The Season So Far: Fall 2020 Highlights

Each of the four seasons has something special to offer the birding world. I will always cherish the lively color and music of spring when birds return after months of absence. Winter brings the festive joy of Christmas Bird Counts and new year lists, while summer offers breeding bird surveys and plenty of free time for adventures. Even so, I truly think that autumn may be my favorite birding season of them all. The protracted pace of southbound migration, filled with young birds and surprising vagrants, provides ample opportunity for enjoying the full scope of this natural spectacle. Since my last update, I’ve been pretty busy with a new schoolyear featuring blended instruction and no shortage of uncertainty surrounding my curriculum. Birding, as always, serves a much needed mainspring for my motivation and mental health, even though it sometimes delivers its own unique frustrations. Here are some of the highlights of the season that I’ve enjoyed over the past few months.

Patch Firsts at Astoria Park

Many of the biggest birding surprises in 2020 have come from my own little patch just a few blocks from my apartment. The anniversary of my move to Queens is quickly approaching, and in retrospect its clear that the unassuming Astoria Park has exceeded expectations during this unprecedented year of localized efforts. When I started visiting the park in January, the hotspot total stood at 120 species, and in 11 months I have racked up a patch list of 145 while personally adding more than 30 birds to the cumulative tally. Some of the most exciting discoveries occurred this fall, including migrating flyovers like Connecticut Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, American Pipit, and Rusty Blackbird as well as individuals that paused in the park like Nelson’s Sparrow, Philadelphia Vireo, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The grand prize so far was a serendipitous sighting of a Caspian Tern calling as it winged its way down the East River on a sunny September morning. This park has caught me off guard repeatedly throughout my time here, and I look forward to seeing what else it has in store.

A New Camera

This September, I finally took the plunge and committed to buying upgraded photo gear. My trusty Nikon D5000 and 300mm lens had served me admirably for years, but I felt it was high time that I treated myself to something a bit more capable. After chatting with my many knowledgeable friends, I decided that the best bang for my buck would be a new D7500 with a much more substantial Nikkor 200-500mm lens. These purchases were made possible in large part thanks to a generous birthday contribution from my loving aunt, and I’m incredibly grateful for that! The quality of shots I can produce has definitely taken a noticeable jump thanks to the enhanced tech. The superior zoom length and faster autofocus make a huge difference for overall image clarity. I’m not at National Geographic levels by any means, but I’m pretty pleased with the increased ability to secure distant documentation shots, freeze fleeting flyovers, and obtain more detailed close-ups.

NYC Rarities

My chase opportunities have been more restricted this year due to a combination of diminished vehicle access and social distancing guidelines. Seeking out rarities and preparing for outings far afield have become events that generally require careful scheming. As a result, I have extra appreciation for the unusual visitors who have been accessible by foot or public transportation. An October stroll across the RFK Bridge to Randall’s Island was especially productive, allowing me to connect with New York County’s first ever American Golden-Plover. I also enjoyed an extensive photoshoot with a group of Nelson’s Sparrows foraging in the Bronx Kill saltmarsh. Jacqi accompanied me on an evening stroll in Central Park towards the end of the month, where we were treated to good views of a long-staying Barred Owl. After hearing this species in the Adirondacks over the summer, Jacqi was thrilled to finally set eyes on one. I’ve learned the hard way that dipping on a rarity is especially rough when you have to take a long bus or subway ride home in defeat, and sometimes its not even possible to reach a stakeout site on the MTA in time. That just makes me appreciate the successful search efforts that much more!

Big Days and BioBlitzes

This fall featured not one but two Big Day outings! The first was the annual Seatuck Long Island Birding Challenge, held on September 26th. I had never participated in this team-based competition before, but this year I was invited to join a socially distanced team with Stephane Perreault, Ryan Mandelbaum, and Matt Klein. We focused our efforts on southern Nassau County, where I spent the bulk of the morning surveying my ever-favored Jones Beach. We ended up recording 139 species, including Red-headed Woodpecker, Dickcissel, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Lesser Black-backed Gull, which earned us a close 2nd place after the 141 species located in western Suffolk County by the indefatigable Pteam Ptarmigeddon. It was great to get back to my home county for some classic fall birding, and I hope to participate in the challenge again in years to come.

I also helped to plan and conduct a BioBlitz with the new NYC Young Conservationists organization. This brand-new committee is working to increase awareness about the environment of New York City, and after several months of virtual meetings we finally managed to get a field-based event off the ground. Participants spread out throughout the boroughs, with a few people traveling to the further reaches of the state, to see how many species of living organisms we could document as a team. I spent my day at Fort Tilden, a renowned Queens birding site that I had somehow never visited before. I was joined on the hilltop hawkwatch platform by Corey Finger of 10,000 Birds, who provided me with some much appreciated company and conversation from a respectful, masked distance. I was also thankful for an extra set of eyes and ears! Avian sightings of note included my first Royal Terns and Blue Grosbeak for the county, as well as a Clay-colored Sparrow and a solid flight of westbound migrants. Green Darner dragonflies were out in force, and I was able to document a few plant species which brought my total for the day to 113.

The complete results of the group’s inaugural BioBlitz can be viewed at this iNaturalist project page. With 11 participants, including Ryan Zucker, Akilah Lewis, Efua Peterson, Emily Tyrer, Simon Keyes, and several other New York birders, we recorded no less than 243 different species of animals, plants, and fungi!

Vismig Morning Watches

Returning to work for in-person instruction has reimposed the typical Monday-to-Friday restrictions on my free time for birding. Even so, I’ve found some measure of success watching from my own schoolyard before the school day starts. After nights when the winds are particularly favorable for migratory movement, it is often possible to see nocturnal migrants reorienting themselves at daybreak as they search for safe landing places to rest and refuel. My school building appears to be located on a fairly lively flight line, and I regularly see a diverse array of birds passing over the property in the wake of especially active nights. Thanks to my shorter commute this year, I have been able to arrive on the school grounds earlier and have thus dedicated myself to conducting these morning flight surveys more regularly. I also partake in stakeouts to watch for visible migration, or “vismig,” at Astoria Park on weekends and other days when I’m home. Some of the species observed at work this fall include Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Baltimore Oriole, Common Loon, and nearly a dozen species of warblers. I also recorded Lincoln’s Sparrow and Swainson’s Thrush foraging in the schoolyard, and the local kestrel pair is frequently observed patrolling for inattentive or window struck birds. I was completely floored when I spotted an American Bittern flying by in the distance on my short walk from the subway station. Sightings of this furtive marsh dweller are noteworthy anywhere in the region, let alone circling over an urban neighborhood in Queens. There are astonishing wonders to be seen even in the heart of New York City, if you only look up! 

Finch Flight 2020

One of the biggest birding stories of the year has been the massive irruption of finches throughout North America. As usual, their coming was presaged by the arrival of countless Red-breasted Nuthatches throughout the region in August. They were followed by flocks of Purple Finches in September, and the southward surge of Pine Siskins invaded NYC by the start of October. Now Evening Grosbeaks have begun stealing the show across the Northeast, with redpolls and crossbills close behind. 2020 is shaping up to be the most dramatic boreal finch flight in decades, and there’s no telling just how extensive this event will be. Our neighbors to the north have reported that record numbers of Pine Grosbeaks are on their way, and a few Bohemian Waxwings appear to be on the move as well. Even Boreal Chickadees and Canada Jays have started showing up in unusual places, and there are some whispers suggesting that raptors may soon follow suit. To keep abreast of this developing saga, check out the Finch Research Network and the Finches, Irruptions, and Mast Crops group for breaking news updates. So far, regular encounters with nuthatches, Purples, and siskins have included sightings both at work and my patch, and I’ve heard a single Evening Grosbeak during an Astoria Park morning flight watch. Here’s hoping that there’s more excitement on the horizon!

Still More to Come

Despite a few frustrating missed opportunities here and there, I’m quite pleased overall with how fall 2020 has been shaping up. The season is far from over, and I’m confident I’ll have plenty more tales to tell by the time winter sets in. Truth be told, I already have a few special yarns to spin which I feel warrant their own post. Every day brings the potential for a new surprise, which is one of the most magical aspects of autumn birding. It’s a fantastic time of year to for simply relaxing and exploring in the natural world. I for one will have my eyes on the skies and my ears pricked every time I find myself outside or at a window. You just never know what’s coming your way next.