Summer time. It’s the season when the birding in many cities wanes. Binoculars and telescopes are traded out for bathing suits, sunblock, and margaritas. For Northern Hemisphere cities, mid-June is often when the birding slows to a molasses-like crawl. The last of the migrant Blackpoll Warblers and Flycatchers are gone, and instead of being replaced by another obvious wave of migrant species, as has been happening with each wave for the past three months, they’re replaced with…nothing. A big void is left where before there were routinely fresh migrants. However, just because there’s still a month left before shorebirds start pouring south through the region en masse, doesn’t mean you should pack away the binoculars in mid-June. You can find lots of in-city surprises in the breeding season, though the types of surprises vary greatly depending on what kind of habitat you have access to.
For coastal cities, the potential for something great never goes away, and I was reminded of this yet again on June 18. Breezy Point, in New York City (NYC), is part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area (and is eastern half of the outer gateway to New York Harbor, which is where Gateway NRA gets its name). It is also host to one of the largest Common Tern breeding colonies in the state, so even if you go out there in the summer and don’t find any migrants or rarities, it’s still entertaining. The large number of birds on the beachfront also attracts species that AREN’T breeding in the area, and it’s not unusual to see a locally scarce species of tern, like Roseate, or Black, mixed into the loafing groups of Commons. On a Queens Big Day a few years ago (in mid-May, so not a perfect comparison), we not only had both of those species, but also a young Little Gull, which is rare in the area at any time of year, and very rare outside their peak migration windows. This instance alone illustrated the potential of this severely under-birded location.
An aside is in order here: it is under-birded because the beach surrounds the private cooperative community of Breezy Point, and the only “close” vehicular access is via a parking lot, which in the summer requires a permit. Hence, the site is usually neglected by birders. You can also make a very long day of it by taking public transportation and walking out of it as well. A great byproduct of these circumstances that provide obstacles to public access, is that the beach is relatively undisturbed, compared to other beaches in the region, making Breezy Point a highly successful breeding area for several species of coastal nesting bird: Common Tern, Least Tern, Black Skimmer, Piping Plover, and American Oystercatcher.
Back to June 18- We had already had what we considered to be a very good afternoon: Two Black Terns, a Roseate Tern, two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Bonaparte’s Gull, and at least two Purple Martins (they don’t breed locally, so it was quite a surprise to see two flying south heading out over the water in mid-June).
After 4 hours of traipsing around the beach, our stomachs were protesting that it was time to be elsewhere. As we were preparing to make one final, if hungry, push to walk to the jetty (a mile away) to try to see if we could find a Manx Shearwater, an interesting small gull appeared in the scope, still a ways down the beach (though luckily in the direction we were walking). It was clearly a small gull, but it seemed to be too dark-mantled for a Bonaparte’s, and the folded, black, primaries had very noticeable white tips. This seemed quite strange, as it apparently resembled a Sabine’s Gull, which would be a true regional mega. We picked up the pace a little bit, even finding an old Sooty Shearwater carcass in the wrack-line that we had missed on our way up the beach earlier.
I set up my scope while Sean was still tinkering with the dead bird. It became apparent, rather quickly, why it had resembled a Sabine’s Gull from far away: it actually WAS one! I turned to Sean as he approached (luckily not holding a decaying Shearwater in his hands) and said some rushed and possibly not PG version of “It IS gonna be a SABINE’S GULL!” Lots of hijinks ensued, as we savored what turned out to be only a 3rd record for NYC (a city with a fairly long ornithological history), watching intently as the bird…well, mostly just slept and preened.
It eventually took flight to the east back into the tern colony, and we followed it and enjoyed it a bit more as it became more active among the greater numbers of terns and gulls in this section of the beach.
We left the gull, and decided that it had certainly beaten any Manx Shearwater we could have seen, and agreed that we could call it a wildly successful afternoon of birding. We walked back down the beach to the 4×4 trail that would lead our aching legs to the parking lots and the comfort of our cars, but as any birder knows, there’s always a “last scan.” I’ve done hundreds of “last scans” over my birding life, and they usually end in something between Custer’s famous “last stand” and success- that is to say fairly unremarkable mediocrity. This time though, we were spared both failure and mediocrity. Did we finally see a Manx Shearwater, you ask? We didn’t end up seeing any tubenoses on this day, but just as the fat lady was throwing in the towel, a Jaeger appeared in the distance. “Ah nice, a Parasitic Jaeger, not a bad way to end the day,” was my initial thought, as I became more and more acutely aware of my stomach’s desire for fulfillment., and aware of the impending darkness. The Jaeger was far away, and it was approaching sunset (on an already overcast day), so we couldn’t see much detail. However, as it gradually got closer, we were able to see that it didn’t seem to be the overwhelmingly expected of the three species of Jaeger. Eventually, we got good enough looks to see the clean underparts, small, isolated, black cap, and excessively long tail streamers of an ADULT LONG-TAILED JAEGER. In this case, the best way to give you an appreciation of the rarity of this sighting is a number: 0. Before June 18, there were that many records of Long-tailed Jaeger in NYC. The entire observation lasted about 8-10 minutes before we lost resolution on the bird, though despite being in view for that long, it never came close enough for successful photos (several failed attempts though!). Tired, hungry, sore, and yet overpoweringly happy, we retreated to the parking lot as darkness began to settle over the beach. So ended what may have been my best afternoon of birding in New York City, at a time of year which I never would have guessed could sport a day with that title!
In lieu of photos of the Jaeger, here is an otherwise media-rich eBird checklist from that afternoon: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S23968163