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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Brooklyn Hawkfest

Continuing our quest for winter seabirds, last Saturday Heydi Lopes and I birded some of Brooklyn's coast. We had intended on focusing our efforts on gulls and waterfowl, but by the end of the day it had turned into more of a raptor-fest.

The bird that began our string of raptor sightings was spotted while we were walking east along Coney Island Creek. It was flying across Coney Island Creek from Dreier-Offerman Park towards Kaiser Park where it perched in a tree near the Northwest corner of the soccer fields. My initial impression when it flew in front of us was of a large buteo. A few crows made a halfhearted attempt to scare it off then quickly left. The hawk seemed larger than the crows and almost the size of a red-tail. It appeared to be checking out a previously killed and partially eaten Brant in the snow below the tree. I wasn't sure what type of hawk it was, but my first thought was that it was just an extremely large juvenile Cooper's Hawk. The bird had some characteristics, however, that didn't jive with a coops. Compared to its very robust body, it appeared to have a very small head. In addition, the face appeared to have almost facial disks, like a harrier. The ground color of the underside was not white, but an off white turning tawny on the breast and upper-breast. It had considerable spotting on its back in an almost checkerboard pattern. Most of the spots were tinged with tawny, especially up around the shoulders. The tail was odd in that it seemed to be missing a feather or two. The tail banding was very wavy. From the top side they actually seemed to be arc shaped. I ended up posting a question to the New York State birding list for help identifying it. The general consensus by more knowledgeable folks was that the hawk was a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk.

While watching the young hawk, we spotted a male Peregrine Falcon as it buzzed the field adjacent. Less than 5 minutes later, we heard a flock of crows making a racket on the other side of the field. They were harassing a Red-tailed Hawk. We continued walking east to check out the birds on Coney Island Creek when we spotted another raptor flying west at the opposite side of the field. It perched. We looked. It was an adult Cooper's Hawk. Kaiser Park is mainly just a small, open field next to Coney Island Creek and surrounded by apartment buildings, two story homes and a public high school. It seemed a bit incongruous to spot 4 different raptors in less than 5 minutes at that spot, but it is Brooklyn, afterall.

The Marine Park Saltmarsh was our next stop. Heydi suggested that we take the B31 bus to the last stop, at the end of Gerritsen Avenue, then walk back towards Avenue U along the west side of Gerritsen Creek. The alternative three mile round trip walk in deep snow would have been a little too much work. Ultimately, the timing worked out really well.

Near the trailhead, just off Gerritsen Avenue, I spotted a Northern Harrier flying across the water from the south, heading up the creek. A few minutes later an adult Red-shouldered Hawk emerged from the phragmites to our left and flew across the creek towards the golf course. A Killdeer was walking up the beach in front of us. It was the first one I'd seen this year. They are much more common in warm weather and I always wondered how some managed to survive NYC winters, especially this year's extreme weather.

The creek is split in the center by White Island. The Army Corp of Engineers has been working on a habitat restoration project on the island, which is inaccessible to the public. I'm hoping that it will eventually become a good winter spot for Short-eared Owls or even Snowy Owls. On Saturday, there were plenty of other raptors on or around the island. From the west side of the creek we watched Northern Harrier soaring back and forth along its newly created dunes. A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a small tree at its edge. A Merlin and kestrel had a brief aerial dogfight in the airspace above the island. Heydi and I joked with each other about which raptor we wanted to see next. We decided that our next "wish" raptor should be a Rough-legged Hawk, then continued trudging through the creek-side ice and snow. A small flock of American Tree Sparrows foraged for insects within the feathery heads of the dried phragmite stalks. The bird's high-pitched tinkling calls sounded like a musicbox. A few chickadees were following the sparrows. As we approached the northern end of the island I spotted another buteo kiting high above. I thought it was probably just another Red-tailed Hawk, but raised my bins to take a closer look. The hawk was nearly all black with white patches on the trailing edge of the wings. The bird stopped and hovered in place over the island - unmistakable behavior for a Rough-legged Hawk! Weird. We really didn't wish the bird into existence, did we?

Our raptors list for the day:

Northern Harrier (Marine Park Saltmarsh)
Cooper's Hawk (Kaiser Park)
Red-shouldered Hawk (Kaiser Park, Marine Park Saltmarsh)
Red-tailed Hawk (Kaiser Park, Marine Park Saltmarsh)
Rough-legged Hawk (Marine Park Saltmarsh)
American Kestrel (Marine Park Saltmarsh)
Merlin (Marine Park Saltmarsh)
Peregrine Falcon (Kaiser Park)


Ann said...

At 9am today we saw a hawk on a Boerum Hil brownstone roof of a Dean St brownstone. We think it was eyeing our bird feeder in the back yard of our Pacific St home. It appeared to be an adult female Cooper's with the distinctive dark head and the red streaked breast...
Would this be possible? Have there been other sightings outside of Prospect ParK?

Rob Jett said...

Very likely a coops. I've frequently seen them outside the park. They go where the food is.

Matthew said...

Yeow! That's some raptor day.

BTW, Cobble Hill Park is another place where one or more Cooper's have been buzzing throughout this winter.

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