The first few weeks of a new year are always an exciting time in the world of a birder. For those of us who enjoy keeping track of our annual species counts, everything old is new again, and the possibilities feel limitless. While I am not the type to dive deep into a proper Big Year or get hypercompetitive about racking up a massive tally, I do enjoy playing against myself with small-scale year listing goals and personal challenges. One tradition that I have always been partial to is the January 100, a quest that inspires me to start the annual cycle on the right foot by trying to find as many species as I can during the dead of winter. I have not missed the mark since I started keeping track in earnest, and I was eager to see what the first month of 2024 had in store.
As usual, I spent New Year’s Eve celebrating with friends, this time out in the Hamptons. I decided to take advantage of my proximity the furthest reaches of Long Island and committed to starting 2024 at Montauk. I set out for the East End well ahead of daybreak, pausing along the way to try my hand at some nightbirding. To my great delight, a series of haunting trills echoing through the shadowed forests along the roadside landed Eastern Screech-Owl as the first species on my 2024 year list! A brief stop at Little Reed Pond added a few more birds in the predawn gloom, including Hooded Merganser, Great Blue Heron, and Hermit Thrush. As the first sunrise of the New Year crested the horizon over the Atlantic Ocean, I was already in position at the Point. I am always grateful when I get to begin the year with a seawatch, and my early morning efforts produced a number of local specialty seabirds, including Northern Gannets, Razorbills, and all three scoter species, as well as huge flocks of American Robins dancing through the skies overhead.
I continued on to Big Reed Pond, where I spent more than an hour patrolling the trail system. The extensive wetland habitat at this site always delivers quality prizes for the Montauk Christmas Bird Count, and it is a hotspot worth checking at any time of year. This visit featured a handful of confiding Marsh Wrens, several noisy Virginia Rails, and a surprise American Bittern that flushed and flew past me at close range. Connecting with these stealthy denizens of the marsh on Day 1 of 2024 was undoubtedly an early highlight of the month!
I picked up a handful of additional species of note as I slowly made my way westwards through the area, including Common Raven alongside the highway, Harlequin Duck at Ditch Plains Beach, and Great Cormorant at Lake Montauk Inlet. I did not have the luxury of devoting the entire day to birding, since I still wanted to spend more time with friends before heading home to the City to prepare for work the next day. Even so, it was a wonderfully successful morning exploring one of my favorite corners of New York State, resulting in a final total of 62 species to start the 2024 year list strong.
Over the course of the first week back at work, the year birds continued trickling in. My first morning commute of 2024 revealed that a notably late Nashville Warbler had unexpectedly joined the Orange-crowned Warbler overwintering in the brushy vegetation along the railroad tracks behind the school. Subsequent days featured encounters with the resident American Kestrel pair and a passing Merlin, and I also made a small detour on the way home to visit my friendly neighborhood Monk Parakeets to celebrate National Bird Day.
The slowly increasing amount of daylight at the end of each work day afforded me the opportunity to make several brief jaunts into Manhattan to seek out specific year birds of note. An evening stroll through Central Park offered a lovely sample platter of waterfowl, and I also picked up Ovenbird at Bryant Park, a pair of Purple Sandpipers at Hudson River Park, and Lincoln’s Sparrow at Union Square Park. These uncommon winter visitors were all welcome additions to my 2024 list, but the most notable rarity of the January 100 was a Mountain Bluebird that I was fortunate enough to see out at Heckscher State Park over the weekend. My Dad was actually the first to float the idea of dropping by the stakeout site, since we were already planning on heading out that way for a family gathering. Thus, I was able to share this charming vagrant with Jacqi, my parents, my sisters Kate and Brigid, and Kate’s boyfriend Ryan. All of my family members know this iconic bird well from our camping trips out west, and it was only my second-ever observation of the species in my home state. Needless to say, we were all delighted to spend some quality time in the company of this wayward wanderer, which proved to be heartwarmingly accommodating despite the chilly, windy conditions.
I have made a handful of visits to Randall’s Island so far this year, checking in on my beloved patch whenever weekend schedules and weather conditions permit. My first trip was highlighted by wintering flocks of Brant, a lone Black-crowned Night Heron, and a lingering Palm Warbler. The next exploratory effort saw me teaming up with Adam and Adrian, and we managed to pick out several Common Goldeneye, a continuing Pied-billed Grebe, and a few Fish Crows. Midwinter can certainly be one of the slower times of year for our fair Island, especially when conditions are as mild as they have been so far this season. All the same, it is always worth keeping a close eye on productive local hotspots. One never knows when the next surprising rarity might turn up!
A few months back, I was contacted by a Dutch birder by the name of Jean-Francois, who was hoping that I could show him around Long Island during a brief layover on his journey to Puerto Rico. He provided me with a short list of would-be lifers, and I busied myself crafting an itinerary that would maximize our chances of meeting as many of them as possible. Our full day tour of the South Shore faced some adversity with brisk temperatures, high winds, and midday snow squalls, but we still managed to connect with most of the birds we set out to find. The clear highlights were our close views of not one, but two adorable red morph Screech-Owls, sunning themselves at the entrances to their roost holes. We also encountered a roving band of Rusty Blackbirds, a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaf litter, several groups of Golden-crowned Kinglets, a handsome drake White-winged Scoter, and a skulky Winter Wren. I was personally pleased to reunite with the ongoing “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler spending the winter at Jones Beach, and a passel of Horned Larks marked the highly anticipated milestone as my 100th species of 2024. Less than halfway through the month and I had already achieved my goal, managing to keep up with the typical pace that I have established in years past in spite of my busy schedule. The year list is off to a solid start!
As my New York State list has continued to grow beyond 400, opportunities to add new state birds to the tally have become fewer and farther between. The report of a Glaucous-winged Gull discovered by Bruce Nott along the Hudson River in Newburgh was a particularly exciting development, especially given that the first state record of this Pacific Ocean specialty had only just been confirmed last spring in the Bronx! I was thrilled by the news that a potential addition to my personal lifetime total was on offer so early in the year, and I could not resist making an attempt to see this wanderer from the West Coast myself. I wound up spending a full day staked out along the Beacon waterfront, where the bird had subsequently been spotted loafing among the massive flocks of gulls congregating on the ice sheets. The vagrant gull finally reappeared just before sunset, providing great views of its frosty gray wingtips and hefty bill as it bathed and preened amidst the throngs of its more common cousins. With my first new state bird of 2024 officially in the books, I am eagerly looking forward to seeing what other surprises this year may have in store!
The back end of January provided chances to connect with a variety of noteworthy winter species around Long Island, including Black-headed Gull, Ruddy Turnstone, and American Pipit. Jacqi and I also had the good fortune to enjoy a few quite moments with a pair of Long-eared Owls at their roost site in New York City, with one of them swooping low over our heads as it flew out to hunt after dusk. The final major birding event of the month was the Northport Winter Bird Count, one of my favorite seasonal traditions. I wound up spending a full day patrolling the woodlands, waterfront, and waysides of Huntington in the hopes of tallying as many species as possible. This well-worn circuit has been my assigned beat for 6 years in a row, and I am always grateful for the opportunity to explore one of this relatively quiet corner of our region. My personal efforts produced a save for the Count in the form of a flyby Northern Pintail, and I also encountered a handful of new year birds for 2024. The cumulative team total ended up being the highest yet recorded since the Count’s inception, with 109 species recorded, and the compilation dinner was as spirited and entertaining as ever. The company of good friends is every bit as valuable as the company of good birds, providing some much needed warmth during the dreary depths of winter.
As the month of January comes to a close, the very first hints of spring’s gradual approach are already beginning to stir. In recent days I have encountered a pair of duetting Great Horned Owls, a peenting American Woodcock, and flocks of waterfowl displaying en masse. There is still plenty of winter ahead of us, perhaps with the worst of the weather still to come, but the slow turn of the seasonal cycle can still be felt in the natural world. 2024 undoubtedly has plenty of surprises yet to reveal themselves, and I cannot wait to see what comes next! Hopefully the rest of the year can follow up on this strong kickoff!