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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Coastal Birds

On Saturday I took a break from the migrating songbirds to doing a little coastal birding. In addition to the shorebirds that are heading north lots of terns are now moving around Brooklyn's coastal habitats.

Heydi and I volunteered to help with New York City Audubon Society's IWASH project (Improving Wetland Accessibility for Shorebirds and Horseshoe crabs). Our territory is Brooklyn's Plum Beach. This narrow stretch of beach is just east of Sheepshead Bay and south of the Belt Parkway. At low-tide there is a fairly large exposed mudflat that attracts shorebirds, gulls, terns and Brant, who feed on horseshoe crab eggs. We'd gone twice within the last month, but only found American Oystercatchers. One time there was also a Greater Yellowlegs on the marsh side of the dunes. We were feeling optimistic that there would be a lot of birds around on Saturday morning. Low-tide would be at 5:36am. I set my alarm for 4am.

As we walked down the beach our optimism turned to disbelief, then laughter. We could hear lots of birds, but many were just hazy silhouettes showing through a curtain of cool fog:

There were lots of horseshoe crabs both on the beach and on the mudflats. Some of the crabs were flipped on their backs and helpless. While waiting for the fog to lift, we walked down the beach turning the crabs back over and pointing them towards the water. I used to think that it was ignorant humans that turned them over, but now I'm starting to believe that perhaps it is the larger gulls (herring and great black-backed) that are to blame. After a while, the fog seemed to be lifting a bit, giving us decent views of a few hundred Sanderlings. We could hear the shrieking calls of oystercatchers and the onomatopoeic call of several Willets.

The eastern end of the beach was clear of fog and the early morning sun was blindingly bright. Several Least Sandpipers scurried around the edges of the marsh. A few Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones walked along the beach near the marshes outflow. Large numbers of Laughing Gulls and terns flew back and forth along the beach. We spotted our first Brooklyn Black Skimmers of the year. As the tide began coming back up we moved slowly down the beach towards the parking lot, stopping to rescan the remaining flocks of shorebirds. Fog was again drifting in off the water halfway down the beach.

At Plum Beach our shorebird list was:

Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, American Oystercatcher, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher.

From there we went to Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, then ended our coastal birding along the west side of Gerritsen Creek in Marine Park.

There wasn't much on the grassy areas of Floyd Bennett Field for a couple of reasons. The Cricket Field and the small field opposite Aviator Sports was overrun with people and machinery associated with a carnival that is currently operating at this National Park. Any birdlife at the main grasslands was being disturbed by a cycling race, so we headed to the Return-a-Gift Pond to try our luck there. There was a grand total of four birds on the pond. All were Black-crowned Night-Herons. Heydi and her eagle-eyes spotted this tiny, boldly patterned Eight-spotted Forester moth inside the pond's blind.

On the beach at the end of Archery Road we scoped a small mixed flock of shorebirds. The tide was still low enough that we could walk north along the beach to get a closer look. We flushed 5 Spotted Sandpipers. Eventually we got good looks at a flock of Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, American Oystercatcher, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper as they foraged on the beach near the rotting remains of a pair of wooden piers. I was surprised to count over 20 Ruddy Turnstones in the flock.

The walk along the northern-most trail to Dead Horse Bay was highlighted by a soundtrack of Yellow Warblers, Eastern Kingbirds, Baltimore Orioles and, my favorite, the sneezy call of Willow Flycatchers. At one section of trail there appeared to be a termite hatching. Not only were the kingbirds and willows darting from perches to snatch insects from the air, but a Yellow Warbler was also doing a decent impression of a flycatcher.

While scanning the glass strewn beach at Dead Horse it occurred to me that, in time, we will see the completion of the sand-glass-sand cycle along said beach. Glass is made from sand and decades of discarded glassware had been deposited in a dump at Barren Island (now the Floyd Bennett Field/Dead Horse Bay complex). The edges of the dump has eroded over time, exposing the landfills contents to the elements. Some materials such as leather and wood have decomposed or washed away, metal objects are slowly succumbing to oxidation and rust, but much of the glass remains relatively intact. The action of the water and tide, however, has gradually broken some of the glass into smaller and smaller pieces. Perhaps in a thousand years there will be no signs of the glass remaining except for some very colorful grains of sand. I wonder if the shorebirds foraging among the shards of glass ever cut their feet.

The eastern side of Gerritsen Creek is still closed to the public while the Army Corp of Engineers finish a small section of wetlands restoration. The vast majority of the parks department property at Gerritsen Creek, however, is along the western side of the creek. The narrow stretch of habitat is crisscrossed by trails created by illegal ATV and motorcycle usage. We walked one of those trails to the southern-most edge of the park, then walked back along the shore. A Black-crowned Night-Heron was hunting for fiddler crabs near the start of the trail and in sight of the nature center. A few minutes later we encountered a family of Killdeer out for a stroll. Killdeer chicks are precocious and able to walk and forage on their own right after hatching. Seeing these tiny, vulnerable birds scurrying along the trail (and within tire tracks) made me wonder how they manage to survive in New York City. Check out this video:

Another at risk species encountered at Marine Park were Least Terns. This smallest of America's terns is listed as Threatened in New York and Federally Endangered (interior U. S. only). Gerritsen Creek is the only place in Brooklyn where they can be regularly seen during the breeding season. On Saturday we watched several dozen diving for fish or resting along the sand spit at the southern end of the creek. Some of the birds on the spit were displaying pairs. The terrestrial habitat around Gerritsen Creek is greatly degraded by illegal off-road vehicles, while the marine habitat during the summer is assaulted by illegal waterskiing in the creek, as well as, jetski usage. The Least Terns would probably nest along Gerritsen Creek if the NYPD or Parks Enforcement Patrols made any attempt at enforcing the law here. Unfortunately for the Least Terns and other wildlife, I don't see the situation changing in the foreseeable future.

Date: 05/21/11
Locations: Plumb Beach, Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, Marine Park
Total Number of Species: 61

Double-crested Cormorant
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher

Laughing Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Least Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Black Skimmer
Monk Parakeet
Chimney Swift
Willow Flycatcher
Warbling Vireo
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
House Wren
Marsh Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Brown Thrasher
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Eastern Towhee
Boat-tailed Grackle
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, American Crow, crow sp., Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

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