Last minute duck luck on Long Island, New York

Ian Gardner, Josh Lefever, and I camped in my SUV on the night of November 16th. We parked the car near Alley Pond Park, with plans to be able to wake up the next morning and already be right there to try for the Virginia’s Warbler. This was the first night of our 5 day trip through coastal New England. We were in search of the various rare birds and as many other cool birds as we could. Earlier in the evening of the 16th, we visited Inwood Park in New York City to try for the Barnacle Goose that had been there the days before but it was no where to be found when we searched. That was the only Barnacle Goose we knew about along our planned route and would have been a lifer for Ian. After that we found a nearby pizza place and then got caught in traffic for the next few hours. Besides the pizza, our trip was off to a sour start. Not to mention, we were woken by the cops and told to move our car out of the the Alley Pond Park’s lot and move it out on to the street.

On the morning of November 17th, things started off slow as well. The three of us scoured Alley Pond Park for the Virginia’s Warbler – going around to all the locations it had been reported previously, but not having any luck. As the temperature slowly rose throughout the morning, the birds became more active and we had high hopes of finding the warbler. However, we also knew that we couldn’t spend all day here if we also wanted to be able to hit our other target locations on Long Island. A little after 8:00am we ran into Derek Rogers and another New York birder also searching for the Virginia’s Warbler. The 5 of us split up and looked for the bird. Around 8:35am, Derek called me to say he was looking at the warbler. I got Josh and Ian’s attention and we ran over to find where Derek was. When we got to him, he said he just lost the bird in a tangle of brush but it must still be in that general area. We started scanning the brush for a sign of it. After a few seconds, we heard the bird chip and then launch up out of the cover and fly past us and up over the trail, dropping down out of sight. We headed in that direction and quickly found the bird again. For the next few minutes, we continued to get short but adequate looks at the Virginia’s Warbler as well as hearing it’s chip call often. The behavior of the bird was very similar to the one I saw back in February in Maryland - actively foraging in one spot and then launching up into the air and dropping down to another brushy area 50 feet away. We eventually lost track of the bird, not ever getting the chance for a photo, but satisfied with the looks we got. To make things even better, Derek was able to give us more details about the Eurasian Wigeon we planned on stopping for as well as letting us know about an unconfirmed report of another Barnacle Goose – this one at Marratooka Pond, right near where we were planning on getting a ferry to Connecticut! Perfect! Our trip was starting to come back together.

Eurasian Wigeon – adult male at Mill Pond, NY (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Our next stop was in Sayville, NY at Mill Pond to try for a male Eurasian Wigeon. As soon as we pulled up and got out of the car, Josh spotted the duck. We watched it along with American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, and Mallards for a half hour and then continued east out towards Montauk point. Our next target species was Greater White-fronted Goose, of which there were at least 5 being reported near East Hampton. We searched all the spots the birds had previously been reported, but couldn’t find any large flocks of Canada Geese let alone white-fronted. Bummer. Another dip and another missed chance at a lifer for Ian.

We kept driving, towards Montauk. Our next stop was perhaps the most important target of the trip – at least for me. We were hoping to find the Northern Lapwings that had been reported at Deep Hollow Ranch. The bad news was that we had read online that the lapwings had not been seen in at least one day and there really wasn’t another promising-looking location nearby. Since the Bridgewater, Massachusetts Northern Lapwing had been reported missing for at least a week our only option if we didn’t see the lapwings at Deep Hollow Ranch was going to have to be to take the ferry out to Nantucket and hike out to wherever the pair of Northern Lapwings were there. Northern Lapwing would be my only chance for getting a lifer on this trip, so I was especially worried. Our fears came true when we got to Deep Hollow Ranch, and there was pretty much nothing except a few hundred Canada Geese.

We decided we would spend some time sea-watching from Montauk State Park and then head up towards Marratooka Pond and then jump on the ferry around sunset. The trouble with birding trips this time of the year is that it gets dark so damn early. We drove out to Montauk SP and started birding a little before 1pm. We set up shop near the restaurant and lighthouse area, and began scooping the open water. Ducks were plentiful and many were on the move. Red-breasted Mergansers, all three scoters, Red-throated Loons, and loads of Common Eiders were loafing offshore and occasionally diving for food, or flying past in groups. There were a good number of gulls around, but we didn’t pick out anything out of the ordinary. Northern Gannets were also showing off nicely. The gannets also led us to finding one of our best species of the day, and one that I was hoping we would get on our trip – Black-legged Kittiwake. I was scoping out a group of gannets that were gathering on the water, pretty far offshore but clearly seen through the scope. The gannets were diving into a very small area and then just floating together on the water. Flying above their heads, and occasionally dropping down to the surface of the water were two adult kittiwakes! The three of us got nice looks at the birds and then they disappeared.

A pair of Common Eiders passing by Montauk SP. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

A brief and unsuccessful stop by Rita’s Stables didn’t turn up the Brewer’s Blackbird that had been there a few days before but we didn’t really have our hopes high for that one. Still, another missed bird to add to the list. Luckily things were about to change. We arrived at Marratooka Pond at 3:30pm after stopping briefly to look at a few Greater Yellowlegs. We were starting to run out of time before dark and we had to get on the Orient to New London ferry soon. As soon as we got to the pond, we set up out scopes and began to scan through the roughly 800 Canada Geese. Standing out like a sore thumb was the Barnacle Goose! It was distant, but we all got great looks in the setting sunlight.

A distant shot of the Barnacle Goose at Marratooka Pond, NY. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Soon after finding the Barnacle Goose, we spotted an unexpected Greater White-fronted Goose! Holy crap – we just made up for two earlier misses! Things were looking up. Two Cackling Geese was another nice addition to the trip list. Then, just before dark, Josh spotted an interesting looking duck drop in. He grabbed the scope and started looking towards the direction he saw the duck land and passed the scope to me. Floating on the far side of the pond was an adult male Eurasian Wigeon – our second of the day, and this one found on our own!

This adult Greater White-fronted Goose at Marratooka Pond made up for 5 we couldn’t find earlier in the day and was a lifer for Ian. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Our second Eurasian Wigeon of the day – a nice pick-up by Josh right before dark. (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The three of us got our fill of all the great waterfowl on the pond, including many species of ducks and even a Canvasback, and then drove over to the ferry terminal. We jumped across to Connecticut and then found a place to camp near the Rhode Island Mountain Bluebird. Our trip was off to a great start, despite issues and missing birds earlier in the day. Check back for more posts about our Thanksgiving birding trip!