June 21, 2006

Birding On The East End Of Titmice And Men

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Here I am. Where are you? Here I am. Where are you?" Not a child's call in a game of hide-n-seek, but rather one of the many trilled phrases in the repertoire of the Red-Eyed Vireo, a bird whose love for constant singing has led it to be nicknamed "The Preacher Bird." The Vireo wasn't visible in the trees near Trout Pond Preserve in Noyac, but its song was all Steve Biasetti needed to identify it.

"Oftentimes, you're birding by ear rather than by sight," explained Biasetti,

a dedicated birdwatcher

and the Director of Environmental Education for The Group for the South Fork, as he walked through the preserve last Thursday.

The East End's extensive coastline and numerous preserves make it a popular stopping place for birds and the enthusiasts who track them. A birder, serious or not, doesn't have to travel far to find subjects to observe; stepping out the front door can suffice. "It is a good idea to pay attention to what you have in your own backyard, in your own county, because by becoming familiar with them you have that reference point to start from," Biasetti said.

Biasetti's life list, a record kept by most serious birders of what birds they've seen, stands at 550, 325 of which he has seen on Long Island. "That gives you a sense of the diversity that you can find here," he said.

The Eastern Long Island Chapter of the Audubon Society has 700 members on paper, approximately 40 of whom are active on a regular basis, according to Eileen Schwinn, the chapter's president.

For Schwinn, birding was an easy hobby to start, but, she soon found, hard to leave behind. "The more you know, the more you don't know," she said, as she scanned the shores of Shinnecock Bay off of Dune Road in Hampton Bays on Saturday.

Schwinn, who calls herself "a newbie" to the hobby, began birdwatching four years ago, attending adult education classes and a few Audubon Society meetings. She took the advice of those who'd been bitten by the bird, so to speak, who told her: "Get yourself a pair of binoculars, get yourself a good field guide, and just get out there and look at the birds."

On Dune Road, which both Biasetti and Schwinn described as one of the best places to birdwatch locally, high winds were keeping birds grounded and hidden in the grasses. But before long Schwinn spotted an American Oystercatcher through her scope, a good-sized black and white bird that is easily identifiable, she said, because "he's got a schnozz on him that's orange...the brightest orange bill that'd you'd ever see in your life."

Soon, more birds were stirring; a female Red-winged Blackbird, whose brown and white wings lacked the striking dash of color of its male counterpart, hopped around on the sand, searching for mollusks and worms. A flock of swans flew over Ponquogue Bridge, honking quietly.

At Trout Pond, Biasetti, who is also the field trip coordinator for the E.L.I. Audubon chapter, pointed out birds with the ease of a professional pianist playing "Chopsticks": there, a group of Tufted Titmice; over there, the American Redstart, singing as it moved through its territory. The Cowbird, Biasetti said as he pointed to a brown-headed black bird, is an interesting case: "They are nest parasites. They don't raise their own young. They actually find nests of other species and dump their eggs in them." The Cowbirds' young generally hatch before the host bird's eggs, and the fledglings often outcompete their adopted nestmates.

The hundreds of resident and migratory birds that flock to the East End provide ample sightings for birders' scopes, but when an off-course guest star shows up the word goes out, and quickly. "Everyone gets really excited and tries to find it," Biasetti said.

He counts the Northern Lapwing, a European shorebird related to the plover spotted in Bridgehampton a few years back, and the Black-tailed Godwit, an Asian bird that, Biasetti said, "definitely took a wrong turn" and ended up in Eastport, as among his most memorable sightings. For Schwinn, the highlight of one "freezing cold Saturday afternoon" on Dune Road was the opportunity to see a Snowy Owl, a bird more often found in the northern reaches of the United States and Canada.

"That's one of the allures of birdwatching. Birds have wings and they can end up wherever their wings will take them, and, not uncommonly, odd things can show up," Biasetti explained.

The cyclical movements and migrations of the birds provide both Biasetti and Schwinn with a living, feathered clock by which to track time. May is the best month to birdwatch, Biasetti said, as the spring migration passes through. Schwinn keeps a yearly journal of sightings and she knows the coming of the Oystercatchers heralds the arrival of spring. "I look and say, 'Oh, it's March 13 and you should be seeing the Oystercatchers.' And son of a gun, if you come down here, there it is," she said.

But while the bird population waxes and wanes with the seasons, Schwinn sees no reason to ever pack her binoculars away. "My philosophy is anytime you can be out here looking at the birds is a good thing," she said.

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