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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Christmas Bird Count at Floyd Bennett Field

First Light

(Photo credit - Rob J)

It’s hard to believe that the annual Christmas Bird Count has arrived. The count, to me, is the symbolic end of the birding year. For people who keep annual birding lists it’s sort of like the last chance to add another species. I’m already thinking about next year’s discoveries. Today was my ninth Christmas Bird Count, the last five of which were spent surveying Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. It’s one of the few days that I can be roused before dawn while my body is in winter hibernation mode. The last two years were the only times that I’ve had enough energy left to attend the dinner at the end of the day. Comparing highlights with one’s fellow birders and hoping for bragging rights for a “save” are just a couple of things that make the day long effort worth it. (A “save“ is a bird species that was only seen by one group of birders.)

Thin ice

(Photo credit - Rob J)

According to the National Registry of Historic Places Floyd Bennett Field encompasses 3,285 acres. That might explain my sore feet. Floyd Bennett’s acreage includes coniferous woodlands, deciduous tracts, marshland and coastline, however, grassland accounts for a majority of the habitat. We usually begin our day at first light by forming a line at the edge of one field and walking slowly to the opposite side. The point is to flush any birds that might be hiding in the grass and then writing it down on a tally sheet. It always makes me feel like a Redcoat in attack formation. In this case the enemy is the wild blackberry vines and briar hidden in the grass that try to trip me up and tear at my lower legs.

-Click here for the history of Floyd Bennett Field-

As we walk through the grass we ultimately flush up a flock of Eastern Meadowlark. The size of the flock fluctuates from year to year but, from what I’ve been told, meadowlark numbers have decreased considerably from decades past. Ring-necked Pheasants populations have also plummeted. I found a pair of pheasant wings at a kill site on one of the fields. She was likely the last one left. Floyd Bennett’s open areas attract a variety of winged predators. A Red-tailed Hawk or Cooper’s Hawk could have easily made a meal of her.

Pheasant wing

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The short, stubbly grass on a new cricket field had attracted a large flock of Horned Larks. We usually observe one or two dozen on the bird count but today there were sixty-seven. I love how they flatten their chubby bodies against the ground when they’re foraging for seeds. Their low profile makes them one of the few birds that can feed in the open on windy days without getting blown away. It also makes it a little difficult to count them. When you think you’ve tallied all of them another one suddenly appears in your field of view. On a dreary winter day the sight of their bold yellow and black face always brings a smile to my face.

Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

As we stood on the beach at Dead Horse Bay we counted 200 Greater Scaup a short distance from the shore. Horned Grebe have arrived in New York waters wrapped in grayscale, winter plumage, their golden ”horns“ absent until the spring. Several small flocks dove for food near the shore.

Rising ocean levels and the unrelenting scouring of wind, tide and time have exposed layers of the crumbling landfill once know as Barren Island. Examining the ground while walking along the shore of Dead Horse Bay is like graphing history. Long stretches of dark brown peat are revealed at low tide. It has likely taken hundreds of years to form the island’s peat substructure. Two hundred year old glass bottles, fragments of old porcelain and rusty iron pipes are interspersed with oyster, clam and mussel shells. In the late 19th to the early 20th century Barren Island was the home of Menhaden processing plants. It was the last resting place for dead horses from New York City. There Menhaden recovered fat and other products from the carcasses. There is a disturbing number of horse bones scattered among all the other debris adorning the beach. Most of the bone has been cut up but I found an intact tibia from one of the horses.

Horse tibia

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Sean spotted a hawk perched atop a dead tree. A perched hawk is sometimes more difficult to identify than one in flight. When the hawk glided by above our heads we realized that we had a rare over-wintering Broad-winged Hawk in Brooklyn.

Four of the people in our group left just before sunset. Sean, Chuck and I decided to stay until dark, hoping for a glimpse of a nocturnal bird. Despite our best effort we couldn’t find any owls and, as always, our last bird for the day was the 4:30 Merlin.

Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope ) at Floyd Bennett

(Photo credit - Roberto Cavalieros)

- - - - -

Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, Four Sparrow Marsh, 12/17/2005
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Great Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Snow Goose
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye
Common Merganser
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Black-bellied Plover
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Horned Lark (67 on cricket field.)
Tree Swallow
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Hermit Thrush
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
House Finch
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow


jnfr said...

Wonderful report. Thank you!

Gwyn said...

This is a wonderful count, much better than our WI area one the same day. The first light photo really captures that moment of day on any count.

I'm wondering if you'd be willing to let me link to this entry in the next edition of "I and the Bird." You can email me at
rcalvettijr AT

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