Dune Road stretches in a straight east/west line, with Moriches Inlet at the western end and Shinnecock Inlet about 15 miles to the east. This places Dune Road roughly opposite the south shore communities of Westhampton, Quogue and Hampton Bays. The more famous hamptons, Southampton and Easthampton, lie a little further east.
Dune Road, with salt marshes to the right and ocean out of view to the left.
First off- a couple of the things that I think make Dune Road a prime birding destination. First, there's a nice variety of habitat ranging from mud flats and extensive salt marshes along the north-facing bay side, sand dunes and ocean frontage along the south side, and two very different inlets at either end. This varied habitat means year-round birding- mudflats for shorebirds and terns in summer, marshes for migrating and breeding sparrows and egrets, the inlets and ocean for wintering waterfowl and alcids.
Mudflats at Cupsogue County Park at low tide
Next, the road itself provides access to most of the area, and gives me the option to bird from my car if time is short or the weather is bad. When I'm feeling more ambitious, there are plenty of areas where I can get out and explore on foot. The scenery is top notch, and if the birding isn't working for you, you can always head out to the inlet and catch dinner.
The road is literally at sea level, and consequently it does experience a fair amount of flooding. Storms can leave parts of it inaccessible for days, at least. Every now and then a major storm will cause the beach to breach, forming a new inlet and sometimes taking the road and some houses with it. Paradoxically, the word "Cupsogue" means "closed inlet", although the inlet at that location only opened up in the nor'easter of 1931.
Tropical storms and winter nor'easters pound the beach and periodically open up new inlets.
One of the most exciting birding spots on Dune Road can be found at the western end, where the paved road ends in the large parking field of Cupsogue County Park. North of the parking field you'll find an extensive salt marsh- great habitat for breeding Salt Marsh and Seaside Sparrows. South of the parking area is a beautiful swimming beach with a large pavilion, providing a platform to scope the ocean for shearwaters, gannets, and other seabirds, along with food, drink and live entertainment during the warmer months.
Expansive salt marshes provide habitat for marsh sparrow, rails, egrets and more. When visiting in warm weather, don't forget bug spray!
Heading north into the salt marsh, you can expect to find Salt Marsh Sparrows from mid May through September, with a few lingering into winter, when they are joined by the look-alike Nelson's Sparrow.
Salt Marsh Sparrow
Getting a good enough look to separate these two "Sharp-tailed" Sparrows from the equally common Seaside Sparrow can be tricky. If you're hearing them sing, they're probably Seasides. Salt Marsh Sparrows sing a barely audible "whisper song", easily lost among the blowing reeds and screaming Willets and Oystercatchers.
The marshes also host a variety of herons and egrets, and several Osprey nests are stationed throughout.
American Bittern is a very uncommon breeder on Long Island, but this one present in the marsh in mid-July probably had a nest nearby.
Most birders come to Cupsogue for the mudfalts, which attract shorebirds and terns from mid May through September when the tides are right. There is a little adventure involved with birding the Cupsogue flats, though. There is no way to walk out there without getting wet. If you read the tide tables correctly, the water may be no worse than knee deep. The trick is to get there near low tide and watch the birds arrive on the flats as the lower lying sandbars become submerged. But the channels flood quickly, and every year birders end up in chest-deep water, losing cameras or dunking their binoculars or scopes into the salty bay, or worse, getting themselves stuck in the deep oozy mud that lies invisible under the rising water. The contour of the bay bottom changes every year, so there is always some trial and error and a lot of discussion about best approaches, landmarks and so on.
But, ah! the birds! Every year seems to produce a real rarity- this year the state's first Elegant Tern and last year a Brown Booby, along with more "regular" rarities like Red-necked Stint and Curlew Sandpiper. Many a day of hot summer birding on the mudflats ends with a Margarita and mudslide celebration up at the pavilion!
Endangered Piping Plovers and Least Terns are common on the flats amidst the swarms of Semi Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings and more. It's not surprising to find 20 species of shorebirds (sandpipers and plovers) on the flats.
Heading east, Dune Road takes you past some developed areas, beachfront bars, hotels and houses with price tags in the many millions for ocean front
or the not-so-many-millions for bay side--
Snowy Owl alarm system not included
Snowies spend most of the day loafing around, barely opening their eyes. This one is not actually about to bite my arm off- he's just yawning. Coincidentally, he's using the same house I photographed about a month earlier for this diary (previous picture).
The human resident here tend to spruce up the yard with plantings- ornamental or protective- and birds like crossbills find rows of planted pines just as attractive as those wild coniferous forests of the far north. Here a male White-winged Crossbill is using his bizarrely adapted bill to extract pine cone seeds.
Male White-winged Crossbill in the pines along Dune Road. Last winter was an outstanding year for both crossbill species.
and here's a female
Female White-winged Crossbill
Much of the bay side is undeveloped, though, and salt marshes stretch away from the road to the north. Egrets, including this Snowy, pluck fish from the shallow pools.
Phalaropes, like this Red-necked, are sometimes found along the bay edges, spinning and churning food particles up off the bottom.
Common and Red-throated Loons are common in winter, but occasionally one lingers long enough to show off it's breeding plumage.
Eventually, we can make our way to the eastern end of Dune Road. Shinnecock Inlet is home to a small but active fishing fleet and opens into the ocean through a pair of rock jetties. Mussel beds along the bay shoreline attract American Oystercatchers. This one can be identified as a juvenile by the scalloped edgings on its wing feathers and by the dusky tip on the bill and dark eye.
as compared to this adult
The Shinnecock section of Dune Road is probably best from late fall through winter, although conditions can be brutal at times. I get cold just looking back at photos like this one.
Some days you just don't want to get out of the car!
But these are the days that produce eiders, Common
Adult male Common Eiders usually make up less than 5% of the flocks in our area
Immature male King Eider- Sorry for the poor photo- this was one of those rainy, cold, windy days at the jetty.
Over on the bay side, rafts of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead join the year round flocks of Black Ducks, the classic salt marsh duck of the east coast.
Bay ducks like Greater Scaup, Bufflehead and this Long-tailed Duck (formerly known as "oldsquaw") are abundant in the bay during winter months.
And of course , winter is for gull-lovers, and Shinnecock is one of the best places around to hone your skills. Sifting through the flocks often produces Iceland Gull,
Adult Iceland Gull at Shinnecock Inlet
and Glaucous Gull
First winter Glaucous Gull showing sharply defined bicolored bill.
and rarities like this European Common Gull.
European Common Gull (L.c. canus), which may or may not be a separate species from the Mew Gull of western North America.
It isn't unusual to find both Iceland and Glaucous Gulls on the same day at Shinnecock, and over the years I've seen all the regularly occurring alcids here except Puffin- that is both murres, Black Guillemot, Dovekie and Razorbill.
Purple Sandpipers often feed along jetty and Great Cormorant are easy to find, providing side-by-side comparison to the more familiar Double-crested.
Great Cormorant (left) and Double-crested Cormorant for comparison. Both occur in winter at the inlet.
Dune Road provides an easily accessible slice of year-round coastal birding. For me, it's a great getaway- early mornings before the day's responsibilities kick in, or an hour or two before sunset any time of year. If you're ever in the area, message me and maybe we can arrange a Dune Road meetup!