Pink Feet and Red Heads

The pink-footed goose is a compact goose with grey-brown plumage, a short pink beak, and as the name might imply, pink feet. Their breeding territory is far to the north in Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard, and they generally winter in northwestern Europe—Ireland, the UK, Denmark. Sometimes, though, they get a little discombobulated on their way south and end up in the Long Island suburbs. Such has been the case with Valley Stream’s seemingly resident pinkfoot, who has been quite happy to paddle Hendrickson Park’s man-made pond for the past two months.

By the time December rolled in, it seemed like every birder in the New York metropolitan area has seen it…except for me, of course. So over the holiday break I decided to drag my family out on a wild goose chase.

“Where are we going?” they asked.

“To Valley Stream! To a town park! It’s gonna be great!” I said excitedly.

“What. Why?” They were dubious. The North Shore/South Shore divide is alive and well on Long Island.

“There’s a goose! It has pink feet! It’s very lost, and I swear it will be worth it!”

So kudos to my mom, girlfriend, and sister for hearing the above and gamely piling into the car to drive 40 minutes to a tiny Canada goose–encrusted town park. We parked in a municipal lot, trekked through the residential neighborhood dotted with plastic nativity scenes and inflatable Santas, and immediately started scanning the lake for anything out of the ordinary in the flocks of Canada geese.

And there were a lot of Canadas. A conservative count brought me to at least 500, at which point I gave up trying to do a complete tally. Scattered among the geese were a good number of mallards, a couple of hooded mergansers, one stalking great blue heron, and then…something smaller. Something with a brown head, grayish coverts, and a pair of pink feet looming just below the surface of the water.

Pink-footed Goose
Which of these things is not like the other?

We waited around for it to raise its head and flash its beak, all the while being careful not to get too close. Eventually a public safety officer accomplished that for us, zooming by and flushing the flock to the other side of the lake—but not before I snapped a shot. What a perturbed little face and stubby little bill! That’s one cute goose. Thanks, officer.

Pink-footed Goose
Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus)

Satisfied with our photos, we made one more stop to the north of the lake, as I’d heard there had been a red-headed woodpecker in that area. Red-headed woodpecker populations have been in decline over the past few decades, primarily due to habitat loss and competition with invasives like the European starling, and they are considered species of Special Concern in New York State. Although a handful of individuals turn up each year on Long Island and in the city, I’d never been lucky enough to see one. Would we continue our winning streak today?

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

After a couple of minutes craning our necks, my sister spied a medium-sized woodpecker industriously caching its acorns in a snag above us. There it was. The red-headed woodpecker actually is one of the few woodpeckers in the world known to hoard its food, and I was excited to see this charismatic bird engaged in one of its characteristic behaviors.

Red-headed Woodpecker
Chomp, chomp, crunch.

The late-afternoon sun was working against us, but you can see the bright red feathers just starting to come in on its head. Hopefully it sticks around long enough for us to see it transition into full adult plumage!

New Year, New Birds

My first bird of the new year was a blue jay, hunkered down on a fence post in my parents’ backyard. Common, but every bird is a new bird on January 1! And this was a particularly cheering dab of color to spy out my bedroom window. Later that day, we made a winter waterfowl pilgrimage around the neighborhood: canvasbacks and redheads at Centerport Pond, bald-headed American wigeons at Mill Pond, then laughing long-tailed ducks and scurrying sanderlings along Eatons Neck as the sun set. I can’t not start the year with birds.

Shadow play
Shadow play on Hobart Beach

This past year was a hard one, and I hope that 2017 brings some more color to my life. If it comes in the form of warblers and woodpeckers, I’ll take it.

I saw 167 species in 2016 (down 3 from the previous year), 37 of which were new to me. I am not one for making New Year’s resolutions, but I thought I would try some birding ones this year. Here’s a spoiler: It all boils down to bird more. So in no particular order…

Bird more regularly throughout the year. My birding tends to follow a rather predictable and unfortunate trajectory: regular outings in the winter; a frenzied peak during spring migration; a fallow period in the summer where I wilt and whine in the heat and sunlight; an autumn spent wishing I had more free weekends to spend both hiking and staring at brownish yellow warblers; and then finally slow uptick come November, with regular birding once again over the holidays. Fix this.

Bird more with other people. Not just with Elizabeth and my family, but also other members of the birding community. I’m a shy, pretty solitary person by nature, but I’d like to get to know more birders in my area. This is hard, but the internet helps! Just this past November I went on a walk with the Feminist Bird Club, a fledgling group in my city that aims to get more women outdoors and spark a broader conversation about women’s rights. It was such a nice change to go bird with women my own age, and I want to do more of that. Part of this will probably boil down to simply being more friendly and open in the field. (Eep!)

…But also: Bird more by myself. And don’t let other people’s lack of interest determine whether or not I go out in the morning. Some of my most productive, satisfying mornings have been spent by myself in the woods, binoculars in hand.

Get my year list closer to 200. Thirty-seven lifers is nice, but the majority of those were thanks to a trip to England and some lunchtime birding while at a conference in Phoenix. There are so many regular species in my area that I failed to see this past year, and there’s no reason for that! I’m not a competitive lister by any means (uh, obviously…also, I work full time), but I find that simply trying to build my year list encourages me to go out and explore more varied habitats, leading to more satisfying birding overall.

Make headway in my ornithology course. As a Christmas gift, my parents paid for my enrolling in the Cornell Lab’s ornithology home study course, which I’ve been wanting to take for years. I’m excited to develop a deeper understanding of the biology of these creatures I obsessively watch. (And to close some gaps in my education. As an English major, I spent my college years up to my neck in literature and took not one biology or environmental science course. Oy.)

See a cerulean warbler. Please.

New Years Sunset
Sunset on New Years Day

Let’s get started.

Fledglings

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to help lead a bird walk in Central Park with Elizabeth. Our charges: ten high school students participating in an environmental science mentorship program run by her work. These were 15 year olds from the Bronx, for the most part, and all but one had never been birding before. And we were asking them to get up early on a Saturday. Gulp.

This was my first time on the “other side” of a bird walk, and the prospect of doing so with teenagers was slightly daunting. Luckily, my responsibility was mainly to point out the birds while Elizabeth focused on the teenager wrangling and flexed her environmental education muscles.

We chose late April for our walk with the hopes that the birds would be easier to spot before the trees had fully leafed out, but I neglected to take into account the inevitable warbler-thirst that I would be feeling at that point. On the eve of May, the first big push of migrants had yet to arrive, and I had to do everything in my power to conceal my frustration over all the migrants we just weren’t seeing. A rare Swainson’s warbler (!!!) had drawn throngs to the park only two days prior, but after three hours spent combing the Ramble, we were only able to pick up a small handful of warblers: yellow, black-and-white, chestnut-sided, yellow-rumped, and ovenbird. Or, as our charges viewed them: tiny, fast-moving blobs of color obscured by foliage. It’s hard to be impressed by that.

But that was OK, because these urban teens were instead entranced by blue jays and in awe of the fearlessness of robins. They admired the flashy epaulets of a singing red-winged blackbird and quickly learned to recognize northern cardinals by their sci-fi blaster calls. And one girl seemed to fall in love with grackles, reminding me that, as a kid, I too once marveled at their iridescent, oil-slick plumage. (I should remember to do that more often.)

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

It’s easy to ignore the common birds when you’re looking for that singing Blackburnian warbler high in the canopy, but why should that be the case? What better birds to get a kid interested in nature than the ones that they could feasibly see in their neighborhood park—not just during the month of May, but year round?

By the end of the walk, I found myself with a newfound admiration for trip leaders. To be able to tailor your walks to diverse audiences, manage expectations (yours included), stoke curiosity, and find the damn birds is no mean feat for a single person—and there were two of us!

Birding is hard and requires sometimes preternatural patience, observation, and focus, but our students did an admirable job; in fact, I think they demonstrated a whole lot more patience than I did. I have no idea if any of them will pick up binoculars again, and I’m not going to pretend that we christened a new generation of young birders. (But…maybe one or two? I hope so.)

Rusty Birding

Like many New Yorkers, I love the magnolias and cherry blossoms that drape the city in spring. But for me, the parks’ yellow sprays of spicebush, rubbery red skunk cabbage, and the conquerees of red-winged blackbirds are my favorite harbingers of the season.

Last Saturday, Sarah and I went to Alley Pond Park for the start of spring migration. We found the woodlands waking to the calls of spring peepers, and spied a few early migrants, including an eastern phoebe and two pine warblers—one with bright breeding plumage.

Pine Warbler
Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

When living in the age of eBird, where rare birds are charted in digital wilds, we can easily forget to allow nature to be our guide. Neither of us expected to see a life bird that afternoon, so we were very fortunate when we stopped to take a second look at the birds foraging in the shallows of Decadon Pond. They were black, but with brown brindling and startling yellow eyes. They had buffy eyebrows and the voices of droids. They were rusty blackbirds.

Rusty Blackbird
Rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

I know that rusties are not uncommon in New York City’s parks, but had never seen one, myself. They are seasonal visitors—some overwintering, others stopping over on their way from Southern swamps to their breeding grounds in the Canadian muskeg. They are also among the most rapidly declining bird species in America. Using the Audubon Christmas Bird count and Breeding Bird surveys as a reference, scientists estimate that their numbers have declined by staggering 85% (or more) since the mid-1900s.

The reasons for their plunging population are poorly understood, but habitat loss is suspected as a primary cause. Other North American blackbirds have adapted to diverse breeding habitats and even flourish near human settlement, where they feast on waste grain in fields and pastures. In contrast, the rusty blackbird is reliant on secluded forest wetlands. In the southeastern US, wetlands sheltering overwintering birds have been fragmented by logging and agricultural development, while breeding habitat in Canada has been degraded by oil sand mining.

Of additional danger is the blackbird’s breeding diet, which consists almost entirely of aquatic snails and insect larva. Not only are these species vulnerable to pollution, but they also accumulate toxic methyl-mercury, which threatens developing young.

The small flock in Alley Pond Park were lively, giving bubbly calls and eagerly flipping wet leaves and rooting in the mossy bank of the kettle pond. We submitted the sighting via eBird to the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz, an initiative of the International Rusty Blackbird Working Group. I am crossing my fingers that we will see them again next year.

Who Cooks for You?

For most of my life I have known Pelham Bay Park as an exit on I-95 and not much more. I gave little thought to what could lie beyond the green sign and weekend traffic, instead whizzing by on my way to places north. However, as I became more serious about birding in my mid-20s, Pelham Bay began to pop up on my radar with increasing frequency—particularly as a hotspot for wintering owls.

Birders and nonbirders alike love owls, almost to a fault. If there is one topic that can transform a normally civil list serve or Facebook group into a scorched hellscape, it’s these solitary yet charismatic members of the order Strigiformes. (That and feral cats. And mute swans.) Overzealous owl-ers frequently flout common sense and birding ethics trying to get the perfect shot, which can seriously stress out the birds. As a result, birders are encouraged not to publicize the location of roosting and nesting owls. But I am not immune to the lure of their call (barking, whinnying, trilling), so I decided to make my first visit to Pelham this weekend for what was advertised as an “owl prowl.”

The scheduled walk around the Bartow-Pell Woods was, in all honesty, a bit of a bust for us. I like guided walks, but they need to be of a manageable size for me actually get something out of them. And when the promise of owls is dangled forth on balmy, late-February day in New York City, the birding and nonbirding public come out in droves. In this case, approximately 60 of them. It’s hard to actually bird when you are shuffling single-file through the woods with 30 other people. The woods were quiet save for the crunch of our footsteps, one fox sparrow, a handful of downy woodpeckers, and the pew-pew-pew of northern cardinals. Even the lagoon was relatively still, with seemingly more sculls than birds.

Elizabeth and I struck out on our own as soon as we could, heading toward Hunter Island. A pair of great horned owls has been nesting there since January, and we had also seen reports of barred and long-eared owls. Northern saw-whet owls, once fairly regular visitors to Pelham Bay, have grown scarce in recent years due to the changing habitat and thinning understory; we knew not to get our hopes up for them, at least.

Soon after starting our search we teamed up with a friendly older couple from Queens, and I was reminded for the umpteenth time of how genuinely helpful birders are—especially when faced with “young blood”! They quickly gave us a rundown of the area, directions to a vagrant Townsend’s Solitaire in Connecticut, as well as their phone numbers in case we wanted an introduction to the lesser-known Queens parks. Never underestimate the kindness of birders.

We looped around Hunter Island, scanning the forest for the dead tree where we knew the great horned owls had been nesting. Then, up on the hillside, I saw movement. The heavy, silent flap of wings. (There’s one.) The snag stood empty just ahead, but the female was still close by; her shadowy form was scrutinizing us from high in a neighboring tree, ear tufts barely visible amid the tangle of vines. (There’s the other.)

Once we had gotten our fill, we headed south in search of one last owl. Earlier that morning, our birding companions had spied a barred owl in on Rodman’s Neck, a semi-private peninsula jutting out into the Sound, and they had promised to share the wealth. When we arrived, the narrow road was jammed with cars, and we were barely able to find a parking spot on the shoulder. Cheers and blaring horns from the ball fields filled the air, and our pine grove prowl was punctuated by both blue jay squawks and pulsing Latin rhythms.

And when we looked up, who should be silently watching us but this lone sentry of the white pines?

Barred Owl
Barred owl (Strix varia)

Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?

We quickly took our photos, marveling all the while, and then our exit.

Feeder Watching at Forest Park

After three years of living in a neighborhood without a publicly accessible patch of grass, it’s a delight to be able to trek ten minutes to 413 acres of trees. Sarah and I have been taking weekend walks to “The Water Hole” in Forest Park’s east end, a popular haunt of Queens’s avian set. There peckish passerines can find seed and suet feeders under the cover of mature oaks. We’ve seen a lot of activity, including overwintering pine warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets.

One of my favorite sightings was a particularly waggish white-breasted nuthatch. I snapped a picture of it suspended from a single foot, its hallux sunk into bark like a climbing axe.

White-breasted nuthatch
White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Here it is again, in a more cautious pose, its red rump and powerful back toes exposed to the camera.

White-breasted nuthatch
Lunchtime

I was hoping to bird again this weekend, but with forecasted temperatures hovering above zero, I think I will be content to sit inside, snug with my cat, watching whatever alights on the wires outside the window.

Juniper watching the snow
Juniper (Felis catis stupendous) demonstrating my preferred cold weather birding technique

Warm Winter Birding at Point Lookout

How strange it is to be wandering the beach in January without hat or gloves and not feel one ounce of regret.

Birding in winter is one of my favorite activities, although I recognize that it may seem to skeptics an exercise in futility and masochism. There is some truth to that, certainly. Winter birding is long underwear and two layers of gloves, a scarf wrapped thrice around your face and glasses fogging up the minute you lift your binoculars to your eyes. It is walking what feels like miles on the beach in the bitter wind and sleet, feeling your fingers stiffen as you attempt in vain to distinguish plastic bag from snowy owl…and then pure joy as you spy a flock of snow buntings whirling like flurries over the dunes. It is invigorating, but sometimes miserable. In short, it is not what we experienced last weekend.

Jetty
Point Lookout

When we got out of the car at Point Lookout on Sunday, we were met with 50-degree temperatures, a pleasant breeze, and rapidly melting snow. Point Lookout is located on the easternmost tip of Long Beach Barrier Island, just a stone’s throw across the inlet separating it from the more popular Jones Beach. The parking fees are steep in the summer, as are most town beaches to nonresidents, but in the winter the crowds dissipate and the sea ducks—and birders—arrive.

Sunday’s target bird: the harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). Named for their striking and somewhat gaudy plumage, harlequin ducks winter along the rocky Atlantic and Pacific shorelines and breed in cold, fast-moving streams in the northern U.S. and Canada. Their breeding range actually extends as far south as Wyoming, and we had hoped to see them in Yellowstone over the summer. But alas, we came up empty; plenty of bison, but no harlequins. So when I learned that they are fairly regular winter visitors at Jones Inlet, a mere 28 miles from our apartment, I knew where I wanted to go.

Three breakwater jetties jutting out from the shore form the centerpiece of Point Lookout, and it was there that I focused most of my attention. These jetties serve as both navigational guides for incoming ships and invaluable defenses against beach erosion. They also attract a wide variety of birds. Elizabeth found herself a rock to sit on, and while she sketched, I walked. And counted.

Brant
Brant (Branta bernicla)

Three brant swimming from jetty to jetty. Two common loons stretching their wings further out to sea. Three scoters, two black and one surf.

Long-tailed Duck
Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis)

One, two, three…fourteen long-tailed ducks diving just off the beach.

Bonaparte's Gull
Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia)

One Bonaparte’s gull, buoyed by the waves.

Purple Sandpiper
Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

Four purple sandpipers skittering over the rocks.

O Christmas Tree
O Tanenbaum

And one abandoned Christmas tree, destined for the bottom of the sea.

Then, as I scanned the roiling surf, I noticed a small duck bobbing in and out of the waves, backlit against the afternoon sun. Not as large as a long-tailed duck, it was just as distinctive with its slate blue breast, chestnut sides, and daubs of white “paint” on its head. A harlequin drake! But despite what its scientific name might imply, this bird was clearly only hungry for dinner, not attention; as I fumbled for my camera, it dove beneath the waves and disappeared. A brief look, but a worthwhile one.

Woodcocks!

Although it is now officially spring, Mother Nature appears to have missed the memo. The vernal equinox brought with it a good 3+ inches of snow, and we awoke last Saturday to yet another winter wonderland. Wet snow clung to the branches and covered the cars lining our street. Really? More of this? It would have been beautiful were it not such a familiar (god, so familiar) sight. Thankfully, though, by the time we arrived in Central Park in search of the morning’s quarry, the temperatures had risen and the snow was well on its way to melting.

American Woodcock
American woodcock (Scolopax minor)

When you are active in certain (all?) corners the internet, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across a woodcock parody video. It’s no surprise—they’re funny little birds! All fleshy, probing beak and giant eyes positioned at the tip-top of their heads…and then, of course, there are those moves. Woodcocks strutting to “Tequila”. Woodcocks jamming to Collective Soul. Woodcocks getting down to Daft Punk. Every time I think I’ve seen them all, a new iteration pops up…but until last weekend, I’d never actually seen one of the birds in the flesh.

Here in the Northeast, the American woodcock—known colloquially as the timberdoodle, mudbat, and bogsucker—is one of the first spring migrants that start passing through in March. It’s a sandpiper and a close relative of the snipe, but you won’t find it foraging along the seashore with the other members of the Scolopacidae family. As their various names imply, woodcocks like woods (and mud). During the day, they favor young, dense forests near streams or ponds; look carefully and you might find them strutting slowly through the underbrush, probing the moist soil for earthworms, their favorite prey. And in the crepuscular hours, if you find yourself in a grassy clearing, you might just be lucky enough to witness their elaborate aerial courtship displays.

While scoping out the feeders in the Ramble, we overheard a conversation between a photographer and young African American boy, maybe around middle-school age. Have they seen something interesting? We’re looking for woodcocks, we told the man. He replied that he didn’t know about those, but there was apparently an “American woodpecker” close by—“Very rare, you should go!” (Very rare indeed, as it doesn’t exist.) Nevertheless, we headed southwest to where the boy had gone. And there, sitting silently in a stream bed and well camouflaged by the leaf litter, was our woodcock.

American Woodcock
Ol’ mudbat

Earlier that day, I had been convinced that we would come away empty handed, as has been the case time and time again with the common redpoll that frequented the feeders all winter. But here it was, and so close to the path! It was smaller than expected, maybe the size of a dove or robin, but so round. I fell in love with the mottled feather pattern on its back and its giant, white-ringed almond eye.

“It’s a woodcock!” the boy whispered (he knows what he’s seeing), and we nodded excitedly. It was a first for all of us, and a welcome sign of spring.

Spring and All

Weathered Oriole Nest
Weathered oriole nest

Elizabeth and I came across this abandoned oriole nest at Croton Point Park this weekend while on the hunt for bald eagles (we saw six). It was dangling over the road by the park office, just barely hanging on to its branch—or so it seemed at first, because what a feat of engineering! How hardy it must be to have survived this winter! To have weathered the unrelenting ice and snow that have been battering the Northeast for the past two months. Birds, man. Birds.

Now that it is officially March, I find myself itching for migrants. I managed to go birding somewhat regularly this winter with weekend trips to Central Park and lunchtime walks to the harbor, but then February’s deep freeze set in. It’s hard to look for waterfowl on your lunch hour when the harbor is iced over. So I welcome with open arms this week’s tropical temperatures (and by that I mean it’s in the 40s and 50s).

Spring cannot come soon enough. Away, ice! Away, snow! Give me mud and petrichor.

Superb Owl Sunday at Floyd Bennett Field

“Elizabeth, do you want to go on a bird walk in the dead of winter to an abandoned airfield? Please, please, please?”

It should come as no surprise to you that she said yes.

Floyd Bennett Field, the decommissioned airport on the southern edge of Brooklyn, has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s one of the many places in the outer boroughs that I’ve been wanting to visit, but somehow the prospect of spending 4+ hours on public transit just to get there and back has always dissuaded me. And despite my love of barren landscapes, I didn’t necessarily want to roam the runways alone. But that Cassin’s kingbird…those owls… Alas. So, when I saw that there was a NYC Audubon field trip to Floyd Bennett Field on “Superb Owl Sunday,” to be led by urban naturalist Gabriel Willow, I jumped at the chance.

Horned Larks
Horned larks (Eremophila alpestris)

The target birds for this trip were the so-called “snow birds,” avian visitors from the far north who can sometimes be found in the flat, tundra-like habitat of Long Island’s south shore and barrier islands: snowy owl, snow bunting, horned lark, Lapland longspur, rough-legged hawk.

After a bumpy but surprisingly short drive on the Belt Parkway, we arrived at our destination. We began in a small parking lot by the ranger station, scouring a stand of pitch pines for birds and hoping that we’d be lucky enough to spot one of the northern saw-whet Owls that have been found roosting in the area. However, the diminutive owl was nowhere to be seen, and with the exception of one downy woodpecker and one black-capped chickadee, we came up empty.

We continued on in the van, driving slowly down the iced-over runways and scanning the fields for any sign of movement. Having searched for snowy owls before (with varying degrees of success), I was very familiar with how difficult it is to distinguish owl from white plastic bag, and let me tell you that it’s even more frustrating when said bags are adorned with yellow smiley faces. The elusive snowy plastic bag, taunting us with well wishes (“Have a Nice Day!!!”). Needless to say, we did not see any owls.

What we did spot, in great numbers, were northern flickers. They were everywhere, their yellow-shafted feathers flashing in the winter light as they flew about. In all, I must have counted at least 15 individuals along the runways, many probing for insects in the frozen ground.

(At this point, I should note that although birding by car is definitely not my favorite mode of birding, it was very nice not to have to traverse the 2-3 miles of runway on foot in February!)

Birders at Fort Tilden
Winter birders

Once we got our fill of flickers (and resigned ourselves to the reality that this would be Superb Owl Sunday in name only), we headed to the boat ramp overlooking Jamaica Bay. I was glad to leave the confines of the van and gladder still to spend some quality time with my favorite ducks. I find myself growing increasingly fond of waterfowl and am beginning to think it’s only time before I start researching spotting scopes.

This area did not disappoint. To the north of the boat ramp, Gabriel zeroed in on a raft of upwards of 50 horned grebe. Being so small, they were difficult to see without the aid of a scope, but once I got a look at them I began seeing their bright white cheeks everywhere. Also seen in this area were several red-breasted mergansers, some distant red-throated loons, a flyby great cormorant, bufflehead, and a pair of American wigeon. Looking south along the shore, we spied some female common goldeneyes and greater scaup (a taste of things to come).

At Mill Basin Inlet, we got some amazing looks at at least six red-throated loons swimming close to shore. These loons are more elegant than their “common” cousins, with dainty bills that point up in the air (as opposed to the common loon’s heavier bill that is usually held parallel to the water). A little hoity-toity, but lovely! My eagle-eyed girlfriend then spotted a dark raptor perched in a birch tree on the far shore, which turned out to be an immature red-shouldered Hawk, a lifer for me—and my 200th species! As I privately celebrated, a harbor seal popped its head out of the waves and splashed around, as if echoing my delight.

Before heading to lunch, we did one last sweep for horned larks by the Aviator Center—success! There were around 45 or 50 feeding in the grass—but no Lapland longspurs—and we watched them from the van, careful not to spook them.

Greater Scaup
Greater scaup (Aythya marila)

Once we finished warming up in the cafeteria, we crossed the Gil Hodges Bridge to see what Rockaway Inlet had in store for us. Upon our arrival we immediately noticed a huge raft of at greater scaup bobbing in the waves. (I have to say that I’m proud of myself for nailing all my scaup IDs recently.) As Gabriel combed through the flock of looking for lesser scaup, he came across a surprising find: a white-winged scoter! I would have loved to have seen it, but it kept dipping out of view whenever the scope was passed to me. That was okay, though, as there were other exciting species close by.

The inlet was filled with red-throated loons, red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, clownish long-tailed ducks, horned grebes, and…wait, what’s that by the second pylon? Sitting low in the water, only it’s bigger than a horned grebe and smaller than a loon…and the the bill is heavy and yellow…with a very faint rusty wash on the neck. Holy shit, a red-necked grebe! Last year they were seen all over the New York area (except by this girl) but in general they’re pretty rare here. I got some great looks at it as it preened in front of us, as well as one truly terrible photograph. Without a doubt the highlight of my day (the bird, not the picture).

Blurry Red-necked Grebe
Preening red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena). Great bird, terrible picture.

Fort Tilden was our final stop and our best bet at finding the other two scoter species or maybe a purple sandpiper. But the beach was pretty quiet, and all we saw were some common loons and some very (very) distant black scoters halfway across the horizon. It was getting cold by this point, so we packed up into the van and headed back to Manhattan, stopping briefly at the playing fields to watch one last flock of horned larks whirl about in the air.

All in all, a very satisfying day thanks to a stellar guide and a great group of fellow birders. We may not have seen any Superb Owls or Seahawks (no, those buteos don’t count), but that red-necked grebe! Wonderful.