Life in Queens: A New Patch

My recent move from Nassau to Queens was one of the final big events in a very eventful 2019. A few months out, I’d consider myself comfortably settled in, and the pros certainly outnumber the cons so far. Somewhere in between “notably shorter, easier commute” and “return to reliance on laundromats” on the Cool-to-Lame Scale lie the changes to my birding schedule. Birding is such a major aspect of my life that it comes as little surprise it would be dramatically affected by a major lifestyle shift. As with the general process of relocation, the differences noted so far are a mix of good, bad, and unexpected.

My new abode has a clear and present contender for a primary patch just a few blocks away. Astoria Park lies along the shores of the East River in northwestern Queens, directly southeast of Randall’s Island. Under the soaring structures of the Hell Gate and RFK bridges, an array of lawns and recreational facilities draws in a nearly constant stream of visitors. The main attractions for me, however, are the expansive waterfront views and the promising looking tall trees throughout the park. The birding in this hyper-anthropogenic landscape has thus far been a little slow compared to my suburban standards, but there have still been plenty of nice finds even in this somewhat quiet winter. Great Cormorants are surprisingly common in this corner of NYC during the non-breeding season, and I was able to add this species to my Queens life list quite easily. The coastal location offers the potential of decent waterfowl variety, and the high concentrations of pigeons, starlings, and sparrows provide a buffet for raptors. I’ve already added a new species to the cumulative hotspot checklist, with a trio of Greater Scaup observed earlier this week. 

The most conspicuous and numerous birds at Astoria Park are the gulls. Large flocks congregate along both the near and far shores, and good numbers can be seen flying between coastal roost sites at dawn and dusk. Most of my post-work visits have found me scanning through the hordes in search of unusual vagrants, but even the common, expected species provide some welcome entertainment. Ring-billed Gulls are by far the most abundant species at this time of year, and they’re especially cooperative as well. After a run of dismal, rainy days here in New York, I was thankful for the chance to get some fresh air while studying the local larids.

My most recent jaunt in the park turned up a Ring-billed Gull sporting bands on its legs. Like most of its kin, it was apparently quite habituated to human presence, allowing me approach close enough to make out the code on its plastic field-readable band. It took less than a day for me to get a response after submitting this observation to the database. The results revealed that this individual was banded as an adult in June 2019 just outside of Montreal, some 340 miles to the north. I always appreciate the opportunity to learn a little bit of personal history for a bird that I’ve observed!

Randall’s Island is also on my radar as a site to keep an eye on as the seasons advance. Located just across the bridge from my new neighborhood, this hotspot has historically been pretty well surveyed and rather productive. It may not qualify for personal patch status the same way the smaller, quieter Astoria Park does, but it is undoubtedly one of the better birding locales in the surrounding area. I made the trek over on a chilly Saturday morning a few weeks ago. The most notable sightings of the outing were a continuing Vesper Sparrow foraging among the boulders on the northeastern shore and a Common Raven playing with a friendly malamute-shepherd mix out on one of the ballfields, perhaps one of the same birds frequenting the area around my apartment. I’m curious to see what spring migration brings to the region. Randall’s has made a name for itself by drawing in rarities that are hard to find in Manhattan, and I suspect that Astoria Park might produce a few noteworthy surprises once the trees leaf out and the birds are on the move again. 

One of the biggest downsides to my new living situation is the lack of instant access to a car. I shudder to think of the inevitable high-pressure rarity chases that are restricted to public transportation or dependent on the availability of my birding friends! That being said, my family is pretty good about letting me borrow a vehicle just about whenever I need one. I only need to make the arrangements and find my way back out to Nassau to get it! 2020 has been fairly busy so far, but I’ve still managed to carve out some time for quality birding on Long Island. I began the new year with a sunrise seawatch at Jones Beach, as of course is tradition, though the First Bird of the Year award went to a flyover flock of Canada Geese just after the stroke of midnight. My January 1st efforts offered a great variety of species including Razorbills, Snow Buntings, Harlequin Ducks, Snowy Owl, and continuing vagrants Common Gallinule and Painted Bunting. A weekend expedition to Suffolk secured American Bittern, Greater White-fronted and Barnacle Geese, and Rough-legged Hawk for the year list. Making detours during my commutes home delivered American Woodcock, Common Yellowthroat, and a late-lingering Veery in Bryant Park and a Red-headed Woodpecker in Kew Gardens, another first for my Queens list. 

One of the highlights of my year so far was the Northport Winter Bird Count, a CBC-style census founded by my friends Taylor Sturm and Brent Bomkamp. After several years of assisting with surveying, I know my territory in Huntington quite well. Birds of note included Northern Saw-whet and Eastern Screech-Owls, a good mix of waterfowl and forest birds, and two saves for the count, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. A duetting pair of Great Horned Owls were my 100th species for 2020, and also one of my first contributions to the Third New York Breeding Bird Atlas! This highly anticipated citizen science effort is going to be a fantastic excuse to get out and bird properly over the course of the next few years. I’ve already confirmed nesting activity for Monk Parakeet and Rock Pigeon here in Queens, and I look forward to seeing what else the new year and new surroundings bring. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for rarities and residents alike as I explore my patch and beyond.