The White-tailed Kite is still at Stratford Point for day 45, showing no immediate signs of departure. However, Tuesday night lead to some more craziness there, and another possible mega east coast rarity - this time from Europe. Unfortunately, the possible White Wagtail was not rediscovered today. I was not there for this one, arriving after the only sighting of it. An all-star lineup of birding experts, some with experience with the species, could not relocate it even later that evening at Stratford Point, Short Beach, Long Beach, or anywhere in between. The following is a quick summary of the possible White Wagtail sighting put together late last night by Coastal Center Director Frank Gallo along with Conservation Biologist, and the other author of this blog, Dr. Twan Leenders - they saw it!
Twan Leenders, Paul Fusco, and I were standing at Stratford Point near the buildings waiting for the Kite to return, when we heard an odd double-note chup, chup, or chip, chip, sort of raspy but loud call coming from behind us. It was not the sound of any North American bird that I recognized, and we turned to look as a slight larger than pipit-sized bird came over the building (it came in off the Long Island Sound) flying rather pipit-like but with longer intervals between dips, and flew right over our heads above the trees. In silhouette, it was fairly slim with a long square-tipped tail that was white below. The bird looked dark gray and white in flight and when it turned it had a dark body and black and white on the head. My impression was the black was on the crown and behind the eye and possibly on the throat. Twan saw black and white on the head, as well. One of the most striking and obvious things about the bird was the long undulating roller coaster flight pattern which both Twan and I noted. Our impression was that it flew and sounded like some form of White Wagtail. Several subspecies of White Wagtail occur throughout Europe, North Africa and SE Asia. I have seen and heard White Wagtails during my travels in Europe and Twan, being from The Netherlands, is quite familiar with this species as it is a common summer resident where he has lived much of his life.
After it flew over our heads, the bird dived into the grass near the entrance to Stratford Point, but we were unable to relocate it. While searching the neighborhood adjacent to the facility we found a white budgie with a flock of starlings. This bird showed a tapered white tail and flew fast and straight without undulating in flight and looked very bright white, although photos showed it to have some pale gray bars on the back and face. It was later relocated by Frank Mantlik on nearby Short Beach. After looking through videos of both white wagtails and budgies, and listening to many recording of both, we could find none showing a budgie undulating in flight - they fly fast and straight with wings below the horizontal, nor do they make a regular & repeated chip chip, and we found several recordings of white wagtail that matched the call we heard. Wagtails are a bird that enjoys half-open country, lawns, beaches and other open areas where it hunts for insects. We feel it's worth checking the dunes, rocky beaches, lawns and fields in area, including Short and Long Beach, Sikorsky airport and the around Stratford Point. Let's hope we can re-find it and get a photo. Look for a boldly marked black-and-white bird that constantly wags its tail as it chases insects (hence its common name), and look for its distinctive undulating flight. I haven't had a chance to check, but there are at least a couple of eastern records, including one, I believe, from Virginia.
This is a tough one, and quite frustrating for everyone involved. I, for one, am certain that Frank and Twan, experts who have a great deal of experience with the conspicuous species, were right in their ID. Everything they said to me while we frantically searched for it last night sounded perfect in terms of careful, considerate, thoughtful, and objective identification. Apart from that, this is the time of year that White Wagtails migrate in Europe. From what I have read they are long-distance diurnal migrants. It is probably the best window of time for one to come to North America. Additionally, we had a stiff easterly wind on Sunday and Monday.
With so many people busy at work on a Tuesday there were not too many eyes in the field today. Even Twan and Frank were occupied with other CAS work. There is definitely still a chance to find it again. Please come out and take a look everywhere in the area in and around Stratford Point. I hope that it will turn up somewhere nearby soon, perhaps after resting and staying out of sight more than usual because of a highly stressful and taxing journey across the Atlantic Ocean. If it is found once again you can be sure any photos will be right here. Keep your fingers crossed!