Birds of Winter’s Back Half

Late winter is often a challenging time for birds and birders alike. Resources begin to wear thin as the season progresses, and volatile weather may force facultative movements ahead of the first proper migratory push of spring. The excitement of working on a new year list may fade somewhat as decreased diversity leads to diminishing returns on exploratory outings. In coastal New York, this period consistently proves to be one of the quietest chapters of the birding year. While some may quarrel over whether February or March marks the true low point, there’s no denying that the pre-spring period can occasionally feel oppressively dreary. 

One way to stave off the doldrums is to create goals and games that provide excuses to bird more intentionally. The end of Christmas Bird Count season doesn’t have to mean the end of thorough survey efforts. Such studies can also provide valuable data that indicate how distribution and abundance change between early and late winter. To this end, my friends Taylor and Brent established the Northport Winter Bird Count, a CBC-inspired venture that has been conducted in their old stomping grounds on the North Shore of Suffolk County every January since 2017. Though I regrettably missed the inaugural event due to a conflicting pelagic trip, I have participated without fail each year after joining the team in 2018. I eagerly look forward to this time-honored tradition each winter, both for the chance to go birding in some excellent habitat and to spend quality time in good company during the compilation dinner. This year delivered strongly on both fronts. The avian highlights included a trifecta of wayward waterfowl from across the Atlantic: a drake Eurasian Wigeon that I found on my own territory at Huntington Harbor, a Greater White-fronted Goose roosting at Tung Ting Pond, and a pair of Pink-footed Geese grazing on the soccer fields of Northport at dusk. The celebratory camaraderie of the compilation made for a fantastic finish to the day, with friends from all around the region gathered to share stories over food and drinks. Community endeavors like this are among the best experiences that birding has to offer!

By the first week of February, the steadily increasing duration of daylight hours meant that post-work birding efforts were back on the menu. I promptly took advantage of the longer photoperiod by making an afternoon visit to my beloved patch on World Wetlands Day. Randall’s Island is home to an impressive total of three distinct wetland habitats: the Bronx Kill Saltmarsh, Freshwater Wetland, and Little Hell Gate Saltmarsh. Although there wasn’t much activity within the marshes themselves, I did spot my first Killdeer of the year working the nearby mudflats. I also observed the resident pair of Common Ravens caching food out of the ballfields, stowing morsels in hidden locations to prepare for leaner, colder times ahead. Knowing that there was an intense cold front rapidly bearing down on the region, I couldn’t help but wonder if the clever corvids could feel the coming shift in the wind.

The big freeze arrived just in time for the weekend, bringing a long stretch of unseasonably mild temperatures to a dramatic and abrupt end. Harsh winds and single digit temperatures swept through the City overnight, and most sane New Yorkers battened down the hatches to ride out the chill in the comfort of their homes. I, on the other hand, bundled up as best I could and set out for Randall’s Island before dawn, meeting Dmitriy, Adam, and Brent at the northeastern shoreline at sunrise. We hoped that the sudden frost would send waterfowl fleeing to the outer coast as ponds and lakes iced over. The surface of the water was shrouded in dense mist as far as the eye could see, and a passing ship steaming down the East River was fully encased in a layer of rime. Our expedition proved to be a brutally frigid affair, but we did manage to find a few pockets of avian activity scattered around the Island. The most noteworthy bird of the morning was a drake Hooded Merganser, my first for my patch and a welcome reward for our ill-conceived frost refugee search. Other highlights included a continuing Belted Kingfisher, a somewhat frozen Great Blue Heron, and two of the overwintering Orange-crowned Warblers. Content with the spoils of our efforts, my friends and I parted ways and hightailed it back to the warmth of civilization.

My next major birding opportunity of the month took me back to Montauk, where I had agreed to lead a walk for the New York State Young Birders Club at Montauk. When this esteemed institution was initially founded back in 2008, I was one of the participants on the very first club trip to Jamaica. Many of the friendships and connections I made during my brief tenure as a member have persisted over the intervening 15 years, and I am always delighted for the opportunity to give back to the organization. I have previously led outings to Jamaica Bay and Jones Beach, and I was eager to see what we would be able to turn up at the East End. I arrived at the Point shortly after daybreak, meeting with an enthusiastic crew of young birders and parents at the overlook behind the restaurant. Our initial seawatch produced a lovely sample platter of seabirds, including a handful of Black-legged Kittiwakes arcing dynamically over the horizon line. We also caught a glimpse of a Snow Bunting that flushed from the shoreline, and a brief stop at Lake Montauk Inlet delivered a loafing Great Cormorant and a pair of Purple Sandpipers. A visit to Ditch Plains Beach failed to turn up the previously reported Harlequin Ducks, but we did connect with a large flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls, decent numbers of Razorbills, and a few more kittiwakes. We devoted a solid block of time to searching for a Thick-billed Murre that had been seen around Fort Pond Bay, checking several different vantage points before I finally spotted it floating around the pilings of a distant pier. The kids were absolutely ecstatic, as this species was a highly anticipated lifer for the cumulative club trip list. The final destination on our circuit was Fort Pond itself, where we spent a while admiring the long-staying vagrant Trumpeter Swan. All in all, this adventure proved to be a categorical success, with most of the members securing multiple life birds. I bid the families farewell and started making my way back west towards the City, but I couldn’t resist making one more stop for a new bird of my own: a drake Redhead x Ring-necked Duck, affectionately referred to as a Redneck, at a roadside canal in Quiogue. I’m always excited to add a new hybrid taxon to my unofficial inventory, especially now that eBird keeps track of them after its most recent listing update.

The arrival of winter break saw Jacqi and I returning to Vermont for a ski trip with her family and some friends. I didn’t see much in terms of wildlife on the slopes of Stratton Mountain during this visit, but we still had a wonderful long weekend hanging out in the Green Mountain State. We spent a few additional days in Connecticut before returning to New York, and I was able to squeeze in a bit of birding during in that time. Purple Finch, Common Grackle, and Pileated Woodpecker were among the new year birds encountered around Jacqi’s childhood neighborhood in Glastonbury. I also witnessed some Common Goldeneye displaying to one another on the Connecticut River, and a combined mob effort by a Red-shouldered Hawk and a murder of crows led me to the hidden roost of a Great Horned Owl. The most noteworthy sighting from this mini-vacation was another unofficial lifer: a vagrant Common Gull that I chased out in Tolland County. This individual, which was cooperatively hanging around a Kohl’s parking lot with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls, represented my first encounter with the nominate European population of the species. Common Gull was only on my life list thanks to a prior observation of the Eastern Asian subspecies, known as Kamchatka Gull, in Stamford back in 2019. I have now seen all of three of the former Mew Gull populations which are expected rarities on the East Coast, with the recent Short-billed Gull being the only taxon presently on my home state list. I can only hope that any future Common Gulls that visit New York are as spectacularly confiding as these Connecticut tourists!

For the last weekend of February, I decided to head out on Long Island to search for some winter birds that I was still missing for my 2023 year list. The first stop on my journey was Jones Beach, one of my favorite birding sites in all of New York State. As a young birder, I spent countless hours refining my fieldcraft while exploring the shoreline of this singularly productive state park, and I am always grateful for an opportunity to revisit some old familiar scenery. The undisputed highlight of my morning was a flotilla of Harlequin Ducks that I found foraging around the jetty at the far western end of the beach. This spectacular seaduck has long held high honors among the ranks of my favorite birds in the entire world. Their fascinating ecology, dividing their time between summers on fast-flowing mountain streams and winters along wave-dashed rocky coasts, combines with their artistically intricate plumage patterns to make for a truly unique creature. This species is a local seasonal specialty at the Jones Inlet, and personally I feel that no winter is complete without a Harlequin encounter. This particular observation was arguably my best yet, with the birds posing beautifully in perfect light just a few feet from where I stood. Strong winds and pounding surf turned my photo subjects into constantly moving targets, but I still managed to secure some quality shots that I am quite proud of. I could never get tired of watching these little aquatic daredevils in action!

Another classic jetty bird that is frequently seen in the presence of Harlequin Ducks is the Purple Sandpiper, and this trip to Jones was no exception. I spied a lone individual picking for food among the rocks, and it, too, was accommodating enough to pose for some lovely close-range views and photo ops.

Having secured my obligatory observation of our most iconic winter waterfowl for the 2022-2023 season at long last, I decided that I finally felt ready for the imminent onset of spring. The rest of the day’s exploratory efforts delivered several signs of approaching warmer weather, including sightings of American Oystercatchers, Boat-tailed Grackles, and Black-crowned Night-Herons, in addition to a handful of locally uncommon species: Common Gallinule, Long-billed Dowitcher, and a Eurasian Green-winged Teal. I was thrilled to see a Great Horned Owl incubating eggs at a traditional nest site, and I also watched a pair of Red-tailed Hawks gathering sticks to construct their own nest at Randall’s Island the next day. As Adam and I explored our usual patch circuit, we noted some early migrant Wood Ducks as well as increased volume and intensity of birdsong. With March right around the corner, I’m certain that warming weather will produce additional spring surprises in short order. With any luck, I’ll be able to confirm some new species for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas this year!

March can be a famously slow time for birding in New York, but I am nevertheless eager to see what the next month has in store. Last year, I found that Randall’s Island can be uncharacteristically productive during this doldrum period, so I will be interested to see if those observations are borne out again in 2023. Even at its quietest, the natural world still produces fantastically unexpected gifts when you least expect it. You only need to get outside and look for them.