Double State Bird Doubleheader

Whether you’re a world traveler intent on seeing as many species as possible or a casual window watcher cataloging the visitors to your feeder, birding and listing go hand in hand. While my overall life list is undoubtedly my personal top priority, my New York State list comes in at a close second place. Traveling around the Empire State in search of rare vagrants and localized breeders has brought me a great deal of pride, joy, and occasional frustration over the years. While far from the largest territory, New York is expansive enough that seriously birding it requires a lot of dedication. The boundaries of the state encompass a wide range range of habitats, from the boreal forests of the Adirondacks to the productive seas off the coast of Long Island. While this means that more species are possible than a smaller or more uniform state, it also raises the bar in terms of expectations and effort. For many New Yorkers, 400 species is the magic number, a major milestone to strive for in one’s quest to catch them all.

Over the course of 2021, I added 10 spectacular species to my own New York State tally: Ferruginous Hawk, Spotted Towhee, LeConte’s Sparrow, Gray-breasted Martin, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, Sedge Wren, Swallow-tailed Kite, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Northern Lapwing. 2022 also got off to a strong start, with my lifer Slaty-backed Gull and long overdue state White-winged Crossbills in February, followed by the delightful pairing of Mottled Duck and Black-throated Gray Warbler in April. While this list is undoubtedly an impressive haul that represents a number of fond memories, it is by no means a complete inventory of New York’s recent rarities. There were plenty of records in the past 365 days that I was unable to chase, including a number of upstate vagrants like Tundra Bean-Goose, Smith’s Longspur, Cinnamon Teal, Sabine’s Gull, and Snowy Plover. Expecting to see every single rarity that shows up in your home state is obviously an unrealistic impossibility, so I took these missed connections in stride. Nevertheless, I was still hopeful that the warmer months would produce additional opportunities to continue the climb to 400.

As spring migration winds down, birds settle into their summer territories and begin busying themselves with breeding season obligations. On occasion, out-of-range rarities will establish themselves for the season in a similar manner instead of continuing their aimless wanderings. Such was the case for two noteworthy New York vagrants that appeared at the end of May: a King Rail in the marshes at Timber Point Golf Course and a Neotropic Cormorant on the Hudson River in Newburgh. The former was first discovered by John Gluth, and everyone was surprised when the bird turned out to be more than a one-day wonder. I learned of the initial cormorant report from Bruce Nott and Ken McDermott when I awakened before dawn on May 29th for my planned attempt to chase the rail, and I made a command decision to try for both birds. Securing two state birds in the same day is no small feat, and the opportunity to do so has become increasingly rare as the gaps in my state list continue to shrink. I arrived at Timber Point just after first light, listening to the buzzy vocalizations of the local marsh sparrows as the sun rose over the Connetquot River. The King Rail did not show its face during this early stakeout, but I did hear its deep, deliberate, grunting calls echoing across the swaying grasses. With my 388th New York State bird officially in the bag, albeit as a heard only observation, I set off for the north. 

I arrived at the scene of the cormorant sighting in the early afternoon, finding that I was alone in my search effort. It seemed that the initial attempts to relocate the bird had failed, and the birders who’d begun their morning at the stakeout site had already dispersed in disappointment. It took me a little while to navigate the private streets and fenced off properties along the riverside, but I eventually found a spot where I could safely park and go for a stroll. On my second pass along the trail, my target bird finally revealed itself. I watched the Neotropic Cormorant come winging in from downstream, touching down on the water a short distance offshore from where I stood. It spent several minutes diving for fish and floating around before taking off and heading back the way it came. I put the word out that the bird was still in the area and set off for home, delighted that my double twitch gamble had paid off. With 389 species on my New York State list, the lofty goal of 400 was starting to feel more attainable.

Fortunately for the community’s countless hardcore state listers, the King Rail and the Neotropic Cormorant have proven to be quite comfortable in their selected summer homes. The cormorant has been seen on a more or less daily basis in the intervening months, loafing about on the pilings and piers along the Newburgh waterfront with its larger Double-crested cousins. Considering that the handful of previous records had all come from the western reaches of upstate New York, this individual provided a welcome opportunity for downstate birders to finally tick the species. By nature of its habitat and habits, the King has been a touch less reliable, but it too seems content to stick around and defend its territory. What’s more, it was soon discovered to have paired up with one of the local Clapper Rails, explaining its lingering presence in the area. I made multiple subsequent visits to try for my first visual encounter with this species, especially once other birders reported brief sightings of fuzzy, hybrid chicks. I caught my first glimpse of the rail in the final days of June, and a week later I was lucky enough to spend some quality time with the whole family.

King Rail has a long and complicated history of hybridization with Clapper Rail, and many previous cases of suspected breeding activity in New York State have involved this interspecies pairing. I was more than happy to confirm a new species for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas, and I was equally pleased to add their offspring to my unofficial list of non-countable hybrid observations. The territorial male King made multiple appearances throughout the course of the morning, and eventually he led his mate and a handful of their adorable chicks out onto the exposed mudflats where I could watch their antics at length. For now these tiny, coal-black fuzzballs are indistinguishable from baby rails of either parent species, but it will be fascinating to see how the plumage of these young “Cling Rails” develops as they age. 

Summer vacation continued to march on, and I spent much of my free time reacquainting myself with the birds of Astoria and keeping tabs on the avian happenings at Randall’s Island. The first signs of the turn of the seasons were apparent as early as mid July. The southbound migration of Arctic-nesting birds begins well before the start of true fall, and a variety of other species engage in post-breeding wandering that sees both adults and fresh youngsters dispersing far from their typical home ranges. I resumed making regular outings to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, one of my favorite summer birding sites, keeping a watchful eye out for rarities among the hordes of expected migrants. This is a time of year when it feels like just about anything is possible, but I still found myself blindsided by the astonishing news that broke on the evening of July 20th. 

The first bombshell came from Mike McBrien, who put out a listserv post notifying the community that a godwit discovered by Ben Bolduc the previous day at Cupsogue Beach County Park had been positively identified as a Bar-tailed Godwit. This was the first report of the species in New York in nearly a decade, and only the 8th state record overall. Several Suffolk birders were able to locate the bird just before sunset, and with the rediscovery came an additional surprise. Unlike all prior sightings of the species in the state, this individual did not belong to the European population that winters in Africa. Its finely barred rump and underwings indicated that it was instead a member of the baueri subspecies, which nests in Alaska and winters in Australia and New Zealand. These birds famously hold the record for the longest nonstop flight of any animal: 8,100 miles across the Pacific Ocean over the course of 239 hours. Evidently this one had taken a wrong turn and wound up in the Hamptons instead, offering a unique opportunity to see one of these champion migrants in my home state.

While I was making plans for an early morning chase, the second hit of the one-two punch came through my inbox: an Anhinga had been sighted by a birder named Isaac Ruschack along the New York border at Lake Tappan. I’d dipped on a previous attempt to add this southern waterbird to my state list back in the summer of 2018, so I was eager for a shot at redemption. Less than two months after my successful double state bird day, I was presented with a chance to land an even more impressive follow-up combo. While King Rail and Neotropic Cormorant are both notable rarities for New York State, there are plenty of places around the Gulf of Mexico where you can encounter both species in the same day. Hell, I’d done it myself during a trip to southern Texas in February 2016. Bar-tailed Godwit and Anhinga hail from dramatically different corners of the world, and they seldom occur within easy striking distance of one another. With only a two hour drive between these two remarkable vagrants, the temptation to try for both was simply too good to pass up. Another state bird doubleheader attempt was at hand!

I reached the parking lot at Cupsogue just after sunrise on the morning of July 21st. I hastily made my way out the sandy beach trails, getting some helpful directions via phone from Ryan Mandelbaum when I briefly lost my way. Moments later, I was standing ankle deep in the cool tidal waters of Moriches Bay, gazing through my scope at the awesome godwit before me. State bird #390 secured! The bird bustled back and forth across the exposed flats, probing face-deep for prey with its impressively lengthy bill. It didn’t take long for a crowd to form, and I was happy for the opportunity to briefly catch up with a number of friends who I haven’t seen in a while, including Taylor Sturm, Doug Futuyma, and Anthony Collerton. I also got a chance to chat with Meryl Ackley, Dave Chernack, and Joe Schiavone, who shared my madcap goal of going after the Anhinga once we got our fill of the Barwit. For many of the assembled twitchers, this bird was a lifer, and I hadn’t personally seen the species since my life encounters on the Cairns Esplanade in Australia back in 2019. It was exceedingly hard to pull myself away from such an incredible birding experience, but I knew I had to get moving if I wanted to connect with my second target before the forecast afternoon storms rolled in. I silently bid the wayward shorebird good luck on its continued migration and started back towards my car. 

I had to sit in a bit of traffic on my journey between Suffolk and Rockland, arriving at the stakeout on the shores of Lake Tappan in late morning. I’d gotten some detailed intel from Brendan Fogarty, who told me where the bird had last been seen and which sites offered the best vantage points. Fortunately, this bird was also an easy walk-up tick, perched prominently on a fallen tree overhanging the distant shoreline. As other birders arrived on the scene at the Blauvelt Road bridge, I happily pointed them in the right direction to scope their quarry. Fellow NYC residents Karen Fung and Junko Suzuki showed up moments after I did, and Dave and Joe made great time following me up from the godwit twitch. On the advice of local birder Moe Lehmann, we relocated to the Convent Road bridge and enjoyed even better views of my 391st New York State bird. Though I’ve seen this species many times previously in Florida and Panama, it was a welcome and highly anticipated addition to my prized state list.

While we were watching the Anhinga, it suddenly took off and began circling over the lake. We tracked its flight as it caught a thermal and soared up to dizzying heights, practically disappearing into the clear blue skies. I was afraid that we were watching the bird prepare to depart for good, so I kept close tabs on its high altitude tour of the area for the sake of other birders who were still hoping to follow up. It started flying purposefully towards the southwest, but somewhere around the New Jersey border it decided to turn around. I watched it descend back towards the lake in a series of graceful, twisting swoops, eventually coming to rest on a far-off snag back on the New York side. After confirming with the birders who were still en route that their target had not flown the coop after all, I finally loaded my gear back into the car and set my sights towards home. 

In the wake of this pair of incredible state bird doubleheaders, I stand just 9 species away from the coveted total of 400. There’s no telling what my next addition could be or when it might arrive, but with fall migration ramping up there’s always potential for an unexpected surprise right around the corner. I’d love to match, or even exceed, my total of 10 new birds from 2021, and I’m only a few species away from doing so with nearly half the year still to go. State birding is a hobby that relies heavily on arbitrary rules, but those limitations can make for exciting experiences and unique opportunities. It’s like patch birding on a grander scale! The recent additions to my New York State list have reinvigorated my commitment to reach 400, and I eagerly look forward to seeing which species will pave the way to my long awaited goal!