#380-382 in Suffolk County

Sunday I joined the New York chapter of the Linnaean Society for a trip to “Eastern Long Island for 9 Sparrows”. It was close, but we did get all 9 sparrows (saw 8, heard 1) as well as about 50 other interesting species including 3 personal life birds. It’s been a long time since I got three life birds in one day in New York. Heck, it’s getting hard to add three life birds in one day in California these days. I think the last time I did this well in New York was the February 2006 pelagic.

Wainscott Pond

We met in Wainscott at a field that’s reliable for Savannah Sparrow. Our first sparrow of the day was a singing Song Sparrow; but after we started to walk across the field, the Savannahs started popping up. Also impressive were several breeding plumage Bobolinks. I’ve seen Bobolink before, but always outside of breeding season. They’re much more impressive in the summertime.

As we walked along the edge of the unmowed field Richard Zain-Eldeen said quizzically, “I heard Bobwhite?”

“Yes, they’re out here,” Eric responded.

I perked up at that. Bobwhite is a half-lifer for me. I vaguely recall hearing them around my grandmother’s house when I was a child; but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, and I haven’t officially ticked it on my life list yet. Of course, the group immediately broke out into a chorus of Bobwhite imitations to try to call the bird out so I couldn’t tell which, if any, calls were the actual bird. However, they eventually quieted down and there was the bird itself, still calling: “Bub wheet. Bub wheet.”

Richard thinks I shouldn’t count the bird until I see it, but ABA rules say I can. I’m happy with that. The bird was there. It was clearly identifiable. There was no mistaking it; and for a bird that likes to hide like the Bob White does, it’s much better to accept the audio ID than to go traipsing through its habitat for hours, disturbing who knows what, trying to catch a brief glimpse of it.

We continued around the field. Barn and Tree Swallows were hawking for insects overhead. Eric also spotted a Bank Swallow, though I’m not sure if anyone else saw it. I didn’t. That’s OK. I’ve seen them on Long Island before. A Red-tailed Hawk also flew overhead.

The pond itself was hosting about a half dozen Great Blue Herons and about as many Black-crowned Night-herons. There were maybe 40 Canada Geese and 20+ Double-crested Cormorants. An Osprey was fishing from overhead. We watched it hover and dive repeatedly before it finally caught a fish and flew off with it. The final bird for the location as an Eastern Kingbird I spotted in the trees over the cars.

There were also lots of Red Admirals, Orange Sulphurs, as yet unidentified moths, Eastern Forktails, small flies, and more. This was a great site. I could easily have spent another hour here looking at insects alone.

Brown moth in grass

However we had quite a few more sites to visit, and seven sparrows to go, so we piled into our cars and drove off to Shinnecock Inlet on the south barrier islands.

Shinnecock Inlet

We parked a couple of our cars at the east end of Dune Road, and squeezed into the remaining cars since there wasn’t a lot of parking where we were going. Richard scanned the beach for Roseate Terns without success, but we did find this Anglewing:

Orange black and light brown butterfly perched on white flower

It’s either a Question Mark or a Comma. I can’t tell those two apart, and anyone in our group who could didn’t see this butterfly. Update: photo analysis suggests this is indeed an Eastern Comma.

Then we drove west to a pulloff on the North side of Dune Road to search the marshes for sparrows. Great Egrets were obvious in the bay from the road. The most common birds out here were Willets. They’re nesting, and they were everywhere and quite vocal too. We tried to stay close together to avoid disturbing them any more than we had to, but they definitely would rather we be gone.

Scanning the shoreline we picked out Least Sandpiper, a couple of Dowitcher sp., one Great Black-backed Gull, and one American Oystercatcher. Common Terns and Herring Gulls were flying by, and Eric spotted a single Roseate Tern.

Moving a little further in, we spotted our first sparrows. These weren’t being cooperative–they’d fly out of the grass and land a dozen meters away in the tall grass before you could get your binoculars on them–but we waited patiently, and eventually were rewarded with identifiable looks at Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, my second life bird for the day.

Then a different sparrow came out, the much darker Seaside Sparrow, and a potential third life bird. Unfortunately, although I saw the bird Richard and others were calling it a Seaside Sparrow, and I trust their eyes, I never got clear looks at it myself. I was confident it was a sparrow, but not more than that. It was very shadowed from where I was standing, so I couldn’t really count it. But we still had aseveral sites to go.

Quogue Village Wetland Preserve

We continued West down Dune Road to Quogue Village Wetlands Preserve. This is maybe 40 rare undeveloped acres from Dune Road to the bay. There’s a boardwalk that takes you through several different habitats to the bay.

We added Mourning Cloak and Monarch to the Lepidoptera list here. We also repeated a number of birds including Mourning Dive, tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Willet, Snowy Egret, and Common and Least Terns. We added Eastern Towhee to the day list, though there was some debate as to whether we could count that as a sparrow or not. (I said yes: If the only thing that matters is whether the bird has “sparrow” in its name, then why we might as well count House Sparrow.)

Returning to the cars, we stopped again near the entrance to scan the initial grassland. This time we were rewarded with the best looks I’d yet had of Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. A couple of these had the most obviously orange faces I’d seen yet. We also had Willow Flycatcher, and a couple of parental Barn Swallows feeding a fledgling.

Then a Seaside Sparrow popped out on a bare bush and started calling: Whpp-Chzz, Whpp-Chzz. Not only was it calling. This individual I could see clearly. My third life bird of the day, and it wasn’t even noon yet!

Gabreski Airport

We stopped to eat lunch in a small park with a Gazebo in Westhampton. Then we drove to the Gabreski Airport. Airports are often good for grassland birds. We didn’t find a lot of grassland birds there, but near the public-storage warehouses we did find Chipping Sparrow and hear Field Sparrow, bringing the daily total to six sparrows.

We were also buzzed by a helicopter. On occasion birders get mistaken for terrorist planners (all those scopes and cameras near sewage treatment plants and airports get the authorities worried) but I think this one was just coming in for a landing at the airport. We didn’t have any further trouble and drove out.

Model Airplane Field

A little further down the road, there’s a model airplane field. We were looking for Vesper Sparrow, but first we were surprised by a young, first-year Pine Warbler! I didn’t realize these bred on Long Island or this far south.

Eriz Salzman, Suzanne Ortiz, Richard Zain-Eldeen, John Criscitello, Kelli Quinones, et al.

Continuing on into the model airplane field. we found several Vesper Sparrows as hoped for. I didn’t get close enough to pick out the eye ring, but we were able to ID them by the distinctive white outer tail feathers, much like a Junco’s.

Seven down, two to go.


The next stop was also an airplane field, the old Grumman facility in Calverton. This is one of the last significant grasslands left in Long island, and it really needs to be preserved. It’s the only one that’s large enough and predator-free enough to support breeding Eastern Meadowlarks, a species in serious decline, as are most grassland species around the country. The site may be up for sale right now. It would be a shame to see it turned into McMansions.

We found Eastern Meadowlark almost immediately. Their bright yellow bellies and starling-ish shape makes them quite distinctive, and easy to pick out even from a moving car.

Grasshopper Sparrow, however, mostly stayed hidden in the tall grass. However we knew they were there because they were constantly buzzing. That made eight sparrows for the day (not counting Eastern Towhee).

We looped around the old runways, and got out final bird for the site: two horned larks feeding in a crack in the pavement. I’m not sure what they were finding down there. They’re supposed to be seed eaters, but maybe they were supplementing their diet with a little insect protein or some tasty grubs.

Peconic River Marsh

The final stop was a marsh and golf course near the headlands of the Peconic River. We were still only at eight sparrows since Eric didn’t want to count the Towhee unless he had to. This site was reliable for Swamp Sparrow. There’d also been a Red-headed Woodpecker reported in the area.

We drove slowly around the edge of the golf course, and on a small road through some woods with the windows down, listening for the woodpecker. No success though. In fact, not only did we not see or hear the Red-headed Woodpecker. We didn’t see a single woodpecker of any species all day.

We parked by a bridge and walked into the marsh, and this was quite a bit more successful. We added several species immediately including Yellow Warbler, Black-capped Chickadee, and Tufted Titmouse. There were also several interesting lepidoptera and odonata, including an Eyed Brown, Spangled Skimmer, and Eastern Pondhawk. The Eyed Brown did not want to have its picture taken, so here’s the Spangled Skimmer:

Blue dragonfly with white dots on wings

A couple of hundred meters in, Eric heard and then spotted the hoped for Swamp Sparrow. It was giving an alarm call, and didn’t want to leave the area so it was probably nesting. A second one joined it, but we left quickly so as not to disturb it too much.


That’s it, nine sparrows and three life birds. My total species count for the day was 54 species, and there were doubtless a few birds other saw that I didn’t:

  • Canada Goose
  • Northern Bobwhite
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Osprey
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Killdeer
  • American Oystercatcher
  • Willet
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Herring Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Roseate Tern
  • Common Tern
  • Least Tern
  • Mourning Dove
  • Chimney Swift
  • Willow Flycatcher
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Blue Jay
  • Horned Lark
  • Tree Swallow
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • House Wren
  • American Robin
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Pine Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Vesper Sparrow
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow
  • Seaside Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Bobolink
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Common Grackle
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • American Goldfinch

We hit the road about 4:15 and got back to New York about 6:00. Then around 7:00 I’m checking my e-mail when I see that Alex Wilson has found a Western Reef-Heron at Drier-Offerman Park! This is huge. Bob White, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow, and Seaside Sparrow are all good birds. Western Reef-Heron is spectacular, a 5 on the ABA difficulty scale. (Only a bird believed extinct is higher.)

What was I doing all the way out in Suffolk County when a mega-rarity like this is going to show up in my own backyard? Why didn’t anyone call me on my cell? I would have skipped the last sparrow to get back to Brooklyn for this one. Can I make it to Drier-Offerman Park before dark? Barely, but the light will be bad, and the bird may have left with the high tide. Will it return tomorrow? And if so can I get there to see it before work? I have never been so successful on a trip and felt so much like I missed the big one before. I’m like the cub reporter assigned to review Our American Cousin who’s so focused on the show I miss the events in the balcony. What to do? What to do?

More on that tomorrow.

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