted by hordes of familiar faces, feathered and otherwise. My friends and I spent several hours exploring the park. We managed to track down 20 species of wood-warblers, highlighted by a cooperative male Kentucky and another Prothonotary. Other sightings of note included Black-billed Cuckoo, Red-headed Woodpecker, Summer Tanager, and Clay-colored Sparrow. Overall, spring 2018 was off to a great start. I’d encountered a number of unusual species, old favorites, and even some birds that I normally don’t expect until fall, like Orange-crowned Warbler and White-crowned Sparrow. The early victories made for a great first migration fix, but I was hungry for more.

Week 2: Migration hits its stride

As numbers of birds started to ramp up, the energy of the local community reached a fever pitch. Sunday morning found me at Hempstead Lake, where I relocated a Cerulean Warbler that had been discovered during my city adventure the previous day. The species is quite rare on Long Island even during peak migration, so there were many birders stopping by for some quality time with the little stunner. For most, it was a first for their county and regional lists. Thankfully, the bird was incredibly confiding, frequently foraging low in the trees and singing up a storm as it darted between the branches.

I led my classes on a field trip to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Monday. The final project for their last unit of school work was planned to include information about human impact at the refuge, so my coworkers and I decided that a visit would be a great introduction to the material. As we walked the trails, I pointed out nesting Ospreys, swirling flocks of Tree Swallows, and Yellow Warblers flitting through the foliage. The biggest surprise was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo which flew in to perch in a bare bush right alongside the path. This individual proved to be uncharacteristically cooperative, staying put for several minutes as I passed my binoculars from student to student. Since I work at an international school with an all-Latino population, I made a point to explain that the cuckoo was one of the many species at the refuge that migrate to the Caribbean, Central, and South America for the winter. My kids expressed awe at the direct link between their old and new homes. They could hardly believe that the bizarre brown bird before them had only just returned from the tropics by the power of its own two wings. After the outing, I showed them eBird data about migration timing, as well as an article explaining a GPS tagging study that revealed an Osprey’s journey from Queens to the coast of Colombia. The birds of the bay proved to be a conspicuous, concrete model for explaining key information about the ecosystem.

During the rest of the work week, I made a point to get out of the house early and dawdle on my way home. A few more species made their way onto my year list, including my personal favorite warbler, the Cape May. I had to head out of town for my sister Kate’s graduation from West Virginia University, and my family had rented a house in Maryland for the celebration. The place turned out to have a surprisingly birdy backyard. I was pretty pleased when Bay-breasted, Tennessee, and Wilson’s Warblers greeted me on the porch, but a quick check of my email alerts stopped me in my tracks. A Kirtland’s Warbler had been discovered in Central Park just hours after I left the Island behind. On any other weekend, I would’ve been able to twitch the mega-rarity on my Friday commute. When the endangered bird continued to delight observers from sunrise to sunset on Saturday, it only twisted the knife further. Still proud of my sister, still glad I got to party with the family, still smarting from that painful missed connection!

Week 3: NFCs and cleanup

Although the Kirtland’s Warbler put in an early morning appearance on Sunday, it apparently skipped town when it heard I was on my way back. I made haste in my return to the Empire State, but by the time I reached Central Park my target had been missing in action for a while. I spent the rest of the daylight hours waiting in vain and searching for the wayward warbler. On the bright side, it proved to be a very enjoyable afternoon in the company of lovely birders and birds alike. As sad as I was about striking out with the spectacular vagrant, it is difficult to be upset after a day spent outdoors during May migration. I’ll get you one day, Kirtland’s!

The weather during the rest of the week brought lots of low-lying cloud cover overnight, which combined with favorable winds to create great conditions for listening to nocturnal migration. I don’t have the fancy equipment or software necessary to really sink my teeth into the world of Nocturnal Flight Calls, but I’m absolutely fascinated by it. Most nights this week saw me sitting on my front steps, staring up at the dark sky in wonder, listening to the myriad vocalizations of winged travelers overhead. Although the high-pitched calls of warblers and other small passerines had to go unidentified, I was able to pick out a number of sounds that I could distinguish by ear. Swainson’s Thrushes are by far the most common, recognizable passage migrants over my house, but I detected good numbers of Veeries and at least one Gray-cheeked Thrush on the move as well. Solitary and Least Sandpipers were heard on several occasions on multiple nights. Amidst all of the zeeps and tseeps, I picked out snippets of song from Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers. My favorite additions to my “after hours” yard list were Yellow-billed Cuckoos and Bobolinks, one of them singing his unmistakable jangling tune in midair on his way north. NFC monitoring is just plain awesome. I might just have to invest in a flowerpot microphone so I can truly immerse myself in recording the phenomenon.

There were a few more little goodies to be had during the daylight as well. Another field trip north of the city helped me to secure Yellow-throated Vireo for the year total, and I heard a Green Heron flushing from the yard one morning before work. A Mourning Warbler in Manhattan’s tiny Seward Park was a welcome surprise and a great way to close out the week, even though I knew that the appearance of this late migrant meant that May was rapidly drawing to a close.

Week 4: Local specialty breeders

With the frequency and intensity of migration pulses starting to die down, my attention turned to tracking down tricky species. Most regularly occurring songbirds are easier to find in spring than they are in fall. Late May is the perfect time to step away from the migration hotspots and hit up some hidden gems. I planned some short-range adventures to seek out specialties that are rare on Long Island and in NYC. The first priority was the now annual tradition of visiting Sterling Forest in Tuxedo, New York. This is the single most reliable site in the region for breeding Golden-winged Warblers, and I have never been disappointed by a jaunt upstate to this location. I managed to connect with my quarry without much trouble, observing multiple individuals defending territory and feeding along the edge of the power line cut at Ironwood Drive. There were also several Blue-winged Warblers and a “Brewster’s” type hybrid in the area. I got to round out the trip list with other species that are too easily missed back home, like Alder Flycatcher and Worm-eating Warbler. Cerulean and Hooded Warblers sang in the background, and I spotted a Chestnut-sided Warbler carrying nesting material. This parulid party made me realize that I’d seen 34 species of wood-warbler in New York in 2018: all of the species reported in the state for the year except for one notable miss. Not a bad haul, all things considered! What’s more, I managed to walk away from Sterling tick-free, having intercepted half a dozen crawlers before they found a spot to latch on. Little triumphs make all the difference.

Saturday night featured a balmy breeze slowly blowing across the Island, so I rolled down the car windows and rolled out east to Suffolk County. The mild, pleasant conditions felt like a teaser for summer, thus inspiring me to check up on the breeding nightjars at their favored haunts along the South Shore. After several failed attempts last year, I was surprised to locate a Chuck-will’s-widow in Quogue with relative ease. The whistled night music was the perfect soundtrack for a reflective moment along the roadside in the dark. Continuing on to the area surrounding Gabreski Airport, I was treated to a chorus of Whip-poor-wills to close out the day’s birding efforts. Satisfied with the fruits of my labors, I turned the vehicle towards home and started the drive back to Nassau.

Week 5: One final May surprise

I was late to rise on Memorial Day, but I still found the motivation to shuffle down to Hempstead Lake. The scene at the park was very different from the activity levels of the preceding weeks. The only birds singing were local breeders staking territory, and there were no obvious passage migrants on the move towards points north. When migration is over, it’s over in a hurry. All good things must come to an end, I suppose. However, May apparently chose to smile on me one last time before letting June take over.

While I was strolling the dog walk trails along the creek, I glimpsed a medium-size bird circling just above the treetops. Passing in and out of view behind the leafy limbs, its long, pointed wings and graceful, buoyant flight pattern caught my attention. I raised my binoculars suspiciously, waiting for it to wheel back around for a better look. As it passed overhead, I spied gray plumage lightening on the head, smoky markings around the eyes, and a boldly banded, rectangular tail. Mississippi Kite! A review list species for New York, and my first sighting in the state! Although these wanderers tend to turn up annually in the northeast, I never would’ve thought I’d add the species to my home county list after finding one for myself. It was certainly one of the rarest personal birding discoveries I’ve made. I had a few more brief moments to admire the elegant raptor, but it wasn’t long before it disappeared from sight with some kingbirds escorting it away.

My encounter with the kite was a perfect end to the month of May, and a fitting reminder that the fun of birding doesn’t stop at the end of peak migration. Even a quiet day at your favorite local patch can produce stellar surprises if you keep your eyes open! As summer approaches, the memories of May serve as fuel for the fire that keeps us birding all year long. Get out there! Keep tabs on those local breeders. Search for stragglers and drifters among the crowds of common species. If you can, take a vacation and bird somewhere completely new. You’ve got to stay sharp somehow. After all, the birds will be coming back the other way before you know it. Might as well savor the best parts of the season in between.