The Finch Did It
When a Sparrow is as Good as an Eagle

Dawn of New Year’s Day, 2013 found me alone in a parking lot full of construction equipment, trying to pee in a port-a-potty that, I found out after I stepped in, was on unlevel ground. I rocked back and forth like I was on a surfboard, trying not to wet myself, my new camera or worse, tip the damn thing over. I’ve done stuff like that before, much to my family’s delight. It really wasn’t the auspicious start of the year or day I had hoped.

But against all odds and the natural sense of humor of the gods, I managed to take care of business and exit the potty without doing serious damage to me, the camera, my clothing or the structure.

It was cold, cloudy and raw, but I felt a surge of excitement as I climbed the line of granite boulders that line the Shinnecock Inlet’s coastline. But, unlike the last time I was here in December, there were few birds. Too early? A few flocks of ducks whizzed by and I took their photos. But none turned their head to smile for the camera, so I’m really not sure what kind of bird they were.

The gulls were there and so I started my day. Goal? 30 birds. Hope? Between you and me, I was really shooting for 50.

I circled the parking lot, taking photos of a couple of loons in the Bay, and some more ducks. But not a lot moving.

I debated hanging around longer, but decided to drive down Dune Road, heading east.  Dune Road is lined with million dollar plus homes, built on sand and not much more. During the summer I would never be able to do what I was doing, but here, int eh dead of winter, I was able to creep along in my Camry Hybrid, checking both sides of the road and, beyond the marsh, the bay, looking for birds. Most of the time, the engine wasn’t even on, so on battery power I was able to stealthily glide.

Stealthily, that is, until I got out of the car.

I’ve been birding since July, a blink of an eye compared to the birders I admire. But I follow the ethical rules and try my best to not frighten or upset the birds. I refuse to “pish”, or make noises to try to flush out the little guys. I figure they have it tough enough without me scaring them unnecessarily.

But today? Damn, every time I moved I made some bird crazy. I opened my car door, and about 200 American Black ducks scattered like my camera was a 12-gauge—and I was 50 yards from them, at least! I must have taken 2 years off a Great Blue Heron’s life—it kept flying away in a panic, only to land 100 feet further down the path I was driving. Which meant I scared it half-to-death about every 5 minutes or so, until it finally hunkered down and ignored me.

I pulled to the side of the road, got out of the car, and started taking photos of some crows on the far side of a parking lot on the other side of the road. No problem. I literally turned in place, went to climb back into the car, when a Cooper’s Hawk burst from a tall bush about 20 feet from me. Was he scared? No idea. Did he scare the hell out of me? Oh, most certainly yes.

But I got him. Four acceptable photos of him high-tailing away from me.

A half-a-mile later I got some great shots of red Crossbills—until one looked down, saw me and said to his buddies, hey, let’s get going! and off they went.

I finished up Dune Road and checked my list. Ultimately I would get 18 birds from this leg of the trip, but that wasn’t until afterwards, when I reviewed my photos and confirmed a bunch. I had about a dozen birds I knew, and another dozen I was unsure of.

I tried two spots I saw from eBirds and other local websites should be good. Nothing. Nada. A flock of robins was about it.

Ugh. So here I had spent about half my little big day, and I only had about a dozen birds to show for it. Things looked bleak.

I pulled to the side of Montauk Highway to check out a few ponds that abut it—to no avail.

Swan Lake in Patchogue produced, ultimately, 5 new ducks for me—but three of them I didn’t add to the list until I reviewed the photos. I had made a decision months ago to take photos of the birds I knew I didn’t know, and to not waste a lot of time in the field going through the field guides— I do that at night, when I’m not “on the clock”. I figure it is the best way to use the finite time I have outdoors, either because of my schedule, family commitments or the unstoppable turning of the Earth.

I have to say I hit the Massapequa Preserve, a favorite spot of mine, a little depressed. My “definite” list was under 20, though I knew I had a larger-than-usual number of “could-be’s” on the memory chip in my camera.

I walked up from Clark Boulevard, along a bike/pedestrian asphalt trail I used to ride my bike on when I was a kid, and that I ran on 20 years ago preparing for the New York Marathon. These were my woods, my ponds. In fact, I saw 21 species there just last Sunday!

Today. Nothing in the first pond—OK, maybe a few “could-be’s”, especially the ducks with the white lines on their faces. I knew I hadn’t ever seen them before. Could they be Northern Pintails? (And yes, that’s what I determined they were hours later.)

Second pond, the one where I saw Eurasian Wigeons in November, the one always packed with ducks?

Nothing.

I don’t mean nothing new.

I mean not a single, solitary bird on the whole damn pond!

I couldn’t believe it! Was I hallucinating? Too little sleep? Were the ducks hung over, and crashing at Mom’s? Where the hell were they?

Heading back down the path, I ran into a birder. We commiserated with each other, and as we did a little Carolina Wren popped out to say hi! I continued down the path, and I guess sensing my need for a pick-me-up a downy woodpecker dropped the base of a tree about 10 feet from me, flew up to a branch almost over my head, and then hung around long enough for me to get a few shots.

I headed down to the southern most lake of the Preserve and shot a few “could-be’s”, but not much more.

Down to the West End of Jones Beach, where my “usual” Dunlins and Oystercatchers were nowhere to be found. But I did spy a number of coastal regulars: brants, loons and the like. And a lifer, a Northern Harrier, charging across the tundra-like grasses between the parking lots and the beach.

As I was looking out over the sandbar by the Coast Guard station, I was startled by a young boy—maybe 10—who appeared next to me and said “Hey, we have the same lens! Did you see the red-breasted loon? Do you think that’s a black skimmer over there?”

As he continued to rattle on, I scanned quickly for his parents.  Such are the times, I felt uncomfortable being on a relatively isolated boardwalk talking to a non-relative young kid. With relief I saw his beleaguered mother come up, out on a raw, cloudy day with her obviously obsessed son.  We exchanged pleasantries, I ticked off what I had seen with the boy, and we went our separate ways.

Later, in the parking lot, I saw a small clutch of House Sparrows, something I hadn’t seen yet today. As I was snapping a few photos, my young friend popped up next to me, eager to see what I had. Clearly disappointed, he said, “Aah, they’re just House Sparrows.”

"Yes," I said. "But I started my list over again for the year."

"So did I," he said.

"Well, then, in a new year, a sparrow is as good as an eagle."

He thought for a moment. “You know, that’s very true!”.

(I ended the day with 46— a very successful day!)

An MBY for a New Year

I have a ton of back-logged posts about my first (half) year of birding.

But this is about the New Year—which starts in 3 hours, 18 minutes.  Give or take.

I don’t have the expertise, time, money or level of insanity required to do a real Big Year.

But I do have a goal for 2013.

I want to get on the List. What list? Well, each year the ABA (American Birding Association) publishes a series of lists—including the largest totals of species seen in the ABA area, by nation, by state, etc. The bottom of the reported lists for North America each year for the past several years has been around 200.

Truth be told, I have no idea why that is. Seems low to me, especially when I look at teh State reports. I don’t know if all birders report, or if only some birders are included. No idea. But I want to take a shot at making the list.

So my plan is to get to 200. A Mini-Big Year (MBY). If 200 makes the list, great. If not, or if I’m not eligible, etc., I’ll deal with it. But for now, for my first full year, 200 is the mark.

I have finished 2012 with 126 species seen this year— 127 lifetime. Not too bad, I don’t think, especially since I started July 15th and missed the entire Spring migration season.

The immediate plan is to do a Big Day tomorrow. I’m hoping to hit 30; 50 would be phenomenal for me.

I have a trip to the Sax-Zim Bog scheduled in February—immediately followed by my golf outing to Tampa. I’m heading down a day early to bird. So my hope is to have 100 by the start of the migration season.

We’ll see.

Tomorrow starts my personal MBY. Birding was one of the few bright spots of 2012 for me personally. I hope 2013 is better in every way—and that I give my goal a good run!

A Nice Day, In the End

I had been straining at the leash all week. Late on Thursday, just before sunset, I swung by Garden City Bird Sanctuary, a 52-acre joint-purpose purpose preserve created on, in and around a sump.  It’s only open til 5 pm, so I had to settle for peering through the locked gate. Frustrating, but enticing.

My plan Friday had been to sneak out of the office early and get back to the Sanctuary while it was open.  Work conspired against me, and I got there about 4:40. I walked around for about 10 minutes— simply terrific! Lush, full of bird sounds and promises of good hunting—once I have time.

I pointed all week to Saturday. I had a plan. And an enforced partner.

My younger daughter, Ali, is an excellent, accomplished photographer. And she’s a good sport about trying new adventures. Birding holds no allure for her, but a day taking photos is something she’s always up for.

But not at 6 a.m., which is when I wanted to start.  I compromised: I’d start the day without her, then swing by and pick her up around 9. This she liked much better.

So at 6 a.m. I hopped in the car and drove to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. A cup of coffee n my hand and a song in my heart. But not a brain in my head.

I realized that last part when I pulled into the parking lot. In front of me was a birder. Outdoorsman hat. Long sleeves. Vest with tons of pockets. Long, camouflage cargo pants, tucked into high boots. A camera lens about a foot long. And he was rubbing something on his neck and face.

Me? My Teddy Roosevelt “Bully” T-shirt. A pair of shorts. My hiking shoes. My camera. Uh, oh, I thought to myself—moreso when I started walking the trail through dense underbrush, with marshland mere steps away.

About 300 yards in, I was beaten back by teeth with wings. Not a falcon.  Not an angry Mockingbird or Bluejay. Nope. Mosquitoes and some type of fly. Thousands of them, it seemed. I tried walking faster to escape them, but all this did was make me sweat more in the almost 80 degree early morning heat—and that just attracted them more.

I gave up. Lesson learned. I may not need a two-foot long lens, but I do need the can of Off! that was sitting in the closet at home.

Jamaica Bay looks incredible, and I did see dozens and dozens of birds: Eastern Towhees and Gray Catbirds and a bunch I didn’t recognize…yet. I’ll be back—prepared next time.

Back home, I picked up Ali (and the bug spray) and headed off to a place I’ve heard about here in my own town, but that I have never been to: the Oceanside Marine Nature Study Area. Ali, who has broken into and climbed to the top of the Oceanside Dump along with too many other places to mention, had also never been there.

It was amazing. We walked on gravel paths and over raised walkways that wind there way through this 52-acre wetlands.

We saw quite a few egrets, both Great and Snowy:

And a pair of Osprey:

A what I’m pretty certain is an Eastern Kingbird:

There are a few others we saw and photographed, that I just can’t confirm yet—but I’m working on them!!

We left the Marine Study area and drove over to Norman Levy Preserve—a park built on top of the old dump.  At the top they have two artificial ponds, with water circulation powered by a windmill.

The bird life was much less than I expected, but there were dozens of mallards, herring gulls and what I was told were barn & tree swallows.

The only bird we took a photo of up there that I didn’t already have—or couldn’t photo well enough to confirm (the barn swallows) was this guy—and I have no idea (yet) what he is:

We capped the day off with a bite to eat on the water in Freeport. What started out clumsily turned out to be a nice day, in the end.

A Friendly Kidnapping

Sunday found me sore, with still a bit of a headache, and too late awake to do anything except get ready for a morning with my daughter & wife. I had vague plans of getting up very early and taking a solo expedition into Rock Creek Park, but I just couldn’t get going. I resolved to do Rock Creek on our next visit this Fall, and got ready for brunch and a trip to the Eastern Market.

The Eastern Market, tucked behind the Capital, is part flea market, part crafts fair, part arts bizarre, part farmers’ market. It fills a high-fenced-in asphalt-covered area, about the size and shape of three or four basketball courts; all that was missing were the hoops. Row after row of tents hold the wares of artists & vendors of every shape, size, race and nationality. Elaborate art works sit side-by-side with T-shirts and pocketbooks, next to antique maps and daguerreotypes, beside jewelry and boxes made from old license plates.

Beyond the tents, on weekends, the Market takes over the street. Food vendors and more of the eclectic offerings line the street for a full block; across the street is a huge red-brick building which holds the more permanent stalls of the cheese monger and bread and pastry bakers. Spices and foods of all nations abound.

But few birds.

I quick-stepped my way through the Market, far ahead of my wife and daughter. They were wandering and looking and shopping. I was hunting.  I could not track down a vendor with any birding material, though, so I sat on a bench and waited. I scanned the few trees and the blue sky for birds, but found only a few house sparrows. They kept me entertained, though. I think because they are so small and so common, people overlook them. But they are fun to watch. They are acrobatic and playful. And when you look at them closely, they are quite striking. With their coloring, if they were the size of say, robins, they would be admired.

My eye finally caught a sign for a used book store off the closed street. I wandered over and was treated to three delights.

First, the store was blissfully chilly. The building looked like it was going to collapse, and like every good used bookstore I’ve ever been in, the jumbled shelves seemed to groan and the walls seemed ready to surrender to the weight of the books and crumble in at any moment. You know one of these is really good when no fire marshal would ever permit it to stay open, the overflow of books narrowing a maze of tiny walkways. This place must have had an air conditioning unit big enough to cool an airplane hangar because it was cold.

Second, the owner sat at the register by the door and freely kibitzed, insulted, and laughed with and at his customers. Books were adorned with hand-scrawled signs saying “Recommended by Lindsey Lohan from rehab”, or, taped to a Harry Potter book: “Ron Dies”. Very funny.

Third, it had a great birding section. Do you have any bird books? was greeted by directions from the owner: go to the right, make two lefts, fall down the stairs, get up, don’t bleed on my inventory, make two hard rights and look down. And then up again. You’ll see ‘em.

And I did. There was half a wall full. I browsed for a while, scooching over several times so people could pass on their way to the books on Europe or witchcraft. I settled on a Peterson’s Guide to Eastern Birds, probably dated but in very good shape. Just what I need to start really learning.

I left the bookshop, my $4 Guide tucked tightly in my hand, braved the 140% humidity that is D.C. and joined my wife and daughter for a pleasant brunch.

A wonderful morning. But no birds.

We left D.C. about 1:30, dreading the trudge back up 95, knowing the traffic that awaited us. We barely got into Maryland when everything ahead of us flashed red stop lights, and we started to crawl. I said to Angela, what time do we have to be home? knowing the answer was, not til tomorrow morning actually. I swung off 95 and headed north on Route 40. There are traffic lights, and it isn’t like the scenic routes we enjoyed in Maine when we got off the turnpike, but it was more interesting than 95.

About an hour or so into our detour I kidnapped my wife.

A friendly kidnapping, but one she didn’t expect or really consent to. At a traffic light I suddenly made a right and headed…I don’t know where I was going. I knew if I kept going east I’d hit water. And where there is water, there are usually birds.

By pure luck and happenstance we hit a quaint little town, Chesapeake City. Nestled against the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, Chesapeake City has a few blocks of cute shops and restaurants. Angela wandered around the town; I parked myself at the dock and looked for the birds.

Now I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island. I’ve spent all my life within a few minutes of water; bays, canals, the Sound, the ocean. If there is one thing I know it’s this: where there are boats and docks and people there are birds.

Except here. For a half hour I scanned the shoreline, the little cove, the marina, the sky and the water. Nothing moved. Not a bird. How the hell could that be?

Finally, from a distance I saw four gulls winging towards me. I fired away with my camera. I am 90% sure these were Laughing Gulls. My only hesitation is that these birds seemed to have a black bill, while my Petersen’s Guide and my trusty computer back home tell me that the bill should be red. But until I’m corrected, I’m calling it as Laughing Gulls.

We found a terrific little restaurant right on the water. An outdoor table shaded by a canopy, crab cakes that were 95% crab, and a beautiful view. Perfect.

The ducks flew by and I walked the 10 steps or so from our table to the shoreline and snapped a couple of shots of the mallards.

Time to go home. Or was it? Sitting at the table I had accessed my Droid and found that there was a wildlife preserve a few minutes outside of town. A couple of wrong turns (Garmin really does suck) and Angela spotted it. A little pull-off from route 285, a dirt parking lot, and there was the Canal Wildlife Management Area. The sun was getting low and, although we theoretically didn’t have to be home until the morning, I knew I was pushing it. But my kidnapping victim was a good sport, so I spent about 20 minutes investigating.

I could have spent all day.

Birds were flying low over the water, too far for my lens to capture, but I could make out their repeated dives at the surface of the water. Must be nailing insects as they didn’t seem to dive deep enough for fish.

I heard an owl hoot in the distance, but since I have no knowledge of calls yet, I couldn’t possibly identify or count it.

I searched up and down an embankment, trying to track down a really pretty (and loud) songbird, but no luck.

Here’s where my lack of knowledge pained me. I know I missed probably a half-dozen birds because at first I thought they were all house sparrows.

I reluctantly trained my camera on one little guy—and was surprised that he wasn’t a house sparrow.

The problem is: I have no idea what this bird is! The white on the bottom of his tail, and the white neck, should make him distinctive, but to date he’s a mystery.

But I learned a valuable lesson: stop thinking and keep looking.

I learned that lesson quickly and was rewarded greatly.

I spent the next 10 minutes or so—as much time as I dared leave Angela in the car lest she drive off without me—fascinated by a flock of about 10 of these colorful and almost majestic little guys. Later in the car the Peterson Guide helped me identify my new friends: Cedar Waxwings.

I came back to the car, my arms upraised! Again I felt jubilation simply because I opened my damn eyes!

My kidnapping victim and I drove the rest of the way home with almost no traffic—but with me day-dreaming of going to preserves like this soon, but armed with knowledge and time.

And I finished off the weekend with my life list at 28.

The Kingbird & the Woodpecker

I shuffled my way into our hotel suite (we booked a room, but with all the traveling we’ve done since the kids started college, I am a Silver Elite Marriott customer—and they bump me up like crazy); Angela & Amanda went off shopping. I cooled down with a long shower, lamented once again my out-of-shapeness, then stretched out on the couch with my Kindle and dove back into Kenn Kaufman’s amazing “Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder”.

"Kingbird Highway" chronicles a young man’s travels across the country in the then-burgeoning pursuit of birding. He drops out of high school and hitch-hikes across America. The story is fascinating (made more so by the fact that Kenn is only 4 years older than I am). I remember well the times he talks about, and read the book with a good deal of envy.

The book did one thing though—it pushed me off the couch. Now about 3 p.m., I braved the heat and humidity of D.C. and went out for a bird-searching walk. I wandered around the grounds of the hotel, then made my way up Connecticut towards Cathedral, where my daughter used to have an apartment that abutted the National Zoo. She complained that at times the birds made such a racket they woke her up— I thought maybe a few wild birds camped out in the woods behind the Zoo.

Nothing.

Not a bird song in the 10 blocks I walked. The only sound was the drip, drip, drip of my sweat hitting the sidewalk behind me.

I made my way up and down the chain link fence separating a fairly busy city street with a patch of woods. Nothing. Not a sound. Not any movement at all.

I gave it about 10 minutes.  The heat was getting unbearable. I stopped peering into the woods, and crossed the street. I chalked it up as a silly thing to do: going out in the heat of the day with no plan. The birds were smart; they were nestled way trying to keep cool. I was the jackass heading back to my room for my third shower of the day.

I crossed the street and heard a tap, tap tapping up in the tree that bordered the sidewalk, immediately above my head. And bam! A beautiful woodpecker, smashing away at the tree!

I stood there for about 15 minutes watching him, a stupid grin on my face. All concerns about heat stroke left as I marveled at this beautiful bird. As families passed me on the sidewalk, I’d gesture up, and fill with pride as the families ooohed and aaaahed, as if I had created this red-headed wonder. Again I was filled with a bursting joy and awe —here was something beautiful & wild, in the middle of a city block—something I had never been aware of before.

I knew he was different than the red-bellied woodpecker I had seen the weekend before, but I had no idea what he was. Back at the hotel, though, I found him very quickly on line.

The smile stayed with me the rest of the day and still lingered as I passed out in bed after dinner.

Pileated Woodpecker

Washington DC & Great Falls Park

The weekend of July 28th found me on my first bird road trip. Not just a birding expedition—we were really going to DC to see our elder daughter— but as my obsessed mind considered the possibilities it quickly became one.

We drove down Friday night and got an early start in a vain attempt at beating the heat and humidity that is July in DC. We started at Great Falls Park; Amanda wanted to show her mother the falls.

I wanted to see the birds.

The visit wound up being more about what I need to do than what I found. But it was fun nevertheless.

Right away, at the first overlook, I got to see my first Turkey Vultures. I initially saw them high in the trees; then on the rocks across the river; then on rocks closer to us.

I hunted around in the trees and bushes near the overlook and saw a bird I didn’t know.

That brings me to my first “need”. I know what I don’t know. That is, I can look at a bird and tell you whether I know the bird or not. That’s because I probably can only identify a half-dozen or so by sight (maybe more as I document my finds). So first need is: I need to learn more about birds. I need to look at Guides more, and prepare before I enter an unfamiliar area as to what birds I’m likely to find. What I am doing now, and what I did with this little guy, is a) see a bird that looks different than the 6 I know; b) take a bunch of photos; and c) head back to the computer to analyze and try to figure out if I can label what I saw .  The result of this kind of blind search is that I know I am missing birds in the field and I am logging now 9 birds I can’t identify.

The second bird of the day:

A Tufted Titmouse

And so we marched on. In a park that probably has dozens and dozens of different species, I found only 2 I could ultimately identify. Not an effective use of my time.

During the hike, I realized again my second need: I need to get in shape.

I am in horrible shape. If I am going to be hunting and scampering and climbing, I need to get back on the elliptical— or I’m going to be carried out of one of these woods.

(Angela stopped hiking, waving Amanda and me on towards the dam we were aiming for. While we moved on, she saw a Great Blue Heron. I heard about that damn miss all weekend!)

While I am thrilled with the birds I did see, I can’t help but feel like I missed too much.  I know July—especially in D.C.—is a terrible time to see birds. But I know that with more in my head and less on my belly I would have seen more.

The Woodpecker

Sunday July 22 I awoke determined to march out into the woods, get some exercise and see me some birds.

And so I did.

I started at Skelos Field in Rockville Centre, near the Southern State Parkway, and then I trekked into the woods that run adjacent to Hempstead Lake.

I identified a bird by sound alone—I heard an Eastern Towee, singing away. Couldn’t find him, but I was thrilled to make my first audio ID!

I marched along, stopping to listen and look…and get out of the way of joggers and mountain bikers.

I took a few shots of familiar birds, and a couple I haven’t been able to identify yet, like these from the backyard and the woods:

I walked in all about 3 miles. It was hot and I was heading back towards the car, but still deep in the woods, when I heard a commotion high in trees to my left.

I charged across some underbrush (between the bushes so as not to damage anything) then across the bridle path, one eye up in the trees, one eye looking for horse droppings to avoid. I stopped and scanned the trees—and then I saw it! A flash of red and blue— I took two too quick shots, the autofocus whining and slow, (damn! I have to learn how take bird photos!)—but I got these two blurry pictures to memorialize my first Red-bellied Woodpecker!!

My life list now at 23— I feel like a real live birder!!

The Finch

I spent the next week doing the things I do as I start a potential “obsession”: I looked at websites, checked out local groups, bought a few magazines, played with some software. I read a dozen or so “beginning birder” articles. I already had added a few birds to my list, but I wasn’t all in yet.

Saturday July 21 I became a birder.

Angela and I were up early. We had a day at the beach in our plans, but we started the day on our porch, a cup of coffee in hand and with me peerign through my camera lens at the brid feeder.

I checked off a couple of our regulars: a Northern Cardinal:

I ID’d a common Grackle (of course I had misidentified one earlier)

and a couple of Mourning Doves:

There were other birds there—some I recognized and already “had” and a couple I still can’t ID. But then I saw two little birds flitting between the tree to the bush to the feeder and back, with a little flash of red. I took a few photos, came inside, and uploaded the disc.

And then I saw it. What I thought was a juvenile Cardinal was, in fact, a House Finch. You would have thought I had just discovered pennicillin or a new island world. I got excited, in a way I haven’t in months. The House Finch. A basic, common little bird. But one I’ll always remember:

Old Beach, New Sights

After my epiphany with the House Finch, Angela and I headed to TOBAY beach, a place we’ve gone to together since we were about 14. I’ve walked through the same tunnel from the same parking lot, to the spot to the right just next to the lifeguard’s stand probably a few hundred times in my life. I’ve walked on that beach, seen the dawn there, seen a number of sunsets there.

I’ve spent days at TOBAY as a kid, riding along in a friend’s skiff from the canals of Massapequa across the Great South Bay. I’ve spent long hours roasting under the sun with my friends, listening to WABC, back before anyone ever heard of sunblock, or that the deep tan you got after the initial burn was bad for you.

I’ve explored the dunes after driving down in a ‘69 puke-green, floral-topped Dodge Dart, new license in my pocket. I spent the day after my bachelor party there, the blessedly cool waves helping to mitigate a hangover of epic proportions.

I’ve brought my children there, dipping them in the waves before they could walk. And now in my mid 50’s I still go there, early mornings with my wife, a Kindle replacing the ubiquitous book, and a cup of coffee and afternoons with my brother and sisters and their families, and old friends, and maybe a beer or two.

But I’ve never been there as a birder.

During the week, I saw a blue jay at Schoolhouse Green, watched him chase a crow from the big tree near the Gazebo. Angela saw me looking up and smiled—she knows when I’m starting to go over the edge.

Saturday we headed to TOBAY early. I watched the gulls forage and used my binoculars to scour the beach.  I tried to concentrate on my book, with no success. I took a walk along the surf-line and saw dozens of herring gulls (I’m sure this time!!) and two Laughing Gulls. No photos, as my camera was in the car; but especially with the Laughing Gulls I made doubly sure. 

As I fidgeted in my chair, Angela told me, go, go to the car, get the camera and walk over to the bay side. See what you can find. And so off I went.

I wandered around the edges of the parking lot. I spent maybe 15 minutes peering into the rushes, trying to find the source of an awful pretty song. No dice.

I planted myself in camera range of a dead tree, trying to get a shot of these little darting birds, to no avail. I saw them in the distance, dozens high on a telephone wire. I saw the road from the parking lot to the boat basin, a road I had never taken in the 40+ years I’ve been coming to TOBAY. But today I was a birder, and I was on the hunt.

I headed down this maybe 1 1/2 lane road and instantly saw, high above me, a sight I’d never seen. Huge, bizarre thing, high in the air. I took a couple of bad shots (like I eventually learned how to photograph hurdlers back when my daughter ran track, I’ve got to learn how to take better bird pictures). Back home I couldn’t ID it, but a posting on a Long Island birder’s Facebook page lead me to identify this as a Glossy Ibis, a bird that is apparently fairly common on Long Island, but one which I had never noticed before:

Next I found the little birds on a wire. Back home my investigation leads me to believe these are Tree Swallows:

Next, I caught this guy singing away on a fence. Long tail. Reddish underbelly. Dark bill & eye. Lined wings. (I’m a little gun-shy on my ID’s, but I’ve looked this one over a few times) A Gray Catbird:

Then I heard a bird call. A couple of whistles then a trill. Loud. Beautiful. I hunted and peered and walked and listened. And I found him. An Eastern Towhee. Another of a long list of common birds I had never seen—or realized I’d seen- ever before:

Been to that beach hundreds of times. Looked into the sky thousands. Four revelations in an hour. What other wonders existing right before me have I missed?

Oops!

Well, before I could write my next post I received a friendly message that I had misidentified a few of the birds I’d posted.

This confirms a few things I’ve been reading, and some things I already knew.

First, everything I’ve read says that the birding community is helpful and generous in sharing knowledge, especially towards newbies. The message I received confirms that. I appreciated the info, the time taken to give the advice, and the diplomatic way it was rendered. Greatly appreciated.

Second, I know there is a lot I have to learn. It seems a bit daunting, but the challenge and opportunities seem well worth it. If I had any doubts, the red-bellied woodpecker erased them. More on him later.

Third, I know its important to get out there and join experienced birders on walks, talks, etc., and I will. July seems to be the quietest month in birding, by all accounts. I have circled on my calendar some events, and just joined the South Shore Audubon Society.

Finally, after all my endeavors I’ve certainly learned this: you can’t enter a new field with an ego. I am a novice. Less than a novice. I’ll listen to advice, evaluate it, take in the helpful without embarrassment.  I love to learn and this is going to be fun!

So thanks to my new friend— the corrections are being made and I’ve made a note to myself to be a bit more careful on the ID’s.