Gotta Atlas ‘Em All!

Tim HealyBehavior, Big Days, Bird Finding Tips, Bird Sightings, Birding, eBird, Photography, Science, Trip ReportsLeave a Comment

The long-awaited Third New York Breeding Bird Atlas officially kicked off at the start of 2020. Last year, for obvious reasons, it was difficult to engage in as much exploration as I would’ve liked. My reduced vehicle access and the various travel restrictions made it difficult for me to venture beyond NYC for much of the breeding season. Even though I started strong with a variety of early nesting confirmations ranging from Great Horned Owls and Common Ravens to House Sparrows and Monk Parakeets, my rate of contributions faltered during the spring and only barely perked up over the course of my summer expeditions. This year, I was determined to be a more active participant.

As the excitement of May migration comes to a close, some birders enter a period of dormancy that only ends when shorebirds begin their southbound journeys in late summer. Summer is by no means a dead season, though; the peak of breeding activity means that there’s new life almost everywhere you look! My June survey efforts started with an after-work stroll through Central Park, where I observed Gray Catbird and Northern Flicker nests as well as a number of young robins and doves. While checking out an old kingbird nest along the shores of the Turtle Pond, I was also treated to good views of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a pair of Wood Duck drakes. Even in the heart of Manhattan, you can find evidence of the natural cycle of seasons in full swing.

Another work week surprise came in the form of a call to action from Ryan Zucker, who notified me of a wayward American Kestrel fledgling up by Columbia University. By the time I arrived on the scene, Ryan and Karen Benfield of NYC Audubon had already rescued the hapless youngster from traffic and secured him in a paper bag. The bird’s parents were keeping close by, but they seemed unwilling to risk the dangers of coming down to street level. I joined the effort to negotiate access to a nearby rooftop, where we hoped the family could reunite safely. Thanks to some kindhearted bystanders and their helpful super, we were able to release the kestrel out of harm’s way. We all waited with bated breath while we broadcasted begging calls to get the attention of the adults, and the little guy gave us a scare when he came up short on an attempted flight across an alley. He fortunately managed to cling to the brick wall of the adjacent building, and once he completed his slow, vertical ascent he was rewarded with a prompt food delivery from his mother. We all rejoiced upon seeing that this harrowing relocation attempt was successful. What a way to confirm a breeder!

June is a busy time in the world of education, so I made a point to get out in nature whenever possible as the school year drew to a close. I enjoyed a lovely anniversary weekend with Jacqi out at Montauk, where I spotted my first Cory’s Shearwater since 2019 and heard a calling Virginia Rail at Big Reed Pond. Visiting my family for Father’s Day provided me with the opportunity to borrow a car for some proper Atlas expeditions, and it also allowed me to get acquainted with the House Wrens that nested in their birdhouse this year. I took a Saturday drive out to Calverton in Suffolk County, where I searched the shrubby fields for nesting birds. There were a number of singing Grasshopper Sparrows on site, and I was thrilled when I saw that the female of a local Blue Grosbeak pair was carrying food: a sure sign that she had a nest of hungry chicks nearby. Similar observations of food-bearing flybys likewise confirmed breeding activity for Orchard Oriole and Red-winged Blackbird for this priority block. 

I continued along to Connetquot River State Park, which proved to be surprisingly productive. I documented fledglings or food carries for no less than 17 species in just a few hours patrolling the expansive trail system through the woods. Highlights included newly flighted Eastern Bluebirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Eastern Wood-Pewees, and Baltimore Orioles. A quick stop at Bayard Cutting Arboretum turned up a singing male Yellow-throated Warbler, as well as a Chipping Sparrow making regular meal deliveries to its ravenous nestlings.

I didn’t have as much time to spare on Sunday, but I couldn’t resist making a jaunt over to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the afternoon. A continuing White-faced Ibis and an early Stilt Sandpiper were welcome sightings, but the Atlasing was even better. I found a fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by Yellow Warblers and scoped a number of gangly young waterfowl hanging out on the East Pond. While investigating the territory of a vocal Yellow-billed Cuckoo near Big John’s Pond, I was shocked to hear a soft series of croaks coming from the dense vegetation: the begging cries of a baby cuckoo! This species has been documented breeding at the refuge in years past but had not yet been confirmed in the priority block for the Atlas. I was honored to add this special bird to my personal confirmations list, even though I had to go without a visual due to the parent calling in alarm and silencing the hidden youngster. 

We officially closed out the 2020-2021 school year on the final Friday of June, and I celebrated by gearing up for the inaugural Big Atlas Weekend! Starting out bright and early from my brother’s house in Douglaston, I made my way north to Sterling Forest State Park. There was a period of time when this trip was an annual pilgrimage for me, but by this point my last visit to the powerline cut at the end of Ironwood Drive was in spring 2018. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to revisit this fantastic birding site to search for signs of breeding activity. While I unfortunately didn’t find any of the Golden-winged Warblers the park is known for, I did manage to confirm a number of other species. A family of Worm-eating Warblers with at least two awkward fledglings was a delightfully unexpected discovery, and I also found Louisiana Waterthrushes, Prairie Warblers, Blue-winged Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, and Indigo Buntings feeding young. I was briefly puzzled by an unusual chick perched amidst dense foliage high in a tree, until a female Cerulean Warbler appeared and fed the baby a fat, juicy caterpillar. Getting to see the offspring of such a remarkable and increasingly rare species was a genuine pleasure. My survey at Sterling Forest was rounded out by a Common Raven clan, a nest of Chipping Sparrows, and a female American Redstart with an obvious brood patch. What’s more, I documented a wide variety of dragonfly species, including Spangled Skimmer, Widow Skimmer, Eastern Pondhawk, and Common Whitetail.

The next stop on my Big Atlas Weekend tour was Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, another near upstate hotspot that I haven’t visited in a while. Grassland habitat is vanishingly scarce throughout New York state, and preserves like this provide an invaluable sanctuary for open country birds. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by one of my favorite sounds in the natural world: the bubbling, enthusiastic chorus of Bobolinks circling the fields in dramatic aerial displays. In addition to the energetic song flights of the males, I observed a number of females, including an individual with a mouthful of insects. Additional breeding confirmations included an Eastern Meadowlark carrying a scrap of food and a fledgling Field Sparrow hopping through the vegetation. Grasshopper Sparrows could be heard singing throughout the trail system, and I also connected with a vagrant Dickcissel that has staked out a territory at the refuge this year. 

In the wake of a much-needed night out with my friends and family, I rose a little later on Sunday morning. I elected to keep the Atlas expeditions a little bit closer to home, making my way to the South Shore saltmarshes. Lido Beach Passive Nature Area proved to be an especially worthwhile survey location. I quickly found fledgling Boat-tailed Grackles foraging near the observation platform, as well as adults courting and carrying food elsewhere in the preserve. Keeping a close eye on the frequent flights of the ever-neurotic Willets finally paid off when I saw a pair of fluffy chicks pop out of the marsh grasses when their parent touched down. Least and Common Terns regularly passed overhead, ferrying fish to their nesting colonies at nearby Nickerson Beach. I also confirmed breeding success for Ospreys, Purple Martins, and Tree Swallows, all taking advantage of manmade structures provided for their nesting efforts. Birds weren’t the only breeders present either; I also stumbled upon a young Diamondback Terrapin and a female on her way to lay eggs. The biggest surprise of the day came when a pair of Orchard Orioles popped out of a bush at the edge of the marsh and started chattering at me. Once I backed off, they returned to feed their batch of noisy nestlings. Since this species typically breeds in open woodlands or brushy fields, it was something of a shock to find a territory out on the barrier beaches. I’m just glad to see that they were successful despite their unconventional site choice!

My Big Atlas Weekend came to a close at Stillwell Woods Park, an oft-neglected preserve in Syosset on the North Shore. While I’ve had a decent amount of success with owls, woodcocks, and unusual migrants at this location over the years, I haven’t had many chances to search for breeders. It was getting late on a particularly hot summer day by the time I arrived, and unsurprisingly avian activity was somewhat reduced as a result. There were long stretches of my trek through the forest where I didn’t hear any birds at all. Fortunately, there was still some action to be found along the edge habitat between the woodlands and the fields. I picked up Eastern Towhee and Common Yellowthroat as confirmation lifers, and I also found families of Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and more. When all was said and done, my personal Atlas experience made for an undeniably incredible weekend!

There’s still plenty of time left before the 2021 breeding season comes to a close, and I’m aiming to pick up as many confirmations as possible before fall migration begins anew! With any luck, I’ll be able to survey some neglected sites and priority blocks this summer. I’ll also continue trying to up my personal total by visiting a wide variety of habitats throughout the state. Regardless of what this summer holds, there’s no doubt in my mind that the fun has only just begun. The Atlas doesn’t end until December 31, 2024 after all! If nothing else, I’m grateful that this year has provided me with more opportunities for Atlasing than 2020 did. Here’s hoping for more memorable breeding bird surveys still to come!