Jamaica Bay Trip Report: Shorebirds and Heat

We had decided on Saturday, July 23rd for our trip to Jamaica Bay, NY for a while as our next club trip. But, we had no idea how hot it would be that day. We arrived at the visitor center at around 8:00 AM, where I met up with Brendan, Jory, Aidan and Brendan’s dad. We had decided to take a break from birding in CT to check out some of the great shorebirds that are attracted to the southern shores of Queens, NY. It may only be July, but shorebirds that have gave up on their nests early are already on their way south, and we would see them in massive numbers. Jamaica Bay is also home to lots of other wading birds such as herons, and many species of terns and skimmers. Gull-billed Tern, which would be a lifer for all of us except Brendan, was a good target. Personally, I was hoping to get my New York state list up to 200, since it was at 186 and I’d never birded in NYC or near the coast before. We picked up Black Skimmer and Forster’s Tern (state birds for me), both hard to find in Connecticut, before we even left the parking lot, a display of Jamaica Bay’s unique value.

We immediately started down on the trail up to the West Pond, stopping when we had viewpoints of the pond itself. The trail wasn’t too bad, as we added a Brown Thrasher and a bunch of Eastern Towhees in the brush. Terns were constantly flying over, and we quickly picked up on how much more common Forster’s was than Common here. Thorough scanning didn’t yield any Gull-bills yet, but we did add both species of night-herons fairly quickly. Hoping to have 60 or 70 total species on the day, even Willow Flycatchers and Glossy Ibises were good ticks. Another bird that is hard to find in CT, Boat-tailed Grackle, proved to be pretty common.

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We spent some time photographing Forster’s Terns at the West Pond. This one was taken by Aidan.

The West Pond isn’t very shallow so we didn’t have many shorebirds there (many congregate at East Pond), but we did hear Least Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs on the trail. Most of the West Pond trail was closed off, so we quickly made our way back to the visitor center.

One cool non-bird we had at the visitor center was a Swamp Darner, an enormous dragonfly that I had never seen before. This widespread resident of wetland habitats was stuck in some netting near the windows (to keep birds from colliding with the glass) and we eventually helped get it out, enjoying good views of this massive bug. Unsure of what to do next, we decided to head to the East Pond and its surrounding trails. The Big Johns Pond, a smaller pond near the East Pond, got us some good looks at towhees, catbirds and night-herons. We added a couple new species at East Pond such as Gadwall (which nests here). We saw tons of shorebirds in the distance, but we couldn’t really access them so we decided to look for another viewpoint later. The light still wasn’t great for scoping them, so we decided to spend some time doing the rest of West Pond and check those shorebirds later.

The West Pond trail was incredibly long, and it was a mistake to have brought all our scopes along. It was very hot and we didn’t use them much, so they only made us feel more dehydrated and tired. We did get really close to an eastern diamondback terrapin laying its eggs on some sandy beach; unfortunately this turtle was a little late in its nesting. We got some photos and quickly moved on. Some Brants were nearby, another solid bird for the day. We heard a couple Marsh Wrens, which wasn’t bad at all. Some more shorebirds were on the other side of the trail, but they were just Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers. It was about 12:30 PM now, and by the time we returned back to the parking lot, we were incredibly thirsty and tired. A lunch break was in order, but after that we were ready to scour the East Pond shorebirds for a rarity.

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Brendan photographed this terrapin laying eggs. Right now it’s probably hiding them below some dirt. It is a little late in the season to be laying eggs, but hopefully it does well.

All sorts of awesome birds danced in our head as we made our way to East Pond. Ruff? Avocet? Western Sandpiper? What if we got a stint? How many Stilt Sandpipers will we see? The Gull-billed Terns have been seen there, what if we get them? Unfortunately, it took us a while to actually find the place with access to the pond. More useless walking around with no water and scopes on our backs wasn’t good for us, and we got a little annoyed as we became lost on some random trail. The temperature had made its way into the triple-digits, and the sun was relentlessly shining.

Finally we got to the correct viewpoint. Shorebirds were everywhere, and there was a huge group of terns and gulls farther out on the mudflat. Even with our boots on, we still learned the hard way that some of the mud was too deep to walk in, but we found a good place to start scanning. Very quickly, we picked up a large, odd shorebird in the distance. Was this our Ruff? We watched its odd, side-to-side feeding motion with eager excitement, only to realize that the bird was just a yellowlegs. This would happen later with a different bird, when I noticed another yellowlegs that looked very Ruff-like in its feeding motion. Unfortunately, these birds both had to be dismissed. But we did have lots of Stilt Sandpipers! Hanging out with the yellowlegs, we separated them by their more curved bills, smaller size and more brightly marked facial pattern.

IMG_8828PS Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper by Jory

They are also more willing to wade deeper into the mud, making them look even shorter. Many of these birds were coming quite close, and they allowed for some great photography. Jory had came prepared for photos, bringing long pants (in 100 degree heat?!) and a camera holder for laying down in the mud. It was worth it – look at these shorebird pictures! I took some photos, but most of my time was spent behind the scope.

We spent a long time scanning these birds. A couple times our hearts jumped when we thought we had a Gull-billed Tern, but I was too unfamiliar with this bird to realize that juvenile Forster’s can have pretty thick black bills! Thankfully Brendan helped with a lot of the IDs on the terns. Feeling very thirsty and tired, we pushed on and decided to walk out into the mud a little farther. We noticed a large flock of dowitchers to go with tons of peeps, yellowlegs and Semipalmated Plovers. Unfortunately, we turned up nothing, and gave up. But we did get a taste of some truly awesome shorebirding even this early in the season, leaving us only to imagine how good this could be in late August. If you’d like to view our eBird checklist, just click here.

IMG_8842PS Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper by Jory Teltser. When it’s next to these Lesser Yellowlegs, you can really tell the difference – the Stilt is the second from the right.

-Peter

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