Birding Both Ends: Two Long Island Rarities

When it rains, it pours. Fall migration can feel a bit slow at times when the winds and weather fail to cooperate, but these bouts of inactivity are frequently punctuated by impressive flights and exciting vagrants. Once the conditions finally shift favorably after a few days of stagnation, the action along the Atlantic Flyway can really heat up. Coastal New York certainly knows how to deliver in that regard. Long Island, for all its imperfections, is honestly a pretty great place to find unexpected birds. The back half of October began with a pair of stunners: a subadult Purple Gallinule discovered in Prospect Park, Brooklyn and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher found on a ranch at Montauk Point. For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of the Empire State, those two sites are about as far apart as you can get from one another on Long Island. When presented with the opportunity to pursue two potential state birds of such high overall caliber, though, it’s difficult to resist. The weekend saw me dashing back and forth along the length of this aptly named landmass, chasing rarity reports and scouring the habitat in between by myself. It was worth every second.

NYC – The Beginning

I first heard about the gallinule on Friday evening after dinner. Several Brooklyn birders had followed up on an eBird report of a young Sora foraging along the shoreline of Prospect Park Lake and found something quite a bit more unusual in its place. This case of mistaken identity is completely understandable given the extreme rarity of Purple Gallinule in New York and the subdued appearance of young birds compared to the mind-meltingly gaudy adults. When the truth was revealed, news spread quickly. Those who’d investigated the original sighting were quick to get the word out once they realized what they were dealing with. The alert came with a warning that there was a race at the park starting at dawn the next day. Long-time denizens of Brooklyn recommended avoiding the roads in the vicinity during the event. I usually take the train for Kings County twitches away from the coast, but I was still a bit apprehensive about an early morning chase. I elected instead to start my Saturday with some patch birding at Jones Beach. Once the crowds thinned, if the gallinule was refound, I would try my luck with a chase.

I arrived at the beach before sunrise for a pleasant, though not particularly dramatic, morning of autumn birding. The winds had blown from a southerly direction overnight, which kept migrant movement down but also boded well for the gallinule staying put. I enjoyed a variety of quality birds over the course of several hours searching, including Lincoln’s Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and American Woodcock. An enormous roosting congregation of Tree Swallows and a flock of loafing Lesser Black-backed Gulls were lovely additions to the day’s total, but I certainly didn’t find anything that could outshine our unexpected southern visitor. It apparently proved tricky to track down at first, but the locals managed to locate the gallinule’s favored hiding place. As I was preparing to head to Brooklyn in the wake of the race, I learned of the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher’s appearance at the opposite end of Long Island. I made a mental note to follow up for more details later, grabbing my gear and heading for the train platform. A little over an hour later, I had my quarry in my sights.

At first, the Purple Gallinule kept to densely vegetated cover. I was surprised to see how advanced this individual’s molt was, with lots of adult color coming in. The upperparts had already developed the bronzy, green gloss of maturity, and the deep bluish purple vest coming in on its front was especially striking. Even the beak was starting to look more like that of a full-grown bird, with a yellow tip forming on the dull reddish base and an incipient blue frontal shield. It’s always cool to see birds in new, intriguing plumages that you’ve never observed before. More birders began to arrive on the scene, including familiar faces like Sean Sime, Corey Finger, Donna Schulman, and Arie Gilbert. Eventually, the gallinule emerged to forage in the open. It certainly wasn’t shy about showing off, strutting and swimming through the shallows at extremely close range. With its bright, patchwork plumage and dramatically oversized feet, the bird was stunning enough to give even passersby pause. It’s not every day you get to see a creature like this in New York City!

Many of the expected local species at the lake proved to be just as accommodating as our guest from down south. Most birds that spend any appreciable time in city greenspaces like Prospect Park quickly become accustomed to human activity. Herons and coots worked the water’s edge with little regard for the birders standing close by. A number of sparrows, warblers, and kinglets fluttered down from the treetops to hunt insects in the low-lying aquatic plants. Duck diversity is slowly increasing out on the lake, with Buffleheads, Ruddy Ducks, and Northern Shovelers joining the Mallards and Wood Ducks that bred in the park. The arrival of northern waterfowl is a sure sign that the seasons are beginning to turn. Even so, there were still several lingering Chimney Swifts circling in the skies above. The overlap of summer and winter species is a big component of fall’s appeal.

Montauk – The End

Saturday night brought a fierce cold front from the northwest, and the whipping winds carried with them birds galore. I once again began the morning at Jones Beach, taking stock of the newly arrived migrants and documenting morning flight. Hundreds of Yellow-rumped Warblers were on the move, along with good numbers of finches, raptors, and robins. Around the time that the rate of passage began to slow down a few hours after sunrise, I heard my first positive report of the Scissor-tail’s continued presence. I’ll admit that I was a bit lazy in my rarity chasing efforts this weekend, but that’s only because I was being proactive in my own surveying on the home front! I drove east towards the end of Long Island, stopping just a few miles short of the road’s terminus at Montauk Point. Deep Hollow Ranch is a fantastic vagrant trap: a vast plot of pastures stretching over the rolling hills between the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound. The property is super attractive to open country birds, serving as either the first point of landfall for Eurasian strays crossing the sea or the functional end of the line for western visitors flying towards the coast. It’s little surprise that the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher should turn up at this site. This isn’t even the first occurrence of the species at the hotspot!

The flycatcher wasn’t initially in view when I pulled up to the roadside adjacent to the ranch. I didn’t have to wait too long before it returned from the trees bordering the property and began hawking insects from the perimeter fences out in the fields. When it flew to the wires above the road, the assembled birders were treated to fantastic views of the fancy kingbird. I set my scope on the bird and kept it in sight even when it ducked into the dense branches of a nearby tree, which ensured that folks who arrived later still got a chance to see it without much trouble. Satisfied with yet another successful chase, I made a brief jaunt out to the Point itself for an hour-long seawatch. It didn’t make sense to come all the way out Long Island and turn around without checking out the ocean! The sustained, strengthening winds out of the northwest kept seabirds on the move, and I saw plenty of gannets, scoters, and gulls flying against the headwind towards the Sound. My vigil was highlighted by a distant Parasitic Jaeger and a handful of Cory’s Shearwaters. I could’ve spent all day watching the procession of birds skimming the waves, but I knew that I still had responsibilities awaiting me in Nassau County. I finally packed up my scope and headed home to prepare to the work week.

Interestingly, the discovery of the Deep Hollow Scissor-tail wasn’t the first record of its kind in New York this autumn. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had previously been sighted at the fields off Krumkill Road outside Albany, roughly 145 miles to the northwest of Montauk. After spending 10 days entertaining birders from throughout the state, the flycatcher had been missing for just 2 days before the Long Island report came through the listserv. Some birders pondered aloud if there was any chance the birds could be one in the same, but I initially dismissed the idea. I’m typically leery of the “One Bird Theory,” reasoning that there are more vagrants out there than we realize and conditions favorable for bringing an individual out of range may transport others. Still, it certainly was an intriguing coincidence. My friend Brendan Fogarty was the first to point out that distance and timing would not have been an issue for a powerful flyer like the Scissor-tail. Assuming a relatively direct trajectory, a bird traveling at 20 mph could cover that much ground in roughly 7 hours of flight time. The hypothetical route taken by a flycatcher between the capital region and the South Fork may not have been so straightforward, but then again such a bird may fly faster during active migration. Taking a cue from this summer’s Great Black Hawk saga, I decided to compare photos from Albany and Suffolk side-by-side to look for shared features.

At first glance, individuals of the same species often look rather uniform. By inspecting the finer details of color patterns and feather status associated with molt, unique variations become more apparent. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, a species with a core home range far from my normal haunts, but to my eye there are several shared commonalities which bolster the idea that there is one bird involved here. The spacing between the white edges of the wing coverts, particularly the greater and median secondary coverts, looks remarkably consistent in images from both locations. Reviewing images of other Scissor-tails on Google and eBird suggests that there’s a great deal of individual variation in this characteristic. Furthermore, some markings on the head seem to match up as well. The small, dark line extending from the back of the right eye is especially noteworthy. If the Long Island and upstate birds are indeed the same, it opens up a whole series of thought-provoking questions. Did it fly here directly, with an extensive section of the flight over water, or head due south and then follow the island out to the land’s end? Was this a single day marathon journey, or was it completed in short bursts over the course of 2 days? Where is off to next? What are the odds of birders intercepting this lone, lost wanderer at separate locations more than 100 miles apart? Most of the time, these birding musings have to be left unanswered, but the speculation is absolutely part of the fun.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying this migration season so far. Adding two new state birds in the same weekend is an increasingly rare accomplishment at this stage of my birding career. Though October is rapidly drawing to a close, I have a hunch that we’ve not seen our last exciting rarities of the year. November has a proud history of turning up truly wild surprises. I look forward to seeing how 2018 stacks up. You can bet that if any avian surprises turn up on Long Island, be they at an NYC micropark, a port town in the Hamptons, or anywhere in between, I’ll be there!