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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Birding the Barrier Beaches

On Sunday Heydi and I took a road trip to the south shore of Long Island to look for some rare birds. The barrier beaches of Jones Beach have been home to some unusual vagrants over the last week and we decided to try and track some of them down.

The list of unusual species (in taxonomic order) are:

Marbled Godwit
Common Ground-Dove
Western Kingbird
Northern Shrike
Lark Sparrow

In order or rarity, the Common Ground-Dove has the others beat, hands down, as it has never been recorded in New York State. This tiny tropical dove is found in Bermuda, Mexico and the Caribbean, and South America. It is also a resident in the southern-most United States. How or why it ended up on Long Island is anybody's guess and it was the main reason that Heydi and I were actually leaving the confines of New York City to chase a bird.
Newspapers have even picked up on the story. The Northern Shrike would be nearly on the opposite end of the thermometer as these "butcher birds" are normally found in northern New York's Adirondack Mountains. They are referred to as "butcher birds" because of their habit of caching their prey on thorns, barbed wire or any other available sharp objects. They rarely travel this far south, but it isn't unprecedented. The Western Kingbird, as it's common name suggests, breed mainly along the west half of the United States, wintering in Central America. The final two species aren't quite as rare, but still not seen very often in New York. The Lark Sparrow is a rare, but regular fall vagrant. The godwit is considered a rare fall migrant.

Our plan was to try and find the ground-dove first, then backtrack, heading west along the Jones Beach barrier island for the other species. The Common Ground-Dove was found at Captree State Park, which is at the eastern-most end of Jones Beach. The kingbird was also found at Captree. Zach's Bay was the location of the Lark Sparrow, the shrike was found at Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center by my friend Steve and, finally, the godwit was just down the road from the shrike at the coast guard station.

Captree State Park is about 37 miles (as the crow flies) from where I live in Brooklyn. I've been trying to use low or zero carbon methods of birding, so on the drive out I began wondering if it was possible to bicycle to see the birds (strong legs and endurance aside). In college, I lived in Nassau county and used to pedal down to Jones Beach via the bike lane adjacent to Wantagh Parkway. Unfortunately, once at the beach, there aren't any bicycle lanes that travel the length of the island and bikes are prohibited from the roadway. Seems sort of shortsighted by Robert Moses and the park planners. I guess that means no "birking" the barrier beaches for me, I'll always have to go by car.

When we arrived at the first parking lot at Captree, there were already a few birders milling about or scanning a narrow strip of grass at the edge of the lot. We asked if anyone had seen the dove yet, and they responded that there hadn't been any reports that morning. Bobby Berlingeri, who was with the group, decided that they should check the south parking lot. Heydi and I would remain, in case the bird appeared there. It seemed like they had only been gone for a few minutes when Bobby returned to let us know that he had found the bird at the "Overlook" lot. Unfortunately, once we got there, the bird had vanished. Several people were walking up and down the short grass medians, the bird's favored foraging habitat. I grumbled to Heydi and Bobby that the bird was unlikely to return with all the people walking in the grass. I think Bobby said something to them because they began to return to their cars. I've learned that patience is key when it comes to finding vagrant birds, so told Bobby that we were probably just going to sit down on a nearby park bench and wait. Turned out that the interlude was unnecessary because only a few minutes passed before the bird flew out of the dunes and onto the sidewalk. I was stunned by its diminutive size. I mean, I read that it was the smallest dove in North America, but wasn't really prepared at just how small. Let me try to put it in perspective. The two most common "doves" in New York are the Rock Pigeon and the Mourning Dove. On average, our city pigeons are about 12.5" long with a 28" wingspan. They weigh about 9 ounces. The Mourning Dove is 12" long with a 18" wingspan and weigh around 4.2 ounces. The Common Ground-Dove is nearly half the size of the Mourning Dove at 6.5" long, 10.5" wingspan and only weigh 1.1 ounce. That is only slightly larger than a House Sparrow. We can't ever be 100% certain where the dove originated, but let's say it took off flying from Bermuda. I don't think a House Sparrow could make that journey, although, knowing our city sparrow's resourcefulness, they would probably have just taken a bus up the coast. When the dove flew to the north side of the road we began walking east along the opposite side of the road to look for the Western Kingbird. I was on a tight schedule, so when the kingbird wasn't where it was last seen, we decided to leave and head towards the other locations.

Our next stop was at Zach's Bay, which is a beach on the bay side of the barrier beach. A Lark Sparrow had been found feeding within a mixed flock of sparrows at a grassy field adjacent to the water. Last year I found one at Floyd Bennett Field, I haven't been as lucky this fall, so, hopefully, the Zach's Bay bird would still be around.

As we walked up to field along the bay I noticed a birdwatcher we had seen earlier at Captree with his unleashed dog. Don't get me wrong, I love dogs, but they are seen as predators by birds, so if looking for a rare bird, leave the dog at home as they will only scare the birds (not to mention that they are prohibited at Jones Beach). Heydi and I walked to the eastern edge of the field where there were a couple of dozen nervous sparrows feeding in the grass. The dog owner had tied up his dog to a picnic bench and walked over to where we were scanning the flocks. The dog freaked out and began barking non-stop, making the already skittish birds even more jumpy. The guy eventually packed up his dog and left. We continued scanning for the Lark Sparrow. Next, a group of about 10 birders arrived, spread out the width of the field and begin marching towards us in a line, like the Redcoats ready for battle. The birds scattered. We hadn't found the bird and with the added crowd of people, decided that we probably wouldn't. As we were walking back through a tunnel that goes under the roadway, I said to her, "I bet the sparrow spooked and flew across the road." Once on the other side of the road, I spotted my friend Rob Bate scoping a small patch of grass next to the parking lot. He was looking at the Lark Sparrow. I ran back to the field to alert the others. After a quick look, we hopped back into the car and headed to the nature center in search of the Northern Shrike.

The habitat surrounding the nature center looks a bit like the arctic tundra. It is mostly patches of low, grassy hummocks interspersed with small shrubs. There is a boardwalk trail behind the nature center's building that loops around a stand of small conifers and bayberry shrubs. A few distant, dead snags look like perfect perches for a hungry shrike to scan for prey. At the southern edge of the habitat a gentle dune rises, running parallel to and muting the sound of the crashing surf. While we looked for the shrike two or three Northern Harriers cruised passed, soaring low above the dunes like surfers on the ocean. A Peregrine Falcon rocket down the beach and disappeared behind the dunes. I wondered if this fastest-animal-on-the-planet successfully snared a Sanderling or Snow Bunting that had been feeding along the ocean's edge. We spent about 30 minutes looking, unsuccessfully, for the bird. Tom, Gail and several other birders arrived and we joined them for the search. No luck. At this point we were running out of time. I had a late afternoon commitment in the city, so had to pack it in before even looking for the godwit at the coast guard station. Still, I can't complain as we added a couple of new birds to our year list, one of which was a life bird for both of us. Here is a photo of the Northern Shrike taken by Steve when he found it during a previous weekend's Brooklyn Bird Club trip.

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