Here are some of the awkward facts from the past few days:
The lessons of the past.
Not so long ago, I seldom encountered other birders during my visits to the sand and mud flats around Moriches Inlet, Long Island, but nowadays their prominence has expanded greatly, each interesting discovery there is followed up by many, and the flats are often crowded.
This area has a venerable history of ornithological exploration, from Giraud's mid 19th Century shooting trips, which produced numerous significant records at a time when the avifauna of North America as a whole was still very imperfectly known; to J. T. Nicholl's early 20th Century studies, often still in the guise of shooting trips, but also motivated by and intimately bound up with our nation's hard-fought political battles for the legal protection of wild birds; to the festive mid 20 Century boating outings by the Moriches Bay Audubon Society, still recalled first-hand by many; to the present day, whose rapidly accelerating field coverage and burgeoning datasets for scores of marsh-, shore-, and seabirds can be read at will in online eBird range maps.
My fascination with Moriches Inlet began in the mid-90s, when I was first discovering Long Island's unique geographic and sociological scene. Long Island's array of beaches, inlets, and baymouth bars reminded me of my childhood haunts in Rhode Island, but on a much larger scale, and one of my first personal projects here involved deciphering how the various inlets compared and contrasted with one another, using bird occurrence as the most personally appealing and natural approach. In those early years, 1996-99, I was spending most of my time around Fire Island Inlet, but I relished exploring the others, from Breezy Point to Napeague, as opportunities presented themselves. Like all active birders in this part of the world, I understood the enormous ornithological potential of Jamaica Bay, Jones Beach, Shinnecock Inlet, and Mecox Bay; but my field effort has always tended to focus, for both practical and analytical reasons, on Fire Island, the largest and most majestic of Long Island's outer beaches, and on the two inlets that bracket it: Fire Island Inlet and Moriches Inlet.
Dick Veit spurred many of my early visits to the Moriches Inlet flats, in searches for seabirds after hurricanes, and for shorebirds during migration. We used to visit mostly by small boats, rented from outfits such as Silly Lilly on the "mainland" bayshore. One of the first times I ever stepped across the gunwale of one of those boats, I remember Dick warning me with mock urgency—"Be careful not to cut your bait!"--only to look down and read the faded admonition, blandly stenciled on the plank seat: "DON'T CUT BAIT ON SEAT." We timed our visits during the peaks of shorebird migration, and we had a lot of fun.
Spending time outdoors on the south shore of Long Island one will see a lot of interesting things. We once found a Glossy Ibis with a large clam clamped onto its foot, which was so inconvenienced that we captured it and decided to help it. With ibis (and clam) in hand, we realized that someone had to get hurt; I ran back to the boat for a knife, and we decided to injure the hapless mollusc to save our vertebrate kin. Another wildlife sighting was less tragicomedic but far more influential in my life: on 19 July 1998, we found a tern sitting on a sandbar that looked like it was in winter plumage. We deduced that it was a yearling, or first-summer, bird, and Dick said, "That's a Roseate Tern—I don't know if I've ever seen one in this plumage before." We noted a couple of same-aged Common Terns later that day, and an idea formed in my mind.
I was intimately familiar with both Common and Roseate Terns, having grown up birding among them, and with his much greater experience, Dick had seen far more of them than I. How could it be that yearlings should be so generally scarce that I'd never really noticed them before? And given that, how were we able to find and study them here, on this day, when, seemingly by chance, the urge to do so had struck us and diverted us from dowitchers, knots, etc., etc.?
These questions were still with me a year later on 13 June 1999 when, with Patricia Lindsay, I discovered a first-summer Arctic Tern at Fire Island Inlet--and a year after that, on 13-14 June 2000, when we found four more sub-adult Arctic Terns there. In those days, almost nobody had ever recorded this species on Long Island (P. A. Buckley and Tony Lauro were two major exceptions). As difficult as it is to imagine now, Arctic Tern was regarded then as a mega-rarity here—so much so that the authorities basically chucked me under the chin when I tried to explain that the two birds of 14 June were actually different from those of 13 June (see NYSARC #2000-64-A), and I was greeted with ponderous and nearly implacable skepticism when I found another at Mecox Bay around Memorial Day 2004. For better or worse, that scene was a huge twitch, of Ken and Sue Feustel's Bar-tailed Godwit, and a positive side of this was that Andy Guthrie arrived later and managed some, at that time fairly novel, digital photos. But the code had been cracked: check the flats and bars around the inlets during June and early July--not just during the peaks of shorebird migration--and look for sub-adult birds! Pat and I used this approach to find another Arctic Tern at Moriches Inlet on 3 July 2005, and the formula has yielded scores more in the years since.