2016 Year in review, including my New York State “Big Year”

The Western Grebe at Piermont Pier!

The Western Grebe at Piermont Pier!

Birders had a head start coming into the new year. December of 2015 had many rarities found throughout the state and a lot of them lingered into the New Year. With so many good birds just waiting to be seen, my friends and I raced around the state adding them to the new year’s list. Rarities we just couldn’t pass up included: Painted Bunting, Lark Sparrow, Black-headed Gull and Tufted Duck! Amazingly, I found that nearing the end of the first week of the year I had 96 species already. That seventh day, I struck out to find some more new birds. I first hit Weston Swamp in Ulster County then headed south to Piermont Pier. I had heard of some species being seen there that should put me over my goal. By 11 am I had gotten six new species, bringing my total to 102 species for the first week of the year! That wasn’t going to be the highlight of the week though. I decided to drive out along the pier one last time to see if any new waterfowl had come in. As I viewed four Bufflehead, only thirty feet from shore, an unimaginable WESTERN GREBE popped up right in the middle of them! This was the first time I had ever been the finder of this species in New York State! The word went out, and dozens of birders viewed this great bird over the next three days that it remained. An amazing 103 species for the first week of the year that included 5 Mega Rarities! I ended the month with 135 species, a January record for me.
February wasn’t as productive as January had been. It takes the changing of seasons to bring new birds in at that point, and that takes the passing of time. I only added 7 species in February, but once again amazingly, four of them were Mega Rarities! Thick-billed Murre, American White Pelican, Western Tanager and Bullock’s Oriole!
In March things picked up a bit. I added thirteen species that month and fortunately, a Barrow’s Goldeneye filled the rarity spot. March held a really special Mega Rarity for me outside of New York. A “REDWING” was discovered in New Hampshire, and I was fortunate enough to get up there to see it!
April provided a bit of a break from New York birding. Ed VanBuren and I traveled to Florida for a couple of weeks. Right before I left, Ken McDermott found a Caspian Tern at Washington Lake in Newburgh and I was able to get over and see it. Though there was a break from New York, the rarities continued! I traveled around Florida quite a bit while I was there, adding several new Florida birds to that state list. Among them, Pacific Golden-plover and Mangrove Cuckoo were new ABA birds for me. The best was yet to come! On April 19th, a CUBAN VIREO was discovered on Key West. I waited a day to see if the bird continued before I made the long trek to the keys. On April 21st I entered the park as it opened and had the bird before we were even through the gate. We could hear it singing and zoomed right over to it. I had many great looks and a few good photos by the end of the morning. Another highlight of that morning was getting to meet and bird with Sandy Komito of “The Big Year” fame! Upon my return to New York, birds were coming quickly as spring migration was in full swing.
May proved, as always, to be my second biggest month of the year. I tallied 83 new species that month. The “Mega Rarity” for the month came in the form of a new state bird for me, GRAY KINGBIRD! I traveled to Conesus Lake in western New York for this great bird. At that point, I admitted to myself that I was officially doing a big year! My year total at the end of May was a respectable 260 species, and I was right on track with my previous “Big Year” count from 2004. Things however, were about to make a change.
June arrived with high hopes and great expectations. Matt Zeitler and I had a pelagic trip scheduled for the 5th with a potential dozen birds to be added. We traveled to Long Island only to experience torrential rains and high winds and the ultimate cancellation of the trip. Though it was rescheduled for the following week, not enough participants could make the trip and it was again cancelled. All was not lost. As a nice consolation prize, we had a great day of birding on the island. In spite of the weather, we managed to find the BLACK-NECKED STILT out east and then zoomed back to Jamaica Bay for great looks at the WHITE-FACED IBIS that had been found earlier in the day. June would prove to be a real roller coaster ride. I began missing more birds than I was getting. After my second try for the GARGANEY at Montezuma NWR, I got that bird, my second new state bird of the year. Also after several tries this year, I finally got the YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT in Dutchess County. Several tries for Yellow-throated Warbler failed to produce the bird and I would never get it for the year. A trip to the Adirondacks later in the month provided some nice new year birds, giving me a decent total of 275 at the end of June.
July would be a tough month. There would be few new birds this month and those I got, I really had to dig for. I would add only three species this month and two of them required additional trips to Long Island. At that point I was wondering if I would be able to make it to my goal.
August proceeded at the same rate as July. The reality was that I hadn’t gotten a single new bird in nearly a month. Fortunately, Rob Stone found a pair of Blue Grosbeak in the Black Dirt Region of Orange County and I was able to see them. I still had to make some alternate plans to try to get some new birds. I talked with my friends and concluded that the loss of pelagic species was hurting our counts. I looked into our options and signed us up for the Viking Starship Whale Watch on August 22nd. Karen Miller, Lance Verderame, Matt Zeitler and I headed to Montauk where we ended up having a great day. We were able to add Great Shearwater, Corey’s Shearwater, Wilson’s Storm-petrel and Red-necked Phalarope that day! While not as productive as a true pelagic, it sure wasn’t bad and we had a great time. Right after the whale watch, some birds began to show up. The first good one was a Baird’s Sandpiper found by Matt Zeitler! It was soon followed by Pectoral Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and American Golden-plover. August had been salvaged!
September gave up a scant few birds, the best of which was a CONNECTICUTT WARBLER found by Rob Stone at Winding Waters. One of the best birds of the month for me was a LITTLE BLUE HERON found by Scott Baldinger and Bruce Nott at the Bashakill. This would prove to be my only new bird for Sullivan County this year! Another good bird for the month was the BROWN BOOBY found on Cayuga Lake, my third new state bird and one I never would have expected to get in New York. Even with those birds, I was really starting to get nervous. As good as the early part of the year had been, I had now fallen way off the pace of my previous “Big Year”. It now seemed in question if I would actually break 300 for the year. September ended with my total being 290 species, far behind 2004 pace.
October started off very slowly. I got an Orange-crowned Warbler on the second, and that was it for a while. Finally, late in the month, birds began to show up around the state. Once again I was heading north and then south for several trips. I missed some good birds, but was successful with others. I got a pair of Barnacle Geese upstate, a Cattle Egret with some help from my friend Sean Sime and Northern Shrike with some help from Tom Burke, Gail Benson and Curt McDermott. I ended the month with 298 species and lots of questions. Would there be a winter finch irruption this year? Would November be productive? Would December provide an abundance of rarities like the last two Decembers had? How far away would I have to travel? Could this still happen?
Fortunately, November started off with a bang. Birds once again appeared out of nowhere and I was able to make some successful chases! On the first of the month, Tom Burke found a VIRGINIA’S WARBLER at Marshlands Conservancy in Rye. I was able to get down there and see this great bird, only the second ever for New York, and now I had seen them both. The next day I was off and running again. I had heard that a PINK-FOOTED GOOSE and an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER had also both been found that same day. I headed right out to central Long Island where I easily picked up the Pink-footed Goose. I then headed to Marine Nature Park to make my sixth try this year for Eurasion Wigeon, only to be skunked again. From there I headed to Staten Island where I met Shai Mitra. He had just seen the flycatcher, but it had disappeared. We searched only a short time and it appeared again, giving great views and photo ops. The next night, Arlene Borko and I headed up to the Summitville Hawk Watch site, where we were able to call in two Northern Saw-whet Owls. Those couple of days had done it. The Pink-footed Goose was number 300 for the year! I could breathe again! November 6th found me running again when a HUDSONIAN GODWIT was found in Dutchess County! I was able to find it quite easily and I was grateful for that. That would be it for a while. I was going to be away in Florida again for a couple of weeks, so the year was again on hold. At least the pressure was off with my now total of 302 species.
December had some really great birds, but the abundance of rarities of the last two Decembers wouldn’t happen. That said, I was really happy with what I got. The first great bird was in the form of a RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD! I had chased this species back in August and missed it by moments when it departed, never to return. Lance Verderame and I traveled to eastern Long Island and it was sweet success after the first disappointment. Talk about sweet success, we also got the EURASIAN WIGEON at Pepperidge Pond in Eastport that day! Seventh times a charm! My next flurry of birds occurred when three EVENING GROSBEAKS showed up at Scott Baldinger’s feeders! Scott has had them in the past, but it’s been a few years, so I was thrilled when he called! The very next day I was watching some finches at Sue Rayano’s house when a beautiful adult NORTHERN GOSHAWK flew through trying to catch some starlings! What a great bird and he stuck around just long enough for some great looks! Finally, on December 21st, Karen Miller and I ran one more time to Long Island to try for a pair of ROSS’S GEESE that had been found at Robert Moses State Park. They were gone when we arrived, but some time spent searching the island provided enough time for them to return to the spot they had originally been found! The next ten days were tough! I searched all our local counties in vain for winter finches, that never materialized, and any other rarity that might show. With Christmas and the Christmas Bird Counts, time to chase birds very far was running out. I still needed Razorbill and King Eider, both missed earlier in the year. Both were being seen sporadically, one at Montauk Point the other at Orient Point, but I just couldn’t fit the trip in. 2016 is now over and my years total is 307 species!

As you can imagine, I covered an extensive amount of territory in New York during my “Big Year”. Here are some facts about my year that you might find interesting:
I traveled well over 30,000 miles in the state during the year.
I made 26 trips to Long Island, 5 trips to the Finger Lakes Region, 1 trip to Western New York and 1 trip to the Adirondacks. I made countless trips around Region 9.
I made 1 Pelagic Trip (whale watch)
I had 307 species during the year including 3 new state birds: Gray Kingbird, Garganey and Brown Booby. This brought my New York State list to 404 species! Though not a lifer or new state bird, my pick for bird of the year is the very cooperative WESTERN GREBE I found back in January.
In Sullivan County I added one new county bird. This was obviously the county bird of the year, Little Blue Heron bringing my county list to 282.
Outside of New York State I had a great year too! I added four new birds to my ABA list: REDWING (lifer), Pacific Golden-plover, Mangrove Cuckoo and CUBAN VIREO (lifer).  Though I had always dreamed of seeing the Redwing, The Cuban Vireo, a first North American record, was the obvious choice for my ABA bird of the year. This brought my ABA list to 682!
In looking back over the year, it was clear why I didn’t reach a higher state total. The loss of the pelagic trip had cost me at least eight species. While there is no guarantee that I would have gotten all of them, I certainly would have seen most of the birds needed. The second area that failed to produce was the “winter finches”. Both Red and White-winged Crossbills, Pine Grosbeak, Common and Hoary Redpolls and Bohemian Waxwing failed to turn up anywhere I could get them. I actually chased Red Crossbill twice, but missed them both times. The total of fourteen species missed in these two groups is clearly what kept my total down. My original goal was to exceed my “Big Year” total from 2004. I had gotten 318 species that year and hoped to get more birds than that this year. Even though I didn’t reach that goal, it was a fantastic year of birding with many great birds seen and a lot of fun time in the field with great birding friends.
I’d like to thank all the people I’ve mentioned in this summary for all the help and support they provided me during the course of this exciting year. I certainly couldn’t have done it without them! I’d also like to give a special thanks to Lance Verderame and Karen Miller for their endless support. I wish you all a Happy New Year and many great birds!

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6 Responses to 2016 Year in review, including my New York State “Big Year”

  1. Wow John, what a year! You really did get so many great birds, and I was wondering how many miles you put on your car! As always, thanks so much for sharing your birding adventures, they are both entertaining and inspiring. Happy New Year! Matt

  2. scott baldinger says:

    Congrats John on your great year! As always i appreciate all your help this year in alerting me and in most cases getting some great birds in our area. Wishing you and Eddie a Happy and Healthy New Year and looking forward to a great 2017!

  3. Thanks Matt, I’m looking forward to reading your year report too! Always great birding with you and thanks for your part in my Big Year! John

  4. Scott,
    Your the best ! Always have a great time birding with you and glad we get to share all of our great finds! Happy New Year! John

  5. Kathleen Ashman says:

    Loved reading about your great year of birding, the successes as well as the frustrations. Looking forward to seeing what 2017 will have in store for you. Happy New Year, John.

  6. Thanks Kathy, much appreciated! I look forward to what it holds for all of us, there’s always some great birds! Happy New Year, John

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