Monday, May 6, 2013

In the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt: Birding in Oyster Bay, Long Island

This weekend I found myself on Long Island with the chance to do a little birding. The opportunity to explore a new place is always fun, but it's not often I get the chance to go birding at Sagamore Hill, a place where Theodore Roosevelt, one of the key figures in the modern birding and conservation movement once spent many happy hours exploring the fields, woods and shoreline of this beloved estate. Roosevelt passed away in 1919 and it's been more than fifty years since members of the Roosevelt family called this place home and now the buildings and grounds are open to the public as a National Historic Site, under the auspices of the National Park Service. As I drove toward Sagamore Hill I noticed that the area was incredibly green with lots of tall, leafy trees with large, stately homes set back among expansive lawns and gardens. I couldn't help but think what a great stopping place this part of New York must make for migrating warblers.

Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, New York, was once home to President Theodore Roosevelt and his family. Today the grounds and buildings welcome visitors from around the world who come to learn about his legacy and explore the woods he loved so much. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Before this trip I did some research online to look for birding information and resources. One of the websites I came across was that of the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society. From what I read online it looks like they are doing some important conservation work on Long Island and I hope to meet some of their volunteers next time I am in New York.

On Saturday I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon exploring Sagamore Hill under clear blue skies. Nearly all of the trees were in bloom, some covered in bright green leaves while others were festooned with colorful flowers. Before heading out on the nature trail to look for birds I stopped in at the visitor center where a helpful ranger pointed out a few good places to check and told me to keep an eye out for egrets and ospreys near the water and as I walked down the quiet path I listened keenly for any sign of bird life and soon heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker calling in the distance, followed by a White-breasted Nuthatch. Their songs made me wonder if perhaps I was hearing the voices of the descendants of some of the birds Roosevelt himself might have heard on his regular walks around the grounds.

Sagamore Hill has a variety of forest, meadow and salt marsh environments which attract a range of birds, from Chipping Sparrows to Great Egrets. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson

At the bottom of a hill the trail passed by a muddy, brackish creek where two Great Egrets stood in the water fishing. As I watched, one of the birds lunged forward and grabbed a small fish in its bill, swallowing it. When I looked up from watching the egret I saw an Osprey flying above the water, a fish held in its talons, head forward.

A Great Egret fishes in a brackish creek at Sagamore Hill. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I spent a little while longer exploring the rolling hills and farmland of Sagamore Hill and saw several more species of birds, including a pair of Wild Turkeys, two American Goldfinches and several loud, rattling-buzzy Chipping Sparrows. The grounds themselves were also interesting to explore - Roosevelt was a man of many and varied interests, and in addition to the expected farm buildings there was also a large silver windmill shining in the late afternoon sun.

A windmill sits on the property at Sagamore Hill, not far from the home where Theodore Roosevelt and his family lived. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
My next stop was the Theodore Roosevelt Audubon Sanctuary, which unfortunately was closing just as I arrived, but the staff there suggested I go across the road to a small public-access area by the water to look for wading birds and waterfowl. I took them up on the suggestion and walked  a short distance to find a spectacular view of Oyster Bay along with a half a dozen Brant, a Barn Swallow, several Mallards, a Canada Goose and a Mute Swan. The musical star of the day, though, was a Northern Mockingbird which kept moving back and forth from one stand of trees to another over the beach, belting out a wide variety of calls usually made by other birds. Among its repertoire I was able to pick out the songs of  Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals.

A colorful row of kayaks lean against a fence waiting to be used at a town beach in Oyster Bay, New York. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
Along this open section of beach and marsh I spotted a number of Brant, Double-Crested Cormorant, Canada Geese and other birds. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

I finished up the day on Saturday with a short evening walk through the woods of Trail View State Park in Woodbury, New York. I was hoping to find some warblers, but came up empty again. I did, however, get a good look at a group of four Fish Crows which gathered noisily in a tree top nearby before taking off again and disappearing behind a shopping area.

On Sunday morning I drove over to Theodore Roosevelt Park where I spent an hour scanning the waves and shoreline for birds. It was much cooler by the water, but with the sun still shining brightly overhead it was an enjoyable experience watching terns and gulls swoop through the air as Mallards and Brant stuck close to the shoreline. All around me were Song Sparrows singing, and I watched with interest as two  Common Grackles attempted to dive-bomb and drive off an American Crow which must have strayed into what they perceived as "their" territory. I also saw what appeared to be two domestic Mallards who were busy chasing a wild male Mallard out of the area, and three terns (probably Common Terns, but I couldn't make a positive ID) chase a fourth which had a small fish held firmly in its bill.

A view from Theodore Roosevelt Park. On this bright morning there were several terns, numerous gulls and many other birds in the areas actively feeding. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.
I finished up the day back the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center where I met Wildlife Care Coordinator Alice Bryant who was standing near the center with a beautiful female Great-horned Owl. She explained to me that the bird had arrived recently from California and had a problem with its eyesight. I was happy to learn that at the center the owl would receive some much-needed eye care and also serve to help teach visitors about birds of prey. Seeing the owl up close was an amazing experience - I've heard these large predators calling at night, but until then I had never stood so close to one. It's a remarkable thing to see how dedicated staff and volunteers at places like the TR Sanctuary are not only saving the lives of injured wildlife but enriching the experience of visitors. I can't imagine how anyone would not want to learn more about such a magnificent creature (and hopefully feel invested in protecting it and its habitat) after seeing this sharp-beaked, bright-eyed animal up close.

A sign welcomes visitors to the Theodore Roosevelt nature Sanctuary. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

A female Great-horned Owl sits patiently on the gloved hand of Alice Bryant, Wildlife Care Coordinator at the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center in Oyster Bay, New York. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

Overall it was a great weekend to be outside and explore a new area. I wouldn't say that any of the places I went should be thought of as birding hotspots, but in the case of Sagamore Hill the landscape alone was worth the visit, and although I didn't add any year or life birds, I did manage to add 5 or 6 new species to my New York state life list and I got to enjoy one of the best two days of the year so far, out in the woods and along the water, among the birds.

Thanks for reading.

In the Area

Regular visitors to the New England Nature Notes blog may notice that I am now adding a new section to some of the posts with helpful hints about places to eat or check out if you happen to visit the areas I write about. All of these recommendations are based on my personal experiences there and are meant as reviews.

On the Road

If you're traveling south from New England to get to Long Island and want to stop at a classic New York deli (which happens to be located in Vernon, Connecticut) you may want to stop in at Rein's Deli, conveniently located off of exit 65 from Route 84. My personal favorite is corned beef and turkey on rye with a side of potato salad and a black and white cookie for dessert. On this trip I also tried their potato knish which was pretty good and not too flaky which made it relatively easy to eat while driving, without making a mess. They also have great pickles and a selection of frozen gluten-free foods. In my opinion, definitely worth a stop if you're passing through Connecticut.

In Woodbury, NY

In Woodbury itself I found a few great places to eat, including Gaby's Gourmet Bagelatessen, located at
8025 Jericho Turnpike. I walked into this place on Sunday morning and was really impressed with how fresh everything looked, from the pre-made salads to the bagels and bakery items. I went for a sesame bagel with cream cheese and in the interest of scientific comparison, a black and white cookie. The Rein's cookies are good, and nothing beats the ones you can get in Manhattan, but I would definitely give the Gaby's black and white cookie an 8.5 out of 10 on the black and white cookie scale - the cookie part had the right consistency and the icing was excellent. 

I also visited the On Parade Diner for dinner on Saturday night, ordering chicken parmigiana to go. I was tempted to stay and eat there, but after a long day of birding I was eager to get back to my hotel and rest. The meal came with a side salad (nothing special) and bread (pretty good) as well as bread sticks and crackers. The chicken itself was very good, lightly breaded and moist inside and the penne was good also. They have a very diverse menu and friendly staff, so if you're in the area and looking for comfort food at the end of the day you should check out this diner, I know I plan to go back the next time I'm in the area.

For lodging I stayed at the Best Western in Woodbury, located at 7940 Jericho Turnpike in Woodbury. For the price ($130/night, plus tax, booked online) I thought this place was a good deal - the front desk staff were pleasant and helpful, and the room itself was clean and comfortable with a refrigerator, microwave, flat-screen TV and complimentary tea and coffee. I didn't take advantage of the free breakfast ( I had birds to see!) but it definitely smelled appetizing as I was checking out in the morning.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2013.

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