From Summer Breezes to Fall’s First Fronts

I’ve often said that people who are more actively observant of the natural world around them are more acutely aware of the seasonal cycle. When you spend most of your free time watching the comings and goings of animals, you can’t help but notice the gradual, steady changes each day brings on our yearly journey around the Sun. This is doubly true for me, since my annual calendar is structured around teaching and the various vacation days interspersed throughout the schoolyear. Summer break is the crown jewel in this trove of holidays. I always strive to make the most of my time off from work, and 2021 provided a pretty spectacular season in the world of birding.

Late summer means shorebirds, and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in southern Queens has historically been one of the best stopover sites for migrant waders in our region. The water level at this site is controlled by an outflow valve, which makes it possible to partially drain the pool and create shoreline that benefits birds and birders alike. However, technical difficulties and scheduling errors can easily leave the pond flooded and full during peak migration. This season, thanks to the diligent efforts of Andrew Baksh and the National Park Service staff, the conditions at the refuge’s East Pond were the best I’ve seen in years. After returning home from my trip to Seattle, I wound up spending most of my dedicated birding days this season slogging through the mud at Jamaica Bay.

Many shorebirds nest in the Arctic and travel incredible distances during migration. Since they have a short breeding season and a long way to go before reaching their wintering grounds, they start their southward journeys earlier than most other birds. Shorebirds can be particular about where they stop to rest and feed, as such refueling layovers are critical for their survival. The ample shoreline and exposed mudflats around the East Pond this year proved irresistible to passing waders. I encountered impressive numbers of individuals and diversity of species on each of my visits this summer. My first outing, in late July, produced a variety of year birds as well as a pair of new species for my Queens County list: a cooperative Long-billed Dowitcher and a vagrant Black-bellied Whistling-Duck.

While I thoroughly enjoy exploring the edges of Long Island’s marshy habitats each summer, this year I was presented with the unique opportunity for some more in-depth, up close and personal study. My friend Stephane Perreault, who conducts various ecological studies for the Seatuck Environmental Association and the Greentree Foundation, invited me to join him and Brendan Fogarty for several saltmarsh surveys on the South Shore of Long Island. Naturally, I jumped at the offer. We shoved off from the docks in East Rockaway aboard a boat managed by Operation S.P.L.A.S.H., a team which is dedicating to cleaning up trash and other pollutants in New York’s coastal waterways. This flat-bottomed vessel is able to easily navigate the shallow tidal channels between marsh islands, which is invaluable for Stephane’s efforts to document breeding birds and migrant shorebirds. 

Our first stop was a heavily vegetated island known as West Meadow. As we made our way down the shoreline, we paused briefly to study some birds foraging in the shallows. When I lowered my binoculars, I noticed that Brendan was still peering intently through his own optics, his gaze fixed on a distant point across the channel. He was frozen stock still when he dropped the bombshell on us: “I’m pretty sure I’ve got a spoonbill…yup, it is.” Stephane and I jumped to get on the bird, which was mixed in with a group of egrets and gulls on adjacent East Meadow. I was ecstatic! This summer has been a banner season for vagrant wading birds, with Roseate Spoonbills leading the charge. New York’s first record of this southern species was in 1992, and the second was an individual in 2018 that spent some time along the New Jersey border. As of this writing, 2021 has produced spoonbill sightings from no fewer than 8 different sites. After only seeing the 2018 bird on the “wrong” side of the state line and failing to chase any earlier upstate reports this year, it was a thrill to connect with my 379th state bird in my home county of Nassau. I sure am glad I was able to join this lucky little boat trip!

The marsh surveys proved to be a fantastic opportunity to round out some of my Breeding Bird Atlas totals. After the excitement of the spoonbill discovery, we went on to find proof of nesting success for several saltmarsh specialty species. A fluffy Clapper Rail chick scurrying along a muddy creek bank was a welcome sight, and we also stumbled upon an active Marsh Wren nest with agitated parents nearby. We devoted a solid chunk of time to watching for Saltmarsh Sparrow confirmations, and we were rewarded by a bird making flights to and from a hidden nest to deliver food and carry away fecal sacs. On a subsequent survey with Stephane, we found a family group of Willow Flycatchers, with several fresh fledglings following their parents around and begging for meals. I also got to see my first Seaside Sparrows of the year on these outings, but we did not observe any definitive breeding behavior during our brief sightings. Another observation of note was a Clapper-type rail that seemed rather colorful compared to the typical individuals of our area. Whether it was simply a brighter variant, a hybrid with some King Rail blood, or a wanderer from a more southerly population, we’ll likely never know for sure. Birding is full of little mysteries!

My Atlas efforts weren’t limited to official surveys either. I documented a number of other species over the course of the summer, including some surprising regional rarities. When I got word that a small colony of Sedge Wrens had set up shop along a quiet road near Warwick, I hatched a plan with Ryan Zucker for day trip up to Orange County. I was happy to secure this long overdue state tick, bringing my New York list up to 380 species. Observations of nest construction and fecal sac carries as the birds fluttered through the weedy fields made for a fine bonus prize. Other noteworthy breeding confirmations in the past few months include a family of Northern Rough-winged Swallows and a Cliff Swallow gathering nesting material at Randall’s Island, fluffy Gadwall ducklings and newly-flighted Glossy Ibises at Jamaica Bay, and a mother Dickcissel carrying morsels of food at Croton Point Park in Westchester. I observed my 100th breeding confirmation for the Atlas in early August, when I spotted a Chimney Swift with a full throat pouch whizzing past my vantage point on the RFK Bridge and continuing on to make a food delivery somewhere amidst the rooftops of Astoria. After the sighting of an American Goldfinch family in Inwood a few weeks later, my Atlas total now stands at 102.

Jamaica Bay remained the hot place to be in NYC through at least mid-August. I probably spent more time on the East Pond this season than I have in the last 5 years put together, and all of those hours clearly paid off. Ryan and Dmitriy Aronov met me for several jaunts around the refuge, and I also teamed up on various occasions with Corey Finger, Akilah Lewis, Andrew Marden, and Adam Cunningham. There were plenty of exciting migrants to be seen every time we visited. The Black-bellied Whistling-Duck persisted as a star attraction for much of the summer, but it certainly didn’t have the stage all to itself. A small flock of Wilson’s Phalaropes was later joined by a trio of Red-necked Phalaropes, and I also heard a Least Bittern calling from the phragmites during one of my visits. Perhaps the pond’s most remarkable guest was a leucistic Bank Swallow that lingered for several weeks. Repeatedly encountering this ghostly, nearly pure white individual was an absolute delight, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the challenge presented by photographing a rapid-flying pale bird against the sky and the water.

Unfortunately, this wonderful summer was not without its downsides. In years past, August would have likely seen me joining a continental shelf expedition aboard the good old Brooklyn VI. Earlier this season, we learned that the esteemed See Life Paulagics team was regrettably closing their doors for good. There’s no that denying Paul and Anita Guris have provided countless birders in New York, New Jersey, and beyond with memories to last a lifetime. While I’m hopeful that the New York pelagic scene will live on in some form, this end of an era left me with no obvious way to get the boat-based birding fix I’ve been craving since the pre-pandemic days. I managed to get out to sea again with Jacqi, Edem, and Kelsey when we took a trip aboard the American Princess whale watching vessel. It was no substitute for an overnight deep sea adventure, but we did spot a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins, some Royal Terns, and a pair of distant flyby Red-necked Phalaropes. Any day spent on the water is a good one!

In early August, my prized 200-500mm camera lens, which I have owned for less than a year, developed some mechanical issues. The zoom apparatus apparently had a few screws loose, which eventually rendered it unusable. Nikon warranty promised to cover the complete cost of fixing the issue, which was a welcome silver lining, but the extended repair process left me without my primary gear for over a month. This loss was most strongly felt when I partook in my first morning flight watch of the season at Breezy Point in mid-August with Ryan and Dmitriy. Despite the early date, it proved to be a surprisingly productive venture, with hundreds of migrants streaming overhead throughout the morning. Kingbirds, blackbirds, swallows, and warblers made up the bulk of the westward flight, with highlights including a leucistic Barn Swallow, a Bobolink, and an Indigo Bunting. There were also several shorebird species on the move, and we observed a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels doodling about offshore. Exploring Manhattan offered its share of excitement as well, with an August visit to Central Park providing Prothonotary Warbler and Mourning Warbler for my year list, my first Willow Flycatcher for New York County, and a friendly Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

The arrival of Tropical Storm Henri was a heavily hyped event for the birding community throughout the Northeast. I attempted to position myself out of the direct path while remaining in a zone where storm birds were still possible. The storm itself ended up weakening substantially before hitting land, which was fortunate for the residents of Rhode Island but turned out to be bit of a bust as far as displaced seabirds were concerned. Nevertheless, I gladly joined Dmitriy and Efua Peterson for stakeouts along the Hudson River as the remnants of the storm passed by NYC. Our dawn vigil at Inwood Hill Park wound up being unexpectedly fruitful, featuring my first Black Tern, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Least Sandpipers, and Forster’s Terns for New York County, as well as 30 southbound Caspian Terns! The remainder of my week was spent traveling around New England. Over the course of a few days in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, I picked up my first Whimbrels and Red Knots of the year. The combination of a friend’s wedding in Canterbury and a night at Jacqi’s family beach house in Old Saybrook filled in my Connecticut county map and brought my species count for the state into the triple digits. 

I finally returned to New York during the last days of August, eager to see what September had in store. The first day of the new month brought another major storm, and the leftovers of Hurricane Ida were still strong enough to drown NYC with intense floodwaters. The city slowly dried out over the course of the following day, and that evening saw the first proper cold front of the season. With favorable northwesterly winds in the wake of a powerful storm system, the regional radar was alight with avian activity overnight. Daybreak found me back at my beloved Astoria Park, searching for new arrivals. I picked up a handful of new species for my patch list, including the park’s first Solitary Sandpiper, Hooded Warbler, and Red-headed Woodpecker. I also noted a flyover flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers, and a charming Philadelphia Vireo made for a fantastic photo subject. The next day was quieter overall, with more apparent departures than newcomers, but I did manage to pick out my craziest patch bird yet: a young Black-legged Kittiwake engaged in active vismig flight over the adjacent neighborhood at dawn! I never would’ve guessed that I’d seen this pelagic seabird at this tiny urban park, let alone moving at altitude over the residential rooftops instead of cruising down the river. Nature never fails to surprise!

The closing gift of 2021’s summer vacation was delivered on my birthday, September 7th. A Swallow-tailed Kite had been reported near Yatesville in the Finger Lakes region for nearly 3 weeks, and I finally found myself with free time and vehicle access to make chase. I certainly couldn’t pass on the opportunity to see one of the most impressive, awe-inspiring birds in the world on my birthday! Few people would willingly wake up at 4:30 and drive nearly 5 hours on a day off, but I was more than happy to embark on this adventure. When I arrived at the stakeout site, I quickly spotted the kite patrolling the treetops adjacent to the farm fields. What a magnificent, majestic creature! I had the bird all to myself for over an hour, watching it soar effortlessly and perform acrobatic swoops to pluck prey from the leafy branches. There were moments when I desperately missed my main camera lens, but there were also times that the hunting raptor passed so closely overhead that I couldn’t even capture it with my less powerful backup gear. Sharing this wayward wanderer’s company was a fantastic experience, making for an extra special memory for species #381 on my New York State list. I could never get tired of Swallow-tailed Kites!

Although summer doesn’t “officially” end until September 22nd, as far as I’m concerned it is well and truly over now. A new schoolyear begins today, and for better or worse I’m sure it will be an entirely different experience from the last two. I’ll do my best to make the most of the situation and remain flexible when shifting plans inevitably crop up. Here’s to hoping for better days ahead! On the bright side, I have been reunited with my newly repaired camera lens at long last. Now I’ll be ready for any morning flight goodies that try to slip past me during dawn surveys! I eagerly look forward to the rest of the fall migration season and whatever unexpected treasures it brings. Summer 2021 undoubtedly surpassed my expectations, and I’m cautiously optimistic that autumn may yet supply comparably pleasant surprises. For now, I’ll raise a glass to bid farewell to a rewarding, remarkable summer season!