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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Purple Sandpipers

Earlier in the week I rode my bicycle to Dreier-Offerman Park, then continued north along the promenade at Gravesend Bay towards Owls Head Park. Along the route I didn't observe much bird activity, but did find a new arrival on the rocky shoreline below the Verrazano Bridge.

It has only been in the last couple of years that I became aware of the birding potential along the narrow strip of habitat at Gravesend Bay. Later on in the winter, large rafts of waterfowl (mostly scaup) are attracted to the relative calm coastal waters and Purple Sandpipers gather and overwinter at the edge of the turbulent rocky shoreline. Finding these sandpipers so close to lower Manhattan is unusual and I used to travel out to Breezy Point to find them. Overwintering birds depart for their arctic breeding ground by late-May. I was curious when they returned to NYC.

I ran into Heydi at Dreier-Offerman Park and, after finding little bird activity there, we decided to check out Gravesend Bay. I hadn't read any recent reports of Purple Sandpipers from other birders and was wondering about their arrival dates. Some populations of Purple Sandpipers breed along the eastern edge of Hudson Bay. Is it possible that the flocks that winter along Gravesend Bay are from that location? It would be a straight shot from Hudson Bay to the headwaters of the Hudson River, where they could continue following the liquid highway until it spilled out into Raritan and Gravesend Bays.

These birds get their common name from the subtle, iridescent purple sheen of their feathers seen in bright sunlight. On this overcast, dark morning they would appear as a nondescript, grayish shorebird with orange bills, legs and feet. They are easily overlooked as they move slowly among the huge, seaweed encrusted boulders that line the shore. Scaup flocks haven't arrived at this edge of Brooklyn coastline, yet, and other than several Red-breasted Merganser and a few Common Loons, the wasn't much to see. Following the promenade north, towards the bridge, we constantly scanned the rocks below us looking for any movement. Finally, at about 1.25 miles from the path's starting point at "Toys-R-Us", I spotted the silhouette of a shorebird at the peak of a large boulder. As we focused our bins we noticed 4 more birds close by. The Purple Sandpipers have returned for their 6 month respite.

To get to the promenade by public transportation take the "R" train to the "Bay Ridge, 95th Street" station. Walk south along 4th Avenue to the pedestrian highway overpass. At the promenade, I recommend walking south, towards Bensonhurst. Alternately, you can take the "D" or "M" train to the "Bay Parkway" station, walk south on Bay Parkway to the promenade, then walk north along the promenade.

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