Saturday, May 20 – Day 1
For some years now Ann and I have been doing the annual Great Gull Island Birdathon with our friend Sean Sime. This year we did the Birdathon a week late (May 20/21) because Sean had to work the previous week. We worried about how this would affect our list, but it turned out in our favor because 1) this spring was such a cool and wet one, mush of migration was late; and 2) the previous Saturday, May 13, was a near washout with serious rain all day. As usual, we drove up to Wurtsboro, NY on Friday afternoon, had an early dinner at Danny’s and went to sleep early so we could get out for owls and other nocturnally calling birds during the night.
Sean and I left the Day’s Inn a few minutes before 2:00 am to start birding. Our first bird, at 2:02 am, heard from the Pine Boat Launch at the Bashakill Wildlife Management Area was a Wood Duck, followed very quickly by calling Song Sparrow. We then drove down to the Haven Road causeway across the marsh. Here it was impossible to hear anything due to the truly impressive, almost deafening, chorus of Bullfrogs calling from the marsh. The sound would come in waves from both sides of the causeway – there would be a brief lull in the calling and then a Bullfrog would call somewhere out on the marsh which would trigger its neighbors to start and then there would be this swelling wave of sound coming at you which would then start to subside until another frog would start the whole thing over again. When we drove off the causeway to near the entrance to the main parking area we heard two Barred Owls calling from practically right over the car – Sean even recorded them through the open sunroof. At the main boat launch we picked up calling Canada Goose and Eastern Whip-poor-will. Continuing to bird the Bash in the dark we heard a Great Horned Owl, more Barred Owls, and an Eastern Screech-Owl – one of our best showings for owls in years. We headed back to the main boat launch to listen for more birds as first light started to glimmer in the east. Other years we would station ourselves on the Haven Road causeway as the dawn arrived, but the bullfrog chorus there meant that spot was unlikely to be productive – one of the changes forced on us by the one week later date. The main boat launch turned out to be a good spot. We heard calling Pied-billed Grebe, Least Bittern, Sora, Common Gallinule, more Barred Owls and Whip-poor-wills and a Common Nighthawk which sounded like it was sitting in a tree giving its peent call rather than flying around. As the sky got lighter we also started to hear a number of passerines, such as Least Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Warbling Vireo, and other landbirds start to wake up an sing. I kept track of all these because one of my sponsors was giving a premium for species identified before sunup or after sunset on the two days of the Birdathon. (In the species list below, those birds are listed in blue.) Driving back along the South Road towards Have Road, Sean stopped to look at a thrush on the road in our headlights. I happened to look up through the car’s open sunroof and spotted a large, dark shape in the tree directly over the car. Wondering what kind of mammal it was I looked at it with my binoculars and realized it was a Wild Turkey roosting in the tree over our heads! Back on Haven Road we continued to pick up birds, including Bald Eagle (we saw two active nests at the Bash, each with at least two large young), calling American Bittern, Great Blue Heron, and others. We were surprised to hear an Alder Flycatcher calling here, since we normally pick them up at the end of Macdonald Road north of the main Bash area. We also heard the expected Willow Flycatchers.
With the sun now up, Sean and I headed down the “Stop Sign Trail”. When we left the motel at 2:00 am we had checked the weather forecast for the day and it had predicted partly cloudy skies. However, now that we started what was traditionally our best, most productive birding walk of the day, it started to rain! Luckily it was only a light rain, but it certainly put a damper on our birding! Despite the weather we slowly picked up birds, including warblers (both waterthrushes, Blue-winged, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Canada and Wilson’s among others). Though the rains finally stopped after we left the top Sign Trail and headed for the main boat launch again and then the Nature Trail, the skies stayed mostly overcast and the pattern for the day seemed set. Everywhere we went we would pick up a few birds and slowly built up the list, but never had any one spot with really great birding. At the main boat launch we heard Yellow-billed Cuckoo, saw two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Pileated Woodpecker, among other birds. Walking the Nature Trail we saw Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s thrushes and were happy to pick up singing Tennessee and Cerulean warblers. A swing down into Orange County to bird Port Orange Road at the south end of the Bash produced our needed Prairie Warbler, Field Sparrow and Indigo Bunting. After picking up Ann at the motel we did a little more birding at the Bash and then headed up to some higher elevations in the direction of Yankee Lake. On the way we added Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo and Dark-eyed Junco. Further west a swing along the Neversink River produced Common and Hooded mergansers, Belted Kingfisher, and Cliff Swallow among other birds. Then it was back down Route 17 , through Wurtsboro to D & H Canal Linear Park and nearby Gumaer Falls road where we added Acadian Flycatcher, Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, and Pine warblers. When we finally left the Bashakill vicinity at around 2:30 pm, our list stood at 112 species.
A drive through Blue Chip Farm in Ulster County proved relatively unproductive, and we missed Upland Sandpiper (not surprising since no other birders had reported the species there this spring). The nearby Shawangunk Grassland National Wildlife Refuge did much better for us adding Black Vulture, American Kestrel, Grasshopper and Savannah sparrows, Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark to the day’s list. As usual, we picked up Purple Martin at the entrance to the NY Thruway in New Paltz. Then it was the drive down to Doodletown Road in Harriman State Park for a couple of hours of late-afternoon birding. Sean and I had had Cerulean Warbler in the morning, one of the Doodletown specialties, and we heard them again here, but more importantly we picked up Worm-eating and Hooded warblers at Doodletown. As the sun set we went out to the end of the road on Iona Island and were thrilled to hear a Marsh Wren sing and even better, a Virginia Rail call (more additions to the non-daylight list). Also at Iona we saw some flocks of Brant flying over heading north up the Hudson. This is not a bird we normally see on the first day of the Birdathon, but we knew we would have thousands the next day on Long Island. Our bird list for the day totaled 125; a respectable number, but not a record for Day 1. Now it was time to head home on the Palisades Parkway with a brief stop before The GW Bridge to fill the tank on the car and to add ice to the large cooler in the trunk where we keep our water and iced tea cold. Then it was a quick bite to eat at Ann and my apartment in Inwood and to sleep for a few hours.
Sunday, May 21 – Day 2
I had set my alarm for 3:00 am, Sunday, but either it failed to go off, or it failed to wake me. The first thing I was aware of was Sean waking me at 3:30 am. Ann, Sean, and I raced through our preparations, and making sandwiches for the day and dashed out to Jamaica Bay in Queens. We got there at 4:50 am, but alas, we were about ten minutes or so later than we had planned to be and that was enough for us to miss the Barn Owls returning to their nest box. We were met back at the parking lot by Sean’s brother Dave who was joining us for the morning. Nevertheless, we quickly added many birds to our total Birdathon list, such as Snowy Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Osprey, three gulls, Forster’s Tern, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Carolina Wren among others. Once again, I noted which birds were heard or seen before sun-up. Then it was out around the recently restored West Pond, now with the breach caused by Super Storm Sandy a few years ago repaired. Here we added Clapper Rail to our Rallidae assortment and lots of shorebirds. A Peregrine Falcon was perched up in a tree around the West Pond, eating one of the shorebirds. Other nice pick-ups were Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the marsh and a pair of Lesser Scaup on the East Pond. By the time we left Jamaica Bay at about 8:40 am our two day total was up to 158 species.
Our next stop was Cow Meadow Park in Nassau County. A couple of blocks from the entrance to the park we added Monk Parakeet to our list. From the observation platform overlooking the marsh we picked up Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Tern. Even better, Sean spotted Seaside and Saltmarsh sparrows briefly popping up onto the marsh grass to sing. Next was a quick stop at the Lido Beach Preserve where three Little Blue Herons added another species to our total. For the rest of the day, this was now the pattern – check a site and add one or two species and move on. At the Coast Guard Station parking lot at the West End of Jones Beach we added Piping Plover, Sanderling and Common Tern. At the swale in the West End 2 parking lot Sean spotted a Lesser Black-backed Gull and at the nearby Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary he heard a calling Horned Lark. In recent years we had stopped at Connetquot River State Park for the Yellow-throated Warblers that had been nesting there, but they had not been reliable there this spring, so instead we went to the nearby Bayard Cutting Arboretum and found that warbler near the main parking lot. Now it was on to eastern Long Island. Gabreski Airport in Suffolk County came through with its nesting Vesper Sparrows. Then it was the drive along Dune Road eastward to Shinnecock Inlet with stops to observe the ocean and marsh. One again most stops produced one or two new birds for the list as we added Common Eider, Surf Scoter, Black Scoter, both loons, two Purple Sandpipers, a late Bonaparte’s Gull, and a flock of Black Skimmers. Four more Lesser Black-backed Gulls did not add a new species to the list, but the total of five for the day was very good considering it is only in recent years that we have added the species to our Birdathon list and never before had more than one. We spent the last hour or so of daylight and into the early evening in the Montauk vicinity. From the pavilion at the point we watched a large feeding flock of Common Terns off the Point and Sean and I were able to spot at least one Roseate Tern mixed in with them. Most of them probably nest on Great Gull Island so it was appropriate to see them on the Great Gull Island Birdathon. Our last species of the weekend was an American Woodcock seen against the fading light in the western sky at Camp Hero on the south side of the Point. We did not hear any displaying as we usually do here. Our final total for the two days was 186 species, which I believe is almost exactly our average over the last 10-15 years of Birdathons. Then it was back to the town of Montauk, a quick check-in at the Daunt’s Albatross Motel for the night and a search for someplace that was still serving dinner. We slept late the next morning before having breakfast and driving back to the city in the rain.
UPDATE: After I sent this account to Sean he said I should have included something about all the accidents we encountered over the weekend. Briefly: on Friday on our drive up to Wurtsboro we were delayed for nearly and hour on Route 17 only about a mile or so from Exit 113 (the Wurtsboro exit) by the entire highway being closed while emergency vehicles dealt with a major two car accident. While we waited two helicopters landed on the roadway ahead of us to medivac the injured out. On Sunday, on the Shore Parkway along Jones Beach we passed a number of motorcyclists who were attending to one of their own who was lying on the roadway as they waited for emergency vehicles. Later in the day, out east on Old Montauk Highway we had to detour around a stretch of road that the police and firemen had closed while they dealt with a car accident. Finally while we birded around the town of Montauk the emergency sirens went off summoning the volunteers firemen and ambulances for another motorcycle accident and we had to once again detour around a closed stretch of road.
Total list = 185 species
(59 species in blue were seen before sunrise or after sunset)
American Black Duck
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron
Accipiter sp. (Sharp-shinned/Cooper's Hawk)
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Horned Owl
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler