Making the Most of May

May is far and away the busiest month in the birding world here in the Northeast. The condensed timeline of northward spring migration, with birds rushing to reach their breeding grounds as quickly as possible, means that much of the action plays out during a rather brief window of opportunity. Alas, this season invariably proves to be a rather busy time of year for life in general, with work obligations and social gatherings limiting the frequency of forays into the field. The weather is warming up, the school year is drawing to a close, and Jacqi and I are hard at work finalizing plans for our upcoming wedding. With of all the exciting events filling up my calendar, I was left hoping for quality over quantity in terms of natural experiences this month. Fortunately, the magic of May delivered the goods.

At this point in my career, I am well-versed in the niceties of navigating a full-time job’s schedule in the midst of peak migration. Since weekend availability is never guaranteed during the high season, I have learned to make the most of pre- and post-work outings whenever possible. An early highlight of the month involved a most unusual visitor in the form of a Wild Turkey hen discovered at Smiling Hogshead Ranch in Long Island City. These familiar, burly birds are impressively abundant in the near upstate and the eastern reaches of Long Island, and they have gradually established themselves as a presence in NYC as their numbers continue to grow. The species is now resident in parts of Staten Island and the Bronx, and strays to the wooded parks of northern Manhattan are essentially an annual occurrence. Sightings in Brooklyn and Queens are far rarer, with only a handful of documented observations in recent decades. However, this spring saw an impressive influx of urban turkeys, with reports of multiple gobblers roaming as far afield as Middle Village, Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Astoria. I was unable to resist the temptation of making a brief detour to search for the LIC bird on my commute home, and it only took a few moments for my quarry to find me once I arrived onsite. Watching this bizarrely primeval creature strutting about in a tiny community garden admittedly made for a peculiar scene. This same individual eventually moved across the river to explore Midtown and Roosevelt Island, and her adventures in Manhattan understandably garnered a great deal of media attention. The unpredictability and adaptability of nature never fails to impress!

I kicked off the first weekend of May with a morning visit to Central Park with Dmitriy, Adam, and Efua. It was clear that migratory activity had not yet reached its pinnacle, but there was still a variety of lovely seasonal favorites to be found, including Scarlet Tanager, Cape May Warbler, and Wood Thrush. With limited time available before an afternoon wedding, I ended up cutting my circuit short to prioritize an attempt at an exciting regional vagrant: an American White Pelican that had been roaming extensively throughout New York Harbor. The wandering waterbird had initially been spotted from the Staten Island ferry, but over the course of several days it was seen by myriad onshore observers in New York, Kings, and Richmond Counties, as well as across the water in Hudson County, New Jersey. In fact, this sighting represented a long-awaited first county record for Manhattan, and it was celebrated extensively by the local community. I managed to locate the bird surprisingly quickly after my arrival at the Battery, picking out its distinctive silhouette and gleaming white plumage as it bobbed amongst the buoys in the distance. There are only a handful of avian species that would be discernible, let alone identifiable, from several miles away, but this massive beastie is no ordinary bird! Though the views obtained by ferry patrons undoubtedly produced superior photos, my personal pelican encounter made for a memorable story in its own right. Birding has no shortage of ridiculous experiences on offer, and rarities certainly kick the absurdity up a notch.

In recent years, my friends and I have partaken in a dedicated Central Park Big Day each May in the hopes of documenting 100 or more species of birds. Though May 2023 saw us setting our personal best record at an impressive 103, conflicting schedules and inclement weather conditions conspired to stymie our follow-up efforts for 2024. A drizzly forecast and uninspiring winds for migratory movement resulted in us calling off our tentative plans for a potential attempt, instead switching gears to conduct a routine survey of Randall’s Island. As if in an attempt to make up for this missed opportunity, our beloved patch pulled out all the stops and provided an impressive haul for our backup “Big Morning.” The clear headliner of the outing was a confiding female Prothonotary Warbler that we discovered at the seldom-visited Water’s Edge Garden, only the second-ever hotspot record of this charming southern songbird. A short time later, we were treated to another noteworthy rarity sighting with a low flyover flock of Glossy Ibis winging their way westwards towards Manhattan. We managed to wrap up our successful circuit just in time to head home before the rainstorms picked up in earnest, departing for our respective homes with smiles on our faces. Even the quietest, most unremarkable days can produce major surprises during peak season!

My birding schedule heavily favored afternoon outings during the first half of the month. A Worm-eating Warbler that Dmitriy discovered at Randall’s Island was obliging enough to stick around for the rest of the day, furnishing me with a welcome and overdue patch bird. An evening jaunt to Manhattan allowed me to successfully connect with a Cerulean Warbler in the North Woods of Central Park, accompanied by a suite of delightful May classics like Bay-breasted Warbler, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Swainson’s Thrush. As expected at this time of year, the City’s greenspaces were bustling with birders, including an encouragingly substantial crop of excited newcomers who were thrilled to be experiencing migration properly for the first time in their lives. While I personally feel that the annual magic of this wonderful season never gets old, it is nevertheless a special treat to live vicariously through the initial impressions of these wide-eyed beginners. 

As usual, I put in an impressive amount of hours up on my roof over the course of May. These dawn stakeouts added a handful of year birds to my running total, including Solitary Sandpiper, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and Dickcissel, a fairly notable rarity during the spring season. I also picked up a trio of species for my overall apartment list, with Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee and Great Crested Flycatcher bringing the cumulative total to a neat 123. The view from atop my building has quickly become one of my favorite vantage points in the City. I was once again able to watch from afar as the resident Common Raven pair raised another batch of nestlings over at the Astoria Generating Station, and I diligently documented commuting Ospreys, migrating Common Loons, and courting Chimney Swifts as the season gradually progressed. I am beyond grateful that Jacqi and I landed ourselves at such an unexpectedly productive skywatching site, and I fully intend to continue making the most of it for as long we both live here.

After nearly 2 weeks of half-days and targeted detours representing the extent of my time in the field, Global Big Day finally provided me with the opportunity to plunge into a full, proper, peak season outing. A few weeks prior, a Spanish birder by the name of Jose had reached out to ask if I would be willing to show him around some of New York’s best birding spots. I was all too happy to oblige. We started our day at the illustrious Ironwood Drive in Sterling Forest State Park, a favorite destination for NYC birders seeking a short-range upstate getaway. The hilly terrain and forest edge habitat at this site offer a refreshing change of pace in terms of habitat compared to the City’s parks and coastlines, with a distinctly Appalachian feel to the local flora and fauna. We spent several hours exploring the trail system at Ironwood’s famous power line cut, where we were treated to a marvelous spread of iconic species. Highlights from our outing included an Olive-sided Flycatcher perched atop a high snag, territorial Indigo Buntings and Prairie Warblers singing up a storm, and a Northern Black Racer sunning itself at the edge of the trail. As a first-time visitor to North America, Jose was especially enamored with the brilliant plumage of our various songbirds, particularly the 22 species of warblers we observed at this location alone, and the impressive heft of the ever-brazen Wild Turkeys. The true stars of the show, to our surprise and delight, were the cuckoos. Both species were heard vocalizing more or less constantly throughout our hike, and we were fortunate enough to enjoy uncharacteristically prolonged encounters with these typically furtive creatures. Jose was thrilled to get a decent look at a passing Yellow-billed Cuckoo, but he was absolutely blown away by the antics of a pair of Black-billed Cuckoos who spent most of the morning showboating in full view of their assembled admirers. We watched in awe as they leisurely munched on tent caterpillars right alongside the road, and we also witnessed the male presenting the female with a courtship snack before both birds retreated to the woods to mate in peace. Talk about an incredible introduction to birding the United States! 

The next stop on our Hudson Valley circuit was Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge. The classic open country specialty birds that breed at this site were cooperative as ever, with the insectile buzzes of Grasshopper Sparrows and the tuneful whistles of Eastern Meadowlarks ringing out across the landscape of swaying stems. Dapper male Bobolinks vaulted into the skies on trembling wings, performing their exuberant, jangling melodies for a host of attendant females hidden in the grasses below. Several Northern Harriers and American Kestrels could be seen patrolling the fields, and the local nesting colony of Purple Martins was bustling with activity. With the heat of the afternoon sunshine reaching its peak, we settled in the shade at the picnic area for a spell, discovering a handsome White-crowned Sparrow foraging around the tables and an accommodating male Rose-breasted Grosbeak singing in the branches overhead. Jose was ecstatic over the latter encounter in particular, explaining that he always hopes to meet the species featured on the field guide cover whenever he travels internationally. The striking black, white, and red plumage and mellifluous voice of this charismatic cardinalid undoubtedly lived up to the hype he had built up in his mind, serving as a lovely accompaniment for our late lunch.

Once we finished up at Shawangunk, Jose and I decided to make an impromptu detour to the Hudson Highlands Natural History Museum, where a series of trails wend their way through a network of thickets, woodlands, and wetlands. This proved to be a great spot for documenting breeding behavior, including a pair of Orchard Orioles constructing their nest, countersinging male Hooded Warblers, and Carolina Wren parents tending to their unseen chicks in an abandoned barn. I also spotted a Blue-winged Warbler with distinct touches of yellow on its wingbars, a subtle phenotypic indicator of Golden-wing influence in its ancestral lineage. As cloud cover continued to build in the late afternoon, I said farewell to Jose and sent him onwards to continue his North American adventure with a visit to New Jersey. We both expressed our profuse gratitude to one another before parting ways, him for my guidance and expertise and me for his enthusiastic company. All in all, my personal Global Big Day experience for 2024 was a roaring success, and I have Jose to thank for providing me with an excuse to get out there and make the most of it!

In typical May fashion, year birds continued to trickle during the work week whenever I found myself outside for any appreciable period of time. Afternoon visits to Central Park provided encounters with a number of sought-after migrants, highlighted by Canada Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and the perpetually enigmatic Bicknell’s Thrush. I even picked up a handful of species for my 2024 list while I was busy with other obligations, including a nocturnal flyover Least Sandpiper while running some errands for my family and brief sightings of Common Nighthawk and Caspian Tern during a trip to Vermont for James’s graduation ceremony. As the timeline for migration slowly started descending the back slope of its peak, breeding activity ramped up conspicuously, with fledglings cropping up in unexpected places all around the City. Throughout the region, initial signs of the gradual seasonal shift began to take shape. The month of May was now more than halfway through, but the fun was far from finished.

When Memorial Weekend rolled around, I found myself making the trek back up to Ironwood Drive yet again. My primary objective for this return trip was to put some special effort towards reconnecting with Golden-winged Warbler, the ABA Bird of the Year for 2024. This handsome species has consistently featured in my personal “Top 5 warblers” list ever since my lifer encounter back in May 2015. Unfortunately, these debonair little songbirds have become increasingly rare in our region, with the once thriving breeding population at Sterling Forest dwindling dramatically over the years. Shifts in habitat composition have allowed the closely related Blue-winged Warbler to infiltrate former Golden-wing strongholds, leading to increased competition for resources and mates. As of last year, there was only one phenotypically pure male still known to be present at this site, a banded individual who has held territory at the power line cut since the spring of 2017. I was initially a bit concerned about whether this aging bird would be returning for his 8th documented season, especially since Jose and I failed to find him earlier in the month, so I was quite relieved when subsequent observers posted photos confirming his homecoming a few days later. I had no trouble locating my quarry on this follow-up visit, his persistent vocalizations making it easy to track his movements up and down the right-of-way. I can only hope that these buzzy love songs will attract the attention of a female soon, so that they may successfully contribute another crop of youngsters to the next generation of Golden-winged Warblers here in New York.

In addition to the requisite birding efforts, I also spent a significant portion of my time upstate searching for herps. Lifer observations from this expedition included a regrettably injured Marbled Salamander, a swift and slippery Northern Red Salamander, and a graciously cooperative Northern Slimy Salamander, which, true to its name, produced copious quantities of sticky mucous when I scooped it up for a brief photo shoot. The day list of amphibians was rounded out by familiar faces like Red Eft, Eastern Red-backed Salamander, and Northern Two-lined Salamander, with reptiles represented by a Common Five-lined Skink and a fleeting snake sighting, presumably another Black Racer. My increasing engagement with non-avian critters has certainly enhanced my sense of fulfillment as a naturalist of late, and I look forward to see what other surprises await me on this front in the warmer months to come.

The long weekend’s birding endeavors wrapped up with a dawn excursion to Nickerson Beach. Breezy, overcast weather with an imminent threat of rain resulted in human activity along the shoreline being noticeably stifled, but the birds of the beach were out in force despite the subpar conditions. I was thrilled to reunite with Black Skimmers for the first time in 2024, taking in the familiar chorus of their gentle barking vocalizations as they patrolled the water’s edge in tight squadrons. Piping Plovers and Willets joined the flocks of Sanderlings picking over the swash, and I also spotted the first fuzzy baby American Oystercatcher of the season. I scanned diligently through the massive hordes of Common Terns congregating at their nesting colonies, picking out small numbers of Least and Roseate Terns winging their way down the coast. A Parasitic Jaeger chasing gulls out beyond the breakers was a most welcome surprise, and a brief jaunt over to the bayside of the barrier island turned up good numbers of singing Willow Flycatchers and displaying Boat-tailed Grackles. Truth be told, this was the first day of the year that felt distinctly more summer-like than springy. The official solstice may yet be several weeks out, but the seasonal shift is undeniably well underway already.

With the month of May rapidly drawing to a close, many birders find themselves breathing a collective sigh as they begin to wind down for the season. Peak migration reliably lives up to the hype, but it can nevertheless be an overwhelming experience. After weeks of nonstop activity, the slower pace of summer offers an opportunity to recharge before the equally enjoyable but more protracted fall migration period kicks off in earnest. This year, however, I feel as though the fun is only just beginning. As of this writing, Jacqi and I are officially just one month away from being officially wed, and we have our honeymoon plans for July to consider as well. There are undoubtedly plenty of thrilling adventures ahead on the imminent horizon, and I cannot wait to see what the rest of 2024 has in store for us. For now, though, I am simply grateful that I was able to make the most of May. It only comes around once a year, after all, and it is always well worth the wait.