The Most Exciting Month of My Life

A birder’s life is tethered especially tightly to the annual cycle of the seasons. As a result, each turn of a calendar page feels like a special event in its own right. Every month presents a thrilling new opportunity, a roughly 30-day microcosm of the world’s limitless potential, to be filled with surprises and memories. The truly remarkable months astonish you with how much they manage to pack into such a brief period of time, and I have experienced my fair share of unforgettable months over the years! The peak college escapades of January 2013, the Australian adventures of July 2019, and even the impressive suite of natural phenomena from April of this year all stand out as particularly noteworthy examples. However, even with 380 full months already logged on my journey thus far, I can confidently state that June 2024 is shaping up to be perhaps the single most exciting month of my life to date.

The somewhat relieved exhale that always comes with the end of a delightfully hectic May was cut short in the most dramatic fashion imaginable this year. The eve of June brought a stunning report from the far reaches of Long Island, where an American Flamingo had been discovered at Georgica Pond out in East Hampton. From the moment the first whispers of this spectacular sighting started to circulate on the alert systems, the New York birding community was set ablaze with excitement. The celebrated incursion of flamingos all across the continent in late 2023, evidently induced by Hurricane Idalia’s perfectly timed passage through the Caribbean and the Gulf, had produced vagrant records for at least 18 different states by the end of the year. Many of the displaced birds spent the winter in Florida, congregating in substantial flocks, while others were reported to have found their way back to more typical haunts in the Yucatán. Though I was thrilled by the opportunity to observe a pair of wayward flamingos at a farm pond in rural Pennsylvania last fall, I was all but certain that we had missed the boat for a confirmed, chaseable sighting in my home state. Against all odds, we now found ourself faced with an unexpected chance for redemption, presumably made possible by an individual who had overwintered in the Southeast and subsequently wandered up the coast with the warming weather. Jacqi and I knew we could not miss out on this incredible opportunity.

I loaded my exceedingly sleepy fiancée into the car well before dawn on June 1st. After picking up bonus passenger Ryan Zucker, fresh off an eleventh hour bus trip from upstate, we set out for the Hamptons under cover of darkness. The lengthy drive passed surprisingly swiftly, and we arrived at the stakeout site just in time to savor a serene sunrise along the beach. When we first joined the assembled crew of birders at the inlet, however, the flamingo was nowhere to be seen. The pleasant breeze and the cool sand made for a delightfully summery atmosphere as we sat around and waited, which helped to soothe the palpable collective anxiety over the conspicuous absence of our quarry.

About half an hour after the official break of day, the crowd’s idle chatter had turned into a strategic discussion of potential game plans for surveying the surrounding area. As I glanced wistfully towards the ocean, I was stunned by the sight of an enormous, preposterously gangling bird cresting a dune as it approached from the west. In the brilliant illumination of the rising sun, its pink plumage positively glowed! My thoroughly shattered mind took a few moments to verbally announce the surreal scene unfolding before me, eventually producing a comically manic callout of “THERE IT IS! IT’S COMING!!!” The flamingo made a wide loop and passed quite close to its audience of admirers, resulting in a chorus of ecstatic cheers, before settling on the pond at the outskirts of a bevy of swans. We watched, awestruck, as it began foraging in the shallow pool, pumping its stilt-like legs to stir up the substrate and dunking its bizarrely bent bill to filter the water for prey. The energy of the gathered observers was absolutely electric, the kind of exuberant glee that only a spectacle as exceptional as a flamingo in New York can deliver. It was, without even a hint of exaggeration, one of the purest and most perfect birding moments of my entire life.

Though it could easily be argued that this breathtaking sunrise flyby represented the definitive vagrant flamingo experience, the bird’s ongoing travels have predictably drawn curious attention as it continues to roam about the Northeast. A brief visit to Cape Cod the day after our encounter in East Hampton was documented by only a handful of casual observers, and there was a rumored sighting along the coast of Connecticut the following evening. By the middle of the next week, the bird had returned to Long Island, this time hanging around the marshes near Cedar Beach. It later found its way back to Georgica Pond, where many more visitors have been able to bask in the glory of its astoundingly improbable presence. The story was eventually picked up by national news outlets, with a well-researched article by USA Today featuring some of my own photos and quotes. Our magical morning on the beach was the culmination of a months-long saga that captured the imaginations of birders throughout the country. I could not have dreamed of a more satisfying conclusion for the fantastical tale of these beautifully bizarre birds!

A mere 48 hours after word of the flamingo’s arrival first reached the birding community at large, I found myself gearing up for an exciting voyage of my own. With sunset fast approaching, I made my way to the Sheepshead Bay docks in Brooklyn, where birders had convened once again for an overnight pelagic aboard the American Princess. As the trip leaders guided folks through the onboarding protocols and expectations for the expedition, my friends and I briskly boarded the vessel and claimed spaces for our sleeping bags on the top deck. Once we got underway, we found that passing frontal boundaries had made for markedly disorganized seas, resulting in one of the roughest rides out to the shelf that I can remember. When the motion of the ocean finally started to settle later in the night, bands of heavy rain began sweeping through the region. The ship’s canopy kept us from getting totally washed out, but I was still a bit damp by the time I fully awakened in the wee hours of the morning. Ominous clouds loomed all around us, promising more precipitation, and the crew informed us they had chosen to investigate an especially warm pocket of water well south of the Hudson Canyon’s mouth, placing us in New Jersey waters. The trip was certainly off to an interesting start.

Once the chum started flying, the birds were quick to follow. Within minutes of establishing our slick, a shout went up that a promising-looking petrel was approaching off the port bow. This call was promptly clarified as a Fea’s Petrel, a rare visitor from its nesting islands in the Eastern Atlantic and my first life bird of 2024! This individual proved to be shockingly cooperative, circling the boat for roughly a quarter of an hour as it inspected our offering of beef suet and menhaden oil. A Black-capped Petrel periodically joined the chum scrum alongside its rarer cousin, offering a fantastic comparative study opportunity for these similar seabirds. To our great surprise, we wound up crossing paths with a second, separate Fea’s Petrel later in the morning. Together, these two birds represented the first documented occurrence of the species for New Jersey, a record which was celebrated enthusiastically by the handful of Jersey birders on board. We New Yorkers were all to happy to lend helping hand to our Garden State neighbors on this trip, and in all honesty I was plenty pleased to pick up a brand new lifer without displacing the flamingo as the most recent addition to my state list!

The weather improved slowly but steadily with each passing hour, as gray skies and occasional cloudbursts gradually gave way to sunny, clear conditions. By midmorning, we were soundly back within the boundaries of New York’s pelagic zone, and we managed to document a solid sample platter of avian goodies as the day wore on. Tubenoses of note included stray Leach’s and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels mixed in with the hordes of Wilson’s, a handful of Northern Fulmars, and four different species of shearwaters: Great, Sooty, Cory’s, and Audubon’s. Alcids were surprisingly well-represented for this late date, with multiple Atlantic Puffins and Dovekies as well as a lone Thick-billed Murre. The list was rounded out by a grab bag of terrestrial migrants that had found their way off shore, including Osprey, Wood Ducks, and a male Blackburnian Warbler that briefly inspected the ship before continuing on its northward trajectory.

The overall diversity of marine life observed over the course of the day was particularly impressive. Our expedition turned up a pair of Humpback Whales, a passing Loggerhead Sea Turtle, and large pods of Common, Bottlenose, Risso’s, and Striped Dolphins. Numbers of Ocean Sunfish were also notably high, and we wound up crossing paths with more than half a dozen of these strange, sluggish creatures as we made our way back from the continental shelf edge. One of the major draws for a late spring pelagic is the possibility of encountering an interesting blend of creatures migrating through the region, and these lively seas certainly lived up to our high expectations for this outing.

The most exciting highlight of the voyage, however, was a prolonged encounter with one of the rarest organisms in the whole of the Atlantic Ocean. A week prior to our scheduled excursion, an oceanic research team that included American Princess naturalist Chris St. Lawrence had turned up a most remarkable discovery: a congregation of North Atlantic Right Whales frequenting the waters around the Hudson Canyon. A subsequent aerial survey by NOAA revealed that this extraordinary gathering numbered as many as 50 individuals, apparently taking advantage of an abundance of food in this ecologically productive region. Gossip about this surprising observation had been swift to circulate aboard the vessel, resulting in an air of hesitant anticipation as we approached the Canyon. It is certainly unusual to see such impressive counts of these whales away from their typical summering grounds off Cape Cod, and we had no idea if we could reasonably expect that they would still be in the area, but we all hoped that luck would be on our side. 

In the early afternoon, an announcement rang out that we were changing course to investigate some intriguing spouts on the horizon. As we tentatively drew closer, we were elated to see distinctive V-shaped blows rising from the surface of the sea, followed closely by callosity-covered heads and wide, dark flukes. We had found the Right Whales! A scan of our surroundings confirmed that we were in the presence of approximately 10 individuals, representing roughly 3% of the entire remaining global population of this Critically Endangered species. In keeping with established protocols for respectful viewing, we cut the motors and kept our distance, drifting in the deep for who knows how long as we watched these magnificent leviathans foraging and interacting with one another. This species had been on my “must see” bucket list for many years, and it was a special thrill to witness this unprecedented assemblage off the coast of my home state. Many of my conversations with friends on the long ride back to Brooklyn centered on our incredible good fortune during this trip, with all participants agreeing that the amazing combination of species we observed had achieved instant classic status in the New York pelagic hall of fame.

The next big event on my calendar this month was the Captree June Count, an annual Christmas Bird Count-inspired survey hosted by Pat and Shai. Though I have reliably participated in the CBC for this territory since 2018, I had never before had the pleasure of assist with the late spring version due to persistent schedule conflicts. The stars finally aligned this year, permitting me to join up with Suffolk birders Jay Rand and Eric Goodman to explore the wetlands and woodlands around Oakdale and West Sayville. Our morning turned out to be exceedingly pleasant, as we watched the sun come up over a grassy tidal channel brimming with territorial Marsh Wrens. We picked up a number of other coastal specialties as we continued to explore, including my first-of-year observations of Clapper Rail and both Seaside and Saltmarsh Sparrows. The biggest surprise of the day came a bit later, when we stumbled upon a trio of recently fledged Great Horned Owls during a stroll through the forest. The true highlight of my Count experience, however, was the compilation. It is always a delight to cap off a solid day’s birding by sharing a refreshing meal in the company of good friends, supplemented by a riveting discussion of avian ecology and New York birding lore. I am genuinely honored to be an active member of this wonderful community.

With the passage of the last day of official classes, the schoolyear continued its slow slide towards summer vacation. Accordingly, my workweek obligations were quickly taken over by proctoring and portfolio presentations rather than actual lessons. When the third weekend of June finally rolled around, I was grateful that I had some quality time booked with my family back out on the Island. My parents had both expressed some interest in making the trek out to Georgica Pond to visit the ongoing famous flamingo, so we decided to take an early morning drive out East to kick off our observance of Father’s Day in style. We arrived in the Hamptons to find the beach bustling with activity, with a number of locals taking full advantage of the beautiful conditions. Upon reaching the inlet, we began intently scanning the far shoreline in search of our pink-plumed friend, only to discover that the bird was actively foraging a short distance away near the outflow of the pond. It was such a treat to reunite with this spectacular individual, and Mom and Dad were both blown away by the marvelously incongruous sight of a flamingo wading through the cool blue waters of a Long Island lagoon. We celebrated our successful outing with a tasty breakfast in Bridgehampton before making our way back home to continue the festivities with the family. If only all holidays could feature such cooperative vagrants!

Late June is a fantastic time of year for documenting breeding activity, and my exploration of local hotspots over the course of the month has turned up a number of exciting observations. Highlights from my Atlasing efforts in recent weeks have included a Chimney Swift gathering twigs for its nest outside my school building, a Yellow-throated Warbler ferrying morsels of food to its unseen chicks at Bayard Cutting Arboretum, and a confiding family of American Oystercatchers at Nickerson Beach, with each of the adorable freshly-hatched fluffballs still sporting an egg tooth. These exploratory expeditions have produced a number of overdue year birds like Tricolored Heron, Royal Tern, and Least Bittern, and I have even uncovered a handful of exciting non-avian lifers along the way, including Eastern Worm Snake and Festive Tiger Beetle. I will never cease to be amazed at the diversity of novel wonders that can still be found in a region where I have lived for the better part of three decades! 

One of my favorite June traditions for the past few years has been the Sunset Eco-Cruise operated by the newly rechristened NYC Bird Alliance. The various rocky islands surrounding Manhattan host an impressive array of nesting waterbirds, and this voyage presents a rare opportunity for the general public to get up close and personal with these hidden treasures of the urban environment. Jacqi and I were quick to sign up when registration for the event first opened, and we were delighted to see a number of familiar faces when we arrived at the docks. In addition to stalwart NYCBA staff like Roslyn and Adrian, we were happy to welcome Eco-Cruise first-timers Ryan Mandelbaum, Efua, and Ben. I am always grateful for an excuse to spend some a few hours on the water, and the opportunity to do so in good company makes the experience that much more enjoyable. Our route this year took us up the East River past Roosevelt Island, passing through the Hell Gate to visit the Brother Islands off the northeastern shore of Randall’s. After a hot and muggy day at work, a refreshingly cool breeze and some laidback birding under twilight skies was exactly what we all needed. This pleasant evening excursion served as a lovely farewell to the 2024 spring season, welcoming the imminent summer solstice with open arms.

Every single one of the episodes detailed in this piece has been absolutely wonderful in its own right, making for a pretty sweet spread of unforgettable happenings over the span of a few short weeks. With that being said, I have been through plenty of other months chock full of comparably memorable wildlife encounters over the course of my career. Flamingos and whales undoubtedly rank as some of the best beasties that Planet Earth has to offer, but even these world class critters pale in comparison to the major life event waiting just around the corner. The real reason I consider June 2024 to be the most exciting month I have yet experienced is my imminent wedding to the love of my life. Just a few days from now, Jacqi and I will finally be married, celebrating our union with family and friends as we embark on a thrilling new adventure together as husband and wife! With any luck, the two of us will be making strong contenders for new best-ever months, together, for as long as we both shall live. I truly cannot wait to see what comes next!