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Friday, December 26, 2008

Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count wrap-up

Floyd Bennett Field was New York City's first municipal airport. Built on Barren Island after combining it with several smaller islands, it is now owned and managed by the National Park Service. There are several historic hangers and other buildings on the property, but for participants of the annual Christmas Bird Count, it is mainly known for its 140 acres of remnant grassland. There are also some stands of conifers, as well as, coastal habitats along Jamaica Bay and Dead Horse Bay. Saturday's Brooklyn CBC was my seventh year helping out with the survey at Floyd Bennett (I missed out in 2002 due to a broken arm).

I've endured pretty much any weather conditions in the name of conservation without complaining, but this year was a test of will.

At 6:15am I walked six blocks to Gil's house, as he would be driving. There weren't any cars on the road so I walked down the center of 8th Avenue. A beautiful, light, crystalline snow fall made the air around the streetlights sparkle. The strong northeast wind made if feel like 15 degrees. I couldn't wait to feel the conditions out on the open grasslands.

Ron Bourque, of New York City Audubon, and his wife Jean have been the team leaders and keepers of Floyd Bennett Field for decades. We were to meet them at the main parking lot by 7am. When they arrived we found out that a total of 5 people had cancelled, for various reasons. In the back of my mind I assumed that it was all the same reason; the weather. That left Ron, Jean, Gil, Stanley and myself to cover all of Floyd Bennett, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. I was a little concerned because Jean was still recovering from a broken foot, plus, Gil and Stanley didn't appeared to be dressed warmly enough. As it turned out, Ron and I ended up walking the majority of the 140 acres by ourselves leaving no time for Four Sparrow Marsh or the North 40s.
I've never been to the Alaska, but after carefully crossing the ice encrusted runways and enduring the wind scoured fields on Saturday I imagined that it was similar to birding on the Aleutian Islands. The conditions didn't seem to deter some of the birds and we managed to find a couple of small flocks of Eastern Meadowlarks.

Much of the grassland was blanketed in snow and ice. We located a flock of Horned Larks that were feeding in an uncharacteristic manner. These arctic breeding birds are usually found foraging in open, stubbly grass fields. However, we found a flock of several dozen at the top of a dirt berm, stretching their necks to pluck seeds from the lower branches of Lamb's Quarters plants. They were sharing the food with White-throated Sparrows, Song Sparrows, American Tree Sparrow, juncos and a single Snow Bunting. It would have made an interesting photograph had the conditions been even slightly better.

After lunch we headed across Flatbush Avenue to Dead Horse Bay. Up to that point we hadn't observed anything unusual, in fact, many bird species we either missing entirely or just seen in low numbers. As we headed down the main path towards the water I spotted a very dark raptor hunting about the phragmites to our left. It had the coloration of a Turkey Vulture, but was clearly a hawk. When it stopped to hover in place, Ron and I blurted out in unison, "Rough-legged Hawk!" These hawks come in two color morphs, dark and light, this one being a very dark individual. Rarely seen around NYC, this was the second year in a row that we observed one on the Christmas Bird Count. Approximately the size of a Red-tailed Hawk, they have the unique ability to hover in place when searching for prey. Below is a short video that I located on the Cornell "Animal Behavior" website. It shows this unusual hunting strategy. Young Red-tailed Hawks will occasionally hover, but for the most part are much lazier hunters.

For a more complete analysis of this year's CBC, my friend Doug Gochfeld wrote up a really nice summary of the Brooklyn Count and posted it on the "" website. Here is his report:

Subject: Brooklyn CBC report+
From: Doug Gochfeld

With count period coming to an end this evening, and not having seen anything posted yet regarding it, I figured I'd write up a quick recap of the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count which took place on Saturday December 20. After a light snow for the first couple of hours of daylight it cleared up into some nicer (although still chilly) weather. I am not the compiler and I don't have all the numbers in front of me but I hope I hit on most of the highlights and "lowlights".

The biggest rarity of the count was a Blackpoll Warbler in the Spring Creek area, photographed by Steve Nanz. This represents a first count record, and from what I can gather a first record for New York State Christmas Counts, although I encourage anyone to correct me on that fact if I'm wrong. Spring Creek also produced a Yellow Warbler, another excellent find.

Great Egret (Marine Park??)

Little Blue Heron (immature at Jamaica Bay, 3rd count record)

Eurasian Wigeon (Marine Park)

Common Eider (Breezy Point)

Common Merganser (1 female at Jamaica Bay)

Rough-legged Hawk (Floyd Bennett Field, flying over Dead Horse Bay)

Clapper Rail (Marine Park, @ Plum Beach)

Killdeer (8 for Spring Creek)

Lesser Black-backed Gull (The usual adult at the Silver Gull Club picked up by both the Riis/Tilden and Breezy Point teams)

Black-legged Kittiwake (2 @ Breezy Point)

Snowy Owl (Jamaica Bay)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Jamaica Bay, Fort Tilden/Riis Park, Breezy Point)

Field Sparrow (5 @ Jamaica Bay, 5 @ Tilden/Riis)

sharp-tailed sparrow sp. (Jamaica Bay)

Seaside Sparrow (Marine Park, @ Plum Beach)

White-crowned Sparrow (Breezy Point)

Also Pine Siskin, Rusty Blackbird, Red-necked Grebe and I think Purple Finch were seen in multiple locations.

Hermit Thrush set a count high by more than 150%, with 30 beating the previous high count of 19.

American Pipits were seen by several parties with the high count being 70 for Spring Creek.

Common Goldeneye, Gray Catbird, and Brown Creeper were seen in only 1 location each and were present in lower numbers than usual.

Bad misses were Fish Crow, Boat-tailed Grackle, Chipping Sparrow and Redhead (not annual, but sufficiently regular to be a disappointing miss).

An observation that was shared by just about every party in the count as well as mentioned by some other counts around the area from that day was the large movement of Canada Geese flying over from East-to-West throughout most of the day (many of which were probably double or triple counted as they flew through multiple areas).

The only Count Week addition that I am aware of is Lapland Longspur at Floyd Bennett Field, which was present on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, as well as today, although there seem to be at least two individuals involved in today's sightings (as well as those from the beginning of the month).

Today the Longspur(s) were associating with a large number of Horned Larks (~130) and some scattered Snow Buntings (30-50) on a couple of different fields within the Base. Also at Floyd Bennett Field this afternoon was a good scattered gathering of sparrows near the Cricket Field including 3 continuing White-Crowned Sparrows (1 adult, 2 immature), 3 Fox Sparrows, 4 Swamp Sparrows, 2 American Tree Sparrows and higher numbers of Song and White-throated. Just before dusk at Floyd were over 1000 Gulls (mostly Ring-billed) roosting just off of the Boat Ramp Parking Lot.

Good CBCing


laura said...

i think I saw the Rough legged hawk over Quentin Rd an East 34th street on 1/15/09 at 1:30. It's call attracted my attention and then I saw it hovering just like in the video

Rob Jett said...

Makes sense, you are right next to Marine Park and the Saltmarsh Nature Preserve where there is some appropriate habitat. I don't think I've ever heard one call.

Mr.ZipZipZip said...

I'm pretty sure I saw a pair of rough-legged hawks in Prospect Park on 1/23. I was on my bike coming down West Lake Drive and the birds were flying towards me from the direction of Park Circle. They were mostly white underneath, more slightly built than red-tails, but definitely soaring hawks. The tail was long with a wide dark band across the end and a less pronounced fan shape than a lot of other buteos. They weren't hovering. I stopped to get a more careful look but the light didn't allow any more specific identification. Has anyone else spotted them, or something I could have mistaken for them?

Rob Jett said...

Mostly white underneath would rule out both dark and light Rough-legged. Dark is completely dark and light has a pronounced dark belly. See photo in this post:

Could they have been a pair of juvenile red-tails?

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