By Jenny Noble
“Ornithology. Just the word sounds dorky!” observes Aaron Virgin, VP of Group for the East End and self-proclaimed “bird nerd”. But like most birders out east, there’s nothing nerdy about him. Sure, birders have a penchant for making check lists and collecting data. And they can be obsessively competitive. But mostly, they’re people who like being outside and are curious about the world around them.
The sheer spectacle of migratory birds coming through Long Island in the spring can turn anyone into a birder. While we have hundreds of noteworthy year round species, it’s the bright, colorful songbirds coming up from Central and South America (the “Neo-tropical migrants”) and the return of thousands of water fowl that give spring it’s unique flavor.
Everything is moving north starting with the osprey who birders love. Like the crocus to the gardener, they’re the first sign that spring is finally here. Then come the phoebes, kinglets, wrens and the gem of all songbirds, the warblers.
Most migrating birds have an ephemeral quality. The rose-breasted grosbeak, indigo bunting and 23 species of warbler land here for less than a week. The Red Knot, migrating from Argentina, stops to eat only once its entire journey. The Arctic Tern flies 9,000 miles from Tierra Del Fuego in Patagonia to the Arctic Circle, and stops here for only a day or two.
May is when you’ll catch the most migratory birds. “ If you want to really optimize your luck”, says Joe Guinta, who averages 2 to 4 hours bird watching daily (year round!) “…May 12th is the most perfect day.”
Out here, we don’t get as many birds as the mainland does, but we pick up many more unusual birds. The vagrants that get blown off course or accidentally follow another flock. “Exotic accidents happen all the time around here,” says birder Bruce Horwith. “A western tanager that’s not supposed to be east of the Mississippi will show up in a birdfeeder in Montauk.”
You don’t need to know precisely what you’re looking at to be entertained by bird antics. During early spring courtship, bald eagles lock their talons (feet) together and fall towards the ground, separating just before hitting it. The male red tail hawk offers the female a stick. If she accepts the stick (and its provider), it becomes the first stick with which she builds her nest. Paragon Falcons swoop from high to knock other birds to the ground, exceeding 200 m.p.h. and hugging their wings in like a torpedo (Not an example of courtship).
Start by going out with a group. It’s easier. All you need to bring are a guidebook, binoculars and some patience. For a huge selection of gear, not to mention over 50 styles of birdhouses, check out Wild Bird Crossing in Bridgehampton.
While Peterson’s Field Guide (and Sibley’s) are considered essential, they can feel arcane and difficult to navigate. Instead, the iPhone app iBird ($20) has many more photos and drawings, is constantly being updated, and comes with hundreds of bird calls. Stuart Lowry uses his to attract the Eastern Screech Owl. “You just whip out the iPhone, play it’s exact hoot back into the sky and soon it’ll be swooping back and forth over you looking for its new simulated friend”.
Keep track of what you find with a Birds of the South Fork check list (1$ at SoFo). Also visit the highly engaging All About Birds section of Cornell.ornothology.com. Here, you’ll learn how to identify birds not so much by “field marks” (the details), but by studying the overall gestalt of the bird. It’s silhouette, walk, flight pattern…does it bounce through the air or glide? Bob it’s head up and down like a sewing machine when it eats? Etc.
Grace Estate in East Hamptons is prime birding territory because the inland canopy is low enough to spot a lot of forest birds and then winds down to the bay and its coastal species. Montauk Point is a festival of migrating ducks in early spring. Mecox is feeding grounds for shore birds just after they’ve opened the cut. Other optimal spots include Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island, Hither Hills, Cedar Point and Barcelona Neck in Sag Harbor.
Bird population has fallen by over half since the 1960s. One of the greatest threats out here is cats. Imagine being a little yellow warbler flying 3,000 miles from Columbia to lay a nest. You finally hatch four eggs and then a cat comes along kills them all. If you’re an animal lover, keep your cat indoors.
Many birders describe birding as a sort of extended meditation. In holding still long enough to focus completely on a tiny brilliant flutter of wings or distant peep, we let the bird subdue the cacophony of our own hectic lives.