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Thursday, December 21, 2006

December update

I’ve been feeling a bit guilty lately because I haven’t updated my blog much this month. But then, it also hasn’t been a typical year of birding for me. Sean, Shane and I began in January by birding at Montauk Point, the eastern most point of Long Island. Over the course of the year we’ve searched for birds at the southeastern-most part of New York State to the northwestern extreme and many points between. Expect to see a map here next month. So, here is a rundown of were we’ve all been during this home stretch of our big New York State year beginning with December 1st.

I didn’t go out on the February pelagic trip to the Hudson Canyon so I missed out on what was described as the best trip in the history of “Sea Life Paulagics”. If I had any chance of passing 300 species for the year I had to go out on at least one boat. The next trip was scheduled for December 2nd and I booked a spot as soon as possible. December 1st rolled around and Saturday’s marine forecast called for gale force winds and very high seas. The trip was cancelled and rescheduled for that Sunday.

Shane had already blown passed Sean and myself in total species on his quest for a big year, however, with an extra day on his hands, he decided to drive up to Niagara. He drove straight through, slept in his car for 2 hours, then met up with Willie D’Anna to search for a Thayer’s Gull and Slaty-backed Gull. He found the thayer’s easily enough but the slaty-backed was on the “wrong” side of the Canadian border. They weren’t able to persuade him to fly over to the US side. Having successfully added one more bird to his list, he turned around, drove back to Brooklyn and prepared for Sunday’s boat trip out to the Hudson Canyon.

Sean and Joe at Long Beach

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Niagara seemed a little out of the way for a one day trip so Joe, Sean and I went out to Long Beach and Jones Beach early Saturday morning to search for (primarily) any unusual swallows among the Tree Swallow flocks. An exhaustive search through, approximately, 200 swallows feeding within the dunes near the inlet didn't reveal anything other than Tree Swallows. One unexpected sighting from that location was a lone Royal Tern flying low above the jetty.

Lapland Longspur

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Scanning a flock of Snow Buntings in the parking lot at Jones Beach West End 2 turned up a single Lapland Longspur. There was a fairly large flock of buntings feeding along a circuit from the east end of the parking lot, in the sand at the south and west end, and onto the paved western-most parking lot. We spotted a second longspur in a small group just before we departed. It differed significantly from the first individual in that it still retained quite a lot of its breeding plumage. Three Long-tailed Ducks, a common and Red-throated Loon were in the water in front of the Coast Guard Station.

The inlet at Long Beach was virtually devoid of seabirds; no Harlequin Ducks and only a single Common Eider. The 3rd jetty west of the inlet was crawling with a mixed flock of shorebirds which included 4 Purple Sandpipers.

After a quick lunch break we decided to drive out to Northport to check out the selasporus hummingbird in Norm Klein's backyard. As other's have reported we quickly found the hummingbird and it was extremely cooperative. I posted Seans’s photos farther down the page.

New York Bight (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - NOAA)

Hudson Canyon (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - NOAA)

-What is the New York Bight?-

Fortunately, the front that moved through New York waters on Friday had cleared our area by late Saturday. Sunday’s trip was a go. This would be my first pelagic trip and, when I booked it in October, I anticipated arctic conditions 50 miles out to sea. Like everything else this season, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The seas were extremely calm, the wind relatively warm and, according to Paul Guris, the water out at the edge of the Continental Shelf was in the mid-60s.

Jones Inlet at dawn (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

As we motored south through Jones Inlet I noticed three fisherman on the jetty, silhouetted by the most brilliantly orange sunrise that I’ve experienced this year. It felt like a positive portent for the day ahead. I spent virtually the entire day outdoors as the scent of the ocean, cry of gulls and feel of cool, crisp ocean air against my face clears my mind and reinvigorates my brain. Tom Burke was on the trip so, given his wealth of knowledge and patient demeanor, I stuck close by so I wouldn’t miss anything. I was hoping to add several alcids to my year list but didn’t want to get greedy; I’d take any new year birds.

Watching from the bow

(Photo credit - Rob J)

On our way to the canyon there was a long stretch of water that seemed like the pelagic equivalent of a desert. I was beginning to think that the entire day would be a bust but more experienced birders assured me that it fairly typical. As I mentioned in a previous post, a Dark-eyed Junco passing through that zone seemed relieved to see our ship and joined us for the duration.

We observed several flocks of Bonaparte’s Gull, most of which were eating the crumbs that feeding schools of tuna were leaving behind. Occasionally some of the fish would break the surface, exposing their sharp-edged, streamlined form.

There didn’t seem to be a great diversity or abundance of birds near the canyon, possible due to the unusually warm weather. I did, however, get to see two birds that were new to me (Northern Fulmar and Little Gull) and experience up close and personal, Common Dolphins riding the ship’s wake.

Common Dolphin

(Photo credit - Rob J)

New for my year list were Northern Fulmar, Red Phalarope, Little Gull and Iceland Gull. Another nice highlight was close looks at a flock of Manx Shearwaters sitting on the water.

As we were returning to port I spotted a large fin that was, curiously, just bobbing in the water. I was standing at the bow with a few people and called it out. Angus Wilson, who was the trip leader, seemed very excited and told us that it was a Basking Shark.

Coast Guard Station (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Google Earth)

After the pelagic trip both Sean and I took a short breather. The marathon birding had become exhausting. Apparently, nothing seems to stop, or even slow down, Shane. On Thursday morning, December 7th, I received a phone call from him. He was at the Coast Guard Station at Jones Beach. He didn’t go looking for anything in particular but, while scanning the water, stumbled upon a Black Guillemot in the bay. I was near a computer so I posted the information while we were talking. Several people managed to see the bird before it of them wasn’t me.

Black Guillemot

(Photo credit - Shane Blodgett)

On December 10th I spent several hours birding in Prospect Park. It was my first long day in the park this winter, although it wasn’t like any winter days in recent memory. I image that the unusually mild weather has played a big role in our winter birds not arriving. The large flocks of White-throated Sparrows and juncos that usually overwinter in the park were scarce. The only area of activity was at four feeders that Peter has put up on Breeze Hill. At that one, small location were Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle and American Goldfinch.

The diversity of waterfowl on Prospect Lake was low for this time of year. There were plenty of Northern Shovelers in small, discrete circles spinning around at the south end of the lake. Ruddy Ducks were in fair numbers but there were no American Wigeon, Ring-necked Duck or Hooded Merganser. A single Bufflehead was on the Upper pool.

Northern Shovelers on Prospect Lake (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

On December 13th Sean, Shane and I received a call that an American White Pelican had been seen on Van Cordlandt Lake, in the Bronx. It was nearing the end of the day so Sean and I drove up to the Bronx as fast as possible. We hadn’t counted on traffic jams on every road around New York City so we didn’t arrive until it was almost dark. We didn’t find the pelican, but there were two young men driving golf balls from the shoreline into the center of the lake (and presumably the birds). It's unclear if their activities caused the bird's departure, but it couldn't have helped. The following morning Shane and I drove up to the lake before dawn. We were feeling very optimistic, which really meant, that if we couldn’t find the pelican, it was someone else’s fault. We didn’t find it but never quite figured out who to blame.

Gadwal at JBWR (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Floyd Bennett Field (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Google Earth)

The annual Brooklyn Christmas Bird count is usually the last Saturday before Christmas. This year it was held on December 16th. This year would be my 6th year of participating with the team that covers Floyd Bennett Field, Four Sparrow Marsh and Dead Horse Bay.

Dawn at Floyd Bennett Field (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

New York City birders have all been watching this winter’s warm weather, concerned that it would affect species diversity and abundance for the count. Our worry was realized as, at the compilation dinner, it became clear that many bird species were seen in very low numbers. At Floyd Bennett Field we were unable to find a single Savannah Sparrow. Savannah Sparrows breed in the grassland habitat and can almost always be found throughout the year. We did manage to find two meadowlarks, which are becoming increasingly more rare around NYC.

Walking the grassland at FBF (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)

I’m optimistic that next year will be more productive.

Geese on the runway

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Paper Birches

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Woodhenge at Dead Horse Bay

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Finally, our most recent road trip was on Tuesday to Montauk Point, Camp Hero and Oak Beach Marsh. Our target species were King Eider at Montauk and Yellow Rail at Oak Beach Marsh. King Eiders are scarce but regular winter visitors to Long Island’s coastline. The Yellow Rail, on the other hand, is extremely rare and was discovered by the Christmas Bird Count team that was surveying that section of barrier beach. For a change, I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about finding a bird - the Yellow Rail. Not only are they rare in this part of the country but are, in general, very secretive.

White-winged Scoter

(Photo credit - Rob J)

The plan was to arrive at Montauk Point at dawn, find the King Eider quickly, then start working our way back west. Apparently, the King Eider didn’t get the memo. We never located him. There were thousands of Common Eiders, Black Scoters, Wing-winged Scoters and Surf Scoters in rafts along Montauk Point’s coast. Locating a single, different bird among such large flocks really was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. We spent all morning at the point then drove a short distant south to Camp Hero. It was a valuable lesson studying the various plumages of Common Eiders, but I would have preferred studying a King Eider.

Shane & Doug at Camp Hero

(Photo credit - Rob J)

We arrived at Oak Beach at low tide and walked along the highway to the marsh entrance. A narrow path cut through a dense section of phragmites and opened onto the south side of the marsh. My first thought as I scanned the expansive marsh was that the folks who found the rail were incredible lucky. At its widest, the marsh is about .25 miles. It is approximately 1 mile long. We only had about 1 hour until sunset, and with only three people walking the grass, I didn’t think we’d find the Yellow Rail. It’s a beautiful habitat and I’ll return some day, but looking for a 7.25 inch bird in the dying light isn’t something I’ll try again any time soon.

Shane listening to rail calls

(Photo credit - Rob J)

Oak Beach Marsh (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Rob J)


Mike said...

Outstanding report of some truly exceptional NY birding.

Dani said...

Ditto what Mike said!

And the only place I've ever seen a Yellow Rail was at Smith Point. In the late 90s, when I'd 4-wheel to the inlet, the north side of the dunes was an absolute gold mine for birding. Best to leave your vehicle at the end and walk along the shore. But for every bird you see, there are MANY more deer ticks.

P.S... having trouble with the new version of Blogger, so I may be sending this multiple times. If so, I apologize.

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