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Spotting beautiful birds on the North Fork in winter

01/03/2017 6:00 AM |

juvenile_great_black_backed_gull

With temperatures dipping into the teens, it seems as if Old Man Winter has finally arrived on the North Fork.

For the “fair-weather” birder, these bitter cold temperatures can hamper their favorite activity.

Hopefully these same birders read my article from September, when I described how to create an oasis in your backyard for our feathered friends. With any luck, their backyards are currently bustling with wildlife that they are enjoying from the comfort and warmth of their home.

For those that did not prepare ahead of time, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy birding on the North Fork. You will just need to bundle up.

Winter is my favorite time of the year to explore the North Fork. For starters, beaches and parks that were once crowded are now desolate. Parking becomes much easier after Labor Day, as many of the towns become more lenient when it comes to parking permits. (It’s still a wise idea to check with local town laws prior to parking.) And with the lack of people spooking birds and other wildlife, you will be more likely to find them closer to the access points of the various parks and beaches.

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A long-tailed duck. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

1. Dress in layers

As I mentioned earlier, weather conditions can be brutally cold this time of year, especially when low temps are combined with strong northerly winds. It is important to dress appropriately when embarking on a winter birding trek. Wearing layer, upon layer, upon layer will be key to enjoying the experience. If you get too warm, you can always remove a sweater and still have it with you to put back on if you should get cold again. However, if you don’t have extra layers there will be little you can do to warm up if you are far from your car.

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A juvenile red-tailed hawk. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

2. Wear the right colors

Clothing choices/styles are just as important as dressing in layers. Many of the birds you encounter will be very wary and uneasy of your company. Walking down the beach or through the woods while wearing brightly colored clothing will alert them long before you see them, causing them to fly off unnoticed. I prefer to wear clothes that are dull in color, such as shades of brown and green. There are even times when I will dress in full camouflage to photograph especially skittish birds.

Chris Paparo

A loon with winter plumage. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

3. Bring the right gear

Now that you are dressed appropriately, it’s time to go birding. For observing species such as gulls, you will need nothing more than a good set of eyes as they are fairly large and easy to spot. Additionally, most gulls are comfortable around people and typically will not fly off upon your arrival. More times than not though, the birds you seek out will not let you to get too close to them. In these situations, a pair of binoculars will be extremely helpful. Their small size makes it easy to carry while in the field and to stow in your car for a birding “emergency.”

Using a chest strap rather than a neck strap to secure your binoculars will keep the binoculars close to your body when not in use and allow your hands to be free to assist in hiking or to simply keep warm in your pockets.

For the most nervous of the birds, you might need to pull out the big “gun” and bring along a spotting scope. A spotting scope is a smaller version of a telescope that will give you the ability to see birds that are located a great distance from you. They are much larger in size than a pair of binoculars and will require a tripod to use properly. Since they are bulky, toting one through the woods or walking with one down the beach can be difficult. They are best used to scan wide open areas such as fields and big bodies of water.

Chris Paparo

A hooded merganser. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

4. Where to go

Dressed and armed with the proper tools to do some birding, where should one go to see some of the North Fork’s feathered wildlife? As the “Fish Guy,” it’s tough for me to be away from the saltwater. I frequent places such as the Wading River Marsh, downtown Riverhead’s Water Front Park, Indian Island, and any of the beaches that line the Peconic Bay and Long Island Sound from Riverhead to Orient Point.

In the open water, this time of year there is an abundance of sea ducks, loons and grebes. The salt marshes located along the shoreline are home to a variety of wading birds, shore birds, puddle ducks, raptors and song birds.

Some of my favorite inland birding locations are Wildwood State Park, the grasslands at Calverton’s EPCAL, and Indian Island County Park. These areas offer the opportunity to see a variety of song birds, game birds, and raptors.

Winter birding offers nature lovers an opportunity to escape the confines of their homes and once again get back in the great outdoors. So, bundle up, grab the binoculars and see what feathered wildlife the North Fork has to offer.

Additional resources:

LI Birds on Facebook is a great resource to see where birds are being spotted across Long Island

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great tool to help ID birds and has a ton of great facts about each of them

Top photo: A juvenile great black-backed gull. (Credit: Chris Paparo)

Chris paparo

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