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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Queens Coastline

One of my favorite NYC locations at this time of year is the western edge of the Rockaway Peninsula. It's a little over a 12 mile bike ride from my apartment to the boardwalk at Jacob Riis Park. With summer here, I try to make the ride a few times a week. This past Saturday I rode down to the shore, not just to enjoy the beach, but also to look for butterflies and coastal breeding birds. Some hatchling birds that I was hoping to find were Piping Plover, American Oystercatcher, Common Tern, Black Skimmer, Roseate Tern and Least Tern.

Beginning at Jacob Riis Park then traveling west, there are pristine ocean beaches along Fort Tilden and Breezy Point. There are also a few access points for the bay on the north side of the barrier island. Varied habitats within the interior of Fort Tilden and Breezy Point are also are good for wildflower, butterfly and other wildlife discoveries at this time of year.

After spending a couple of hours looking for butterflies within Fort Tilden, we went down to the edge of the water to walk the beach in search of birds. Actually, finding birds along the ocean at this time of year isn't difficult as they are all over the place. The dominant species (and most noisy) is Common Tern, but there are also lower numbers of the diminutive Least Tern towards the eastern end of Breezy Point. Least Terns are "Threatened" in New York State.

Approaching the beach community of the Breezy Point Cooperative I could see large flocks of Common Terns gathered along the intertidal zone. Beachgoers were walking or sitting only a short distance from the birds. Occasionally they would flush, but mostly they would just waddle out of the way. These birds also nest very close to the walkways from the neighborhoods down to the beach. With nests to protect they frequently dive-bomb humans that walk passed. The terns rarely actually hit anyone, but it doesn't stop people from running, arms flailing in an attempt to escape these "deadly" 4 ounce birds.

Another common species found along this stretch of beach is the Black Skimmer. These birds feed by flying inches above the ocean then dipping their long lower mandible into the water. If they make contact with a fish, the bill automatically snaps shut. Plum Beach and Breezy Point are the only spots that I am aware of where these birds breed within New York City. When skimmer chicks hatch their two mandibles are the same length. It's not until they fledge that the lower mandible is noticeably longer. I counted approximately 200 individuals on Saturday, but have recorded many more in the past. They seem to have a good relationship with Common Terns as the two species frequently roost together in large mixed flocks.

At Breezy, American Oystercatchers were seen in much lower abundance that along the wider beaches of Riis Park. We did spot three young oystercatchers cooling off in the shade of a trash can. Here's a short video:

My favorite bird found along the coast is the Piping Plover. The precocious chicks are independent from the moment they hatch and are merely monitored by the adults as they forage near the water. They are listed as "Endangered" in New York State and "Threatened" federally. Heydi spotted and photographed this banded individual. Further research determined that it was banded in the Bahamas:

"In an effort to determine where Piping Plovers wintering in The Bahamas are staging during migration, and breeding, 57 birds were uniquely color-marked this winter in The Bahamas for Environment Canada by Sidney Maddock and Peter Doherty, with help from The Bahamas National Trust."

"Each bird has a black flag (band with a tab sticking out slightly) on the upper left leg, nothing on the upper right, a single color band on one lower leg, and two color bands (which can be the same color on top of each other) on the other lower leg. Colors used included: red, orange, yellow, white, light green, dark green, dark blue, and black."

"Carefully note the color and location of each band on the bird, location and behaviour of the bird (on nest or brood, foraging at migratory stop-over, etc.), and the sex of the bird if possible. For additional tips on resighting banded birds, go here."

"Please report all sightings to the following emails: Cheri Gratto-Trevor ( and"

I'd been told by rangers and a couple of other people involved with the Piping Plover sites around NYC that this has been a very bad year for the birds. Their success rate has been very low due to predation by feral cats, raccoons and, surprisingly, Laughing Gulls. This cute individual was one of a trio spotted a short distance from the jetty at the end of Breezy Point.

I was convinced that, with such a large number of terns present, there just HAD to be something "different". It is about 4 1/2 miles from the Silver Gull Beach Club at the edge of Fort Tilden to the Breezy Point jetty and back. Over that distance I must have scanned several thousand seabirds, the vast majority of which were Common Gulls. It wasn't until I was nearly back to Fort Tilden that I finally located a different bird - a Roseate Tern. These small seabirds are listed as "Endangered" both in New York State and Federally. This individual is in non-breeding plumage. So I screwed up my identification. It was just a first year Common Tern.

Here are a few pics from Fort Tilden:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Rob,
I got this e-mail back from Cheri Grotto-Trevor regarding the banded Piping Plover we saw at Breezy.

"Terrific!! Great photos. This bird has not been seen since it was marked by Sid Maddock and Peter Doherty for my project on 10 Feb 2010 at South Blanket Sound Flats, North Andros Island, The Bahamas.

Much appreciated!!

So this makes 38 seen of the 57 marked: 14 MA, 10 NY, 3 RI, 2 NJ, 2 VA, 2 NB, 1 NC, 1 ME, 1 NS, 1 NL, 1 CT.


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