Friday, September 04, 2009

Rare Brooklyn Visitor

During the late summer, when the greatest diversity of shorebirds are seen around New York City's coastal habitats, another sub-group of these birds are sometimes found farther from the water. They are referred to as "grasspipers". While they are technically shorebirds, they have been given this moniker because of their preference for dry, grassland habitats. This week a pair of grasspipers appeared in Queens. I took a long ride on my bike hoping to find them.

The birds reported were Buff-breasted Sandpipers. I'd seen "buffies" at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and Jones Beach, but these individuals were much closer, at Fort Tilden. I thought it would be a good opportunity for a buffie by bicycle. My plan was to also pedal through Floyd Bennett Field and Dreier-Offerman Park. All these areas have decent expanses of grassland and the possibility of grasspipers.

For this posting I searched the Internet and through my bookcase for a list of North American shorebird "grasspipers", but was unable to find a definitive list of species. Based on "Sibley's Guide to Birds" this is the list of species that I assume are referred to as grasspipers (let me know if you have other information): Northern Lapwing, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover (European & Pacific), Mountain Plover, Killdeer, Upland Sandpiper, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Long-billed Curlew and Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Kenn Kaufman also describes the Pectoral Sandpiper as being a sometimes "grasspiper".

Anyway, I was disappointed to find a group of soccer players on the fields at Fort Tilden where the Buff-breasted Sandpipers had been reportedly hanging around. I checked all the other fields, but came up empty so rode over to Riis Park and took a swim. After drying off, I pedaled north to Floyd Bennett Field where I searched the grasslands and puddles on the old runways for shorebirds. There were a few Least Sandpipers and Killdeer, but nothing unusual. I headed west, towards Dreier-Offerman Park.

The main entrance to the park was closed due to construction, but a temporary opening in the fence and dirt road has been created about 200 yards south. There were only a few cars in the parking lot and nobody on any of the soccer or baseball fields. At the cove on the south side of the peninsula there were several Black-crowned Night-Herons hunting in the low-tide mud. A pair of Belted Kingfisher rattled from perches on a rotted ship hull closer to Coney Island Creek. I hopped back on my bike and rode slowly across the parking lot then west, towards the largest of the grass fields.

The intense summer sun was shining in my eyes when I spotted the unusual silhouette walking in the grass. At first I thought it was a small egret or ibis. When I focused my bins on the long-billed bird I think I might have muttered an expletive. It was a rare "Brooklyn" Whimbrel. Then I noticed that there was a second one. I don't think that Whimbrels are generally considered "grasspipers", but here they were, strutting through the grass snapping up insects and snails.

I leaned my bike up against a lamppost and called Shane. He lives nearby and I thought he would want to come check it out. Whimbrels can be seen in New York State, primarily on the south shore of Long Island, but it is very unusual to find them in Brooklyn. When I hung up with Shane a female American Kestrel buzzed the field while screaming "klee, klee, klee, klee, klee". The Whimbrels were unimpressed and merely turned their heads sideways to watch the tiny falcon fly off to the east.

The next call I made was to my friend Heydi. Luckily she had just gotten home and was heading into the Marine Park Saltmarsh to do some birding. I explained that there weren't any people using the recreational fields and the Whimbrels seemed pretty content. There was still plenty of daylight left and the birds didn't appear to be in any hurry to depart. She told me that she had to take two buses, but would be there as soon as possible.

I stuck around for another 30 minutes, then headed home. When she arrived at the park Heydi texted me that she couldn't find the birds, so I gave her a call. I spent a few minutes directing her around the fields and footpaths when she finally said, "I think I see a head sticking up from the grass". She found both birds.

I've probably written it many times in this blog, but finding a "good" bird is always much more rewarding when one can share it with others. Heydi took some really nice photos and allowed me to post them here. Thanks.

1 comment:

Elliotte Rusty Harold said...

In Irvine on the West Coast Whimbrels are indeed a "grasspiper" that regularly shows up on lawns in city parks along with Marbled Godwits and the occasional Long-billed Curlew or White-faced Ibis, usually in the early morning or around dusk. I also saw them at the coast, and sometimes at inland marshes; but it was not at all surprising to find a few picking at bugs on any medium-sized lawn that was reasonably free of people and dogs.

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