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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Floyd Bennett & Brooklyn Christmas Count

Last Saturday I participated in the 111th Annual Christmas Bird Count. I joined a team of people covering Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. This was my 9th year doing the count at Floyd Bennett. It would have been 10, but I was forced to sit out the count in 2002 due to a broken arm. Anyway, it was a good day with one exceptional sighting to report.

I've experienced some miserably cold Christmas Bird Counts along the exposed habitats of Floyd Bennett Field, but Saturday wasn't one of them. There was an expected December chill in the air, but winds were calm and it was actually quite pleasant. We had eleven enthusiastic volunteers, the most since I've been doing the count at Floyd. The survey involves walking the entire length of all the grasslands, as well as, all the surrounding habitats, including scanning the extensive coastlines at both the Dead Horse Bay and Jamaica Bay sides of the peninsula. It is a lot of area to cover during nearly the shortest day of the year and some spots are usually overlooked. This year we finally had enough people to break into teams to cover the entire place. I looked forward to finding some good birds.

Before we actually got started in earnest, we spotted the best bird of the day, and possibly the count. It was around 7:30am, Ron was finishing up the sign-in sheet and counting everyone's registration fees. Adam had walked across the roadway to a small stretch of grass that borders a section of dying conifers. He had spotted a small sparrow that he couldn't identify. The rest of us joined him as it sounded like an interesting bird. We were standing opposite the parking lot when our attention was drawn to the sky in the direction of the main runways. A noisy flock of American Crows were coming our way while mobbing a bird. I expected it to be a Red-tailed Hawk or some other raptor. As I lifted my bins to focus on the bird, I heard Dave say, "It's a raven!" Then I heard the unmistakable, raspy "crooakkk" of a Common Raven. The bird came to rest at the top of a dead pine tree about 300 yards away. The crows, which were dwarfed by this huge corvid, gave up harassing the bird and flew off. The raven croaked several more times before taking off, flying south towards the Gil Hodges Bridge. A few people in the group had cameras, but I think we were all so stunned to see this bird in Brooklyn that nobody took any photos. We found out later in the day that the team covering Fort Tilden (south of Floyd Bennett) had spotted a distant raven. It is unlikely that a second Common Raven was in the area, especially since the individual we observed headed off in the direction of Fort Tilden. Knowing that there were dozens of birders in the area, I had commented at the time that I hoped none of the other teams saw "our bird".

I had a feeling that by beginning our day with such a rare sighting, everything else would just be commonplace. To a certain extent, it was. There were no unusual waterfowl to report at Dead Horse Bay. In fact, the annual overwintering scaup flock had been MIA until that morning. There were only about 200 Greater Scaup at the bay, compared to several thousand last year at this time.

I was hoping to find some Lapland Longspurs in the Horned Lark flocks at the cricket field, but did not. The larks moved about quite a bit, so we returned to the cricket field a few times to rescan the flocks. The first time we were there, a Peregrine Falcon flew over and scared off all the birds. The second time we went back, the same falcon was perched in a sumac tree at the edge of the field. The young, female peregrine was so docile that it allowed Adam to walk right up to the tree to take some photos. We considered that it might have been someone's hunting bird, but close up photos of the legs showed that the bird was not banded. Had it been a trained bird there definitely would have been bands and likely even jesses on her legs.

One of the species that is expected on Floyd Bennett's grasslands is the Eastern Meadowlark. As New York State's grasslands have disappeared, mostly due to development, so has the meadowlark's numbers. Floyd Bennett Field almost always gets the "Save"* for meadowlarks on the Brooklyn count and, sadly, their numbers have gone down noticeably over the last 10 years. On Saturday we saw only three on the grasslands. (* "Save" means you are the only team to have observed this species)

The only other unusual species that we spotted during the count was a Common Yellowthroat. This warbler is rarely seen around NYC during December and I was fairly confident that it would be another "save" for our team.

2010 Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count Overview

At the compilation dinner, we learned that this year Brooklyn had the highest number of participants in its history - 78. Like our team, many areas had more than the usual number of eyes counting birds. I suppose the good weather played a part.

Brooklyn finished the day with a total of 125 species. Of the 125 species recorded, 15 were "Irregular", 10 were "Rare" and 1 was a Brooklyn count first.

Birds categorized as "Regular" are species that have been reported 8 - 10 years of the last 10 years. "Irregular" is defined as being reported 4 -7 of the last 10 years and "Rare" means that they have been recorded 0 - 3 of 10 years.

The irregular species this year were Redhead, Common Eider, Common Merganser, Great Egret, Red-shouldered Hawk, Ruddy Turnstone, Black-legged Kittiwake, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Short-eared Owl, Brown Thrasher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, White-crowned Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird and Pine Siskin.

The rare species were King Eider, Harlequin Duck, Turkey Vulture, American Oystercatcher, Black-headed Gull (only seen during the "Count Week"), Black Skimmer, Great Horned Owl, Pine Warbler, Lincoln's Sparrow and Red Crossbill.

The Common Raven had never been recorded on a Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count before Saturday. According to Ron Bourque, it had NEVER been observed at Floyd Bennett Field. Perhaps this was an offspring from the Queens nest that is now looking for its own territory.


There is always a friendly competition between the 11 teams to see who can get the most "saves". This year there was a four-way tie for first place between Owl's Head Park, Marine Park, Spring Creek and Riis Park. These locations all had 4 saves. As always, Steve Nanz's team at Spring Creek tallied the most warblers with 4 species. His sighting of a Common Yellowthroat deprived our team of another save, but I didn't really mind, because a "Count First" definitely trumps a "save".

To see the Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count tally in its entirety, just click the image below.


Barnacle Bertha said...

I found your post while searching for information about ravens in Brooklyn.

I saw and heard a raven on top of a building near Troy and Clarkson Avenues Friday 7/15/11 at 9:30 AM. I was surprised, because I didn't think there were ravens in Brooklyn. A few days later, Monday 7/18 at approximately 10:30 AM, I saw and heard a raven on top of a lamp post at Avenue U and E18th St. I was 99% sure it was a raven, but am positive after reading your post and listing to the call you've posted. Could it be the same bird? Is it possible that it's the bird you sighted at Christmas?

Rob Jett said...

Since this posting, I've had three more raven sightings around Brooklyn. The pair that nested in Queens raised 3 young, so it is quite possible that people are seeing the offspring moving around the boroughs looking to establish territories of their own. It will be interesting to track their movements to see where they end up.

Barnacle Bertha said...

Excellent. I've spotted the raven regularly, near Troy and Clarkson Ave. where I work, Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. There are now two of them, and they seem to have established themselves in an old oak tree, conveniently located near the kitchen building dumpsters.

The grounds were landscaped by the society that eventually became the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, so the setting is park-like. Spring and Fall a migrating hawk (Cooper's?) passes through. She helps manage the pigeon population.

Anyway it seems a perfect place for the ravens.

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