Saturday, July 25th
It seems incredible, but so far this year, a considerable number of New York birders have observed the following "unusual" species, without having to leave the state:
(click for range maps)
Western Reef Heron
As of this week, there is another out of town visitor to add to the list - Curlew Sandpiper. The sandpiper was found at the East Pond of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Some species have already begun their southbound migration and rangers have lowered the water level on the East Pond to create mud-flats for the hungry, long distance travelers. The pond is a magnet for plovers, sandpipers, yellowlegs, dowitchers, godwits and many other species known collectively as shorebirds. A majority of these birds breed in the far north or tundra. The Curlew Sandpiper typically breeds in northern Siberia. One theory as to how the rare vagrants end up on the east coast of the United States is that they take a shortcut over the top, so to speak.
A pair of Curlew Sandpipers showed up at Cape May earlier in the year and Sean drove down to photograph them. Even so, he still wanted to check out the one at Jamaica Bay and asked me to join him. His brother, David, would meet us at the parking lot. He also wanted to look for the Western Reef Heron at Coney Island Creek to take some more photos. The heron is still around but occasionally disappears for stretches of time. In the shallow water just offshore, there are the rotting, wooden skeletons of several old barges. Black-crowned Night-Herons like to roost on the vertical ribs and we speculated that, when the reef heron cannot be located, he is possibly hidden from view within the recesses of the old wrecks.
The sun had been up for about an hour when we arrived at the creek. Sean parked behind the Home Depot, which brought us farther east into the creek than during our last visit. It is beyond a bend in the creek from where the bird spends most of his time. Doug once found the reef heron behind Home Depot when others were unable to locate him. From that point, we walked down the shore towards the narrow channel on the east side of Calvert Vaux Park (the park previously known as Dreier-Offerman Park). At low tide, an exposed mud-flat in the channel attracts several species of wading birds and shorebirds, not just the Western Reef Heron.
The heron was not present and Sean did not want to spend a lot of time looking as his primary objective was to meet up with David and find the Curlew Sandpiper. I did not mind because having begun my day in the calm stillness along the creek was a fair consolation. Etched in my brain is the impression of rosy, early morning sun illuminating decaying, hulking masses of weather-sculpted timber. Hunched over and sleepy, red-eyed night-herons were resting on wood monoliths, looking as though they had just returned home after an evening of drunken debauchery. Finding and grasping a fleeting moment of repose in the dissonance of city life is golden.
The Curlew Sandpiper was reportedly feeding with some dowitchers near the north end of the East Pond. Access to the north end is via a vehicle restricted gravel road, which leads to a narrow swath cut though a seemingly impenetrable jungle of phragmites. Rubber "Wellies" are essential footwear as the trail leads out onto a mud-flat where, if you are not observant, a wrong step could put you into thigh-deep muck.
We walked south, towards the sandpiper's last known whereabouts, hugging the edge of the phragmites. A few feet to our left were scattered patches of hidden mud traps. Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plover probed the pungent, insect-rich mud close to the wall of reeds. Small groups of Short-billed Dowitchers fed in shallow water. Interspersed throughout the pond’s receding water were Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper. A single American Oystercatcher broadcast his presence with emphatic, whistled “wheeps”.
We set up our tripods near a midpoint on the west side of the pond. Earlier we had seen a raccoon at the edge of the water in that spot. From there we had a clear view of both sides, from “The Raunt” to our right and Sanderling Point and North Island to our left. For two and a half hours, we scanned from north to south and combed through ever bird in sight. Patches of pink Swamp-rose Mallow on the far shore added a nice visual break to the monotony of a wall of green phragmites. An “A” train was parked on the tracks that are parallel to the pond and on the opposite side of the phragmites. Periodically, the hydraulic breaks would release pressure, emitting a loud, hissing pop that triggered flocks of shorebirds into a flying frenzy. We would use the opportunity to scan for the Curlew Sandpiper in the flocks that passed in front of us. Never having seen one, I repeatedly asked Sean if it was possible for me to overlook. Finally, he replied, “Just look for a flying brick”.
Sean had walked back towards Sanderling Point and was sitting on the ground with his camera. David suddenly picked up his scope and hurried in the direction of his brother. My cellphone rang just as I stepped back on to the shore and started in their direction. It was Sean, and in a hushed voice, said two words, “Found it.” He was not exaggerating when he explained that I could not miss the bird. The sandpiper’s plumage had begun the transition to dull winter colors, but was still mostly a deep, chestnut-red. In addition to his striking color, black legs and a long, thin decurved bill created a unique profile among our expected shorebirds. Our vigilance had paid off, but I could not figure out how we overlooked him. Sean said that he was photographing a Stilt Sandpiper when the curlew just appeared in his frame. It is possible that he was always present, but just blocked from view by the larger, rounder dowitchers. For thirty minutes, we watched him walk back and forth in a small area several yards offshore, picking insects from the water. By 11AM, we decided to pack up our gear and get an early lunch.
I used to say (partly in jest) that there was always “one more bird” before going home. Each day it seems like I learn a little more about my surroundings, maybe I should change the word “bird” to “species” or “thing”.
Coney Island Creek & Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (East Pond only), 7/25/2007
Great Blue Heron
Great Black-backed Gull
Other common species seen (or heard):
Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Sparrow