July 9th, Coney Island Creek
I know that there are people who read this blog who live far from New York City. It must seem odd to those folks how relatively often I write about some rare, exotic species showing up within or close to the city's borders. I'm a native New Yorker and have no problem admitting that this place is a little different, but exotic isn't a word I'd associate with The Big Apple. In some instances the rare sightings are attributed to our unique topography, the shape and orientation of the New York/New Jersey Bight, ocean currents, weather patterns or the numerous job opportunities. And then there are times when nobody even bothers trying to figure it out.
Monday morning Sean picked me up on his way to Calvert Vaux Park near Coney Island. On Sunday Alex Wilson had discovered a Western Reef Heron feeding in Coney Island Creek at low tide. The presence of a birder at the creek is almost as unusual as that species of wading bird. Anyway, Doug called at about 7am to let me know that it was still present.
I've posted a few times about Calvert Vaux Park only it was under its maiden name: Dreier-Offerman Park. Located just south of the Verazanno Bridge and north of Coney Island, the park is a manmade (or at least man-expanded) peninsula. It looks out onto Gravesend Bay and Coney Island Creek creates a tidal mudflat near the park's south end.
People who had arrived at the park early were in the park looking south at the heron. Doug called us and recommended that we park at "Toys-R-Us" and approach the creek from the opposite side, with the sun at or back. It was great advice as we had well lit, close views of the heron.
The heron is primarily a stunning blue-gray coloration. His throat is white and the top of his head has a single, long plume reminiscent of "Alfalfa" of "The Little Rascals". Approximately the same size as a Snowy Egret, he similarly has bright orange feet contrasting with dark legs.
It hadn't occured to me that I was observing the heron while squishing around in sandles in mud that was, in all likelihood, chockful of toxins. I was just so fascinated by one of his foraging techniques. While standing in shallow water, he would rapidly vibrate one of his legs, presumably by shuffling his foot in the mud. The motion would either attract prey or flush them up off of the bottom. Either way, he'd spot something tasty and snap it up with his dagger-like bill.
(Photo credit - Sean Sime)
(Photo credit - Sean Sime)
In my excitement to run out and see the bird I overlooked one small item; I didn't know anything about it and it wasn't in any of my North American guides. Sean knew just slightly more and most of the people I asked at the creek were also uninformed. So why all the hubbub? The bird had been reported in New Jersey and I guess word filter down that it was "special".
The Western Reef Heron's range includes west Africa, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and India. The bird near Coney Island is only the 4th record in the United States. This bird is a mystery to me. We know that he flew here, but why? I have also learned that biologists aren't even certain of his identity. I'll spare you the confusing details, but lets just say they can't decide who is a cousin and who is a sibling. A Snowy Egret seemed to have some problems with the foreign visitor and frequently displayed aggressive behavior towards him. Maybe this species of wading bird is just following in the footsteps, or rather, wingbeats of the Cattle Egret.
While video is playing, click menu for a list of related videos