Coastal and Pelagic Birds of Long Island
by John L. Turner
At first glance Long Island's coastal environment might seem to be a fairly homogeneous place - simply the interface between land and water. Yet, a closer, more detailed look reveals a great diversity of habitats. These range from salt marshes fringing the shore of sheltered embayments to intertidal mud- and sandflats. They include subtidal bay bottoms, both muddy and sandy, some of which provides a substrate for ecologically important submerged aquatic vegetation such as eelgrass. There are the sandy beaches that take the brunt of the Atlantic Ocean's energy.
Even the ocean itself, an environment that might seem to be pretty homogeneous, turns out to be remarkably varied, given to differences in depth, salinity, temperature, and surface and subsurface currents. These differences often result in local concentration of food resources that are readily exploited by pelagic (ocean loving) birds. It is not surprising, therefore, that this diverse coastal environment provides suitable habitat to a surprising diversity of birds.
Following is a list of the birds that might be seen and studied in Long Island's coastal environment. The list is, of course, somewhat arbitrary. Birds that are occasional or are vagrants were excluded since the likelihood of seeing them is very slim. Also, birds that frequent habitats near the coast were excluded. These include, for example, waterfowl that exclusively frequent freshwater ponds near the coast but don't typically occur on brackish or salt water. The criteria used as to whether a species was included or not can be summed up in a question "Is there a reasonable chance I could see this bird if I made the effort at the right time of year?" If the answer is a definite or probable "no" then the bird was left off.
Family Gaviidae (Loons)
Common Loon (Gavia immer) - a common winter visitor in Long Island coastal waters, often numbering in the thousands. A small number of non-breeding birds spend the summer. Chunky, dark with a stout bill. Can often be heard yodeling as spring approaches.
Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) - a common bird during the winter months, also numbering in the thousands; more lightly colored and slimmer than the Common Loon with a slimmer bill that it holds in a distinctive position above the horizontal- giving the bird a "snooty" appearance.
Family Podicipedidae (Grebes)
Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) - common winter visitor; birds overwintering fly east during fall migration from their breeding grounds in western Canada.
Red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena) - an uncommon winter visitor; larger than the more common Horned Grebe with a distinctive white vee on face.
Family Procellariidae (Shearwaters and Petrels)
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) - a common pelagic in the winter; rarely seen from land. Tubenose on bill separates it from similar appearing gulls.Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea) - a common pelagic seabird especially in late spring; sightings are almost guaranteed during offshore birding trips. Occasionally seen from land. Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis) - a very common pelagic seabird seen throughout the warmer months, when, like the preceding species, it is "overwintering", away from its southern hemisphere breeding grounds. Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris borealis) - a common pelagic seabird in late summer. Can sometimes be seen from land.
Manx Shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) - an uncommon to occasional pelagic seabird during the summer months; probably found offshore during the winter too.
Audubon Shearwater (Puffinus Iherminieri) - regularly seen in small numbers offshore during the summer months; it is the smallest of the shearwater species that occur in coastal Long Island.
Family Hydrobatidae (Storm-Petrels)Wilson's Storm-Petrel (Oceanites oceanicus) - probably the most common pelagic species seen off Long Island; flocks have been known to number in the thousands. Has unique flight behavior, often dipping its feet on the water, lending the appearance that it is walking on the water. Old-time mariners called the bird Mother Carey's chicken, a derivation from mater cara, the Virgin Mary, a reference to its habit of walking on the water surface. The word petrel is derived from "Little Peter", a reference to St. Peter who was able to walk on water with Christ's help. Breeds in Southern hemisphere
Leach's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) - less abundant pelagic than the ubiquitous Wilson's Storm-Petrel; fairly common through the warmer months. Nests throughout northern Atlantic as far south as Massachusetts. Has distinctive forked tail.
Family Sulidae (Boobies & Gannets)Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus) - a member of the Booby family; Common pelagic bird during spring and fall migration and as an overwintering species. Can often be seen from land especially at Montauk Point and along the south shore. Regular in small numbers in Long Island Sound. Spectacular plunges into schools of bait fish sending up plumes of spray. All age classes can be seen.
Family Pelecanidae (Pelicans)
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) - twenty years ago the sighting of a brown pelican in Long Island's coastal waters would have been cause for celebration. Now they are seen with some regularity in the summer along the south shore, often flying in small groups in typical flight behavior - low to the water in single file. They have expanded their breeding range northward over the past few decades and now breed on the DELMARVA peninsula.
Family Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants)Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) - a regular winter visitor to Long Island. Is larger than, and has a distinctive white flank patch from, the following species.
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) - an abundant coastal bird. It is unlikely not to be seen on any trip to the coast. Has recovered from past persecution to the point that contend it has become a pest. Has returned as breeding bird on Long Island.
Family Ardeidae (Bitterns, Herons, & Allies)
American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) - an uncommon breeding bird in some of the Island's larger coastal marshes where it also is known to overwinter. Individuals are fairly regularly seen along Dune Road west of the Ponquogue Road.
Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) - also an uncommon breeding bird in coastal wetlands both fresh and salt. A very rare winter visitor.
Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) - the more common of the two night heron species found in coastal Long Island. Quite a few colonies or rookeries exist on Long Island; often seen in the marshes fringing the south shore bays; is also common at Sunken Meadow State Park situated on the Long Island Sound coastline. As the name suggests it is active at night and during dusk when birds can be seen flying to feeding grounds, often vocalizing quock! quock! as they go by.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax violacea) - much less common than the preceding species. Can easily be identified by distinctive diamond-shaped cheek patch. Has more catholic diet than the previous species, depending almost exclusively on small crabs.
Tricolored Heron (Egretta tricolor) - formerly known as the Louisiana Heron. Like the following species more often seen in coastal areas on the western end of Long Island, although even here it is not really common.
Several pair breed every year in mixed rookeries.
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) - an uncommon summer resident more often seen in coastal areas in western Long Island; also breeds in low numbers. First year birds are all white and might be confused with snowy egrets.
Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) - extirpated as a breeding bird in New York State due to plume hunting a century ago the Snowy Egret has since recovered. It is a common breeding bird in mixed colonies in many coastal areas of the Island.
Great Egret (Ardea alba) - an unmistakably large, white, and graceful wading bird. Nearly the size of a great blue heron. Rare at the turn of the century, the Great Egret is now a common breeding bird here in mixed species colonies.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) - a common summer resident often seen feeding in tidal wetlands throughout the south shore bays, yet no known breeding colonies or rookeries occur here; a rookery existed on Gardiner's Island decades ago.
Family Threskiornithidae (Ibises & Spoonbills)
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) - has experienced an impressive range expansion northward over the past half century. Was considered an accidental visitor until the 1940's. First began breeding in New York in 1961. Several hundred pairs now nest on Long Island. Especially common along the Island's southwestern coast.
Family Anatidae (Geese, Swans, & Ducks)
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) - ubiquitous as a breeding bird, spring and fall migrant, and winter visitor. Found in protected sections of bays and harbors and in freshwater ponds near the coast.
Brant (Branta bernicla) - common in the western bays of the south shore where it overwinters in flocks that sometimes include several hundred individuals. Quite regular in Jones Inlet. Has largely recovered from precipitous decline due to the destruction of eelgrass, its primary food source, in the 1930's.
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) - this graceful bird, a Eurasian species, was introduced to Long Island in the early twentieth century. It has expanded its range considerably since then. It is found primarily in protected bay areas although it is occasionally been found in more exposed areas such as Long Island Sound. It is highly aggressive, leading to growing concern about its impact to other waterfowl and aquatic vegetation.
Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) - a winter resident, found in a few freshwater ponds along the coast on the South Fork.
American Black Duck (Anas rubripes) - a common breeding bird and winter resident in sheltered waters near coastal marshes. Its amethyst purple wing speculum is among the most beautiful of all waterfowl.
Mallard (Anas platyrynchos) - a common breeding duck and winter resident in freshwater ponds adjacent to the coast. Occasionally found in sheltered areas of bays and harbors.
Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) - hard to differentiate from the following species, both of which are referred to as "bluebills" by hunters. Large overwintering rafts, numbering in the hundreds, occasionally in the thousands, occur on south shore bays. A movement of 250,000 birds was reported for Great South Bay on 3 December 1929!
Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) - common overwintering bird but hard to separate from preceding species. Has a greater affinity toward freshwater where
King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) - an uncommon overwintering sea duck, most often found at Montauk Point. Usually no more than half a dozen birds occur. Adult male is stunning!
Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) - over the past decade has been steadily increasing; now a common overwintering sea duck with rafts often numbering in the thousands.
Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) - an uncommon overwintering sea duck species. Has affinity for rough water. Look for it at Montauk Point and near south shore jetties. Up to a dozen individuals reliably seen along Point Lookout side of Jones Inlet. Beautiful species!
Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) - a common overwintering sea duck, often seen from south shore beaches and at Montauk Point.
White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca) - a very common, chunky sea duck with unmistakable white wing speculums. Overwinters in Long Island numbers may reach the tens of thousands. Seen in ocean from south shore beaches and at Montauk Point. The most common scoter species.
Black Scoter (Melanitta nigra) - all dark bird. Least common of the three scoter species which overwinter in Long Island's coastal environment.
Oldsquaw (Clangula hyemalis) - an abundant, unmistakable sea duck. Unlike the overwhelming majority of waterfowl species, the oldsquaw has distinctive breeding and nonbreeding plumage. Common at Montauk Point, in eastern Gardiner's Bay and Long Island Sound.
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) - this attractive little saltwater duck is a common overwintering species in bays and harbors.
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) - a common sea duck occurring primarily in Long Island Sound, Gardiner's Bay and at Montauk.
Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) - a very common overwintering duck found both in sheltered bays and harbors and in the open ocean.
Family Accipitridae (Kites, Eagles, Hawks, & Allies)
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) - a once again common breeding bird in Long Island's coastal areas, having rebounded from DDT poisoning, especially in the Peconic system, where early records indicated was once one of the species' global strongholds. Readily takes to nesting platforms, now common features in salt marshes and coastal spits.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) - once breeding on Long Island (last record on Gardiner's Island in 1930), it is now most often seen during fall migration and as an occasional overwintering bird. Historical records indicate that dozens of overwintering birds were shot each year on Long Island. On the rebound.
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) - found in coastal marshes year round. Breeds in low numbers along south shore. Hunting behavior of bird flying low to ground with wings rocking in a shallow dihedral is diagnostic.
Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) - a common fall migrant along the south shore barrier beach. Most individuals are immature birds.
Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperi) - same as aforementioned species.
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) - a common fall migrant along the south shore barrier beach. Can be seen hunting here in characteristic fashion by hovering over suitable habitat in search of prey.
Merlin (Falco columbarius) - common migrant in the fall on the south shore barrier islands.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) - occasional to common fall migrant along the south shore. Especially likely to be seen from Oct.1 - Oct 15.
Family Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, & Coots)
Clapper Rail (Rallus longirostris) - regular breeding bird in the marshes found along the south shore. Less common in marshes fringing Long Island Sound or Peconic Bay.
American Coot (Fulica americana) - common as an overwintering bird in freshwater and brackish coastal ponds.
Family Charadriidae (Plovers & Lapwings)
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola) - a spring and fall migrant especially common in sand- and mudflats edging the south shore bays.
American Golden-Plover (Pluvialis dominica) - an uncommon fall migrant in coastal salt meadows (was once much more abundant having never fully recovered from intensive market hunting at turn of the century).
Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) - this attractive "darker cousin" to the piping plover is an abundant spring and fall migrant along the south shore. So named due to the partial webbing between the toes.
Piping Plover (Charadrius melodius) - one of the few nesting shorebird species. Once common, populations plummeted to the point the east coast population was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Due to intensive protection efforts, species is increasing. Most common on ocean facing beaches along the south shore.
Family Haematopodidae (Oystercatchers)
American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) - this very distinctive shorebird is an uncommon breeding bird along the south shore. It first started breeding on Long Island in the late 1950's. Often seen feeding at extensive blue mussel beds immediately west of the Ponquogue Bridge in Shinnecock Bay.
Family Scolopacidae (Sandpipers, Phalaropes, & Allies)
Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca & flavipes) - both species, difficult to separate in the field, are common spring and fall migrants. Can best be separated by call.
Willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus) - this large shorebird breeds along the south shore where it is often seen flying around, issuing its piercing pill-will-willet!, pill-will-willet! call.
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitus macularia) - a common bird in coastal areas. It breeds here as well as being a spring and fall migrant. Its shallow rapid wingbeats while flying and its constant bobbing of its tail while walking are diagnostic.
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) - this large attractive shorebird is an uncommon spring and fall migrant.
Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) - an uncommon migrant in the fall.
Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) - a common spring and fall migrant. Also overwinters in small numbers. Lives up to its name as it turns over stones and other beach debris in search of prey items.
Sanderling (Calidris alba) - common spring and fall migrant, and a common winter visitor. Often seen on high energy beaches feeding on portion of beach just exposed by retreating waves.
Red Knot (Calidris canutus) - this attractive and chunky shorebird is a common spring and fall migrant as it travels between its arctic breeding grounds and southern South American wintering grounds.
Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) - a common spring and fall migrant. One of the "peep" sandpipers.
Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri) - an uncommon fall migrant. Hard to tell apart from some of the other peeps.
Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) - this smallest of the peeps is a common spring and fall migrant.
White-rumped Sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis) - an uncommon to common fall migrant.
Baird's Sandpiper (Calidris bairdii) - an uncommon fall migrant along the coast.
Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanotos) - an uncommon spring and fall migrant.
Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) - a common winter visitant frequenting rocky jetties and breakwaters. Reliable on the jetties that frame the south shore inlets.
Dunlin (Calidris alpina) - a common spring and fall migrant; also overwinters in small numbers. Longer down-curved bill is distinctive among the calidrid sandpipers.
Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus & scolopaceus) - very difficult to distinguish in the field so they are often identified as a dowitcher species. The short-billed is the more common occurring in both spring and fall while the long-billed is only seen in the fall.
While they are hard to tell apart, it is easy to identify them as dowitchers.
Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) - an uncommon spring and fall migrant.
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus) - uncommon to common spring and fall migrant offshore although small numbers can sometimes be seen from land.
Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicaria) - a common migrant offshore in spring.
Family Laridae (Skuas, Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers)
Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus) - of the three jaeger species that have been seen along Long Island’s coast, this species is observed most often, especially on pelagic trips in the autumn.
Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla) - a common breeding bird in Long Island's southwestern coast and a common summer and fall visitant.
Bonaparte's Gull (Larus philadelphia) - a common winter visitant to Long Island, often frequenting inlets. Especially reliable on the west side of Jones Inlet where a flock involving many hundred birds congregates each year. Occasionally joined each winter by extralimital Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus) and Little Gull (Larus minutus).
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) - a very common to abundant bird year round although it doesn't breed here. Birds found here during the summer are non-breeding adults.
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) - the common gull found along our coast; breeds here and is joined by winter visitants. Has significantly expanded population over the past several decades, access to food at landfills thought to be a major contributing cause.
Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) - uncommon winter visitant.
Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) - uncommon winter visitant.
Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) - uncommon but predictable winter visitant.
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) - our largest gull; an abundant breeding bird that first began to breed on Long Island in the 1940's. Often nests with Herring Gulls.
Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) - an uncommon winter visitant most often seen at Montauk.
Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia) - the largest tern species in North America, this bird is an occasional spring and fall migrant. A few birds seem to be found most falls at Mecox Bay. Breed in Great Lakes region.
Royal Tern (Sterna maxima) - a regular fall migrant along the south shore. Particularly reliable at Shinnecock and Mecox Bays.
Roseate Tern (Sterna dougalii) - a common breeding bird on the east end of Long Island with several populations including the well-studied population at Great Gull Island By the American Museum of Natural History. Also seen during fall migration. Has been placed on the federal Endangered Species List as an Endangered Species.
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) - the common tern found on Long Island breeding at several dozen coastal sites. Colony on Great Gull Island numbering about 8,000 birds is the largest in the western hemisphere!
Forster's Tern (Sterna forsteri) - a local breeding bird in southwestern coast of Long Island. Common fall migrant.
Little Tern (Sterna antillarum) - this smallest North American tern is a common breeding bird on Long Island with several dozen colonies found along the coast.
Black Skimmer (Rhynchops niger) - this wonderful and distinctive bird is a common breeding bird on Long Island with several hundred breeding pairs scattered at various coastal sites along the south shore.
Family Alcidae (Auks, Murres, & Puffins)
Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia) - an occasional winter visitant at Montauk Point.
Razorbill (Alca torda) - an increasingly regular winter visitant seen at Montauk Point and along the south shore.
Family Strigidae (Typical Owls)
Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca) - A regular winter visitant most often to coastal areas especially along the south shore barrier islands.
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) - an uncommon breeding bird, this day flying owl likes to hunt in open areas such as over fields and salt marshes. Most reliably seen along Dune Road in Westhampton. This attractive owl has a distinctive flight behavior appearing like a moth in flight.
Family Alcedinidae (Kingfishers)
Belted Kingfisher - a common breeding bird often seen hunting over sheltered saltwater embayments in classic hovering style. A vocal species, the bird's rattle call is often discerned before being seen.
Family Picidae (Woodpeckers & Allies)
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) - a sometimes abundant fall migrant along the south shore barrier beach.
Family Corvidae (Jays, Magpies & Crows)
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhyncos) - an abundant year-round bird often seen foraging in coastal areas.
Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus) - impossible to separate in the field from American Crow's based on marks, the fish crow can be distinguished by its more nasal #caa#, as if a American Crow with a head cold. Common breeding bird in coastal areas.
Family Alaudidae (Larks)
Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) - a local breeding bird and common winter visitant in coastal areas. Flocks involving several dozen birds can sometimes be seen feeding in open sandy areas.
Family Hirundinidae (Swallows)
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) - a common breeding bird, this handsome metallic blue-green swallow often nests along the coast, readily using nesting boxes placed in open areas such as vegetated sandy spits. Also common in the spring and especially common in the fall along the south shore barrier islands where it is not unusual to see flocks involving several thousand birds massing and swirling together. Their #funneling# behavior in which they spiral downward at dusk into phragmites reed beds for nighttime roosting is a sight not soon forgotten.
Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) - a locally common breeding species. Bank swallows nest in colonies building their burrows in which they place their nests in bluff faces and road cuts. Several colonies utilize the bluffs fronting on Long Island Sound. Other populations uses the bluffs on the west side of Robin's Island and on the south side of Montauk. Also seen during spring and fall migration.
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) - a common breeding bird, often seen along the south shore during the summer. During fall migration, like the tree swallow, sometimes massing in large flocks.
A number of songbirds or passerines (passeriformes), can be found in woodlands and thickets along the coast and on the south shore barrier island system. Indeed, during the peak of spring and autumn migration the south shore barrier islands can be very productive for seeing several dozen species of songbirds. Only a few of the common species are mentioned but many less common ones can be found with some reliability during certain times of the year.
Family Troglodytidae (Wrens)
Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) - a widespread breeding bird in salt marshes throughout the coastal zone.
Family Motacillidae (Wagtails & Pipits)
American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) - an uncommon winter visitant; as a migrant it can be common but given its erratic movements is unpredictable.
Family Parulidae (Wood Warblers)
Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia) - this beautiful, bright yellow songbird is a common nesting bird in thickets on the south shore barrier islands.
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Dendroica coronata) - a common to abundant winter visitant to the south shore barrier islands where it feeds on bayberry.
Family Emberizidae (New World Sparrows)
Saltmarsh and Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows (Ammodramus caudacutus & nelsoni)
The saltmarsh sharp-tailed is a common breeding bird especially in saltmarshes along the south shore. The Nelson's sharp-tailed is an uncommon migrant and winter visitant.
Seaside Sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus) - a common breeder in south shore marshes.
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) - an uncommon winter visitor along the coast, preferring open dune areas.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) - an abundant breeder, migrant, and winter visitant.
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) - an abundant winter visitant most often seen in coastal thickets.
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) - a common winter visitant often seen in small flocks throughout the coastal zone.
Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus) - an uncommon winter visitant.
Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) - an erratic but often common winter visitant. Birds occur in large winter flocks involving many dozens to several hundred birds.
Family Icteridae (Blackbirds)
Boat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus major) - a local breeding bird in salt marshes especially along the south shore barrier islands.
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