Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A New Year, Ducks and a Rarity

While some of my friends were still doing Christmas Bird Counts on Long Island and Upstate New York, I opted to start the New Year in Brooklyn. I like to spend the first day of the year taking a long walk in either Prospect Park or Green-Wood Cemetery and trying to find as many birds as possible. While this January 1st didn't reveal anything out of the ordinary, in the first 11 days of the year I've already seen some interesting birds.

On New Years Day Robin and I walked to the cemetery where we ran into my friend Ed. We spent the next 90 minutes birding together. The roadways in Green-Wood were all plowed, but the paths and hillsides were still blanketed in deep snow. Still, the weather was sunny and clear and just wandering the roads through the fields and valleys was a head-clearing way to begin 2011. Most of the songbirds seemed to be hunkered down elsewhere as we saw few birds compared to the previous week. We caught distant views of a trio of Red-tailed Hawk and, on our way out, spotted a very vocal kestrel diving at a perched Cooper's Hawk. The kestrel is nearly one quarter the size of the coops, so I was surprised that he actually succeeded in driving it off.

A day later temperatures climbed into the 40s causing some of the snow to melt and creating an eerie, fog landscape throughout Prospect Park's fields and meadows. Most of the birds I encountered on this day were either huddled around two small openings in the ice on Prospect Lake or gorging themselves at the bird feeders near Breeze Hill. Of the 35 species that I recorded that day, 24 of them were at or near the feeders. One nice surprise was spotting a small number of Pine Siskins feeding at the well-stocked thistle feeders.

Shane called me that Tuesday to tell me that a Tufted Duck had been spotted on the north-shore of Long Island in the town of Cold Spring Harbor. He and Doug were planning on driving out to look for it the next day before sunrise. Would I like to join them? This rare vagrant is normally found in temperate and northern Eurasia. It occasionally strays to both coasts of North America and I've unsuccessfully chased down reports of one several times in the past. Of course I'd be joining them, but had to be back early.

The duck had been spotted within a flock of scaup on a small, protected bay in the Suffolk county town of Cold Spring Harbor. It is about an hour drive from Brooklyn. I would be getting picked up at around 6:15am, so, with any luck, we'd quickly find the bird and be back in the city before 10am.

We pulled into a small parking lot adjacent to a public dock at the same time as two other birders. There was another person already on the dock, scanning flocks of scaup. I was still setting up my tripod when I noticed something curious; everyone was facing south and looking through a large number of waterfowl towards the inner harbor ... except for Doug. He had walked to the opposite end of the dock and was scanning a small flock to the north. I thought to myself, "Doug is going to find the Tufted Duck". Seconds later Doug shouts, "I've got the bird!"

The rising sun hadn't cleared the tops of the trees yet, so it was fairly difficult to pick out the bird. We decided to drive a short distance up the road to a better vantage point. From a small, rocky beach across the street from the state park parking lot we had great views of this rare bird. The bird was actively feeding within a small flock of scaup, diving every few seconds. Each time his head broke the surface of the water, the distinctive, swept-back shock of head plumes stood out, announcing his virtual royalty among the common ducks. We watched the bird for about 30 minutes. Several other birders arrived carrying scopes and looking somewhat "camouflaged" dressed in their office garb.

On the drive home I began thinking about waterfowl in the winter. I decided that this year I would try and take full advantage of the seasonal bird fluctuation. For example, the greatest abundance and diversity of waterfowl around Brooklyn occurs in the winter. I would spend my birding time in January trying to observe all of the possible species of duck. With nearly all the lakes and ponds frozen, that would mean covering all the coastal habitats. The next time I went out I did the Coney Island Creek/Coney Island Boardwalk loop. This walking route starts at the creek south of Dreier-Offerman Park, follows west along the creek to Coney Island Creek Park, cuts across the edge of Seagate to the western edge of Coney Island, continues along the beach to the fishing pier, then back to the Stillwell Avenue subway station.

At Coney Island Creek I quickly relocated the Redhead that Heydi and I first spotted on December 30th. From the beach at Coney Island Creek Park I scanned a very calm Gravesend Bay. There was a nice diversity of water birds - Brant, Canada Goose, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser and my first Red-throated Loon of the season. At the western end of Coney Island I spotted a Surf Scoter hanging around the rock jetty at that location. Along the beach I checked all the gull flocks, hoping for something unusual, but found mostly just Ring-billed Gulls. Searching the water from the fishing pier turned up about a half-dozen Common Loons. By the time I headed back to the subway station I had tallied 18 species of water birds; Brant, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Redhead, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Loon, Common Loon, Double-crested Cormorant and American Coot. The Redhead was the only relatively rare bird that isn't seen in Brooklyn every year.

A Ducky Weekend

Continuing with the waterfowl theme, Heydi and I decided to do a marathon duck day this past Sunday. Our plan was to begin the day at Hendrix Creek, then go to Coney Island Creek to find the Redhead for her and continue the aforementioned Coney Island loop.

Hendrix Creek is a great spot for overwintering ducks. There is a water treatment plant on the creek which, I assume, keeps the water warmer than the surrounding area. Large numbers of Green-winged Teal can be found here, as well as, the occasional Canvasback. We were mostly hoping to find a Canvasback, as they are rare around Brooklyn. We were very lucky and found a sleeping Canvasback within the first flock of teals that we focused on. Later on we spotted a flock of about 23 more near the mouth of the creek. After only about 45 minutes we had a pretty impressive list of birds, included a couple of unexpected species - Great Blue Heron and Belted Kingfisher. We left Hendrix Creek with 13 species of waterfowl under our belts; Brant, Canada Goose, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and Ruddy Duck.

We weren't as fortunate at Coney Island Creek. Twenty to thirty mile-per-hour Northwest winds were churning up the water and the only waterfowl visible were a few small flocks of Canada Goose hugging the northern shoreline. The Redhead would have to wait for another weekend. It was at that point I remembered something Shane told me: The Black-headed Gull appears on the Veterans Memorial Pier in strong northwest winds. We jumped back in the car and headed across Cropsey Avenue towards Owls Head Park and the pier. This gull has become Heydi's jinx bird. She has gone looking for it five times since last January. What made it even more frustrating was that other people had seen it either right before her or right after her. I assured her that we would find it on Sunday.

An arctic blast was roaring across the pier when we arrived. Ahead of us there were three distinct flocks of Ring-billed Gulls facing into the wind and clinging to the ground. They were huddled near the base of paired metal picnic benches that were, thankfully, bolted to the pier. The legs of the benches created a small windbreak for the gulls and several pigeons. We scanned the first flock. No black-headed. We walked slowly to the next and scanned. Still nothing. Then we headed towards the end of the pier and the last flock of gulls. At the left edge of that flock and separated from them by a couple of feet I spotted the bright red bill and legs of an adult Black-headed Gull. All the gulls flushed, at one point, but the black-head flew back and join a flock closer to the beginning of the pier. Heydi took this really nice photo of it from only a few yards away.

Later in the morning we headed over to Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay. When we were stopped at the intersection of Avenue V and Flatbush Avenue, facing Mill Basin, I noticed two very large, dark birds soaring over the water. Heydi made the turn onto Flatbush as I focused on the birds through the car window. I said that one looked like a Black Vulture. She said, "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!"  and tried not to drive off the side of the road (she's been convinced that she would never see a Black Vulture in Brooklyn). I told her to turn into the parking lot at "Nick's Lobster". We bolted out of the car with bins in hand and got great looks at two Black Vultures as they battled the wind, soaring over the Marine Park Golf Course. At home I referred to Google Earth and the birds were heading West-North-West, in the general direction of the Verrazano Bridge. There is a pair that nested at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island last year. Maybe it was that pair and they were out for a quiet Sunday stroll...in gale force winds.

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