A Season of New Beginnings

With the halfway point of 2023 fast approaching, it’s safe to say that this has been a remarkable year so far! The transition from the end of spring into the start of summer is always an exciting time, and this month was a particularly busy one. In the worlds of birding and education alike, June represents a dramatic shift. As the school year winds down, students prepare to move on to the next chapter of their academic careers and teachers breathe a sigh of relief before turning their attention to preparations for next fall. Wildlife across the Northern Hemisphere are caught up in the peak of breeding activity, and evidence of the new lives born in this baby boom can be seen even in the heart of New York City. New beginnings abound, and there are hardly enough hours in a day to adequately celebrate the many memorable moments of the season!

The earliest days of June saw me spending a lot of my free time at one of Long Island’s most productive early summer hotspots: Nickerson Beach. This barrier island beach is home to a wide array of nesting seabirds and shorebirds, including Black Skimmers, Common and Least Terns, American Oystercatchers, and Piping Plovers. The bustling activity at the waterfront breeding colonies regularly attracts the attention of passing rarities, a phenomenon which has been well-documented over the years. This season started off with a bang when several lucky observers reported a stunning adult White-winged Tern visiting the loafing flocks along the shoreline. To the chagrin of the community at large, this individual proved to be frustratingly uncooperative, appearing only fleetingly on two consecutive mornings and quickly disappearing to parts unknown. Although I personally was unable to connect with the vagrant during this brief window of opportunity, I was grateful for an excuse to partake in a stakeout at the beach. Nickerson provided a healthy haul of fantastic birds as consolation prizes, including a lingering King Eider hen, flyby Parasitic Jaeger and Wilson’s Storm Petrel, and close views of Royal, Roseate, and Black Terns. I was especially pleased to encounter Arctic Terns for the first time since before the pandemic, with several of the handsome wanderers resting on the sand among their commoner cousins. I lived alongside these marathon migration champions during several of my past jobs, and this long overdue reunion served as a wonderful kickoff to the season. Summer will always be one of the finest times of year for enjoying the sea and the creatures whose lives are tied to it.

The true, undisputed highlight of this month was a long time in the making. On the evening of June 10th, standing on the Camp Hero bluffs overlooking Montauk Point, I finally asked Jacqi to marry me. Fortunately, the answer was an enthusiastic yes! It took many months of careful planning to pass this weekend off as a simple anniversary celebration without dropping any hints at what I really had in store! Montauk has always been a special place for my family, the scenic backdrop for a number of traditions that I have been honored to share with Jacqi over the course of our relationship. The two of us have already made countless memories at The End, and there will undoubtedly be many more unforgettable experiences yet to come. I can’t wait to see what other adventures await us in the future! Also, just to address everyone’s burning question: yes, I did create a trip report for this lovely little getaway. I will always look back fondly on the cliffside colonies of Bank Swallows that served as set dressing for our magic moment.

A few hours after Jacqi and I popped champagne with our parents to commemorate our engagement, a different long-running saga marked its own exciting new beginning. While my proposal may have been big news for my family and friends, the other developing story from that night was celebrated by observers around the world. This year’s Cahow Cam chick, named Bada after the Korean word for “ocean,” successfully fledged from her nest on Nonsuch Island and took her maiden flight out to sea. The history of the Cahow, more formally known as the Bermuda Petrel, is an incredible tale of triumph for wildlife conservation efforts. I had the astounding good fortune to cross paths with this legendary Lazarus species during a fateful pelagic voyage off the coast of New York last fall, and keeping up with the onscreen breeding efforts of the endangered seabirds felt extra special now that I’ve met one in the flesh. It was amazing to watch the tiny bundle of gray fluff that first emerged from the egg in early March transform into a sleek, elegant sky-sailor in a matter of months. Check-ins with Bada and her parents were a regular evening ritual for Jacqi and I over the course of the spring, and we felt it was strangely fitting that she should start the next chapter of her life on the same day that we did. We wish all of this season’s Cahow fledglings the best of luck as they set out to explore the vast Atlantic Ocean, hoping that they will safely return in a few years’ time to contribute to the ongoing recovery of their species.

On the eve of the summer solstice, I set out aboard a New York Water Taxi vessel for NYC Audubon’s annual Sunset Eco-Cruise. This event is one of the more popular traditions in the local birding community, as it presents a fantastic opportunity to get up close and personal with breeding waterbird colonies on the various islands dotting New York Harbor and the East River. Many of the City’s nesting sites are off-limits to the public under normal circumstances, which serves to protect the herons, gulls, and cormorants that rely on these sanctuaries to raise their young in safety. The route of the cruise varies somewhat from year to year, offering the promise of exciting new experiences every time. In 2022, we cruised up the Hell Gate past Randall’s Island to visit the Brother Islands in the Bronx, while this season’s expedition took us past Governor’s Island, through the Narrows, all the way out to Hoffman and Swinburne Island off the coast of Staten Island. In addition to the cacophonous crowds of Double-crested Cormorants and Great Black-backed Gulls, participants were treated to sightings of Least Tern, Glossy Ibis, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, and even a flyby Little Blue Heron. The birding was lovely, but the assembled company and the eventide views of famous New York City landmarks were arguably even better! 

The longest day of the year found me relaxing at home in the afternoon, sitting side-by-side with Jacqi while she played Animal Crossing and I immersed myself in Tears of the Kingdom. Even when playing a game as engrossing as Zelda, however, any naturalist will tell you that it’s difficult to completely switch off. Not content with photographing fictional avian species or taking in the ambient birdsong of Hyrule, my perpetual birding subroutine did me a solid when it caused me to glance out the window at the precise, perfect moment to spy a lanky, long-billed seabird winging its way over the rooftops outside my window. Though I’d daydreamed about my chances of adding the species to my apartment list, I still couldn’t quite believe that I managed to spot a flyover Black Skimmer from the comfort of my own couch! This delightfully unique creature is one of my favorite local birds, an iconic fixture of Long Island’s outer coasts during the summer months. Skimmers can occasionally be seen flying inland at dusk to forage nocturnally on lakes and rivers, making them a tantalizing prize for dedicated listers in NYC. This incredibly lucky sighting, the 103rd bird for my running yard total, came just a day after the anniversary of our official move-in. Not a bad way to launch the second year of birding at my building!

Most of the remaining noteworthy observations of June were associated with my personal contributions to the ongoing New York Breeding Bird Atlas. I was fortunate enough to find the time for some informal surveys out on Long Island, connecting with several scarce, localized species like Blue Grosbeak, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and my ever-beloved Yellow-breasted Chat for my year list. Efforts closer to home turned up a number of quality breeding confirmations for the local patch as well. A Sunday morning circuit at Randall’s produced a fledgling Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Yellow Warbler family feeding their own offspring and a parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird, and several flotillas of Gadwall ducklings. The burgeoning Cliff Swallow colony at the north end of the Island has also added a few new nests this year, a particularly thrilling development for a species that remains quite rare as a breeder elsewhere in our region. When I sat down in my well-worn desk chair at work for the final time this school year, I was delighted to hear the begging vocalizations of the local American Kestrel kids right outside my window. The resident pair has held year-round territory at this location since I first started teaching here 8 full years ago, and I’m always happy to see the fruits of another successful nesting season.

With summer vacation right around the corner, there are undoubtedly plenty of additional surprises waiting to be uncovered in the coming months. It won’t be long before the initial waves of southbound migrants start appearing in earnest, supplementing their ranks with fresh, first-time travelers born earlier this season. Atlasing efforts, shorebird surveys, and hopefully some pelagic magic are all waiting on the immediate horizon! Jacqi and I are hard at work setting the initial schemes for our own wedding in the not-too-distant future, and the beginnings of plans are taking shape for several potential summer adventures. Let’s get to it!