Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Birders reunited

Neither of us can remember exactly when it was that we last birded together, but we agree it was at least 30 years ago. Angus Wilson started at my north London school not long before I left in the late Seventies, and in that overlap we had some good birding moments (dipping the 1978 Lowestoft Franklin's Gull wasn't one of them, we recall). Having gone our separate ways we have since resumed intermittent contact through Birdwatch, and I have been a fan of Angus's Ocean Wanderers website for many years.

This morning, we meet again. We are birding around Angus's adopted home turf of New York, where he has lived since the mid-Nineties and served for the last 10 years as Chairman of its state records committee. We convene proceedings by searching for ... a Common Gull. It seems a bit peverse coming all this way and targeting such a familiar bird from back home, but of course Common Gull - as opposed to its North American sibling taxon Mew (or Short-billed) Gull - is a major rarity in North America, and a good 'bank' bird, as they say over here.

We don't find it along its favoured stretch of Brooklyn foreshore, but in sub-zero conditions we do come across three Purple Sandpipers - another species familiar from home, and in fact a North American tick for me. Offshore are Buffleheads, Greater Scaup and plenty of 'Brants' - Pale-bellied rather than Black - and the gathering of gulls that we do find gives plenty of opportunity to scrutinise adult and first-winter American Herring and Ring-billed Gulls.

Before long we are in Staten Island, again checking gulls, and this time looking for 'Lester', a regular wintering adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. As soon as we get out of the car Angus homes in on a nice graellsii along the beach beyond a squabbling group of American Herrings. Walking around the corner, past a Northern Mockingbird which looks as cold as I am, I pick up Lester again on the sea. Yet as we get back to the car, there he is again on the first beach. Qué? We split up and, sure enough, confirm that there are indeed two Lesser Black-backs here - a good local record, and an even better one for me as I nail another long-standing North American bogey bird.

Further on we find more Buffleheads, plus Horned (Slavonian) Grebe, Common Loon (Great Northern Diver) and Red-breasted Merganser, while in the scrub of a coastal park several Song Sparrows, two each of Blue Jay and Carolina Wren, and single Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers add further interest. We press on around the island to a spot where a young male Summer Tanager has been lingering, but these conditions are very far from summer and we speculate the bird has either moved on or perished. In compensation, for me at least, are a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a Tufted Titmouse, several American Mourning Doves and even more White-throated Sparrows.

The sight of the morning, however, has to be a particularly special tree which pulls in first a Red-bellied Woodpecker and then a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, which proceeds to feed eponymously on its arboreal nectar. As we watch this, first a female Downy Woodpecker and then a White-breasted Nuthatch join them, making for a fine spectacle on a sunny but freezing New York morning.

On the way back Angus and I swap birding stories, wonder what happened to our peers from the Seventies who drifted away from the birding game, and hope not to leave it another 30 years before we meet up again.

Photos from top: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and White-breasted Nuthatch.


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