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Monday, September 27, 2010

Floyd Bennett & Dead Horse Bay

Floyd Bennett Field contains one of the only remaining grassland habitats within New York City. The list of birds that have been observed there contain many of the state and federal "Endangered", "Threatened" and "Special Concern" species. During the fall migration it is one of the few places around the city where birdwatchers might find one of North America's "grasspiper" species. "Grasspipers" are shorebirds (or sandpipers) who tend to prefer foraging within grassy habitats. I haven't been able to locate an "expert" opinion on which species are absolutely grasspipers, but I created the following list based on "Sibley's Guide to Birds": Northern Lapwing, Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover (European and 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".

Within the last few weeks the number of migrating Killdeer at Floyd Bennett Field has steadily increased. These very vocal birds can be found foraging within the small fields that border the parking lots near Aviator Sports. Over the course of a couple of weeks a single Buff-breasted Sandpiper was spotted hanging around with a flock of Killdeer on a tiny, sandy field next to the artificial turf soccer fields. I rode my bike over early one morning to look for this rare bird, but was unsuccessful. Heydi went back a few days later and it had returned, so I decided to try again.

When I arrived at the field there were about a dozen Killdeer foraging in typical start-and-stop plover fashion. I sat down on a section of portable seating that the park service appeared to be temporarily storing at the edge of the grass. The convenient spot allowed me to rest my elbows on my legs and slowly scan the field with my bins. It only took me a couple of minutes to spot one, then two, Buff-breasted Sandpipers walking quickly along the northern edge of the field. It was a great opportunity to observe this rare NYC migrant close up. They are a lovely orange-brown coloration with a neat, checkerboard-like pattern on its back and wings. Delicate and slim, they are a medium-sized sandpiper that look very small next to the chunky Killdeer that they were associating with. I continued following them as they moved quickly from the northern edge of the field, passing in front of me, then resting at the southern edge of the field. For my day list, I decided to count the Killdeer on the field. As I counted, then re-counted the plovers, I suddenly realized that there were actually four Buff-breasted Sandpipers on the field in front of me. Here's a short video where you can see three of the four:

I went back the following weekend with Paige. The Buff-breasted Sandpipers were still hanging around with the Killdeer on that tiny field. We also checked the community garden, looking for migrating sparrows and a Dickcissel that had been reported. Unfortunately, the gardens were very quiet and we ended up spending more time identifying vegetables than birds.

Across the road at Dead Horse Bay it was also relatively uneventful. Recent storms have exposed lots more detritus from the "ancient" landfill that once dominated Barren Island. A trio of treasure hunters walked the beach collecting antique bottles and china. One guy proudly showed off a Wham-O Water Rocket from the 1950's that he uncovered. We bid them good luck and continued following the shore north looking for feathered treasures. As a gentle surf rolled along the shore, broken glass tinkled like hundreds of tiny wind chimes. A small flock of Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings picked through the glass searching for marine invertebrates. It may take a thousand years, but eventually the bottles and shards of colored glass will return to sand.

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