Sunday, April 27, 2014

Willow Ptarmigan in Three Mile Bay, New York

The Mission and How It Unfolded:

Photo Credit: Eugene D. Nichols - This is the first photograph of
what will likely become the 1st NYS record of Willow Ptarmigan
On Thursday evening, April 24, 2014, I received a pix message from my friend Eugene Nichols looking for some ID assistance on an "odd looking white bird that flew like a grouse?" I nearly dropped my phone when I saw photos of what looked like a ptarmigan. He perfectly described what may have been either a Rock or Willow Ptarmigan. "All white, black outer tail feathers, feathering throughout legs and feet, etc." Eugene is very observant, a great naturalist, and lives on Point Peninsula. He was making his evening waterfowl rounds when he noticed this odd bird and luckily he managed to grab some photos with his phone. I urged him to share the photos with his friend and colleague, Jeff Bolsinger and it wasn't long before Eugene and Jeff had Friday morning plans to try and relocate and well document this suspicious looking Ptarmigan. For those that might be wondering; A Willow Ptarmigan is a "chicken-like" upland game bird that spends its life in the arctic tundra and its a really big deal when one is seen in the lower 48.

Reality hadn't quite hit me yet until the Friday morning text exchanges with Eugene. "He and Jeff had relocated the bird and Jeff was getting great documentation shots." This is when the wheels started turning and my brain would be consumed by the thought of driving up to Point Peninsula and seeing this rare visitor of the northern tundra. I almost dropped what I was doing and left mid-morning but decided I'd take a deep breath and finish out the work week. At this point, early afternoon had come around and word was out on various birding list serves. Several friends expressed interest in teaming up on this excursion and it wasn't long until the enthusiastic, Arie Gilbert confirmed that he was definitely going to try for the bird, leaving early Saturday morning and kindly offering me a seat in his vehicle. I was in. And I wasn't going to miss this bird.

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

3:00 AM on 4/26 came around pretty quickly and I popped out of bed, hopped in my truck and met Arie at his house in Babylon. It was a long ride built with anticipation but the soothing text message that I received from Eugene "The Ptarmigan Guardian" Nichols was of a positive relocation effort. The bird was there and all we had to do was make it to Point Peninsula (and hope the Ptarmigan didn't get whacked by a Snowy Owl). Arie, Ian Resnick and myself arrived on the scene at 10:50 AM. Expecting a mob of people, it was a tremendous surprise to only see a small handful of birders on site and we immediately got the Willow Ptarmigan. For the next 90 minutes, the male Willow Ptarmigan would put on an absolute show. Usually the birders are the ones to approach the birds, but in this case the Ptarmigan actually approached us! We were all set up along the road/beach edge when the Ptarmigan literally walked right up to our group. Not a word was spoken and all you could hear was the sound of camera shutters. The bird, in typical ptarmigan fashion, could be less concerned about us birders but did a great job clipping buds off of willow saplings and strutting around the beach front.

Pending review by the New York State Avian Records Committee, this is the first New York State record of Willow Ptarmigan and this species has barely ever breached the lower 48 states. Congratulations to Eugene Davenport Nichols on an outstanding discovery. For additional info check out the ABArare blog:

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14
Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14
And finally, here's a map zoomed in on the area that the Willow Ptarmigan was ranging within during our visit on 4/26/14 (highlighted in yellow) always staying between the road and bay. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Pulling Mussels from a Shell

Purple Sandpiper feeding on mussels, 1/9/14 at Cupsogue Beach County Park
Image captured with an iPhone, Meopix Adapter & Meopta S2 Spotting Scope
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a Purple Sandpiper feeding away from rocks before? This was no major surprise to me but I am used to seeing them on jetties and rock pilings rather than on sand/mud flats. This was the case this past weekend when I came across this stunning solo Purple Sandpiper feeding on the various exposed mussel beds at Cupsogue Beach County Park in Westhampton. This bird selectively probed and extracted the meat out of several mussels during my observation, which was also new to me. Some quick internet research specifically suggests that mussels, along with other mollusks, are a favored food source for Purple Sandpipers. Something I should have known I suppose. Pretty cool and even better to witness the behavior while in the field. Purple Sandpipers are known to be very tame and if you approach in a non-threatening manner you can often go home with some solid photos.

Purple Sandpiper posing for the camera, 1/9/14, at Cupsogue Beach County Park. Image captured with an iPhone, Meopix Adapter & Meopta S2 Spotting Scope

Purple Sandpiper showing off its claws. They sure can use the extra grip while scurrying along algae covered rocks. Image capture with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope

Purple Sandpiper mussel extraction complete. Image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Female Eurasian Wigeons - What To Look For

Every winter, wigeons migrate down the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts where they spend time dabbling in  marshes, ponds and tidal flats. Long Island has no shortage of these ecological features and in turn is a  great place to study the less common Eurasian Wigeon.

Every waterfowl season, birders enjoy sifting through groups of American Wigeon, and other dabbling ducks, in search of Eurasian Wigeons. Adult male Eurasian Wigeons in full breeding plumage are very easy to identify and stick out like sore thumbs among flocks of other ducks. Females, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult and require careful observation. Here, I will share several photos of female Eurasian Wigeon, share some thoughts and point out some of the key features that have worked for me when separating female wigeons of both species.

One of the first things that I always notice with female Eurasian Wigeons is how warm and chocolate-toned their heads are in direct comparison with female American Wigeon. Female American Wigeon usually appears more gray-toned than brown. I say usually because there are some American Wigeons that can occasionally show a bit more of a brownish tone, but never as rich as the Eurasian females, at least with my experience in both species. This is the single most standout feature that allows me to hone in on this species.
Female Eurasian Wigeon (below) with female American Wigeon (above). This photo reveals several key features in distinguishing both species, the most obvious being the overall difference in head and breast tone. The Eurasian Wigeon is more richly brown on the head blending down through the breast vs. the colder, gray-toned American shown above. Also, note the gray toned upper scapulars (filling in behind Eurasian Wigeon's head). Photo taken in West Sayville, NY on 1/19/14 with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotter
If you get stumped by head tone, there are several other features that can help guide you toward correctly separating these species. An important area to focus on is the bill/head interface. Take a close look at where the bill meets the feathers on this wigeon's head. An American Wigeon will usually show a black border here. The thickness of the border here is variable and will sometimes be unnoticeable but its worth having a look. Notice there is no border within this interface on the Eurasian Wigeon image below.
Eurasian Wigeon - Noting the same features as above, but without the comparison to American Wigeon. Also, note the gray upper scapulars. Photo taken in West Sayville, NY on 1/19/14 with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotter

In this final photo of a female Eurasian Wigeon (below) we look at two additional clues, probably more noticeable and reliable than the black border trick mentioned above. Notice the pale gray fringes on the upper scapulars of this bird, seemingly consistent with female Eurasian. This photo shows it well but you can also note this feature on the above images. Finally, hen Eurasian Wigeon tends to show matching tones on head and breast, blending together well. Female American Wigeon shows much more contrast and we will look at some additional photos to reiterate this field mark.
Hen Eurasian Wigeon (bottom) with drake American Wigeon (top) - Image reiterating the gray fringes on the upper scaps of the female Eurasian Wigeon along with the more blended tones on head and breast. Photo taken in West Sayville, NY on 1/19/14 with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Scope

Next, we'll take a closer look at an American Wigeon female. Again, always going back to the gray, cold toned head. Also note the contrasting tones between the head and chest area. This will appear to blend together on a female Eurasian Wigeon showing much less contrast.

Female American Wigeon - Image reiterating the two-toned contrast between head and breast. Image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope.
Finally, hen American Wigeon generally appear brighter and more strongly patterned above as shown with this individual. This bird is barely showing a black border at the bill/face interface but this is good, as it reiterates the variability of this feature. 
Female American Wigeon - Image reiterating the two-toned contrast between head and breast, bright and strongly patterned above and barely showing a black border at the base of bill (highly variable but never seen on Eurasian Wigeon hen). Image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Top 3 Summer Highlights - 2013

1) White-faced Storm-Petrel, Block Canyon, August 20, 2013:
It was August 19th when I received an email from John Shemilt that he was looking for a 3rd individual to join his team, on August 20th, to hunt for the much sought after Big-Eye Tuna in the Hampton Offshore Invitational fishing tournament out of Shinnecock Inlet. How could I resist? I scrambled around a bit, made sure things were squared away at work and decided to jump in on this last minute invite to try and catch a tournament winning fish. John had caught a nice Big-eye not long ago and was hoping to repeat during tournament week. I should mention that John and Keegan are both expert pelagic birders, so for obvious reasons I enjoy spending time with them. Fishing while birding, or birding while fishing? I'm pretty sure it doesn't get any better than that. I have to say, August 20th was a very slow day offshore, both for birds and fish, but that's just how it goes sometimes.

White-faced Storm-Petrel                    
We blasted off out of Shinnecock at roughly 5:15 AM (Can't quite remember but there was an official start time to the tournament). All of the tournament boats were lined up, inside of the bay, just waiting for the clock to tick. We first set off to Rhode Island waters where we trolled around for the morning, searching for life and hoping to attract some fish with the spreader rigs. Unfortunately, all of the fish we marked were some 300-400 feet beneath us. Reports of fish, and some other marine life, were being reported at "The Tails" or "Fish Tails." This is the north end of Block Canyon, shaped like a fish tail of course, and is a popular fishing location (roughly 90-100 miles south of Shinnecock Inlet). We ripped over to The Tails, reset the spreader bars and headed into the canyon. We picked up on a moderate-sized pod of Rizzo's Dolphins and Keegan asked John to follow behind them. Bam! We had a Big-eye on, and it was a really big fish. Keegan manned the rod while he and John communicated back and forth, strategizing as they fought this monster of the sea. After nearly 2-hours of fighting, we lost the fish. All that returned to the surface was a bent, nearly straightened hook. Only a really big fish has the capability to bend out a hook and John and Keegan would not have been surprised if that fish weighed near or above 300 pounds. Needless to say, we were devastated, shocked, speechless.
White-faced Storm-Petrel

We mustered up the will to reset the spreader bars once more and give it another shot. Our final attempt was fruitless so we packed up and started gunning back for Shinnecock Inlet. We were going nearly 30 knots, probably 10-15 minutes north of The Tails, when John suddenly yells, "WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL"!!!!!! John and Angus Wilson had several White-faced Stormies on a recent, previous trip and this life bird was on my brain the entire time we were offshore. This was a memorable moment and probably one of the most unique birds that I have ever seen. This small, paddle-winged, master of the ocean surface put on an absolute show for us. We circled the bird 3-4 times and watched as it picked food from the ocean surface, darted behind swells, "surfing" waves and disappearing, almost as if it dove under water. To think how lucky we were to see this bird is also beyond me. They are difficult to spot to begin with and if this bird wasn't 10 feet off the starboard side, while we were blasting north at 30 knots, we never would have seen it. This goes down as one of my most memorable experiences and I feel very fortunate to have seen this. 

2. Chuck-Will's-Widow, Fire Island, June 22, 2013:
Chuck-Will's Widow - iScoped with Meostar
S2 Spotting Scope and Meopix Adapter
Tyvek suits, duct tape, deer ticks and poison ivy is what it took to see a Chuck-Will's-Widow and its chicks out in the middle of the dense coastal forests of Fire Island, New York. This sounds challenging but its not far off from the fairly routine hazards of my daily work at the Nature Conservancy. It's not fun when its 90 degrees out but it was well worth the battle on June 22nd. I was assisting friend and colleague Jordan Rafael with some vegetation monitoring on this particular day, knowing darn well from his expertise that Chuck-Will's can and have nested in the nearby vicinity. For some odd reason, Chuck-Will's Widow can be seen and heard in various locations throughout Fire Island National Seashore but are scarce elsewhere on Long Island. I took a previous trip to Watch Hill on June 19th and heard 7 birds calling, all from the boat basin alone! This really opened my eyes to the potential density of this species across the seashore.

Chuck-Will's Widow - iScoped with Meostar
S2 Spotting Scope and Meopix Adapter
We made our way through the dense woods to each veg plot while carefully surveying the ground for chicks and even "nests." Chuck-Will's don't actually construct nests. They simply lay their eggs on open ground and rely on their amazing camouflage to hide and secure the eggs while incubating. According to some excerpts from Arthur Cleveland Bent's Life Histories of Birds, Chuck-Will's Widows will sometimes drop their eggs within 3-5 feet, sometimes the same spot, of the exact location that they nested in the previous year. Amazing.

After about an hour of trekking, we flushed an adult Chuck-Will's Widow. The bird weaved and soared through the dense forest with ease, making various croaking noises and calls and eventually perched up on a dead Shadblow snag. I had clear, unobstructed views and began firing away with my iPhone/Meopta set up. Jordan quickly spotted 2 chicks on the ground in the approximate area from which the adult had flushed. We would discover a third chick hidden underneath a nearby dead pitch pine. We did not linger very long as the adult was obviously concerned with our presence. The few minutes that we spent observing this family group would go down as one of the top highlights since I've been birding.

3. Henslow's Sparrow, Fort Drum, 6/29/13:
Henslow's Sparrow - Distant iScope image captured with my
iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotter
It was very difficult to pick a my 3rd and final favorite highlight of the Summer, and I'm still a bit undecided. I suppose if I picked a top 5 I'd have to include Long-tailed Jaeger and Hudsonian Godwit but in no particular order as I have fond memories of each one. I've always had an interest in the Ammodramus genus and Henslow's Sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii) has been one of my most sought NY birds.

I planned a western slope birding mission in late June this past Summer. My friend Eugene Davenport Nichols has a place on Long Point, right along the shores of Chaumont Bay on Lake Ontario. Eugene is a master naturalist and botanist and is also one heck of a fisherman. We planned both of the above during my visit with a few target birds in mind; Henslow's Sparrow, Sedge Wren and Black Tern (on their breeding grounds). He'd help me land my life Walleye up in Alexandria Bay on this trip. Eugene is also friends with Jeff Bolsinger, who has the birding scene of St. Lawrence County on lock and agreed to spend a morning with me at their place of employment, Fort Drum.

Henslow's Sparrow - Distant iScope image captured with my
iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotter
Jeff led us to to various locations within the complex but wasted no time in taking us to Henslow's Sparrow territory. Henslow's Sparrow is a grassland bird that prefers wet, grassy meadows with very limited trees and shrubs. Their population has been steadily declining through the years and there are now very few places to find them in New York State. This species is notoriously difficult to detect as they are very secretive, usually running through the dense grassland to avoid detection rather than retreating in flight. Luckily, their call notes do carry and a trained ear can usually pick them up from a considerable distance, as was the case when we finally located a bird after hours of searching. We tried several locations and almost lost hope when Jeff decided, as a last resort, to try the "trolling method" where we would drive slowly along the grassland road and just listen. Sure enough a Henslow's called and we all simultaneously froze as if a bomb had dropped (not an uncommon occurrence at Drum apparently). We had great scope views of the bird and I managed some distant, record iScope shots for the memory. Another Ammodramus down and only two to go (Baird's and Le Conte's) but this was a good one and I was happy to score in my home State. Below is a short video clip of the Henslow's. You can watch as the bird lifts its head and belts out its short song, which is often described as a high pitched, insect-like "tsillik." Can you pick out the song among the many other singing grassland birds in this video?


Friday, August 9, 2013

Godwits on Long Island, NY - Early August 2013

Hudsonian Godwit, 8/9/13 - image captured
with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken
through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope
Its been quite a while since my last blog post, 2 months to be exact. The Summer tends to grab a hold of me as I'm busy working 2 jobs, attending weddings, parties, etc. There is much less time for me to enjoy the outdoors and go birding. And when the birding opportunities come about, I always feel rushed, like I have to think about where and what I'm going to have to do next. For this reason, I now have to choose my birding locations strategically and hope to maximize my time. I always look forward to the Fall when I can get back into my groove and spend hours upon hours wandering sites looking at birds and enjoying nature.

This week was one of those weeks where I had to squeeze in my birding. I decided that Jones Beach West End would become a morning routine. It is more or less on the way into my office and if I got there early enough I could get in a solid hour or so of birding at the Coast Guard Station. Why go to Jones Coast Guard Station? Its a great location to comfortably view shorebirds and other goodies that may drop into Jones Inlet or loaf on the nearby sand bar. But the real reason that I kept visiting Jones this week was in hopes to find a HUDSONIAN GODWIT. I would say that this is a nemesis bird for me; a bird that constantly seems to escape me. I gave up on chasing this species and decided I'll just find my own one day. Well today was the day that I finally came across a molting adult HUDSONIAN GODWIT and the 5:15 AM wake ups payed off quite quickly.
Hudsonian Godwit, 8/9/13 - image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope. Note that this bird is molting out of its alternate plumage, barely retaining some specks of rufous along its belly, flanks, and under tail coverts. 
Hudsonian Godwit, 8/9/13 - image captured
with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken
through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope
While I was analyzing a leg band on an American Oystercatcher, I noticed a flock of about 20 Black-bellied Plovers land in along the east side of the sand bar. I thought I noticed a different bird in the mix. Was it a dowitcher? I quickly took my focus off the Oystercatcher and scanned the newly arrived flock of birds. Standing there by itself was a Hudsonian Godwit in belly deep water. I watched the bird preen and bathe for a few minutes, took a couple of record photos, and decided to call some friends before quickly putting the word out to the masses. I continued to watch the "Hudwit" preen and bathe until is disappeared tight behind the inside of the sand bar. I knew the bird was still there but it just wasn't in view. Finally the bird, along with a larger formed group of Black-bellied Plovers, took to the ocean, flying across the barrier beach. It looked like these birds were on a mission and I had little faith they'd return.

Hudsonian Godwit is not a mega rarity or anything but its a tough bird to get here on Long Island as the majority of the birds are quickly passing through. It is very easy to miss this species on migration, and many people do, as we don't get huge numbers. They are also known for making nonstop flights over several thousand miles as they migrate from their Arctic breeding grounds down to their wintering grounds in South America. They basically just pick up and go, no lingering. Being in the right place at the right time is the best way to get set up for seeing a Hudwit. Marbled Godwits tend to linger a bit more offering a much better probability of sighting one. This juvenile Marbled Godwit, shown below, was photographed in Westhampton Beach on August 6, 2013. Marbled Godwits are much larger than Hudsonian Godwit and stand out among other shorebirds. Hudwits, being the smallest of the godwit tribe, can easily tuck in among other groups of shorebirds and can be overlooked. Especially when loafing with large groups of dowitchers, willets or yellowlegs.
Juvenile Marbled Godwit, Westhampton Dunes Overlook, 8/6/13 - image captured with
an iPhone and Meopix Adapter taken through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope

Friday, June 7, 2013

1st Summer Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach County Park

I came across another Arctic Tern on 6/5/13, at Cupsogue Beach County Park. A 1st Summer type individual that put on quite a show and I watched intently. I first noted the bird sitting along the edge of a large group of Common Terns. Also in the mix were a few Forster’s and Roseate Terns. The Arctic Tern exhibited uniform grey primaries, as they always do and this was one of the first major keys that tipped me off on the bird. This, along with a more rounded head shape, extensive black on cap dipping beneath the birds eye, and seemingly shorter black bill pointed directly Arctic Tern. The bird was standing on a firm surface of sand, therefore the short leg length was obvious and apparent. After about 15 minutes of viewing, the bird took off toward the east marsh, showed off its wing pattern and lent a few squeaky call notes. The bird took a 5 minute hiatus, returned to the flats, and decided to land within 20 feet of me! The tern continued to loaf and preen for quite a while before it finally took to the sea. Safe journeys little buddy! The following photographs are accompanied by brief descriptions in what to look for when attempting to identify these tricky terns. 

1st Summer Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/5/13 - Note pale gray primaries, extensive
dark on head surrounding and dipping beneath eye, seemingly shorter bill and short legged.
Overall head shape still round. Image taken with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through
a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope by Meopta Sports Optics. 

1st Summer Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/5/13 - This shot, again, showing the
pale gray primaries in better light. Image taken with an iPhone and Meopix 
Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope by Meopta Sports Optics. 

1st Summer Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/5/13 - In flight, note
thin black trailing edge along outer primaries. This feature can be seen among
all ages of Arctic Tern and is perhaps one of the better diagnostic field
marks when seen well. Upper wings uniform gray. Image taken
with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2
 Spotting Scope by Meopta Sports Optics.

1st Summer Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/5/13 - Note the grey toned vein that runs along the outer tail feathers on either side of the tail. Just like the thin, black trailing edge to the outer primaries, this characteristic is shown through all ages of Arctic Tern. The rest of the tail is primarily white. The birds shorter legs are quite apparent in this photo. Image taken with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope by Meopta Sports Optics.

1st Summer Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/5/13 - Another shot of a preening 1st Summer Arctic Tern showing
the pattern of its tail. Again, single grey outer vein running along outer tail feathers. Image taken with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope by Meopta Sports Optics. 

1st Summer Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/5/13 - Nothing like a nice spread wing shot. Here showing both the
underwing and upperwing pattern. Note the 8 primaries on left wing as it reveals underwing pattern. Each feather is tipped with black along the outer edge. Upperwing (right wing for the purpose of this photo) showing a relatively uniform gray throughout. Again, you can note the tail pattern with that gray outer vein running along the outer tail feathers. Image taken with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope by Meopta Sports Optics. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Weekend Highlight - Arctic Tern

It was a fairly long week at work, even though Monday was a holiday it still felt long. All I could think about was waking up early on Saturday and birding the flats at Cupsogue Beach County Park to study some terns. I really wanted to find an Arctic Tern, the furthest traveling migrant in the world. Arctic Terns breed in the Arctic and spend their winters in Antarctica making roughly up to a 44, 000 mile round trip per year. The majority of their migration takes place over open sea, where their buoyant, seemingly effortless wing beats carry them across the ocean. Every year, a handful of Long Island birders get lucky enough to view these birds as they touch down on the island for a quick rest stop. 

Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 5/20/13 - Note many good field marks
captured in this image. Thin black trailing edge of outer primaries, relatively
short, deep red bill, short legs and an extensive black cap (image captured
with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter through Meostar S2 Spotting Scope).
On 5/20/13, I finally got to study my first, real life Arctic Terns out on the flats at Cupsogue Beach with Shai Mitra. Despite the rolling fog I was able to make out the 2 individuals that Shai had found, both subtly differing from one another. Having Shai’s expert commentary on the sideline was invaluable. I don’t know that there’s one single book that covers all of the tern information that he doled out. The first adult-type Arctic Tern remained on site for about ten minutes past my arrival and eventually took to the ocean, flying directly overhead and lending a few quick “kip” notes. It must have only been 5 minutes until Shai picked out another adult-type Arctic on the flats. I have routinely missed Arctic Tern in previous years since I’ve been birding more intensely. This was a highly sought lifer for me and it was great to finally observe these birds. 

 So as I was initially saying, I was anxious to get out to Cupsogue this past weekend and search for “my own” Arctic Tern. I arrived at Cupsogue shortly at 7:30 AM on the morning of 6/1/13. I started out with a brief sea watch to see if any morning pelagic wanderers were within the reaches of shore. It was pretty quiet with only a few Sooty Shearwaters loitering around just east of the jetty at Moriches Inlet. I decided to cross to the bayside flats and start studying terns. I ran into Steve Walter, who takes dynamite nature photographs and was also out looking for Arctic Tern. After about 3 hours of roaming around the flats we decided to go revisit a group of terns that were frequenting the north end of the flats. Arctic Terns will drop in periodically throughout the day and can really show up at any time. While glassing a large congregation of terns, primarily composed of Commons, I picked out an adult-type Arctic Tern. Picking out an Arctic Tern definitely takes a bit of time and scrutiny as they look superficially like the other 3 members of the Sterna genus or “medium-sized terns”, most closely resembling Common Tern. Carefully examining each and every individual is extremely important. 
Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/1/13 - another adult-type bird. Note the uniform gray primaries, extensive black
cap and a deep red bill showing a bit of a dusky tip. Also notice the small white gap between the upper mandible and
black cap, usually more broad on Common Tern (Image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adpater though a Meostar S2 Spotting Scope).
Like many birds, terns appear differently depending on their age and plumage cycle. In this instance, I am only focusing on Adult-type individuals. Some clues to look for when searching for an adult Arctic Tern are:

  • Bill Color - A deeper red toned bill (some showing a slight dusky tip). Arctic Terns generally show a shorter bill compared to their other Sterna counterparts but this is sometimes difficult to judge in the field.
  • Head & Face - Rounder headed with black cap extending further down past the eye. White facial feathers between the upper mandible and black cap may appear as a narrow white line. The line or gap may appear more broad on Common Tern.
  • Underparts - darker gray throughout underparts, although in bright conditions this will not always be so apparent. I have noticed that this feature seems better viewed when the bird is in flight. 
  • Leg Length - Arctic Terns will appear short-legged. Another caution that is dependent upon the contour of the ground in which it stands. Other Sternas can appear this way if they’re standing in a small divot, ditch, soft substrate, etc.
  • Tail Length - Outer tips of tail feathers extend beyond wing tips
  • Underwing Pattern - this is a great feature that can be noted in all plumages of Arctic Terns and separates it from the others. The pattern of the trailing edge of the 7-8 primary wing feathers lends the effect of a dark, sharp edge. Commons appear more blotchier and thicker. 
  • Upperwing Pattern - Uniform gray throughout. When sitting, the birds primary extension will appear uniformly gray.
  • Flight - Said to have a more buoyant, effortless flight. 
Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/1/13 - Not the best image but you can
note the darker gray undperparts, thin black trailing edge of outer primaries.
The dark body contrasting with the neck and cap almost creates the look of
a white line (image captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter though a
Meostar S2 Spotting Scope).

Arctic Tern - Cupsogue Beach C.P., 6/1/13 - Again, note
the dark gray body, creating the white line effect where face
meets cap. See the outer 8 primaries tipped with black (image
captured with an iPhone and Meopix Adapter though a
Meostar S2 Spotting Scope).