Fantastic Fall Vagrants

This fall has been one for the record books. All across the continent, a diverse array of incredible records has left the birding community dazzled. From continental firsts like an Icterine Warbler in Alaska to unprecedented events like the invasion of Red-legged Honeycreepers along the Gulf Coast, it seemed that there was no end to the avian excitement this season! My personal autumn experience was enjoyable and lively from the beginning, but it got off to a bit of a rocky start in terms of adding new species to my New York State list. I struck out with a trio of consecutive would-be state birds between early September and mid October, dipping on a Crested Caracara at Montauk, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Dutchess County, and New York’s first Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher in the Bronx. Fortunately, this cold streak was dramatically shattered by the arrival of the magnificent Cahow during a wildly successful pelagic aboard the American Princess. This spectacular victory at sea marked a clear turning point, and the back half of fall produced a string of noteworthy vagrants one after the other!

The final act of October was the conclusion of a redemption arc set in motion almost exactly two years earlier. When the first Tropical Kingbird ever documented in New York showed up in late 2020 at Dobb’s Ferry, just a short drive up the Hudson River, I was unable to find an opportunity to go search for it. I was similarly unlucky with the state’s second record turned up on Staten Island the following September. When news of a Friday morning sighting by Doug Gochfeld and Max came in from Breezy Point, at the extreme southern tip of Queens, I feared I was doomed to miss out again. To my great relief, I received regular reports from friends throughout the day that the bird was sticking around. I rushed home from work as soon as the final bell rang, made an impressively quick turnaround time to hop in the car, and battled traffic as I raced sunset to the beach. When I arrived, my quarry was readily visible, hawking insects from prominent perches as it patrolled the dunes. The kingbird took off towards the southwest at dusk and was not seen in New York again, though a sighting in Cape May, New Jersey just four days later turned out to be the exact same individual. Vagrants are full of surprises!

The kingbird proved to be an especially significant sighting, marking dual milestones as my 395th New York State bird and my 300th species for New York City. Together with the Bermuda Petrel from earlier in October, it continued 2022’s theme of paired state birds. I started the year with 383 species on my New York list, and every month that produced a new tick delivered a matched set: Slaty-backed Gull and White-winged Crossbill in February, Mottled Duck and Black-throated Gray Warbler in April, King Rail and Neotropic Cormorant in May, Bar-tailed Godwit and Anhinga in July, and Loggerhead Shrike and White Ibis in August. I was hopeful that the final stretch of the year would take me a few steps closer to my lofty, longtime goal of 400 species in state, and I had a hunch that if there was any month that could break the pattern of pairs, it would be November.

November is famously known as The Weird Month in the world of birding. At the tail end of fall migration, various vagrants are still trickling through and searching for places to settle down for the winter. Novembers past have produced some of the most incredible rarities I’ve ever encountered, ranging from Corn Crake here in New York to Common Cuckoo up in Rhode Island. I’ve never had a November go by without an exciting birding experience, and most years result in multiple fantastic surprises. The first gift of Weird Month 2022 arrived promptly before the end of the first week, with a Calliope Hummingbird reported in Eastport out on Long Island. I’ve had poor luck with rare hummingbirds in the past, so I was eager to make a trip out to see this diminutive western wanderer. The homeowner who first noticed the bird, Darlene Massey, was wonderfully accommodating of visiting birders, setting up an observation station where people could easily view her garden. I was lucky enough to spend a delightful afternoon in the company of the Calliope, watching as it zipped around the yard collecting nectar and insects. State bird 396 secured!

The following week, November dropped the big bombshell on us: a Limpkin had been discovered along the Niagara River in Lewiston by local fisherman Frank Campbell. These southern swamp dwellers have been undergoing a dramatic range expansion in recent years, surging northwards from their Floridian strongholds in droves. Limpkins are snail specialists, and the unfortunate rise of invasive apple snails throughout the southeast has produced a small silver lining by provisioning the advancing waves of nomadic vagrants. In Texas, for example, the first record of Limpkin was documented in May 2021, and by the end of the year they had been discovered at half a dozen additional sites. As of this year, the Texas state records committee recognizes roughly 30 accepted reports, with breeding documented at several locations. Over the course of 2022 leading up to the New York sighting, 7 other states added the species to their official checklist. The national birding community celebrated each new observation, christening the ongoing event with the title Hot Limpkin Summer. Many New Yorkers speculated that this could be the year that we might finally get in on the action, but I don’t know if anyone expected Hot Limpkin Summer to continue well into the fall.

As soon as I received word of the bird’s presence, I started discussing the feasibility of a chase with Brendan. The plan we eventually settled on was an overnight Greyhound bus to Buffalo followed by an Amtrak rail ride home. It was a long journey up to the western reaches of the state, but we were still grateful that we didn’t have to make the grueling drive all by ourselves. We arrived at the stakeout site just after sunrise, and it wasn’t long before the Limpkin was spotted strolling along the lawn at a riverside picnic area. The bird was intently focused on foraging, detecting and dispatching small terrestrial snails at an impressive rate. In all the time I spent with the bird, it was never without a prey item for more than a few seconds, and it extracted morsels of meat from the well-defended mollusks with expert precision. I couldn’t help chuckling to myself at the sight of this gangly tropical wader devouring escargot a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. The sheer incongruity of the scene was staggering, making for an unforgettable experience for my 397th New York State bird. 

Though it was difficult to pry my eyes away from the Limpkin as it feasted practically at my feet, I did dedicate some time to intentionally scanning my surroundings in the hopes of finding a bonus bird. Lewiston is well known as one of the best hotspots in the entire state for Little Gull, with multiple individuals often spending the winter along this stretch of the Niagara River. This species can be notoriously tricky to pin down elsewhere in New York, and I was painfully aware that it was the lowest hanging fruit still remaining for my state list in regards to frequency of occurrence. Brendan joined me in the cause, and it wasn’t long before we both locked eyes on a dainty seabird with boldly contrasting dark underwings flapping its way south amidst the hordes of Bonaparte’s Gulls. The long overdue Little Gull finally joined my New York list at #398. For the third time this year, I had somehow managed to luck into a double state bird day, this time with both species visible simultaneously! 

It was a long trip back to NYC, but the success of our impromptu adventure kept our spirits high the whole way home. I was immeasurably glad to have Brendan’s company as co-conspirator for one of the wildest chases I’ve ever been a part of! We were a bit concerned about the fate of the Limpkin, knowing that a warm-weather wader would undoubtedly struggle as the icy grip of winter took hold of the Niagara region. There was some debate within the community over whether the bird should be brought into captivity or if nature should be allowed to take its course. Eventually, it was captured by local rehabbers ahead of an oncoming snowstorm. The latest update from the Limpkin’s rescuers explained that it had been markedly underweight when it was brought in, but that it had been eating well in their care and had already begun its voyage south to be released into the wild again. If nothing else, I’m happy that this remarkable traveler is getting a second chance at survival, rather than joining the sadly extensive ranks of vagrants with tragic endings to their stories. I consider myself especially fortunate that I was able to connect with it during its brief stay in New York State, and I hope that any future wanderings it may take part in land it somewhere with more suitable habitat! 

The final days of The Weird Month produced one last November surprise: a Rufous Hummingbird frequenting the backyard of a local birder, Jeanne Eggers, out on the North Shore of Long Island. These long-distance migrants are annual vagrants to the East Coast, but their propensity for turning up on private property means that access is understandably an issue in many cases. I was honored to receive an invitation to visit this particular stakeout, and I spent a lovely morning watching the tiny bird dart from feeder to feeder. This highly anticipated state tick took my New York list to 399 species, just one bird away from the coveted milestone of 400!

This November has had plenty of other prizes to offer in addition to new state birds. My Randall’s Island patch list continues to grow at a steady rate, with recent observations of Black-headed Gull and Horned Lark bringing my total to 191. Dmitriy, Adam, Efua, Ryan, and I have also documented a number of fun late fall migrants like Orange-crowned Warbler, Eastern Meadowlark, and American Woodcock. Perhaps the most exciting day of the month in New York County was a full day riverwatch at the Dyckman Pier, which delivered an astounding array of migrating raptors, including a whopping 34 Bald Eagles! We even picked a bonus Cackling Goose out of the hordes of Canada Geese, and we enjoyed with a quiet moment with a local Eastern Screech-Owl before we all parted ways to head home for the evening. Fall has always been my favorite season for birding, and late autumn migration is a clear highlight of this most wonderful time of year!

The road to 400 New York birds has been a long and challenging one, but now it truly feels as if the grand goal is finally within reach. It remains to be seen whether the rarity roundups and Christmas Bird Counts of December will produce a final surprise, but even if I’m done with new additions for the year there’s no denying that 2022 has been one of the best years of my life for birding. The 16 species that I added to my lifelong state total since January all made for incredible memories, and I can’t wait to see which bird will win the honor of marking the imminent major milestone! Only time will tell when and where the long-awaited moment will arrive!