Documenting the Birding Adventures of Scott Whittle
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Rarities from the Far East (Pond)
On Friday around mid-day I got a call from Shai Mitra...Red-Necked Stint at the East Pond of Jamaica Bay. Wow! There have been four accepted Red-Necked Stints in NY State, and this bird was on my list of "True Rarities" for NY. While I still have a few birds to see that just haven't been around because of the time of year, it's the rarities that make up the "luck" component of my Big Year and will determine how many birds I actually see, and it's the rarities that are becoming more of a focus as the year rolls on.
Out the door in less than five minutes, in the car and speeding to Jamaica. I called to reschedule one of the business meetings that I was going to miss. Then I called Shane, who was in the group who found the bird (the actual person who spotted it was Doug Gochfeld; Rob Jett and Bob Kurtz were there as well)...at the time they were not seeing the bird, but I decided to keep going and hope it turned back up. When I was about 20 minutes away I got a call from Rob that they had rediscovered the bird and were on it...I hit the parking lot and ran, putting on my gear as I went, but stopped dead when I saw that there was a large group of peeps right at the muddy entrance to the pond. I couldn't see the other birders and in my hurry I'd left my cell phone in the car. I couldn't see well out onto the pond, so for all I knew the Stint could be right here...I glassed the birds as best I could and didn't see anything obvious. Of course, Stints can be a difficult ID. I moved forward slowly, but there was no way not to flush the peeps...they took off as I reached the edge of the pond. Thankfully, I saw that the birders were actually some distance away and scoping the opposite bank. I trotted over along the muddy edge (straying from the edge of the East Pond can lead to dire, mucky consequences) and was soon with them. Bob gave me a quick look through his scope, and then I set up my own. And there it was...bright and beautiful, feeding on the far shore. The looks weren't ideal--we were several hundred yards away--but the bird was in good breeding plumage and really stood out with its bright orangey-red across its face and neck. I took a lot of very poor photos, and then thanked everyone and trotted back, hoping to make it back to NYC for another meeting I had.
On Sunday I went back to Jamaica Bay, this time with Tom Stephenson and two of his friends, one of whom works for the Natural History Museum, and the other who works for the airlines and is doing a world-wide big year around urban areas. They wanted to see the Stint, and I was happy to go back, so were were wading out on the East Pond again around 8:30. This time the scene was quite different--the word had gone out, and there were fifty or more birders all parked on one side of the pond, and scoping in different directions. Seeing the scopes pointing different ways is not a good sign...if the bird is there, you should see everyone aiming at it. All the regulars of the New York birding world were there, including a few people who had driven down from Upstate. It was a festival atmosphere, everyone coming together over their shared excitement, and although you wouldn't want to be birding with fifty people every day, it's great fun every on special occasions.
And there is a special benefit to having that many eyes in one place. Commonly referred to as the Patagonian Picnic Table Effect (after Patagonia, Arizona, a famous birding locale), when you have a lot of birders in one place, stuff gets seen that might not have been otherwise. And we got a great example of that: before we had arrived, Seth Ausebel spotted a Sharp-Tailed Sandpiper. That bird is one of the few he could have seen that is actually rarer than the Stint for NY State (only 2 accepted records). It was not currently being seen, but it was likely on the pond somewhere, so we started looking. Happily, the Stint reappeared, and many people got first-time-ever views through their scopes. A group of us then moved South, scoping as we went. After twenty or thirty minutes a birds was seen across the pond resembling a Pectoral Sandpiper...that's very close to a Sharp-Tail. The light was poor, and the distance wasn't ideal, but after some close examination by the experts among us, and with a little change in light and angle, it was determined to in fact be the Sharp-Tailed. I got some more long-distance shots, and then turned back, only to find that the Stint had flown to our side of the Pond. We were able to get withing twenty feet of the bird, and got much more satisfying looks that I had on Friday, as well as much better photos.
To have two rarities like that on the same day in the same place is spectacular. Both birds are from Asia, and either one showing up anywhere in the lower 48 is significant. To have both is one of those moments that birders will talk about for years to come, and it reaffirms the legendary status of Jamaica Bay as one of the best spots for rarities in New York.
My name is Scott Whittle and I'm a professional photographer (www.scottwhittle.com). I have an MFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I started birding as a teenager, and then dropped it for many years. I started to bird again in 2007, and have been birding since then in Brooklyn, NY and Cape May, NJ.