Sunday, September 24, 2006

In Search of a Gray Kingbird

I had already planned on birding Sandy Hook today, but when a report of a Gray Kingbird came in on Saturday night, my plans went from casual birding to rarity chasing. Reports of possible bad storms couldn't stop me from chasing this ninth sighting of Gray Kingbird in NJ.

I met some friends at the northern-most parking lot at Sandy Hook at 7:00 AM, which meant I had to leave my house at 6:00! The north lot (known as K lot) leads to a number of good birding areas on Sandy Hook including the famed "Locust Grove" which is a migrant trap, the hawk watch platform, and the "Fisherman's Trail". The "Fisherman's Trail" is a half-mile long trail north to the beach overlooking Sandy Hook Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The trail is notoriously referred to as the "death march" due to it being made up of soft sand. The end of this trail also leads to a salt pond that attracts shorebirds. West of the pond is a large wooded area of cottonwoods, poison ivy, bayberry, and beach plum. This is where the Gray Kingbird had been seen. Here's a map of the salt pond.

We trekked our scopes out to the area where the bird had been seen. Mosquitos were AWFUL! We had been warned by the people who found the bird that they had been bad, but I wasn't expecting to be eaten alive. Deet wouldn't stop them one bit. Luckily, I wore my rain jacket as an extra bit of protection. All for a lifer I guess!

We arrived to find another birder already searching. He hadn't been successful. Instead of a Kingbird, we found several Merlins, a Kestrel, and a Cooper's Hawk perched on various snags out in the dunes. Could one of these birds be full from a Kingbird snack? Let's hope not!

We set up our scopes and continued to search diligently for the bird. A "Who's Who" of local birders showed up, all with a single intention. We searched up and down the dunes for several hours. Flickers were everywhere and a fly-by Phoebe led to a few gasps from the crowd after thinking we'd found our bird. Other birders were looking elsewhere on the Hook. The birder cell phone network was primed for a sighting.

Historically, Gray Kingbirds are notorious for staying briefly and moving to a new site. This bird was adhering to that traditional MO. Twenty-five birders had arrived by this time and no one had found the bird yet. After several hours, our group gave up the fight and decided to bird elsewhere. "There are other birds to see" was our attitude. We ended up birding some other areas and found some nice birds. At this point, the Kingbird has not been refound.

Interestingly, a Gray Kingbird had been found in Martha's Vineyard on September 7. Could this have been the same bird?


John said...

"Death March" is an apt description of the Fisherman's Trail. It always has good birds at the end, but the trek is tedious, especially in the warmer months.

Patrick Belardo said...

And especially wth the plethora of mosquitos that were there yesterday. I'd never seen it like that. But you're right, you're usually rewarded at the end. A friend and I have that area of the Hook for the Christmas Bird Counts. We always get some interesting birds.

LauraHinNJ said...

Where are these cottonwoods, Patrick? Towards the coast guard site?

Too bad you didn't get that bird.

Patrick Belardo said...

Hi Laura,

Yes, if you make a left at the end of the Fisherman's Trail, they are at the far, far end of the salt pond. I think the area where the bird was last seen was technically on Coast Guard property.