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Thursday, December 09, 2010

Weekend Birds & Another Rarity

This past weekend's birding started off slowly, with low temperatures, brutal winds and few birds I wasn't feeling too optimistic that I'd find anything new. However, it ended on a high note with a few new year birds including one New York State first.

Saturday at Coney Island

For the second weekend in a row, I took the "F" train to Coney Island for some early morning birding. My hope was of finding some unusual waterfowl or gulls - more specifically, a Common Eider, Black-headed Gull or Iceland Gull. I met Heydi at the Dunkin' Donuts on Stillwell Avenue, then we headed to the boardwalk to scan the open water for birds.

We walked east along the boardwalk to West 8th Street, near the aquarium. Last year we learned that, during the winter months, flocks of seaducks can usually be found off the shore in that spot. They were not there on Saturday, however. Backtracking, we headed to Steeplechase Pier, adjacent to the Brooklyn Cyclone's ballpark. The fishing pier stretches nearly 1/4 mile from the boardwalk into the bay giving great views of seabirds in the surrounding waters. From the end of the pier we could see large numbers of gulls, gannets and waterfowl flying low to the water or diving for fish in the distance. There were also a couple of Common Loons and some cormorants. Most of the birds were frustratingly just beyond the line of heat distortion on the horizon, so went unidentified.

After the pier, we continued walking towards Seaview. Resting in the sand along the western beaches were hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls. Several Black Skimmers with their massive bills tucked under wing tried to blend in with the small gulls. Next to the jetty at the western terminus of the public beaches was a female White-winged Scoter. Scoters are usually viewed in a scope from a fairly long distance, identification relying on general shapes, patterns and colors. Seeing one at such a close range on Saturday made it's detailed size, shape and color seem almost unfamiliar.

On the northern side of the Coney Island peninsula is Coney Island Creek Park. Shane introduced me to this stretch of greenspace (brownspace?) owned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation last year. It's a great spot to look for gulls, especially during west winds. On the previous Sunday he counted nearly 800 Bonaparte's Gulls and two Black-headed Gulls here. Instead of rare gulls, on Saturday Heydi and I found gale wind driven sand that stung the face like fire ants.

In a tiny cove on the creek, just opposite Calvert Vaux Park, I spotted a single Bonaparte's Gull in the water only about 2 feet from shore. As we watched, it flew from the water onto the sand. When in the air, its right leg dangled like a wet rag. The leg was clearly broken, but there wasn't anything we could have done about it. The bird seemed otherwise healthy and would take off flying if I tried to get close. Perhaps he was resting on the shore so he didn't have to paddle his feet in the water against the strong winds. I've seen gulls with missing feet that seemed perfectly healthy, so hopefully this bird will survive.

Marine Park Saltmarsh

We warmed up with some hot chocolate and planned our next location. One of the waterfowl species missing from our year list was Eurasian Wigeon. We made a list of all the locations where this rare duck has been seen in Brooklyn over the years - Floyd Bennett Field, Green-Wood Cemetery, Marine Park and Prospect Park. The closest spot was Marine Park, so we hopped back on the subway transferred to the B3 bus and arrived at the salt-marsh in about 20 minutes.

It was low-tide, so we were able to set up our scopes close to the water on the west side of the creek. We scanned scattered groups of Pied-billed Grebe, Canada Goose, Brant, black duck, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser and Ruddy Duck. To the south, Heydi spotted a few American Wigeons near some rotted wooden pilings. I had been focusing in the opposite direction and swung my scope around. The first bird I zoomed in on didn't have the dark-green and cream colored head of an American Wigeon, but rather the red head of an Eurasian Wigeon! I think I might have actually made an audible gasp when I focused in on the bird. Once I had Heydi on the bird, we picked up our scopes and moved down the shore to try and get a photograph. Of course when we got there the bird began moving to the opposite side of the creek then into the grass. We didn't get any pics. Just to give you an idea of how beautiful this duck is, I included a photo of one that I took in Green-Wood Cemetery last year.

Long Island Birds and a Rare Warbler

On Saturday morning, while Heydi and I were scanning gulls along Coney Island Creek, I received a phone call from Shane. Apparently, Vinnie Pellegrino, a young birder from Long Island, discovered a Hermit Warbler at Sunken Meadow State Park. This colorful songbird's range is normally restricted to California, Oregon, and Washington and there have been no accepted sightings of one in New York State. Shane had to be at work on Sunday by noon, but planned on trying for the warbler at first light. He'd be picking me up at 6am and Heydi by around 6:15am. Hopefully, the bird would still be around when we got there.

When we arrived at Sunken Meadow strong northwest winds blowing across the Long Island Sound made it feel like a blustery 20 degrees, not typical warbler weather. It was a little past 7am and already there were about 12 birders present looking for the warbler. We walked to the grass a short distance west of the traffic circle, where the bird was last seen, and where a group of birders were lined up facing the northern edge of the lawn. I asked the first person I encountered if they had seen the bird yet, he pointed to a stretch of grass a few yards away and said, "It's right there". Sure enough, the tiny, bright yellow headed songbird was hopping around in the grass foraging for insects. Aside from the obvious seasonal incongruity and the fact that it is a western species, the bird is normally difficult to see because it forages near the tops of some of the tallest trees in North America. Yet, here she was, eking out a living on the ground along with some local White-throated Sparrows.

This bird has quickly become the most recent celebrity during a year when New York has seen several rare species of birds and I often wonder about the fate of these individuals. Will the Hermit Warbler eventually reorient herself and head back west? Will she even be able to find enough food to survive this week's cold snap? She was still present as of Wednesday, but some day there will be a posting on the discussion group stating that the warbler "was not found". The odds are probably very low that she made it back to sunny California.

I wasn't able to take any photos or videos but below is a very nice video shot by John Gluth. Check out his Flickr album of the Hermit Warbler here.

Jones Beach State Park

Not having had to spend any time searching for the warbler we still had plenty of time left before Shane had to head to work. He suggested that we go to the south shore to look for the shrike at Jones Beach. Back in late-October, Steve Nanz found the shrike at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center while leading a trip for the Brooklyn Bird Club. While he had some reservations about the identification, most birders accepted that it was a Northern Shrike. After over a month and much discussion, the experts finally agree that the bird is not a Northern Shrike, but rather the more southerly Loggerhead Shrike. Heydi and I struck out trying to find it during our trip on November 7th. It was good to have a second chance, especially since a loggerhead would actually be a new state bird for me.

Three birders were already present when we pulled into the parking lot at the nature center. Two had been at Sunken Meadow when we arrived earlier that morning. Shane recommended that we walk a trail in the sand that looped around towards the dunes east of the center's boardwalk trail. As we were walking he mentioned in an offhand way that, a while back, someone had taken a nice photo of the shrike as it perched on the boardwalk's railing. Instinctively, I turned around and scanned the boardwalk. A woman with bins hanging around her neck was standing on the boardwalk, presumably, looking for the shrike. She was facing our group and made a shoulder shrugging gesture as if to ask, "Where is it?"
It was at that point that I noticed that the Loggerhead Shrike was perched on the railing directly behind her. I shouted, "Turned around!", then rushed back towards the boardwalk. The bird dove down to the ground. As I approached her and reiterated that the bird had been right behind her, she seemed a little confused. Then the shrike returned from the sand and perched a few yards away. Confusion turned to happiness.

We spent the next 30 minutes watching this very cooperative bird as it hunted for insects from the nature center's boardwalk. It went from perching on the railing, to dried common mullein stalks, to a log below the walkway, to a cluster of dried wildflowers. While most birders were racing to Sunken Meadow State Park, we were having a private audience with a Loggerhead Shrike.

We eventually had to leave but made one more stop across the road at the Jones Beach Coast Guard Station. I was already very happy with the results of our early morning birding. Perhaps it was the cold weather and my contented state of mind, but I only managed a superficial scan of the cove adjacent to the station and the bay. We had been standing next to the water for several minutes when Shane pointed out a pair of female Harlequin Ducks paddling along in the water right below the dock in front of us. Another great bird! The male of this species is one of our most colorful and beautiful waterfowl...not to take anything away from my favorite, the Wood Duck! We had seen three great birds, and several other very good ones, but, amazingly, it was only around 10am when we started heading back to Brooklyn. I didn't do any more birding that day because I figured that there was no way that I'd be able to top what I'd already seen.


Date: Saturday, December 4, 2010
Location: Marine Park Saltmarsh Nature Center
Total Species: 26

Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Eurasian Wigeon
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Pied-billed Grebe
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Greater Yellowlegs
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Black-capped Chickadee
Carolina Wren
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
Common Grackle
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow


Date: Sunday, December 5, 2010
Location: Sunken Meadow SP
Total Species: 1

Hermit Warbler


Date: Sunday, December 5, 2010
Location: Jones Beach--Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center
Total Species: 12

Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Northern Harrier
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Loggerhead Shrike
American Crow
House Finch


Date: Sunday, December 5, 2010
Location: Jones Beach Coast Guard Station
Total Species: 4

Harlequin Duck
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull

1 comment:

Yojimbot said...

Ay yo Vinnie, nice birding!

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