Friday, December 09, 2011

Coney Island Rare Birds

The number and diversity of land birds in NYC's inland parks have dramatically dropped off over the last few weeks. The inactivity in Prospect Park the other day was depressing. The only wildlife at the annual Breeze Hill bird feeders were two portly Gray Squirrels gorging on sunflower seeds. Perhaps the winter birds from the latter half of the Fall migration have continued to more southerly locations and the species that normally overwinter in our park woodlands have yet to arrive. During the week a story appeared in one of the local news blogs about a Snowy Owl sighting on Hoffman Island, near the Verazzano Bridge. Heydi and I headed down to Coney Island over the weekend optimistic that the owl would fly across the water to the dunes along Coney Island Creek.

Seaducks and other seabirds have increased in abundance along New York City's coastline, so the unrealistic expectation that a Snowy Owl would appear in our bins was tempered by the thought that we could more reasonably find eiders or a rare gull during our search. We would work our usual route from the Stillwell Avenue train station:

- Scope the water and jetties from the edge of the boardwalk at Stillwell
- An East to West survey from the end of the fishing pier
- Walk to the western most jetty and scan from Norton Point and around to the East
- Walk north to Coney Island Creek Park and scan Gravesend Bay
- Walk the dunes into Coney Island Creek and scan both sides of the water from the sand spit
- Walk to the edge of the water in front of Mark Twain Junior High School and scan the cover at Calvert Vaux Park

From the fishing pier there appeared to be a tremendous amount of gull activity near the Rockaway Inlet, but it was too far to identify anything unusual. There were several hundred Red-breasted Mergansers a little closer to us, in fact, mergansers have suddenly appeared in large numbers all around the coast. The temperature was relatively warm for early December and the water was like glass, so I couldn't blame the weather for my inability to locate any new birds in the water off of Coney Island. Scanning Gravesend Bay towards the Verazzano Bridge only turned up a few loons, some Buffleheads and Red-breasted Merganser and the expected gulls.

At the border between Coney Island Creek Park and Leon Kaiser Park there is a little bump of sand that sticks into the creek. It is a pathetically small remnant of the dune habitat that used to exist along the coast here. Gulls frequently congregate here, especially at low-tide, so I make it a point to sneak up the back of the dune to scan the birds. While scoping the shore from this spot on Saturday I noticed an interesting looking bird on the shore near the baseball fields at Six Diamonds Field. It was well over a quarter mile away and all I could be sure of was that it was a bold black and white bird sleeping on the shore with its head tucked under its wing. I told Heydi that I thought it might be an avocet, but couldn't be certain. We both chuckled at the thought as that would be a ridiculous bird to see in December ... in Coney Island. From that distance it looked something like this:

After a moment I thought that, perhaps, it might just be a gull with some wing feathers out of place. Also, from that distance, I couldn't tell if it was standing in the water or on the shore, so judging the length of its legs was impossible. It was compelling enough that we decided to get a closer look. We walked to a small concrete pier about a hundred yards closer. The idea of it being an avocet was still in my head, but I tried to talk myself out of it and from the new location we thought that it might not be a gull, but possibly a Long-tailed Duck sitting on the shore. We had to get closer and walked to the edge of the creek behind Mark Twain Junior High School.

As we approached the handball courts next to the creek I noticed a small, white goose within a flock of Canada Geese. I thought it might be a Ross's Goose and focused my scope on it. It was a Ross's Goose and we decided to try and take some photos of it in the bright, early morning sunshine. The flock was paddling away from us, so we crossed the school's parking lot and walked down Neptune Avenue to West 23rd Street. West 23rd Street dead-ends at the water and there are frequently lots of waterfowl in that spot. Of course by the time we walked the 1/4 mile to get closer to the goose, they had all turned around and gone back...so we did, too.

In the 45 minutes or so that it took us to chase down the Ross's Goose and take a bunch of photos, we had completely lost track of our quest to identify the mystery black and white bird. At this point we were directly across the water from the sleeping bird, but about 250 yards away. From that distance I realize that it wasn't standing on the shore, but in the water, so it must have had very long legs. A Gadwall swam behind it giving me a good idea of its size ... smaller than the Gadwall. I told Heydi that I was pretty sure that it was an avocet, but wanted to wait until it woke up, so I could see its bill. After about five minutes of staring at a sleeping bird with its head tucked under its wing, it popped its head out revealing the long, thin, upturned bill of an American Avocet:



After a minute of "Holy craps" and high-fives we began texting people to get the word out. This was a significant find and many people would be dropping everything to come and see this unusual shorebird. In addition to it being a rare vagrant to NYC, Bull's Birds of New York State lists November 15th as the extreme date. These birds usually migrate along the west coast, but they are being seen with more frequency in the east.

We never did see any eiders or rare gulls, but my first Brooklyn American Avocet more than made up of it. Check out some of Heydi's photos here.

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