Monday, December 10, 2012

Psychotic chasing: Cape Cod

While I'm not an obsessive chaser, the lists that I take seriously are my Life List, Year List and Central Park List.  I'm willing to travel a little distance to plug holes in my Life List, especially now that I'm at 675 and new birds are difficult to find to advance the goal of reaching 700.

So it didn't escape my notice that a Little Egret had been found the previous weekend on Cape Cod.  Although New England is a lot more compact than, say, the American west, it's still 325 miles of driving one way to get from central NJ to Hyannis.  That's a pretty long round trip and as I'm increasingly older also toward the upper limit of what I'm tempted to do in one day.

Nevertheless, Little Egret is something I've tried for and struck out on in the past, and it would make a nice "pairing" with the Western Reef-Heron in Brooklyn (July 2007).

So off I went up a dark and wet I-95 all the way from NJ, through NY, CT, RI and finally MA for a fifth state pre-dawn, ending up at Hyannis on the south side of Cape Cod around 8:45am.  I rolled into the first of two sites that the bird frequented - and where it was seen multiple times the previous day - whereupon an especially helpful birder told me it was over at the other location only a couple of miles west.  Within 10 minutes of looking, I was watching a Little Egret hunt down small fish at the outflow of a marsh using a foot-trembling method to disturb the mud and/or flush the fish.  All the expected ID marks where there - a more massive bill with gray-ish lores, greenish legs with yellowish feet, overall structure intermediate between Snowy and Great Egret.  While the ID is not trivial at range, this was a good look at a bird that could not be confused with a Snowy Egret.

If the Egret wasn't remote-enough odds, it was standing right next to a Black-headed Gull, itself a relatively rare bird in the USA.  Both of these species I've seen in Britain (memorably I once had about eight Little Egrets in GB in one day in February) where Little Egret have become far more numerous than when I used to live there and where Black-headed Gull is abundant.

In retrospect that quick and easy success with the egret (modulo 5.5 hours of driving) should have led me to turn around and head toward home, not least of all because it was drizzling with low cloud the entire day.  Instead I rolled the dice and when 50 miles further up the Cape to Provincetown in search of Thick-billed Murre.  I'd seen the murres this past summer in AK, but wanted a look in the East.  This was a trip I'd considered during the previous winter - and almost executed - but always delayed it due to bad weather and the sheer distance involved.  Provincetown appears to be one of the better mainland sites for finding TB Murre, however luck wasn't quite with me.  I had three Razorbills at MacMillan Wharf along with Common Loons and one Red-throated, Red-breasted Mergansers, American Black Duck, both Cormorant sp, but no murres.  Race Point at the northern edge of the cape had limited visibility (fog, rain) but had Northern Gannet and one Black Scoter.  Herring Cove on the western tip added White-winged Scoter, a quick return trip to the harbor netted exactly the same species, so I headed back down the cape to check First Encounter Beach where the low tide precluded finding any water bird within the visible range, and Corporation Beach in Dennis where there were a good select of water birds just off the breakwater (new: Horned Grebe) but no alcids.  I did have a single fly-over Redpoll here but simply could not find it in the dark gray sky.  The southerly wind that brought the moisture and relatively mild conditions wasn't exactly conducive to winter finch flight so I was unable to track down any (other) Redpolls or Crossbills.

Heading back to Hyannis once more and finding that the Egret had become elusive (various birders were looking for it) at either of its regular spots, so I decided to make an early start on the return trip, and left the cape around 2:30pm to start the 6+ hour drive home in rather heavier traffic conditions than the early morning outbound trip.

Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) - US bird #676

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