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Photographing the Birds of Long Island
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by Luke Ormand, July 2011
American Bittern ©Photo Copyright: Luke Ormand
I’ve been living on Long Island full time for eight years now and while most of this time has been on the East End, I’ve been able to explore all of the Island’s corners in pursuit of our feathered friends, the birds. I had only just completed my second year of college when I spent a summer as a “Plover Steward” (or more professionally known as a “Colonial Waterbird Observer”) and though I’d never even heard of Piping Plovers or Least Terns before, I quickly came to know them intimately. I worked every day that summer protecting their vulnerable nests from predators (animals and human alike) and watching them raise their young until September when they migrated south for the winter. This was my introduction to birds on Long Island and though I’ve seen many species and have become more interested, involved and admittedly, more obsessed, the Piping Plover is still my favorite.
Black and white Warbler ©Photo Copyright: Luke Ormand
While I do not consider myself a birder (I’m a wildlife photographer with a penchant for birds), I get great pleasure from observing birds across this Island. Whether it’s observing a Black and White Warbler deep in the woods during spring migration or watching a Herring Gull fish for crabs along the shoreline - the joy is just the same. Long Island’s unique geology (it’s a 120 mile long, 20 mile wide sandbar) yields a wide range of habitats that suit a vast number of bird species. A long day of pursuing birds can take you from the grasslands and sod fields of the North Fork to the rocky shores and cliffs of Montauk Point, past the coastal plain ponds of Sagaponack and into the dense pine barrens of Eastern Suffolk County with time left for a sunset walk along the sandy beaches of the South Shore.
Gyrfalcon Flight ©Photo Copyright: Luke Ormand
Whatever season it is, birds are abundant on Long Island. Spring migration brings swarms of Warblers which are seen in abundant numbers across the parks and green spaces of Queens and Brooklyn. There are some days (when all of the conditions are right) that a few hours spent at Forest Park or Prospect Park (in their respective boroughs) will yield two dozen species of warbler and other songbird migrants. Summer brings warm weather and long days that are perfect for kayaking around the eastern bays that wet the beaches of the Hamptons, looking for Least and Common Terns, Piping Plovers, Eastern Willets and American Oystercatchers. The Osprey is of course, a summer favorite, sitting atop its throne of sticks tending to its young or effortlessly plucking bluefish from the sea. The sights of fledgling birds and the sounds of gulls calling at the beach make it seem as though summer could last forever. But as a bird photographer, that would mean missing out on some of the best days of birding.
Least Tern ©Photo Copyright: Luke Ormand
Come fall, when the summer birds have gone, migration kicks in and Merlins and Yellow-Rumped Warblers appear everywhere along Ocean Parkway which straddles Nassau and Suffolk County. The trees are covered in colorful foilage and the skies are filled with raptors streaming to warmer climes - it’s a great time to be a lover of birds on Long Island and conditions are prime for photographing them in their full splendor. But when these birds have finally bid adieu to the coastal forests and grasslands of Long Island, the avian armies of the North descend upon us for warmer weather and waters (which tells you how cold it is where they breed). Montauk Point is a classic place to sea watch and comb through hundreds of Common Eiders in pursuit of their rare relatives the King Eider, but the interior ponds and lakes of Nassau and Suffolk County are also excellent spots for wintering waterfowl. I’ve photographed Redhead Ducks in a pond next to McDonalds on Main Street, seen Pied-billed Grebes floating in a lake surrounded by busy thoroughfares and watched Northern Pintail Ducks forage for food at a small body of water surrounded by homes and busy roads. A hike through any number of wooded trails after a light snowfall is always a thrill as Great Horned Owls could be sleeping on the next tree you pass. Equally as enjoyable is visiting the frozen fringing marshes in pursuit of the stealthy American Bittern or Wilsons Snipes that feed ever so quietly in full camouflage. Capturing one of these birds with your camera is a true accomplishment.
Osprey ©Photo Copyright: Luke Ormand
With all of the great birds mentioned above and the excitement that each new season brings, it’s hard to imagine anything that could make photographing and observing birds on Long Island better. Rarities, however, have a habit of showing up on any given day in any given season. Due to its location, Long Island is host to a wide variety of rare birds, showing up from Europe, Canada, the Caribbean or the distant West Coast. My first taste of these infrequent visitors on Long Island came during fall migration when I photographed a large falcon at Jones Beach State Park. I had no idea what species it was and those who saw it assumed it was a juvenile female Peregrine Falcon, but oh how wrong they were. After some raptor experts saw my photos, it became clear that the bird enjoying a herring gull for breakfast was a Gyrfalcon - a very infrequent visitor from the North and one of the most sought after raptors (if not birds) in the lower forty-eight. Since that day I’ve seen and photographed alcids that should be far out to sea (Dovekie and a Black Guillemot), Sandhill Cranes feeding on corn (when they should have been much farther west), Cave Swallows whose natural range doesn’t extend beyond Mexico and Cuba and a very wayward Hermit Warbler who would be at home in the Southwest rather than the coasts of Long Island. Finding and “chasing” these rarities across the Island adds an extra thrill to an already exciting hobby and is a wonderful way to explore the whole Island through the viewfinder.
Piping Plover ©Photo Copyright: Luke Ormand
Though I’m partial to the East End, where I live, I have gone to the farthest reaches of Long Island and throughout its interior in pursuit of birds (both rare and common) and have always been pleased with the results. Co-workers, friends and relatives are always impressed that the birds I photograph are found right here on Long Island. Some will comment that they “never see any cool birds” or that they didn’t know such and such a species could be found here - but all you need to do is look. Take a walk on part of the Paumonak Path, visit the Montauk Lighthouse and Camp Hero during the winter, take the subway to Prospect Park or visit any of the great Town, County, State or Federal Parks on any given day and aim your camera skyward. You’re bound to find birds, I guarantee it.
Redhead ©Photo Copyright: Luke Ormand