Friday, July 23, 2010

South Shore Birding

Between last month and this month, New York City has had 20 days of 90 degree or hotter temperatures. The stifling conditions have made cycling very difficult, so my birding-by-bike mileage this summer has been a lot less than normal. I've had to rely more on public transportation. Last Friday I joined Sean, Chuck and Heydi for a welcomed birding road trip out to the south shore of Long Island for a seabird watch and to look for shorebirds and terns. Doug would be meeting us out there.

After a 4:30am pick-up time, we'd be heading to Cupsogue Beach County Park, which is about 65 miles (as the crow flies) east of Brooklyn. It is located on one of the narrow barrier islands that run parallel to, and protect, the south shore of Long Island. Cupsogue is at the western edge of the town of Westhampton, which is accessed via one of two bridges from the mainland. Seabirds, which are normally only seen from fishing boats from far offshore, can sometimes be seen from shore here. The main attraction, however, are the mudflats and sand spits on the bay side of the parking lot. At this time of year it is not unusual to observe thousands of shorebirds and terns on the low-tide flats. Much of the area is submerged at high-tide, so one must time birdwatching trips to this spot carefully (or be able to swim a few 100 yards while carrying one's gear).

We arrived at the beach parking lot at around 6:30am. Doug was already at the small boardwalk scanning the ocean. He reported that he had seen a few Great Shearwaters and some Wilson's Storm-Petrels. Chuck, Heydi, Sean and I quickly set up our scopes and began scanning the water. The sky was overcast and there was a fair amount of haze on the horizon, and it was considerably cooler than the near 100 degree temperatures that were forecast for the city. We spend about an hour chasing down seabirds that passed back and forth along the ocean. By the time we decided to put on our water shoes and trudge across the mudflats to look for shorebirds along the bay we had tallied Greater Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Northern Gannet, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Least Tern, Black Tern and Common Tern.

There is one trail at the north end of the parking lot that threads through a wall of phragmites, bayberry, poison ivy and other marsh plants. The relatively hard-packed surface gradually transitions to patches of mud, lots more mud, then a full blown slippery mudflat. Most humans avoid this kind of terrain, but it is a perfect spot to find waterfowl, assorted shorebirds, wadding birds, terns, Ospreys and marsh sparrows. Mosquitoes and deer flies are just an added bonus.

We made it through the muck and to the sandbar with only one muddy casualty. From that location we could scan extensive stretches of marsh grass to the east and south, open flats to the north and flats with scattered patches of grass to the west. We stood at the aural epicenter of thousands of whistling, peeping, crying, screeching, trilling, kekking and croaking birds. I'd take that type of noise over a busy Manhattan street any day.

The wide channel to the east of our location was dominated by Great and Snowy Egrets. Dowitchers probed for food in the shallower water. We also spotted a few Clapper Rails nervously scurrying along at the edge of the grass. One brazen rail ran across a wide opening near the northern edge of the flats.

At one point a helicopter began flying very low over the marsh, spraying for insects. While it remained downwind from us, it effectively flushed every bird in the area. I counted five Clapper Rails skittering low across the grass, just below the helicopter's skids. All the shorebirds, skimmers and other terns concentrated in close flocks to the west of us. As we walked towards the flocks Sean spotted this very nervous Seaside Sparrow hunkered down behind a small clump of grass.

We had been scanning small flocks of Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers to our west when Heydi asked about an odd-looking shorebird that was close to use. Everyone was pleasantly surprised to see that it was actually a Wilson's Phalarope. I'm used to seeing these unusual shorebirds spinning in circles in shallow water (see this post), but this individual was running around like a drunken sailor, snatching up insects from the surface of the sand.

There were lots of Common Terns that we scanned and re-scanned, hoping to find something more unusual. Eventually, Doug pointed out a Roseate Tern, then Sean spotted a single Black Tern sitting on the sand. Earlier, Dave K. had called to give us a heads up on a Hudsonian Godwit far to the west. We all got mediocre, distant looks but, as the morning progressed, the large shorebird cooperatively flew much closer to us.

As the tide started coming up and water began flowing over the sandspit, I started noticing tiny, hatchling horseshoe crabs swimming around. Many measured only a few inches across, but some were even as small as the width of a quarter. It was reassuring to see that, despite ravenous migrating shorebirds and gulls devouring uncountable amounts of horseshoe crab eggs, quite a few had survived in this area.

By 10:15am, I reminded everyone that we didn't have a boat, so that we should start heading back to the parking lot. The main channel that had only been up to my shins on the way out, was now up to my mid-thigh. The deeper water on the largest mudflat actually made walking a little bit easier. We all survived without an impromptu mud bath.

In all, it was a fantastic day of birding along the south shore. We ended up with 62 species of birds, several of which were new for me for the year. It was also a great way to spend my birthday.

Date: July 16, 2010
Location: Cupsogue Beach County Park
Number of Species: 62

Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Common Eider
Black Scoter
Common Loon
Greater Shearwater
Wilson's Storm-Petrel
Northern Gannet
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Glossy Ibis
Osprey
Cooper's Hawk
Clapper Rail
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Piping Plover
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Willet
Hudsonian Godwit
Ruddy Turnstone
Red Knot
Sanderling
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
Dunlin
Short-billed Dowitcher
Wilson's Phalarope
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Least Tern
Black Tern
Roseate Tern
Common Tern
Black Skimmer
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Kingbird
crow sp.
Purple Martin
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Common Yellowthroat
Saltmarsh Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

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