Thursday, December 01, 2011

A Brooklyn Lifer

I've been birding for nearly 20 years and have seen some pretty amazing birds around New York. My Brooklyn list is getting close to 300 species. Each new species that I see in New York State makes the odds of getting to see a life bird in Kings County a little less probable. On Monday, however, I was able to add a new species, not just for Brooklyn, but for my overall life list.

On Monday, November 21, I received a text message from Doug that he was looking at a Ross's Goose within a flock of Canada Geese at Floyd Bennett Field. It would have been impossible for me to run down there, so was resigned to the fact that I'd miss seeing one of these tiny geese ... again. They are seen sporatically around NYC, just not by me. In addition, during a birding road trip with friends in 2006 to upstate New York, several were seen flying within immense flocks of Snow Geese, again, not by me. Unfortunately, I would be leaving the next day to visit family for Thanksgiving and wouldn't be back until late Saturday night postponing my life Ross's Goose sighting until who-knows-when. I decided not to make myself crazy over missing this species, because with south winds predicted for the week there was a fairly good possibility that it would hang around Brooklyn. I was feeling even more optimistic when Heydi texted me on Saturday that she spotted it feeding on the grass at the driving range across Flatbush Avenue from Floyd Bennett Field.

On Sunday morning I took the subway then the bus to Floyd Bennett Field. The bus stops directly in front of the Brooklyn Golf Center. I had in the back of my mind that I'd get off the bus, walk up to the driving range and see the Ross's Goose immediately. Then I would turn around and go back home in time for lunch with Robin. Things aren't always as simple in reality. There weren't any geese on the driving range and, due to the beautiful, warm sunny weather, there were plenty of people whacking golf balls. I walked across Flatbush Avenue and spent the next few hours wandering the grassland and surrounding habitats looking for flocks of geese. When I couldn't find any, I walked back to the driving range, hoping that the geese had returned to feed on the stubbly grass. They hadn't, so I waited for the bus and headed home. Later that night I read on the NYS Birding list that the Ross's Goose had been seen at the driving range at dusk. DOH!

On Monday I decided to try my luck again and run down to Floyd Bennett Field over lunch time. This time there was nobody driving balls at the golf center and a few Brant and Canada Goose were feeding on the grass. There was no sign of a tiny, white goose. I thought about just waiting around to see if it returned, but figured that it could also be feeding on the grasslands across the road at Floyd Bennett. I walked across Flatbush to Floyd Bennett Field.

There were a few small flocks of Canada Geese on the recently mowed fields, but nothing unusual. Horned Larks have returned and a small flock was feeding on the cricket field's stubble. American Pipit, another arctic breeder, flew overhead making their namesake "pip-it, pip-it" flight call. Near the runway next to the North 40 a Peregrine Falcon was drying off from a perch on a section of metal fencing
after bathing in a puddle. Three American Kestrels seemed to be in an endless squabble with a Merlin that was patrolling the fields.

After about 30 minutes, I returned to the driving range. Peering through the chain-link fence at the south end of the field, I noticed that the size of the feeding flock had increased considerably since I checked earlier. Near the center of the flock of Brant and Canada Geese was a compact, white goose. I finally found my life Ross's Goose. I walked across the parking lot to the opposite side of the field to get a closer look. There was a golfer directly in front of the flock getting ready to hit some balls. I was concerned that I'd finally found a Ross's Goose and now it was about to get nailed by a flying golf ball. Luckily, the guy seemed more concerned with perfecting his swing than bringing home a goose. I was really surprised that the birds didn't even flinch when the balls were whacked, even when they whizzed passed only a few yards over their heads.

The Ross's Goose was smaller than I'd imagined. It nearly disappeared when a Canada Goose passed in front of it. It appeared to be about the same size as a Brant, although the Sibley guide data shows that they are a bit smaller. They also lack the "grin patch" that is seen on the Snow Goose. The website "Surfbirds" has a very good article on how to separate the Ross's Goose and Snow Goose here. I spent as much time as possible studying this Brooklyn rarity before grabbing the northbound bus. Finding a new bird is always a great experience, being able to share it with others is even better, so get over to Floyd Bennett Field this weekend and maybe you'll get lucky.

Here's a short video of the goose feeding on the driving range:

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