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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Birding Brooklyn's Coast

Back on January 18th Shane spotted a rare Western Grebe in the water off Coney Island. Despite two tries later that week, I never managed to find it. Then he did it again. He texted me last Sunday to let me know he was looking at a Western Grebe off the shore at Riis Park. I was determined to find that bird.

I spoke with Heydi during the week and we decided to go out to Coney Island early on Saturday morning to scour the coast where Shane had initially seen the grebe in January. Land birds will follow a feeding route, so I guessed that seabirds did the same and maybe the grebe was working the coastline. With a little luck, we'd find him back in Brooklyn. Shane called me on Thursday and suggested that we do a more comprehensive morning of birding all along coastal Brooklyn. Nearly all my birding is done by bicycle or mass transit, so getting around by car would be a treat I couldn't turn down, plus Shane seems to have amazing birding karma. We would start the morning at the Marine Park Saltmarsh after picking up Heydi, followed by Spring Creek, Hendrix Creek, Fresh Creek Park, the Canarsie Pier, Floyd Bennett Field, then finish off at Coney Island.

The sun was just coming up over the parkway when we parked the car at the end of Gerritsen Avenue. Heydi had been seeing a Red-necked Grebe in this area over the last week and we were hoping that it was still hanging around. We had only been scanning the water for a few minutes when we spotted the bird near the opposite shore. There was also a Red-throated Loon nearby, giving a nice comparison of the two similar species.

Spring Creek was nearly devoid of birds, but there was a nice mix of waterfowl at the adjacent Hendrix Creek. When we began to walk back to the car at Hendrix Creek, an Orange-crowned Warbler flew across the path in front of us. It came down to a small opening at the edge of the ice in a small marshy area. For several minutes it drank, bathed and preened. Heydi has some more photos of it here.

Fresh Creek Park, the Canarsie Pier and Floyd Bennett Field were all pretty quiet so we spent very little time at each spot before heading over to Coney Island. Once at the beach, we stood in the windbreak of the New York Aquarium and scanned the water from the boardwalk. Despite the beautiful weather, there were few birds on the water. I was expecting to see Long-tailed Ducks and scoters offshore, but there wasn't a single bird. Common and Red-throated Loons were also scarce, but there were several Horned Grebes fairly close to shore. At around 11am I spotted a bird sleeping on the water with its head tucked back. It had a very odd appearance because the bump of the head seemed to be directly over the center of the body (as opposed to near the front of the body). I wasn't sure what it was and asked Heydi and Shane to check it out. Shane thought that it might be a sleeping Horned Grebe, but couldn't be sure. It was a distant 300 yards from the shoreline, but compelling enough that we decided to stay on the bird until it woke up. It eventually popped its head up. It was mostly gray and white with a long thin neck, black cap and large yellowish bill. I yelled, "THAT'S IT! THAT'S THE WESTERN GREBE!" Shane ran back to his car to get his camera, Heydi hopped over the boardwalk's railing, running down to the edge of the water to try and get a photo and I started calling people to get the word out.

The grebe slowly paddled in a westerly direction, eventually settling down in the water approximately 100-150 yards due east of the end of the Coney Island Pier. We watched the bird until around 12:45pm. Rob Bate, Bob O'Neill and one other birder had arrived and got to see the bird. I made a point of calling Rob and Bob first, since we had all spent a very long day looking for this bird back in January.

Here's a short video that I shot of the bird from the pier:

Here's a video that I found online that shows the incredible courtship dance of the Western Grebe:

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