Saturday, January 06, 2007

Montauk Point to Long Beach

Montauk Lighthouse

(Photo credit - Rob J)

It has been nearly one week since Shane and I returned from our whirlwind tour of New York State. It has also been a week since Sean, Shane and I completed our big New York State birding year. For the last six days I’ve been mulling over some of the highlights and low points. I’ve also thought a lot about newly formed friendships and cemented older ones. This week there has been a strange feeling in my stomach, an emptiness, as if I hadn’t eaten in a long time. I couldn’t say how many miles we’ve each travelled to see birds or how many cups of coffee we drank to help keep us moving. Yesterday was the first time that all three of us were together since Christmas eve. Sean is moving and we sat in his box-filled livingroom talking about the year. There were times when a particular event was mentioned that seemed like it occurred years ago, rather than months. In the words of Jerry Garcia, “What a long, strange trip it’s been”.

With less than a week remaining of the year, Shane was revved up and determined to find at least four more species. Both Sean and I, for various reasons, had already taken our foot off of the “Big Year” accelerator and decided, instead, to help Shane reach his goal. He still needed to locate Western Grebe, King Eider, Black-backed Woodpecker, Varied Thrush and Bohemian Waxwing. In addition to those species, I was also hoping to locate Harlequin Duck and Red Crossbill. For one final push to the finish, I travelled with Shane to act as an extra pair of eyes (and ears) and Sean remained home, in cellphone contact, periodically checking the Internet for any unusual sightings.

Thursday, December 28th began with Shane picking me up in front of my apartment at 5:15am. Doug was already in the car. Our first stop would be at Montauk Point. We wanted to be there at first light and spend as much time as necessary to find a King Eider. King Eiders are rare but regular winter visitors at Montauk and along coastal Long Island’s eastern end. There had been scattered reports of one off of Montauk Point. Shane hadn't had good luck with this bird and Thursday would be his fifth attempt to find it. We also planned to check the water off of Culloden Point. If time allowed, on our way back to Brooklyn we would stop at Jone’s Beach (to find a Lapland Longspur for Doug) and Long Beach (to find a Harlequin Duck for me).

Montauk Point State Park (click to enlarge)

(Map credit - NYS Office of Parks)

I love Montauk Point in the winter. When bone chilling arctic winds are ripping across the beaches and bluffs, the peace that I find in the solitude of the point insulates me from the cold. Beneath the watchful eye of the lighthouse, we scanned the ocean from the massive boulder buttress at its base and from the windbreak of the adjacent seasonal restaurant. For the first time, we also walked down a sand trail to a beach at “Clark’s Cove” to get a view of the north side of the point.

Locating a King Eider among thousands of Common Eiders really was like trying to find a needle in the haystack. The three of us scanned the ocean until we were bleary-eyed, we then took a short drive to Camp Hero for another perspective of the sea ducks. Still “kingless”, we returned to the point to search some more.

Common Eider (Somateria mollissima), male and female


(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

The ocean beneath the bluff in front of the restaurant was dotted with thousands of birds. Like a layer cake, the different species seemed to remain within specific borders from the shore. The eider flocks were closest to the shore and spread out along a stretch parallel to the beach. Farther out, and in choppier water, were flocks of scoters. Even farther from shore were white patches of gulls bobbing on the waves. At first light we spotted a dense line of bright white birds far to the north. As some birds began to move we realized that it was a huge flock of Northern Gannets. At approximately 9:30am the entire flock lifted off the ocean like a waterspout and spread out across the sky like a thin cirrus cloud. Suddenly, as some of the birds spotted a school of fish, they began folding their wings back and plunging into the water like arrows. It was as if an expanding hole was torn in the center of the cloud and the gannets poured out, first from the middle, then rapidly spreading out to the flock’s edges.

Gannets feeding

(Movie credit - BBC)

At some point I realized that I didn’t need to move my scope to scan for the King Eider. The ocean current was flowing from the southwest to the northeast. From our vantage point on the bluff behind the restaurant we watched all the ducks drift from the cove just south of the lighthouse to “False Point”, on our left. As the birds reached the point, they’d take flight and return to their starting point near “Turtle Cove”. I left my scope trained on a spot in the ocean that covered the depth of the eider flock. I focused on one bird and timed it's movement. It took about ten seconds for a single duck to drift from the right edge of my field of view to the left edge. Shane did the same thing and estimated the number of fields from the extreme right edge of the flock to the extreme left edge. We then multiplied that number by the ten seconds it took for an eider to pass through our view. After searching unsuccessfully for a King Eider for three hours we reluctantly admitted that, in a fraction of that time, we had examined all of the eiders at the point. We packed up our scopes and left.

There were very few eiders at Culloden Point. A Red-necked Grebe that I spotted near the shore, while nice to observe, really didn’t make up for missing the King Eider. We spent more time than we had anticipated looking for the eider and there was barely enough time to check for a longspur or Harlequin Duck. I could tell that Shane was disappointed as he was unusually quiet driving back to Brooklyn. It was one of the few times this year that we went looking for specific birds and didn’t find any of them.

Tomorrow I’ll cover the next leg of the trip - Brooklyn to Webster Park (near Rochester) to the Adirondacks. I'm also working on a highlights video that I'll post after I wind up the end-of-year reports.

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Montauk Pt., Culloden Pt., Jones Beach, Jones Inlet, 12/28/2006
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Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Red-necked Grebe (Culloden Point.)
Northern Gannet
Great Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Northern Shoveler
Common Eider
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-tailed Hawk
Merlin
Killdeer
Purple Sandpiper
Dunlin
Bonaparte’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Razorbill
Northern Flicker
Tree Swallow (small flock perched on snow fencing at Jones Beach.)
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Dark-eyed Junco
Brown-headed Cowbird

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Brant, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow

1 comment:

Marge said...

Rob. You guys are amazing. Kudos for an excellent year of birding. Now that is determination and tanacity if Ive ever seen it. It was great to follow it all in your blog throughout the year. The Varied Thrush is a beauty.
I loved your video compilation.

See you in the field!

Marge

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