Great Gull Island 2018 Birdathon
“I sense a great disturbance in the force.” – Obi Wan Kenobi
I have done the Great Gull Island Birdathon every year since the first one in May 1980. Ann has done nearly every one with me since 1981. (She has missed a few, or parts of a few, due to knee problems over the years.) We have had a number of different birding friends with us over the years, but for about the last twenty years we have done the Birdathon with Sean Sime, often with his brother Dave on the first day. This year’s Birdathon was different, indeed unique, in a number of ways. Because of work and family commitments, Sean was unable to do the Birdathon this year. Ann and I knew this meant a significant cutback in what we could do with only the two of us going and only Ann driving. A few weeks before the Birdathon, Ann came up with the idea of maximizing what we could do by following what has become our traditional route, but splitting the two days of the Birdathon over two weekends instead of doing both days on one weekend. We would still do the first day upstate and the second on Long Island, but not on a back-to-back Saturday and Sunday. This would allow us to do pretty much the same birding as we did every year, but without potentially killing ourselves through exhaustion. I checked the plan with most of my sponsors and everyone that I spoke to thought it was a sensible plan.
Since we were not restricted to the May 12/13 weekend, Ann and I decided to pick the days that had the best weather predictions during the mid-May time period. We scheduled the first day – the upstate portion – for Monday, May 14, which meant driving up to Wurtsboro, NY near Bashakill on the afternoon of May 13. If this had been a normal Birdathon, Ann, Sean and I would have left NYC around mid-day on Friday, May 11. The result of this change in our traditional schedule meant that I was home eating dinner on Friday evening, May 11, when Dale Dancis called to tell me a Kirtland’s Warbler had been discovered in Central Park! I hopped in a taxi and raced down to the park to see the bird. On the way I texted Sean, though I knew he was on a photoshoot that evening – the reason he couldn’t do the Birdathon. I saw the Kirtland’s, along with hundreds of other birders that evening. The bird stayed through Sunday morning, so Sean was able to see it Saturday morning and Ann on Saturday midday. (She hadn’t gone with me on Friday evening because of a migraine.) Ann, Sean, and I congratulated each other on seeing the bird (a life bird for Sean) and commented how we would have been dying hearing about the bird while we were upstate if we had been following our normal Birdathon schedule.
In retrospect it should have occurred to me that with this much good luck, there would have to be some bad luck so that balance could be restored to the world. The counter balancing bad karma struck with a vengeance on the two days of the birdathon – hence by opening quote from Obi Wan Kenobi. I started the Birdathon at 4:30 am on May 14 by going out into the parking lot of the Days Inn motel in Wurtsboro, NY hoping to hear some night birds. The skies were overcast and the Wurtsboro area was blanketed with a fairly heavy fog. My first bird was an Eastern Phoebe trying to catch night-flying insects under the porch lights. After a while walking the parking lot I went back in and woke up Ann. We headed down to the causeway over Bashakill on Haven Road, getting there at 5:45 am. We were disappointed not to hear any Whip-poor-wills calling, but we did hear two Barred Owls and an American Bittern. An adult Bald Eagle flew by in the fog and Northern Rough-winged, Tree and Barn swallows searched for insects over the marsh. By the time we headed into the Stop Sign trail about forty minutes later we had recorded about two dozen species, so we thought we might do ok, though the heavy fog persisted. Alas, the fog really suppressed bird activity and we had few singing migrants, though we did pick up some of the residents such as Ruby-throated hummingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Northern Waterthrush among others. A Solitary Sandpiper on the marsh was another good pick-up, but we never heard a Louisiana Waterthrush. The fog persisted and kept our list low as we birded other areas at Bashakill. I heard a calling Pied-billed Grebe at the Main Boat Launch, but did not pick up much else there. The Nature Trail was also disappointing, though it did add a few good birds: a Virginia Rail calling from the marsh, a calling Black-billed Cuckoo, a singing male Cerulean Warbler, as well as Nashville, Chestnut-sided, and Black-throated Blue warblers as well as the expected and common Yellows and American Redstart. Also finally, the fog lifted enough that a lone Turkey Vulture took to the air. The power line cut on Port Orange Road had the expected Prairie Warbler. The Deli Fields did not add anything, but thanks to info from John Haas who was leading a Linnaean Society trip that morning we picked up Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked thrushes at the Pine Boat Launch. Our usual trip up tot the Neversink River failed to produce any Common Mergansers for the first time in years. Macdonald Road north of Wurtsboro was not very productive, but an Acadian Flycatcher was singing on its usual territory along Gumaer Falls Road.
As we left the Wurtsboro area we knew we were well behind our usual species list at this point. Normally we are approaching 100 species by this point. Today we were over twenty-five species behind. Also at this point the counter-balancing bad karma I alluded to earlier hit us with a vengeance! Our normal route after Gumaer Falls Road is to continue north on route 209 to Ellenville and then east over the ridge on route 52. As we approached Ellenville, traffic slowed and then came to a complete stop. Then we saw cars ahead of us making u-turns and coming back south towards us. That was when we noticed two people, one in uniform walking down the row of stopped cars. When one of them got to us we were told a large truck had overturned up ahead, totaling blocking route 209 with no word as to when the road would be opened again – a large crane was needed to right the truck and clear the road. We had to back track and use the Waze navigation program to find an alternative route over the Shawangunk Ridge to get to Blue Chip Farm and the Shawangunk Grasslands. This involved a complicated route on tiny back roads and ate up a lot of time. When we finally got to Blue Chip Farm we added Eastern Bluebird and Savannah Sparrow, but there was no sign of the hoped for Upland Sandpipers. At the Shawangunk Grasslands NWR we picked up Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark, but missed Grasshopper Sparrow. Our normal route from here is into New Paltz to pick up the NY Thruway south to head down to Doodletown Road by Bear Mountain. This route has the added benefit of the Purple Martin colony at the thruway entrance in New Paltz. We never made it to the thruway. Traffic once again came to a stop as we came into New Paltz. A check of the Internet informed us that there had been a major collision between two tractor trailer trucks on the thruway and the southbound thruway was closed at New Paltz. We had to find a back way south to below the accident to get down to Doodletown. We didn’t get to Doodletown until about 6:40 pm, not leaving much birding time before the sun disappeared behind Bear Mountain. I raced up the trail to near the pond before I finally heard a singing Hooded Warbler. A quick trip out to Iona Island did not add anything. We ended the day with a very disappointing 85 species, far below our normal first day total which is usually in the 120’s.
Ann and I did our second day of the Birdathon, the Long Island portion, one week later on May 21. We planned to get out to Jamaica Bay just after sun-up to start the day. However, the bad karma apparently still needed to balance out the luck of getting the Kirtland’s Warbler a week earlier. On the way to Jamaica Bay a warning light came on in Ann’s car indicating low tire pressure. We had to find a service station where we could check tire pressure and add air if needed. The only service station on the southbound Cross Bay Boulevard had an out of service air pump. We had to make a U-turn and head in the opposite direction to find a working one. By the time we had all the tires checked and probably filled we had lost a considerable amount of time and did not get to Jamaica Bay until after 7:00 am. This ended up being my first ever Birdathon where I missed Black-crowned Night-Heron! Jamaica Bay did produce a few good birds including lingering Snow Goose, Greater Scaup, and Red-breasted Merganser. We did ok with shorebirds finding among others five Red Knots and a White-rumped Sandpiper. A Clapper Rail called from the marsh and the trail around the West Pond also produced the expected Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren and a White-eyed Vireo. The gardens added a calling Eastern Wood-Pewee and a lingering White-throated Sparrow. After Jamaica Bay, Ann and I stopped at Cow Meadow Park in Nassau County where we added Monk Parakeet, and our only night-heron, a Yellow-crowned. A Black-billed Cuckoo here was nice, but I had had the species the previous week upstate. Going out to Jones Beach we picked up Peregrine Falcon, but couldn’t find a Piping Plover. The West End parking field added Killdeer and Horned Lark. We hoped to add Little Blue and/or Tricolored herons at Captree Island but struck out. Gardiner County Park produced a Seaside Sparrow, but not much of anything else. Next we headed to the Bayard Cutting Arboretum for the Yellow-throated Warblers that have nested there the last couple of years, only to discover the Arboretum is closed on Mondays. With a groan we headed for the Sunrise Highway to continue eastward. Once again we were dogged with incredible bad luck. The eastbound Sunrise Highway was closed! Another major accident! This was the third closed major road we had encountered in two days of the Birdathon. We had been texting Sean during the day informing him of our progress and all our bad luck without him. His response to this latest setback was “Just f***ing go home!” We had to crawl along the service road in bumper to bumper traffic to get further east on Long Island. We finally got out to Dune Road, but well behind schedule. We picked up Common Eider, Red-throated Loon, Northern Gannet, an adult Lesser black-backed Gull and Roseate Tern, but once again could not find a Piping Plover. As we tried to race to Montauk, the tire pressure warning light came on in the car again! A check of the tires at a service station found no problem, but ate up more time. We finally made it to Montauk, but by now we had just about run out of time. We could not do our usual birding of the Montauk area and got to the Point less than fifteen minutes before sunset. Nevertheless, the Point did add a final seven species over the next forty-five minutes. All three scoters were off the Point and I spotted three Bank Swallows heading towards their cliffside nests. A surprise was a Common Nighthawk flying by just after sunset. Our last two birds were an Eastern Whip-poor-will calling from the woods near the Point and a displaying American Woodcock at Camp Hero. Our final total was 149 species (full list below). This is our lowest total in decades and far below our high totals in the mid 190’s. I can only hope that the disturbance in the Force caused by the appearance of a Kirtland’s Warbler in New York City has now been balanced out and next year’s Birdathon will be more normal.
American Black Duck
Great Blue Heron
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Crested Flycatcher
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler