Birds on a Shoestring: Birding Adventures along the Fringes of the Continent: Long Island December 2007

I woke well before dawn, partly because the cold had finally seeped into my sleeping bag, partly from excitement, hoping to catch up with a rare goose. By six am, I was ready to begin the proverbial chase.

Starting in New Brunswick the day before, I had crossed one international border and passed through four states, fortunately covering New York City at night. Thus, late at night, I pulled into a county park, too exhausted to care about the sign clearly stating that the campground was closed for the winter. I took the open gate as an invitation and pitched my tent anyway.

In the dark morning hours, I could barely hear the rumbling waters of the Atlantic beyond the frost covered lawn and beach. After packing up quickly, I continued along the route east, passing the mansions of the Hamptons, with just a few lights flickering in otherwise black windows. Approaching Montauk, the eastern tip of Long Island; the surroundings turned surprisingly rural, with fallow fields and large pastures on both sides of the road.

A cold sunrise turned the landscape from black to winter gray and I could discern street names and details of the landscape. I had no trouble finding the open meadow where the Pink-footed Goose had apparently been consorting with a small flock of Canada Geese since November. Interestingly the land here belonged to the Deep Hollow Ranch, apparently America’s oldest cattle ranch. The utter cold of a Long Island winter morning slapped my face and rattled my bones when I stepped from the car. I carefully scanned the field of close-cropped grass, but only found a few scattered piles of frozen equine manure and a horse or two. I drove up and down the main road, checking the horizons for flocks of geese. Before long, other birders showed up. A slew of New York rarities, including the Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, along with a Western Kingbird and an Ash-throated Flycatcher lured good numbers of locals to the state parks and parklands around Montauk.

The largest island of the contiguous United State, Long Island harbors a large variety of habitats and significant diversity of birds given its proximity to the millions of people in New York City. Along its 118 miles stretching northeast into the Atlantic, it is possible to find wetlands, woodlands, agricultural areas, extensive beaches, and rocky shorelines. Especially the far eastern reaches of the island still harbor sizeable natural areas. In addition to the resident species, regular migrants, and plethora of wintering birds, which are worth a trip to island alone, the area also ranks as one of the top vagrant traps on the east coast.

This December morning Long Island was living up to its reputation, with about half a dozen rare species hiding in the woods and wetlands. Yet, both geese were successfully evading detection for the first two hours of the morning. I trailed back and forth between fields and ponds, most of which were still frozen solid. Following a tip from two local birders, I focused my efforts on a small roadside park, where I eventually spotted the Barnacle Goose, its small size and extensive white face obvious among a few Canada Geese. The bird was very approachable and nipped at the grass as it slowly waddled away. Barnacle Goose has been somewhat of a problematic species in North America for years. The species is fairly common in captivity and numerous records have been of questionable provenance, but the majority of records in the northeast can be attributed to genuine vagrants. Supporting the latter hypothesis, are vagrant birds that had been banded in Europe and have made appearances in the United States. For example, a Barnacle Goose that appeared in New York in 2010 sported rings that could be traced to the British Museum banding scheme. In fact the bird had been ringed, to use the European term here, in Scotland in 2002, confirming natural vagrancy of the species. Over the past decades, breeding populations of both Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese have increased in Greenland, increasing the likelihood of wild birds migrating west into eastern Canada and United States.  Over the past few years these geese have proven to be fairly regular during the winter months along the Atlantic seaboard and even further inland to Pennsylvania. Birds recorded further west probably are escapees?

After enjoying this small neatly marked goose for twenty minutes, my focus switched to the rarer of the pair. Where was the Pink-footed Goose? I repeated my searches from earlier in the morning. The horse pasture remained empty, several fields quiet, and the ponds frozen. I planned to mount exploration on foot, trying to access some unchecked areas on Lake Montauk. Before tightening my shoelaces and heading out, I made one last stop at a small pond I had been eyeing all morning. The surface was still solid ice, but on this pass two dozen geese had landed of the frozen water, slipping and sliding as they walked on the ice. I carefully scanned through the flock of Canada Geese and quickly discovered a Brant, tiny compared to the gray honkers. I realized that this was a new flock that I had not encountered that morning. Carefully I kept watching and suddenly the Pink-footed Goose appeared.

Pink-footed Geese are medium in size, have their namesake colored feet, and noticeably small bills with black at the base and tip, flanking a pink middle. The ice gave way under the weight of the flock and one by one the geese entered the water, swimming in a small circle of open water.  Two other birders showed up within minutes and I was happy to be able to point out the bird.

The temperature hadn’t increased and in order to warm up I decided to go on a hike after all. I followed a track through scattered woodland and open fields, while I did not turn up any unusual flycatchers, I did find hordes of birds actively foraging in the cold weather. Among groups of sparrows, I found several Song and Tree scratching in the leaf litter.

I debated whether to visit the eastern tip of the island to look for seabirds passing the point offshore, but the cold and fatigue from the long day had me packing up and driving back west, towards the city. Unfortunately I missed Montauk Point Lighthouse. Built in 1796, it is the oldest lighthouse in New York and the fourth oldest active lighthouse in the nation. I comforted myself by turning up the heater in the car, settling into the rhythm of tires on asphalt. Before leaving the island for good, I stopped at one of the many beachside parks, where owls apparently frequent the thin rows of wind beaten conifers backing the strip of sand. My hope was to spot a Northern Saw-whet or Long-eared Owl. I searched for an hour, peering into the dense evergreens without success. By early evening my conviction faded and I headed south for good, stopping somewhere in Maryland for the night several hours later.


One response to this post.

  1. You might be off to South America but I liked your birding article so much. It is amazing that I went every winter while I lived in Pa to LI and always in Feb. Our DVOC group rented a place out at Montauk and did the freezing thing while logging rare geese and flycatchers. I saw the barnacle and the pink footed goose along with the western kingbird and arufus hummer. We always tried for the eurasian widgeon but they are rather common in winter now. Have a wonderful trip on your break.


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