Monday, November 12, 2012

Northern LapwingS

Northern Lapwings at a distance - record shot only
An unprecedented fall-out of Northern Lapwings has occurred in the north-east with between 5 and 11 individuals being spotted - it depends on your philosophy about how related individual sightings are, and my own suspicion is that there have to be more than this since Lapwings are fond of farm fields where they are not always obvious to birders passing by.   The current sightings are summarized in this piece on the ABA blog.  The nearest Lapwing population is Iceland, and I assume they head south-east in fall to Britain for winter.  Most European Lapwings head south-west in response to harsh weather.

I birded Central Park on Sunday morning (Nov 11th) and drove into NYC with the strategy that if the Lapwings were re-found I'd head out to Montauk.  Central Park had a modest finch flight, so I had Pine Siskins and Purple Finches but alas not the elusive White-winged Crossbills or Evening Grosbeaks.  More conventional early winter species like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-crowned Sparrow and quite a few Hermit Thrushes were around.  Much of the Ramble was closed off for post-storm tree clean-up (both Sandy and the following week's Nor'easter had an impact on the park).

Then I saw an email reporting the Lapwings and I was back in the car by 10am.

The Midtown Tunnel had  re-opened just the previous Friday after being flooded by Sandy so after leaving Manhattan the first part of the trip was speedy (L.I.E., Rt. 27/Sunrise Highway).  But the problem with Montauk - and the reason I rarely go there any more - is that the next 35 miles are a tortuous wind through Southampton, Bridgehampton, Easthampton, Amagansett and other picturesque towns with very low speed limits.  There's a couple of fantasy 55mph zones near Montauk but most of the time you're closer to 35mph, which is about half the speed you were doing to for the last hour+.

Nevertheless, I made it out the east side of Montauk and to Deep Hollow Ranch (aka Theodore Roosevelt County Park) and found the Northern Lapwings without a problem.  This location is where I saw both Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese in 2007. Here's where it got both surreal and mundane.  I've seen thousands of Lapwings in Britain where they are relatively common on arable land, but it was a species I'd never really anticipated seeing in the United States, much less two of them hanging out together.  I had spent the preceding morning (Saturday) looking for the Lapwing that had been reported near Allentown NJ on Thursday with no success.  Lapwings look quite exotic to American birders, with the irridescence, crest and face pattern, but less so to Brits like me.  However Lapwings as a family are often quite spectacular in plumage.

Much of the time these Lapwings were distant and somewhat wary, being flushed by a passing Red-tailed Hawk (which looks pretty similar to the Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo if you're a prey species) or people on horseback.  So I did see them in flight and their relaxed flight style on broad wings belies the fact that these birds are long-distance migrants in Europe.  Which explains how they made it this far in the first place - something like a Greenfinch would splash down in the Atlantic from exhaustion.

The ABA blog for Hurricane Sandy also speculates that this amazing Lapwing event is correlated with a high pressure system that was present over the north Atlantic Ocean.  It's stretching the correlation to beyond breaking point to suggest that the Lapwings were related to Hurricane Sandy - but if their simulations are right one of the weather systems that led Sandy to turn westward and make landfall in NJ are the same weather systems that made quite a few Lapwings make landfall in the USA.  It just wasn't Sandy that did it.

Update: as of December 8th the one Lapwing on mainland MA and the two on Nantucket Island are still present, the two Montauk birds have long since left, and there was a fleeting report of one in Virginia.  Likely all of them are still on the east coast, but there's a lot of farm land out there.

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