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?
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!)