To my surprise, my 20-year old, younger brother agreed to go birding with me early on Memorial Day. When I called him at 5am to see if he was still on board (and awake), I had my doubts that he would actually be accompanying me. To my surprise, he answered the phone and was waiting outside his house a few minutes later.
We geared up at the north end of Sandy Hook, ready to head down the Fisherman’s Trail. I strapped on my binoculars and shouldered my camera while he got comfortable with my wife’s new Nikon Monarchs. The sun had appeared and I was confident it would cast away the dark clouds looming behind us. After all, I had just checked the forecast a day ago and it called for a sunny, clear morning with 0% chance of rain.
It rained. We had walked all the way out to the beach and were scanning for the King Eider when we noticed the sun had vanished behind the darkening sky. I decided we better start moving, but as we did, the first few drops began to descend. Thirty seconds later, we were trudging through the dunes as the torrential downpour pelted us with seemingly horizontal streams of rain. If it weren’t for my increasingly soaked camera equipment (my baseball cap didn’t work very well as an umbrella), it was actually somewhat fun. When’s the last time you were caught up in an intense thunderstorm? Not much we could do but walk back and try to enjoy the miserable situation.
We drove south a bit and parked in the next lot. It was still raining, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from continuing my search for the King Eider. We wrapped up our binoculars in a jacket and a plastic bag, respectively, and headed back out into the elements. As we reached the water, the rain finally started to let up. Two scoters cruised by, and a Great Black-Backed Gull flew in with a crab danging from its mouth.
Walking up the beach, we made some interesting finds. A dead shark had washed ashore, and just a few feet further we discovered a dead Common Loon among the wrack. Yes, there were living birds too. My brother seemed impressed that we were able to see so many endangered species – Piping Plovers, Least Terns, Red Knots, and Black Skimmers all made appearances. A trio of Black Skimmers even flew back and forth right in front of us, giving great views of their sleek wings and fascinating mandibles.
As we were walking along, admiring the spectacle of a large tern flock, my brother warned that there was a snake in front of me. A dead snake, I thought confidently. As I looked down and simultaneously took another step, I noticed that there was indeed a snake right next to my foot – and that no, it was not dead. It flicked its tongue and hissed as I quickly stepped away. Lacking any real knowledge regarding snake identification, we both marveled at the odd creature – its head appeared totally flattened, but the snake seemed perfectly healthy and ready to defend itself. We studied it for some time before deciding to leave it to its own devices. After some quick searching I realized it had been an Eastern Hognose Snake, explaining why it had been hanging out on the beach.
After spending some time with this mystery snake, we continued on our way until I noticed a pair of Forster’s Terns – one standing on top of the other. Now, I’ve seen plenty of birds copulate. I know this is the usual starting position. These two, however, were doing nothing but standing: one on the sand, one on the back of the other. We had a hearty laugh about it, especially my brother. The birds were still stacked up when we finally headed back to the car.
A few more stops heading south and we were ready to call it a day somewhat early. Our clothes were still soaked through, and we were getting hungry.
Being out in the field with a non-birder for the first time in quite awhile reminded me that you don’t need to be a birder to enjoy birding. The birds and the lists (I never did see that King Eider) and the photographs are just an excuse to be outside and admire whatever nature decides she’s offering up on that particular day. In this case, it was a lot of rain, some really cool birds, and a snake story neither of us will soon forget.