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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Coastal Birds & Predators

I like spending as much time outside as possible, well, within reason, anyway. Unless New York is being pummeled by a hurricane or blizzard, I really enjoy exploring the beach in the winter. The southeastern boundary of New York State is made up of an 118 mile long sand spit called Long Island. To be fair, geologically there's a bit more to it than sand, but not much. Protecting the south shore are several long barrier islands. Breezy Point, at Rockaway Inlet, is the western most end. Looking north from this point one can see Coney Island, the Verrazano Bridge and, on a clear day, Manhattan. Traveling east, and passed Shinnecock Inlet, the barrier beaches gradually merge with the mainland, terminating at Montauk Point. During the winter months there's always a lot interesting bird life along the coast.

On Friday I drove to the beach with my friend Marge. It was cold and overcast, but very birdy. Harriers were cruising low over the dunes in search of rodents. Several flocks of Snow Buntings nervously undulated high above the same beaches. One flock of about 50 birds perched in single file along a boardwalk railing's steel-wire "bird guard". I guess it only repels gulls. The highlight of the morning was spotting a bright, white patch in the dunes that, at first glance, seemed to just be a plastic bag. When it turned its head and stared at us with piercing yellow eyes, we stopped in our tracks and stood silently for a moment. The bag was actually a Snowy Owl. It was a life bird for Marge and she was literally speechless ... also a first for her ;-)

One our way back to Brooklyn we made a quick stop at Floyd Bennett Field. In a small patch of grass near the community gardens we found a flock of Horned Larks. Horned Larks have a funny way of multiplying in front of your eyes. Perhaps it's their compact shape and earth tones, but whenever I think I've counted all the birds in a flock, 20 more appear out of nowhere. In this case, it turned out to be the largest flock of Horned Larks that I've seen in NYC. There were 80 birds on that small patch of vegetation in the center of a concrete parking lot.

Saturday morning I bundled up and rode the 3 miles to check on the owl nest. The nest was still occupied, but it was unclear if it was the male or female on the eggs. The bird seemed larger than in my last photos, which could mean it was the female. It was also 12 degrees, so his or her feathers could have just been fluffed up more for warmth. I could have used some of those feathers. The sun was beaming down on the nest over the adult owl's left shoulder. She would periodically turn her face towards the warmth, stare up at the source and close her eyes.

I stopped in Prospect Park on my way back home. At the lake, the remaining waterfowl are concentrated in a small opening near the Three Sisters Islands. A trio of Common Mergansers had joined the Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Northern Shoveler and Ruddy Duck. A pair of juvenile Red-tailed Hawks landed in a tree above me and appeared to be scoping out the ducks. One flew down to the edge of the ice, to the remains of a female Mallard. As the large raptor feasted, a noisy flock of geese landed in the water beside her. None of the ducks or geese paid any attention to the hawk and continued paddling around in the lake within striking distance of the bird of prey.

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