A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Sunday, 10 January 2016

New York Trip Report - Day 9 (Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge)

Day 9 -  Friday 29th May 2015

With our final full day in America dawning, we had planned to visit Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a fantastic series of coastal and lagoon pools that offer prime habitat for a variety of water birds, many of which would be new to the trip. With reports of herons, egrets and a wealth of shore birds, this was a location that we were really looking forward to exploring.  With coastal marshes and lagoons, the habitat at Jamaica was completely different to what we had experienced so far, and we were aiming to bring our trip total of new birds up to 100 as a result.
Jamaica Bay, New York
The view of Manhattan from Jamaica Bay
Arriving at the visitor centre mid-morning, the lady at the desk promptly banned us from taking any food on to the reserve, so we quickly tucked in to everything we had brought with us at the picnic tables outside. This proved to be a good move, as several large crows flying overhead identified themselves by a series of low grunts – diagnostic of Fish Crows and our first new species of the day.

Having finished our snacks, we headed in to the reserve, following the trail between Black Wall Marsh and West Pond to see what we could find. Several egrets on the coastal marsh were Snowy Egrets, the American equivalent of our Little Egrets and another new species for us both. 
Snowy Egret - Jamaica Bay, New York
Snowy Egret
Much smaller than the scattering of Great Egrets interspersed along the marsh and extremely similar to our more familiar Littles, Snowy Egrets can be separated by the yellow lores underneath the eye (grey in those of the Little). 
Snowy Egret and Great Egret - Jamaica Bay, New York
Snowy Egret and Great Egret displaying the size difference between the two!
Snowy Egret - Jamaica Bay, New York
The yellow lores clearly visible
Now we’re aware of the differences, we’ll definitely be checking each Little Egret in the UK a little more thoroughly for any Snowies hiding amongst them unnoticed!

Tree Swallows were in abundance at Jamaica Bay, and several zipped over our heads before landing in the nearby trees, giving fantastic views of their shimmering turquoise feathers. 
Tree Swallow - Jamaica Bay, New York
Tree Swallow - Jamaica Bay, New York
Tree Swallow - Jamaica Bay, New York
Tree Swallow
The most attractive swallows we saw during our trip, it was amazing to come across several nest boxes in use at the side of the path where the adults could be seen regularly peeking out of the holes and perching on the top.
Tree Swallow - Jamaica Bay, New York
Tree Swallow - Jamaica Bay, New York
Walking further down the path, the trail was alive with birds – a House Wren called from the top of a shrub, while another Empidonax Flycatcher frustratingly didn’t call - we were still yet to nail any of these down to specific species level. 
Empidonax Species - Jamaica Bay, New York
Unidentified Empid!
Empidonax Species - Jamaica Bay, New York
Empidonax Species - Jamaica Bay, New York
Boat-tailed Grackles were also in abundance here, and we saw several as the day progressed. With a much larger and wider tail than the more familiar Common Grackles we had become accustomed to, and having a much bluer and glossier all-over sheen to the plumage, they were easy to differentiate, and we enjoyed great views as one perched in a nearby tree calling.
Boat-tailed Grackle - Jamaica Bay, New York
Boat-tailed Grackle
A breach in the sea defences caused by the devastating Hurricane Sandy back in 2012 meant we were unable to pass any further along the circular trail, so we stopped to scan the banks to see what we could find.

Several small waders scurrying along the shoreline of West Pond revealed themselves to be Semipalmated Sandpipers
Semipalmated Sandpipers - Jamaica Bay, New York
Semipalmated Sandpipers - Jamaica Bay, New York
Semipalmated Sandpipers
Relatively abundant over the Atlantic, I’ve yet to see one in the UK, so this masterclass in Semi-P identification was extremely welcome. 
Semipalmated Sandpipers - Jamaica Bay, New York
The anchor shaped dark centres of the scapulars and wing-coverts are a key identifying feature
Semipalmated Sandpipers - Jamaica Bay, New York
The slight webbing between the toes that gives Semipalmated Sandpipers their name was also clear to see
Semipalmated Sandpipers - Jamaica Bay, New York
We watched these small waders hurrying busily along the water’s edge, before focusing on several terns on a nearby sandbank. A pure white belly and with a much more orange bill than the Common Terns we are so familiar with, it was apparent that these were the very similar Forster’s Terns, regulars here at Jamaica Bay and another new species for the trip.
Forster's Tern - Jamaica Bay, New York
Forster's Tern
Checking the water for the recently reported Yellow-crowned Night Heron unfortunately drew a blank, with just the regular Black-crowned Night Herons in residence while we were there. A bright brown and green coloured heron soaring through the reeds for a brief moment was also frustratingly too quick to identify.

Suddenly Alex called out that he had just seen a Brown Thrasher fly across the path. Seeing just a brown blur, panic then ensued as we tried to relocate it. After a tense few moments, a large brown spotted bird popped up on a branch in front of us, singing its heart out. 
Brown Thrasher - Jamaica Bay, New York
Brown Thrasher
Having heard the song for the past 5 minutes, but not being familiar with singing Brown Thrashers, we hadn’t realised it had been so close-by the whole time. Brown Thrasher was a species I had been looking forward to connecting with in America, and until now it had so far eluded us. However, despite the scarcity in the city parks, they seemed to be pretty common here at Jamaica Bay, and we saw several during the day taking advantage of the many treetop vantage points to serenade us with their song.
Brown Thrasher - Jamaica Bay, New York
With the path ahead blocked and unpassable, we returned to the visitor centre to take the long trail around to the other side of West Pond. Brightly coloured Yellow Warblers flitted through the trees, (the most abundant warbler here by far) while the usual American Redstarts and Common Yellowthroats skulked from branch to branch.
Yellow Warbler - Jamaica Bay, New York
Yellow Warbler
Hearing that Black-billed Cuckoos were apparently nesting further up the trail, even being seen that very morning, we eagerly hurried in that direction to try and add the second Cuckoo species to our list. However, with no sign all day, and with a pair of Brown Thrashers frequenting the area the cuckoos were reportedly seen in, we quickly became sceptical as to just how truthful these claims were! No reports on e-bird of Black-billed Cuckoos at Jamaica Bay since (or in fact on that day) would also add weight to that theory!

Despite the lack of Cuckoos, we more than made up for it with a beautiful White-eyed Vireo, the piercing white eye firmly cementing it as my favourite vireo species of the trip (our only sighting of this stunning bird). 
White-eyed Vireo - Jamaica Bay, New York
White-eyed Vireo peeking out of the leaves
Staying faithful to a small clearing near a bench, we watched as it hopped from branch to branch, tantalisingly too quick for many photos as it danced around our lenses and disappeared to its next perch before we could press the shutters!
White-eyed Vireo - Jamaica Bay, New York
Dreadful record shots were all I could manage!
Looking up, we luckily managed to jam in to a medium sized raptor circling overhead, reminiscent of our harriers back home – a Northern Harrier. Split by ABA classifications for some time although only recently by the BOU, Nothern Harriers are a separate species and considered different from our counterpart Hen Harriers. We just managed a few record snaps before it drifted east, swallowed up by the trees obscuring our view.
Northern Harrier - Jamaica Bay, New York
Northern Harrier
Empidonax Flycatcher - Jamaica Bay, New York
Unidentified Empid Flycatcher!
Arriving at the lake and trying to catch up with yet another unidentifiable and silent flycatcher, I caught sight of a Tree Swallow mobbing something small streaming past the bench we were sat on – Ruby-throated Hummingbird!! Getting Alex on it, we both watched as this tiny marvel bombed past, still pursued by the Tree Swallow in a bright flash of blues and greens. Over in an instant, and despite the fact we had already seen one at Doodletown, this was still a personal highlight for me. Ruby-throated Hummingbird being a top 3 target for us both, it was great to actually find one ourselves completely out of the blue.

We soon arrived at the lake, and a quick scan of the marsh opposite revealed large numbers of egrets, but sadly no Yellow-crowned Night Herons. A glimpse of a medium sized all slate-grey heron sparked my interest, but as is often the way, it landed out of sight behind a creek. Heading further up the track to try and gain a better vantage point unfortunately drew a blank, until a visiting American birder informed us he’d just had a Little Blue Heron fly over and on to the main lake! With the real possibility that this could have been our mystery grey heron, we joined up and scanned the lakeside.

Two ducks sleeping in the middle of the lake proved on closer inspection to be Black Ducks, while several waders scurrying across the exposed mud to the left were our first Willets of the trip. Superficially like godwits, it is surely only a matter of time before the first Willet makes it to British mudflats!
Black Ducks - Jamaica Bay, New York
Black Duck - Jamaica Bay, New York
Black Ducks - the darker colouration was obvious even from a distance
Our scanning was suddenly interrupted by a shout of ‘Tricoloured Heron’ and we looked up to see a magnificent heron flying slowly overhead, the black and white underside distinctive and the rich chestnut back and head bobbing with each flap of the wings. Landing on the opposite bank, we managed some very distinct record shots of yet another new bird for the trip.
Tricoloured Heron - Jamaica Bay, New York
The very definition of a record shot - Tricoloured Heron!
Something large caught my eye circling distantly above the heron, and questioning the identity we asked our new companion. “Glossy Ibis” came the confident reply. Having seen several Glossy Ibis in Britain I was unconvinced, this looked distinctly heron like, and had an overall slate grey/powder blue plumage with no distinct features. Questioning again, we soon realised my uncertainty had been justified, as it dawned on us that this was our Little Blue Heron! We watched as it continued to circle, neck slightly outstretched and constantly gaining height until it flew further east - another addition to our ever growing list.

We continued on to the Hurricane Sandy flood breach, this time viewing from the opposite direction. Another Willet gave fantastic views whilst pottering along the tideline with more Semi-Ps, while a couple of Forster’s Terns sat on the sand just a few metres away. 
Willet - Jamaica Bay, New York
Willet - Jamaica Bay, New York
Forster's Tern - Jamaica Bay, New York
Forster's Tern
Another unusual wader soon caught our eye, very similar to our Ringed plovers but lacking the double black line of a Killdeer. It could only be one thing – a Semipalmated Plover, the American equivalent to our Ringed Plovers. Nearly identical, there are a few subtle differences to take note of if good views are obtained. The black and white head markings seem to be a tad bolder on Ringed Plovers, while Semipalmated Plovers have a very narrow yellow eye-ring. Another sure fire way of separation is that Ringed Plovers only have webbing between 2 toes – Semipalmated on the other hand have webbing between all 3 (although amazingly good views will need to be obtained to get a good look at their feet!) Probably vastly overlooked in the UK, we at least now know the subtle features to look out for when checking through Ringed Plovers on the beaches back home!

Our walk back to the visitor centre revealed no new birds, although another flycatcher species frustratingly didn’t call – these flycatchers were sadly going to elude us right to the end!
Unidentified Flycatcher - Jamaica Bay, New York
Another unidentified flycatcher!
A trip across the road to the adjacent ponds also failed to turn up anything new for the day, but the water here was teeming with birds, including a female Ruddy Duck (actually native!) and several Shovelers. More Forster’s Terns hovered in front of us feeding, while several Glossy Ibis made their way through the mud at the water’s edge. Calling in at the wooden hide overlooking a small pond revealed a roosting spot for several well camouflaged Night Herons, but our Yellow-crowned once again eluded us. A Garter Snake basking on the boardwalk was our first reptile of the trip, and we saw a second slithering through the leaves as we headed back to meet our scheduled taxi at the car park.
Forster's Tern - Jamaica Bay, New York
Forster's Tern fishing
With our total lifers for the trip now exceeding 100 birds thanks to Jamaica Bay, the day had been a huge success and it had been well worth venturing further out of the city to visit this coastal oasis. Heading back to our hotel happy, we enjoyed a final Italian pizza that night before getting ready for our flight home the next day. 
Broadway, New York

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