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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Road Trip

Montauk Lighthouse

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I don't consider myself much of a "bird-chaser". Some birders live to see every rarity that they can, and that's fine, but I'm more of a lazy birder. If there is a rare bird posted online, and it's easy to get to, I might check it out, otherwise I'm content with the expected local flora and fauna. Yesterday was somewhat unusual for me in that I joined my friends Shane and Sean (don't laugh, at least Shale wasn't there) for a full day road trip to chase down some rare birds on Long Island. We were extremely lucky to find what went looking for then continued to the end of the island for a fantastic spectacle of wintering sea ducks.

Our target species for the day were a Cackling Goose at Long Beach, a Harris's Sparrow at Baldwin Town Park and a Townsend's Solitaire at East Hampton. We had talked about driving to Ransom Beach to find a Barrow's Goldeneye on the way home but decided that continuing east to Montauk Point would be more fun.

We started our day in Brooklyn at 6:30am. Sean is familiar with two out of the three locations so we wouldn't have trouble finding them. The third location, Maidstone Park, is a tiny sliver of park on the bay in East Hampton. It's a long drive from Brooklyn but I kept reassuring Shane (who was driving) that I was feeling lucky and that I was sure we would find all the birds.

Baldwin Town Park is on a small peninsula on the south shore of Long Island. It faces Middle Bay and dozens of tiny islands between the mainland and Long Beach Island. It's a typical town park dominated by athletic fields and running paths. The Harris's Sparrow has been staying within a flock of White-throated Sparrows in one of the few areas left wild in the park. We arrived at Baldwin Town Park just before 8am and found three other birders observing the Harris's Sparrow. It was almost too easy. The bird was within a flock of other sparrows that were nervous perching among the bare branches of a small tree. I had never seen Harris's Sparrow before but he was easy to pick out of the flock. He's much larger than the others and has a pink bill. There's some dark spotting on his crown and he sports buffy facial feathers that seem to have a soft, velvety quality. Sean tried to take some photos but the flock began feeding within the tangled underbrush that encircled the area. He gave up and we headed across the bridge to Long Beach Island.

-click to learn more about the Harris's Sparrow-

Mike, who we ran into at the Baldwin park, offered to show us where the Cackling Goose was last seen. I've been to Long Beach many times but have only been to the eastern end (Point Lookout) to look for birds in Jone's Inlet. Mike led us to the west to Nickerson Beach where a large flock of Canada Goose were resting on a long, narrow stretch of grass parallel to the road. I had read that the Cackling Goose looked like a smaller Canada but wasn't sure just how small. We scanned the flock from the car and Sean quickly located it. I couldn't believe how small it was - it should have been named the "Pigmy Goose" as he could easily fit inside a Canada Goose. Sean snapped off a few photos then we drove to the inlet to scan for seabirds and anything interesting. The gusting northwest wind made it colder than expected so we stayed only briefly then began the 80 mile drive to find a Townsend's Solitaire.

Cackling Goose

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

-click to learn more about the Cackling Goose-

Maidstone Park is located on Gardiner's Bay on the north side of the south fork. It's only about 20 acres with a short stretch of beach and a small, wooded ridge that runs east to west. There are numerous cedar trees (juniperus, actually) near the beach and adjacent Three Mile Harbor. The wind was blowing hard off the water so there was no bird life between the bay and the top of the ridge. I decided to check the leeward side of the hill where, within 5 minutes, I found the solitaire perched on the telephone line. I called Sean and Shane on their cells and they joined me at the edge of the road. True to the description in the field guides he was pulling juniper berries from the trees and either eating them on the spot or flying to the telephone line to dine. We had accomplished our goals much faster than expected so Shane suggested that we continue east to Montauk Point.

Townsend's Solitaire

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

-click to learn more about the Townsend's Solitaire-

I have never been to Montauk Point at this time of year and wasn't really prepared for what we would encounter.

Scoters, Eiders and Razorbills

(Photo credit - Rob J)

As we approached the seasonal cafe and gift shop I could see large dark patches in the waters off the coastline. Hundreds of gulls were either flying around or resting on the shore below the bluff. The large black mats on the water seemed to be moving and morphing, first into larger shapes, then numerous smaller ones. What, from a distance, appeared to be expansive patches of seaweed were actually ducks. There were Surf Scoters, White-winged Scoters and Black Scoters by the thousands. Scattered white spots among the flocks were Common Eiders. Looking a bit like flying black-and-white footballs, pairs of Razorbills zipped back and forth above the scoters. A short distance from the shore small groups of Harbor Seals patrolled the water. About forty minutes into our observations we began to see Northern Gannets flying in from the west. At first there were only a few but as the afternoon progressed we started to see more of the long winged birds soaring several hundred yards offshore. We walked down to the beach and around the curved shoreline below the lighthouse. A flock of Purple Sandpipers were spooked and flew farther down the beach. I sat down on a boulder, put down my binoculars and just watched the big picture. The rafts of sea ducks drifted east with the current. When they got to a certain point they would all lift off, fly west, reform the close knit flocks and restart their short journey. While we were scanning the eiders Sean located both a male and female King Eider. It was good to be able to compare the similar female Common and King Eiders.

Northern Gannet

(Photo credit - Steve Nanz)

As the sun descended towards the horizon we packed up our gear and headed back to Brooklyn. It was an exhausting but exhilarating day that ended with four new species under my belt. It motivated me to learn more about these special birds.

- - - - -

Baldwin Town Park, Baldwin; Nickerson Beach & Pt. Lookout, Long Beach; Maidstone Park, East Hampton
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe (Pt. Lookout.)
Northern Gannet (at least 12, Montauk Pt.)
Canada Goose
Cackling Goose (Long Beach.)
Mute Swan
American Black Duck
Northern Pintail (1, Montauk Pt.)
King Eider (1 male 1 fem., Montauk Pt.)
Common Eider (abundant, Montauk Pt.)
Harlequin Duck (Pt. Lookout.)
Surf Scoter (abundant, Montauk Pt.)
White-winged Scoter (abundant, Montauk Pt.)
Black Scoter (abundant, Montauk Pt.)
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye (1, Montauk Pt.)
Red-breasted Merganser
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Sanderling (Pt. Lookout.)
Purple Sandpiper (6, Montauk Pt.)
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake (1, Montauk Pt.)
Razorbill (at least 30, Montauk Pt.)
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Downy Woodpecker
American Crow
Horned Lark (Baldwin Town Park.)
Black-capped Chickadee
Townsend's Solitaire (Maidstone Park, E. Hampton.)
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Maidstone Park, E. Hampton.)
Northern Cardinal
Field Sparrow (Baldwin Town Park.)
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow (Baldwin Town Park.)
Harris's Sparrow (Baldwin Town Park.)
American Goldfinch (Baldwin Town Park.)


Anonymous said...

Wonderful photography! But I think that you are having a little fun with us in your section on the interestingly-named "Cackling Goose." It sure looks like a Canada Goose to me.


Rob J. said...


I'm being absolutely serious. Maybe it's the biologists who are teasing us, but click the link to learn more about the Cackling Goose. They really are tiny compared to the Canada Goose.


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