This report covers a week-long trip planned to sample the sights and attractions of one of the world’s most captivating cities, combined with a little cold-weather birding on Long Island, a location which permits easy access to a handful of much desired Nearctic wintering species. This combination worked perfectly for Victoria and I, with the rocky headlands and deserted, windswept beaches of Long Island offering the perfect calming antidote to four fantastic days in the pulsating metropolis which is NYC.
click here for a pdf version of the route
In the course of planning the birding element of our brief trip it soon became apparent that written detail, covering exactly which species were likely to be found in NYC and Long Island during the winter period, was decidedly scant. My information was gleaned by pestering numerous local birders, each as helpful as the last and acknowledged below, however this report should serve to collate these facts into a useable format for future visitors planning a similar trip.
As we enjoyed our time in the City so much I can’t help but give a brief account of our adventures amongst the bright lights, with a few bird sightings thrown in where appropriate; any birding purists may wish to skip straight to the Long Island section, commencing on 18th January!
A winter visit to NYC and Long Island has two-fold benefits. Firstly, NYC in winter is a highly atmospheric location and we relished our exploration of the City’s famous landmarks on crisp, blue-skied days; ice skating on an outdoor rink was also high on Vic’s wanted list!
From a birding perspective a winter visit gives a great opportunity to enjoy a superb set of wintering species which can be difficult to access in their breeding habitat. Some fantastic sparrows, such as ‘Red’ Fox and American Tree, are on their wintering grounds, while groups of Hooded Merganser have moved south and can even be seen in Central Park!
The scoter flocks off Montauk Point, numbering in their thousands and containing all three species in abundance, are a must for any keen birder, while Eastern Screech-Owls are very vocal and eminently viewable at this time of year. Add to this the chance of encountering less common species such as Winter Wren and Rusty Blackbird and winter wanderers such as Kumlien’s Gull, Snowy Owl and Northern Shrike, and you have the perfect short winter birding trip.
At this point I must offer acknowledgement and a huge thank you to my Cousins Phil and Bob, who generously granted us the use of their East Village flat for the duration of our NYC stay. Our flight was made with Delta Airlines, purely on economic grounds. Delta offered the cheapest fares but the quality of all aspects of the flight was correspondingly poor; indifferent staff, no complimentary drinks, few films and particularly sorry cuisine.
In complete contrast, the service of National Car Rentals at JFK was exceptional, supremely polite and efficient and with a free upgrade by several levels. Our accommodation at the eastern tip of Long Island was not quite what we had bargained for, though it should be noted that much of the area is closed for the winter season and a wide choice of hotels is simply not available.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge the help of the following local birders, without whose help our trip would have been nowhere near as pleasurable and successful as it turned out. Thank you to Anthony Collerton, Phil Jeffrey, Heydi Lopes, Peter Scully, Sy Schiff, Dave Clauber, Carl Starace, Robert Di Candido, Angus Wilson, Janet Zinn and Peter Dorosh.
Saturday 14th January
An airport hotel with overnight parking is a complete revelation; instead of setting the alarm for an unearthly hour and dashing down the M1, we rise at a civilised time to sedately walk to the bus stop outside the St Giles Hotel (http://www.airporthotels4u.co.uk/), then catch the No 490 to Heathrow Terminal 4, where a cooked breakfast awaits. Sadly the cuisine dives downhill sharply from this point; Delta Airlines are one of the cheapest transatlantic carriers and it is easy to see why. Stern-faced staff serve bullet-proof lasagne to disgruntled customers in very tatty seats. There is no free booze to lighten the journey and the handful of ‘B’ movie offerings does little to pass the time; we really can’t get to JFK fast enough!
It is not until we have passed the egotistical buffoon on U.S. Border Control that we can start to fall into the wonderful New York frame of mind. Walking out of the warmth of the arrivals hall and over to the cab queue we are hit by the knives of the upper east coast winter, which cut straight to the bone. “The East Village? That’s a happening place, man!” Now that’s the sort of introduction you want a cab driver to give to your home for the next half-week!
It’s a cold grey world through the cab window, but the first sights of the famous Manhattan Island skyline soon get the pulse racing and take one’s mind from the icy environment outside. Birds are predictably few, with American Crow and a Red-tailed Hawk the only species spied on the forty-five minute journey to our accommodation. A quick dip through the Queens-Manhattan Tunnel and a few blocks south, in the shadows of the Island’s concrete monoliths, delivers us to East 12th Street.
The outlook here is strangely familiar, with tall red brick apartment blocks and stark black fire escapes lifted straight from the set of ‘Friends’; even our homely fourth-storey flat looks like it may have been inhabited by Chandler and Joey in years gone by! Tea and cake recharges the batteries and then we’re straight out into the cold for some serious mid-town exploration.
From the East Village it’s a hop-and-a-skip to Union Square, where a huge bronze elephant does a handstand, Eastern Gray Squirrels prompt passers-by for titbits and a student television station film-crew collar me for an interview. On American politics! The atmosphere is already carrying us along at a pace, through a colourful street market and up to our first ‘Broadway’ sign. We are now following Broadway, for God’s sake!
Heading north, the unique architecture of the Flatiron Building appears on our left, shortly before we enter Madison Square Park, where more Eastern Gray Squirrels and our first small groups of White-throated Sparrows feed. It is interesting to note that unusual wintering birds can be found even in these tiny blocks of habitat, and during the course of our stay the local bird alert (http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/NYSB.html#1329536768) posts sightings of species such as Yellow-breasted Chat, Lincoln’s Sparrow and Red-headed Woodpecker in the smallest of the City’s parks.
The iconic outline of the Empire State Building has been in the background for some time, but now that it rises from a point just a block away, the true scale of this 102-storey Art Deco monument can be fully appreciated. After a welcome coffee break redresses the effects of the biting evening cold, we continue our walking tour as far as Times Square, where the vast expanses of dazzling neon advertise the hub of Broadway’s theatre district in a mesmerising fashion; there are even columns of steam coming up from vents in the road, just like it does on the movies! This area of the City is buzzing with life and from the bright lights we are carried on the sidewalk throngs to nearby Bryant Square, whose open air ice rink provides one of the most atmospheric settings we are to visit.
The illuminated pinnacle of the Empire State Building and the curving symmetry of the Chrysler Building overlook this small park, which we decide is a fitting location to end the day’s exploration. A beer in a typically American bar wraps up our tour, where we cheer on the New York Giants with the excited locals, before grabbing a cab back to our East Village sanctuary. Dinner is a fine Italian meal close to our base, where a check on the watch reveals that it’s now 03.00 at home; it’s amazing how a little adrenaline can keep you moving, however some sleep is now clearly a very good plan.
Sunday 15th January
Central Park is clearly synonymous with birding in New York City, but also a fantastic sightseeing venue in its own right, and it is the first stop on today’s agenda. Union Square is a convenient hub on the wonderfully efficient subway system, where we purchase a Metrocard which will see us through the rest of our time in the City.
It takes just fifteen minutes to ride to the 77th Street subway station, where we emerge back into the bright sunlight and bitterly cold air. We enter Central Park close to the famous bronze Alice in Wonderland statue and are confronted by Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice and large groups of ground-feeding White-throated Sparrows within our first few paces! The Boathouse is a great place for a warming cuppa, and here a couple of binoculared ladies tell me a good place to look for Fox Sparrow, one of my primary targets in the Park.
Armed with this information we set off into the scenic Rambles area, where undulating paths cut around the pools, rocky outcrops and mature trees. It is actually quite a revelation to find that the park has such ‘wild’ places, and is actually alive with both birds and Eastern Gray Squirrels. The large feeding station in the Rambles is clearly the centre of activity, pulling in birds from all around. House Finches and American Goldfinches cling acrobatically to the seed feeders, while Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers ravage the peanuts. Gorgeous Blue Jays are all around, crimson Northern Cardinals illuminate the bare branches and a lone Mourning Dove fluffs its feathers to keep the cold at bay.
My focus is on the large groups of ground-feeding sparrows, where White-throated are in the majority, with a handful of Dark-eyed Juncos amongst their number. After a little searching I pick out the star bird, an extremely handsome ‘Red’ Fox Sparrow of the taiga breeding iliaca race, with a rich chestnut back and white breast boldly marked in massed chestnut chevrons. And in spite of the biting cold, Vic even manages to produce her first sketchbook entry!
Passing numerous high-fashion joggers and walkers of designer dogs, we make our way north to the reservoir where a brief scan reveals several Bufflehead amongst the massed Northern Shoveler and Canada Geese. It has been a great morning in the most famous park in the world, but now the clock stops on the birding as we have a pressing engagement with a restaurant of considerable renown.
Hailing a yellow cab we are soon heading north into Harlem, along Malcolm X Boulevard, a name which which gives a feel of the prevailing culture as we make our way into the northern reaches of Manhattan Island. Our destination is the famous Sylvia’s Restaurant (http://www.sylviasrestaurant.com/), and our arrival is timed specifically to coincide with their ‘Gospel Sunday’. The unobtrusive building is packed with diners and we are immediately greeted by a fantastic rendition of live gospel-soul music as a superbly talented lady singer walks amongst the tables, mike in hand. A short wait sees us at a table, where we dine on a scrumptious selection of ‘soul food’ and soak up the music and atmosphere of this unique dining experience.
Our walk to the nearest subway station, through some of the less salubrious suburbs of this often notorious district, is a little disconcerting at times but we make it to our train and we really wouldn’t have missed our Harlem dining experience for the world. Next stop on the underground rails is another iconic landmark, Grand Central Station, which according to the guide books is the largest station in the world, based on number of platforms and tracks. We spend a little time in the cavernous main concourse, studying the elaborate architecture and famous astronomical map on the vast ceiling, then it’s onwards to the Top of the Rock.
The Top of the Rock is the name of the viewing levels at the very summit of the Rockefeller Centre (http://www.rockefellercenter.com/), or more specifically the 70-storey GE Building. We have been told that the best way to view the City is from the Top of the Rock and not the Empire State Building, as this way you can actually see the ESB and not the decidedly unexciting big rectangular Art Deco block which is the GE Building!
The plan works a treat and after the super-fast lift delivers us to the NYC stratosphere we are able to enjoy breath-taking views of a skyline which, in my book, really must qualify as one of the wonders of the manmade world. It has been a day of clear blue skies, so as the sun drops below the western horizon the most gorgeous orange and pink backdrop frames our Manhattan skyline photographic images, before darkness falls and the unforgettable vision of New York by night unfurls before us; the Top of the Rock is our number one spot in the whole City and really should not be missed.
Back at Union Square, a gentleman introducing himself as ‘The Union Square Numbers Guy’ gives a great account of what the curious digital readout which dominates the square really means, then we grab a pizza and bottle of wine for a well-deserved quiet night in.
Monday 16th January
The weather forecast tells us that it’s going to be another crisp and clear day, so we apply the thermal undergarments and set out early for another session of outdoor sightseeing. This time we take the subway south from Union Square, to emerge at the foot of yet another piece of NYC’s architectural history, the Brooklyn Bridge.
A walk across the bridge gives unrivalled viewing of the most famous skyline in the world, as we wander the almost deserted Brooklyn Heights Promenade to marvel at the Lower Manhattan towers on the opposite bank of the East River. Encountering a fearless flock of thirty Pale-bellied Brent Geese, or simply Brants as they are known locally, is something of an unexpected event and makes for a few interesting photographs with the fabled skyline as a backdrop.
A chance discovery of Bubby’s Restaurant (http://bubbys.com/bubbys-brooklyn/) for brunch provides one of the most enjoyable New York dining experiences of our short stay, then it’s back into the cold to explore Lower Manhattan in a little more detail. Following Broadway, we pass the rapidly rising form of the Freedom Tower on the World Trade Centre site, then venture down Wall Street for an obligatory peek at the American Stock Exchange.
The Staten Island Ferry proves to be the revelation of the day, as this constant shuttle of huge orange commuter craft provides free access to the finest views of the Lower Manhattan Skyline and the Statue of Liberty, from the crossing to the far side of the bay. A single drake Bufflehead, plus attendant Ring-billed and American Herring Gulls are the only birds of note, but the panorama of concrete, steel and glass modelled in the favoured architectural signatures of the past hundred years proves be another one of NYC’s many abiding memories.
After a muffin and a coffee back in Lower Manhattan we are ready to continue our explorations, though our initial plans to visit the Ground Zero Memorial are aborted as firstly the site is still very much in a state of construction and secondly because we feel that the ‘tourist attraction’ status that the area is seemingly developing is a little unpalatable in light of the events which had unfurled here.
So ice skating it is! Subwaying it up to Bryant Square, we join the queue to be booted and are soon slipping all-over-the-shop amongst the hordes of wannabe hockey players and ice dancers, on the atmospheric outdoor rink. Suitably humiliated, we return to the solace of our East Village retreat, via Trader Joe’s Wine Store and the local Mac-and-Cheese outlet, for another relaxing night at ‘home’.
Tuesday 17th January
A love of art can rarely be coupled with a passion for birding, however at Central Park such a compromise really is possible! Catching the subway north from Union Square, we are soon at 86th Street where access is easy to both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park Reservoir. A warm front has brought low cloud and drizzle, so Vic is happy to study some classic paintings while I deploy the brolley and set off in search of a highly prized bird which time plucked from my grasp on our previous visit to the Park.
It doesn’t take long to pick out the outrageous form of a male Hooded Merganser on the western reaches of the reservoir, where a total of three males and two females are counted. Other highlights on the large water-body include a dozen Bufflehead, a pair each of Pied-billed Grebes and American Black Ducks, twenty Ruddy Ducks, plus an assortment of Double-crested Cormorants, American Coots and several species of ducks commonly found on both sides of the Atlantic.
Moving away from the reservoir, and with the brolley becoming increasingly vital, a steady stream of ‘land’ birds are noting including Mourning Doves, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds and White-throated Sparrows. A helpful lady birder tells me about the pair of Rusty Blackbirds she saw a few days back, but my prolonged search of the two hundred-strong flock of marauding Common Grackles produces only an odd Red-winged Blackbird and Brown-headed Cowbird in the way of non-standard icterids.
Back at the Met, Vic has had her fill of Monet and Rousseau, and a hearty brunch is clearly in order. The Madison Avenue ‘Le Pain Quotidien’ (http://www.lepainquotidien.us/) is an excellent chance find, with a great menu and opportunity to dry out a little. Undaunted by the continuing drizzle we walk back through Central Park to its southern limit, noting that some of the surrounding sky-scrapers now have their summits in the low cloud base.
An early return to East 12th Street gives us time to recuperate for what is billed as one of the potential high spots of the trip. We booked some top tickets for a Broadway show many months back, and tonight is the night of our performance. Our subway ride delivers us to the Lincoln Centre, where we devour some gorgeous waffles with maple syrup from one of the many street venders purveying all manner of tasty fare.
The Vivian Beaumont Theatre is our destination, part of the extremely plush and modern Lincoln Centre, and War Horse is our chosen show. Arriving in time for gin and tonics and a taste of the Broadway atmosphere, we are then treated to one of the most captivating and emotive displays of performing art one could ever wish for. War Horse is visually stunning, with an all-consuming storyline which is played out with genius, using the absolute minimum of on-stage gimmicks and fuss; it is the perfect climax to an amazing few days in one of the world’s great cities.
Wednesday 18th January
By 09.00 we have spring-cleaned the flat and packed our bags, to hail a taxi for our return journey to JFK. At the airport we take the nifty monorail to the National Car Rentals desk, where we are efficiently processed and handed the keys to our upgraded vehicle, a huge Chevrolet Town & Country, more a minibus than a car.
The inclusion of a satnav in our rental agreement instantly proves to be a huge bonus, countering Victoria’s map-reading ineptitude and thus obviating numerous potential fall-outs! And so the lady in the tiny box with a pleasing American accent soon has us heading east on the multi-lane Route 27, before sending us south towards the coast and Jones Beach State Park.
Leaving the urbanised zone behind, we emerge into a windswept coastal landscape of dunes and saltmarshes, all served by a well maintained road network and huge car parks; although all-but deserted at the present time, the area is clearly a magnet for visitors in the warmer months. On the western-most car park a couple of birders are intently watching a distant white bob in the dunes, which is either a plastic bag or the Snowy Owl which has been present at the site for several weeks. By bracing the tripod against the bitingly cold wind, we can just about discern that it is in fact the latter, but the views are hardly memorable.
Closer approach in the protected dune system is not advised, so I set off to scour the nearby scrub for more accessible bird life. The strong winds are clearly causing everything except large white owls to keep a low profile, however, and the only birds noted during my short circuit are a group of eight Horned Larks and a flyover flock of forty Snow Buntings. A hunting Sharp-shinned Hawk whizzes through on the wind, and several groups of nominate race Canada Geese graze on the short turf, with one bird wearing a neck collar denoting its origin, in Ontario; a Canada Goose that’s really from Canada! Of mammalian interest is a single bolting rabbit, which has to be Eastern Cottontail on range.
Upon returning to the car a local birder informs us that the owl has been flushed by a photographer, seemingly an on-going issue at the site, but is now ensconced right beside the main path through the dunes. A short walk brings us to the spot where the magnificent pure-white Snowy Owl has taken up a dune-top watch point no more than 50m from the sandy track. The magnificent yellow-eyed male bird is part of a significant southerly influx this year, and one of two birds currently resident on Long Island; what a start to our time at the seaside!
Leaving Jones Beach we re-join the main Sunrise Highway to continue east, pulling in at a drive-through ‘Wendy’s’ for our only true American fast-food indulgence of the trip. It is getting rather late in the day when we reach Massapequa Preserve, a large tract of wet deciduous woodland sandwiched between sprawling residential development. The Long Island Birds website (http://www.libirding.com/LI_Birds/Sightings/Sightings.html) noted sightings of Rusty Blackbird and Winter Wren at this site in the weeks before our trip, so a few hours of searching is clearly in order.
Walking through the bare trees in a cold, wintry setting is much like walking through a cold deciduous forest back home in the UK: there really isn’t very much to see! Our two hour walk clocks up a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinal, one Song and several White-throated Sparrows. And that is it! The wooded ponds hold another three Hooded Mergansers, a Green-winged Teal and a small group of American Wigeon, which are very appealing in the evening light, but the visit can hardly be described as an overwhelming success.
In the failing light we set off east with the heater cranked up, travelling pretty much all the way to the tip of the South Fork of Long Island. En route we stock up on self-catering provisions to see us through the next few days, to arrive at the Montauk Motel (http://www.montaukmotels.com/index.ihtml) at around 19.00. It would seem that most of the small tourist town of Montauk closes down for the winter months, so finding accommodation at a reasonable price can be tricky; the Montauk Motel was sourced on the internet and booked several months before our trip. On the plus side it is very well priced, the owners are extremely helpful and it is ideally placed for birding the South Fork. On the negative side our room is blessed with a very fusty odour which never abates, the bathroom supports some interesting colonies of colourful mould and the ‘luxury kitchen’ contains a relict cooker from the Dark Ages and a very scant set of crockery. It is fortunate that we plan to be out in the fresh air for the next three days!
A hot plate of pasta, beer and a nice bottle of wine can do wonders for a scabby apartment, however, and soon we are planning our itinerary for the following day on the South Fork.
Thursday 19th January
Post breakfast, it’s just a fifteen minute easterly drive through the leafless winter forests of Montauk State Park, to the very tip of Long Island. Montauk Point is guarded by a highly distinctive lighthouse, octagonal in shape with a single broad red stripe and dating back to 1796. It is clearly the perfect subject for Vic’s first Long Island sketch-book entry and the car is positioned on the empty parking lot to give her the perfect view.
My focus is on the sea duck flocks just off the point, which are without doubt the most spectacular congregations I have seen anywhere in the world. Counting of such immense gatherings is not easy, but there are certainly in excess of 10,000 birds present, with vast rafts of duck on the water as far as the eye can see and wave after wave of additional birds constantly flying through. A rough ratio of the birds present would be 5:3:1:1, spread over Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter and Common Eider.
Walking on the rocks behind the lighthouse, some phenomenal views are obtained of these magnificent marine waterfowl, with the harlequin-headed adult male Surf Scoters taking the crown, though up-close looks at male White-winged and Blacks in these numbers are pretty breath-taking too. Studying the Common Eiders reveals a good smattering of dresseri males, with distinctive swollen yellow frontal bill lobes. Add to this a healthy representation of Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Horned Grebes, plus Red-throated and Common Loons and you have the makings of one of the most impressive winter birding spectacles in the North Atlantic.
A single Razorbill is seemingly worthy of note at this location, but I am much more taken by the handful of Bonaparte’s Gulls which patrol the surf-line in search of breakfast. It really is hard to drag oneself away from this spectacle, but there are passerines to look for and the sheltered car park margins are the ideal hunting ground. Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Hermit Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Northern Cardinal, White-throated and Song Sparrows are all noted in a very enjoyable half-hour circuit, plus some approachable White-tailed Deer grazing at the roadside.
A bracing walk down an adjacent beach, illuminated in brilliant winter sunlight, finishes off the morning and adds Fish Crow, Red-tailed Hawk and plenty more sea duck to the list. It’s a superbly scenic location, with views of Block Island to the east, and to the distant Connecticut coastline to the north. Driving back to Montauk town, we single out Mr John’s Pancake House as the perfect spot for brunch, a real American diner complete with jovial local banter and a feisty battle-hardened waitress keeping all in order.
By the early afternoon the sky has taken on a much greyer cast and a few flakes of snow are periodically darting past in the refrigerated wind. It’s bitterly cold, so again Victoria takes up an in-car position beside the eastern inlet to Montauk Harbour where an array of bobbing boats fuel her artistic bent. My quest, meanwhile, is for a sparrow. By far my most wanted passerine target of the short trip, American Tree Sparrow is a winter migrant from the tundra which has much decreased in numbers in recent times.
Having drawn a blank at both Jones Beach and Montauk Point, the pressure to find this star bird is beginning to increase. Theodore Roosevelt State Park is something of a stab-in-the-dark, but the mix of open habitat and scrubby woodland looks good to me and I set out over the sandy ground. My wide circuit brings just Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee and Song Sparrow, and it is typically back at the car park close to the reserve entrance that a sparrow flits up onto a pine branch to reveal itself as a gorgeous little American Tree Sparrow!
With a little patience I find a pair and another group of four American Tree Sparrows, feeding in the weedy car park margins in a very unobtrusive manner. And they really are spanking little birds, grey below, stripy above, with bold white wingbars, a neat roufous cap and distinctive dark central breast spot.
Mission accomplished and with Vic’s nautical sketch complete, we reposition ourselves south of the harbour inlet, to take a long walk first down the beach and then around the large harbour, where the constant tinkling of rigging wires on steel masts serenades our stroll amidst the snow flurries. Long-tailed Ducks dive offshore and on the beach numerous examples of American Herring Gull plumage variation are set out on the sand to illustrate just how confusing ‘large white-headed gulls’ can be. The harbour itself has a real draw for Common Loons, and twenty-or-more of these hefty brutes have congregated in the sheltered waters.
After our cold afternoon outdoors a hot cuppa is now a priority, so we return to our less-than-salubrious apartment to thaw out for an hour before the final phase of the day’s tick-quest. Local birding ally Antony Collerton has advised me that the nearby Camp Hero State Park may be a good spot to try for Eastern Screech-Owl at this time of year, though the sub-zero temperatures and snow flurries serve to remove a little of the appeal of such a venture.
Fortunately the site is only a matter of minutes from our motel and it is already very dark by the time of our 18.00 arrival. Although the woodland cover would be dense when in leaf, the sheltered spot looks surprisingly open now that the branches are bare. At the second spot we try, an instant response is heard to our recording, which is reminiscent of a distant whinnying horse. Another quick burst and I have an Eastern Screech-Owl in the tree above me!
Very sadly our bird does not relish the torch-lit attention and departs as soon as I flick on the beam. Birds are clearly responsive, however, and I am very keen to secure a photograph of this much-wanted bird. Two or three birds continue to call, sporadically, in the immediate vicinity but remain out of view. Snow flurries continue and after an hour my hands are becoming too cold to operate the iPod. The owl has clearly had his fun by now, however, and finally gives up playing hard-to-get. He swoops onto a low, exposed branch in full spotlight beam, allowing unobscured close range views of his immaculate rufous-brown plumage, prominent ear-tufts and piercing yellow eyes; even Vic gets out of the warm car to savour the spectacle! Definitive full-frame photos of the newly designated bird-of-the-trip are secured and we return to base to celebrate with a hearty home-cooked tea and a good bottle of wine.
Friday 20th January
The satnav is a wonderful invention. After breakfast we programme in ‘Willow Drive, Greenport’ and we’re away, no map-reading arguments and all can enjoy the highly scenic journey to Long Island’s North Fork. Having neglected to clock the presence of a ferry crossing via Shelter Island, it is something of a surprise when our American lady navigator tells us to turn right at East Hampton.
As we head through Sag Harbour and North Haven the outlook becomes ever more impressive, with alternating blocks of woodland, open arable fields and small hamlets of charismatic timber dwellings, all now dusted in several inches of overnight snowfall. After a short wait at the quay we board the tiny roll-on-roll-off ferry for the ten minute crossing to Shelter Island, another extremely attractive location especially when viewed with a crisp winter feel.
The ferry crossing from Shelter Island to Greenport takes a little longer, and passes large flocks of Surf Scoter and Long-tailed Duck en route, to deposit us at the quaint little tourist town on the North Fork. Leaving behind Greenport’s antique shops and top-end real estate, we are soon at Inlet Pond Country Park, managed by the North Fork Audubon Society.
The small nature reserve is essentially a block of woodland running down to a large pool at the head of the beach, though it is immediately apparent that the well-stocked bird feeders adjacent to the car park are the main source of action. Red-bellied, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice are all present in force. Dazzling Northern Cardinals and delicate American Goldfinches whiz back and forth, while ground dwelling hordes of House Finches, Song and White-throated Sparrows hoover up the seed. Small flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and Brown-headed Cowbirds come and go, making for a feast of birding action and some fine photographic material.
Moving into the woodland, Hermit Thrushes, American Robins and Northern Mockingbirds are added to our list, but in spite of two hours around the excellent site we fail to connect with either the Rusty Blackbirds or Winter Wrens which eBirds proclaim have recently been seen. So after a sandwich in the company of the chickadees we reset the satnav and continue our journey along the coast.
The sight of vast vineyards lining our route comes as something of a surprise, especially when sprinkled with snow, and it is on an arable field sandwiched in between the neat rows of vines that a goose flock causes an unscheduled stop. Although mainly nominate race Canada Geese, four smaller, darker birds are worthy of closer scrutiny and are presumed to belong to the parvipes subspecies, often referred to as Lesser Canada Goose.
Our final destination is the desolate seafront at the end of Pier Avenue, Northville, where saltwater frozen into icicles on the boat ramp railings is testament to the ultra-low temperatures. On the ocean bob a couple of hundred Long-tailed Ducks, plus a handful each of White-winged Scoters and Common Loons, but it is the large local gull flock which has brought us to this site. The local bird alert has promised a lingering adult Kumlien’s Gull and it doesn’t take long to pick out the white-winged beauty amongst the American Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.
Although a strategic loaf is used to photographic advantage, it is interesting to note that the Kumlien’s Gull prefers surf-line molluscs to sliced white bread, the former being forcibly obtained from their Ring-billed Gull finders. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull is a notable bird in this locality, then it is time for a long walk down the bitterly cold but spectacularly scenic beach, where the clear blue sky, sporadic snow drifts and total lack of another soul anywhere in view make this a very memorable setting. One other bird makes the notebook before we depart, an exquisite little Yellow-rumped Warbler feeding in a tree at the beach head and emphasising just how hardy these diminutive migrants really are.
The return journey mirrors the outbound one, though is made mainly in the dark, then we slump into our warm motel room with wine and olives followed by a large helping of homemade pasta.
Saturday 21st January
Pulling back the curtains to reveal blizzard conditions and six inches of snow already on the ground would be very atmospheric, were it not for the fact that we need to make a 100+ mile drive to JFK for an evening flight home. After cleaning down the snowbound car and loading our bags we hit the road rather gingerly, though a healthy presence of snow ploughs gives us some confidence that a fall of snow will not have the same catastrophic consequences on the road network here as it does in the UK!
The snowfall continues in earnest and the road conditions really aren’t very clever, as the regular spin-offs of less cautious drivers along the Sunrise Highway pay testament; there must be a grounded vehicle on the central reservation or verge every few miles! Fortunately the snow turns to rain as we near JFK, reassuring us that our flight may not be cancelled after all, so we continue to our planned destination of Floyd Bennett Field via the most amazing toasted Panini sourced from a random roadside stall.
Floyd Bennett Field is a rather curious ex-airfield site, now part industrial complex and part nature reserve. The draw of the site is a wintering Northern Shrike which has been present for some weeks, though it has a reputation for its elusive nature and today proves to be no exception, with a good hour’s search drawing a blank. A couple of small flocks of Horned Lark, several each of Northern Flicker and Northern Mockingbird are added to the notebook, then we decide to make a dash for Jamaica Bay for what remains of the day.
Sadly our tedious snow-afflicted journey west has cost us around three hours of time and our window of opportunity at the excellent Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is limited to little more than an hour before the light has failed. In spite of this handicap we hurry around the western loop trail and amass an excellent selection of birds. Three Northern Harriers move through en route to their roost site and a pair of Canavasback feed out in the bay. Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, American Black Duck, Long-tailed Duck and American Wigeon are present in force, with a flock of six female Hooded Merganser residing on the main reserve pond.
When we return to the visitors’ centre it is almost dark, but several White-throated and Song Sparrows are still busy at the feeders. As we watch, the very last bird to make my notebook is a cracking little American Tree Sparrow, a very appropriate species with which to end a fantastically enjoyable break in the Long Island winter.
JFK Airport and our beloved Delta Airlines are all that remain of the trip. Both New York City and Long Island have proven to be supremely enjoyable revelations, each in their own very special way, and we are already planning our next visit to the USA’s highly addictive far-east.