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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Coney Island Trip

This past Saturday I lead a trip for the Brooklyn Bird Club to Coney Island. As you probably know from recent postings, this has become my new favorite winter spot for exploring wildlife. The weather on Saturday felt more like early-Spring than early-January, so offshore diversity was less than typical for this time of year, however we still managed to see many of the expected winter coastal species.

Our group of eleven met at the conveniently located Dunkin' Donuts in the Stillwell Avenue, Coney Island train station. People-wise, Coney Island is a place to expect the unexpected and most individuals, no matter how "different" they appear, rarely get a second look. However, our small group, loaded down with binoculars, spotting scopes and various types of camera equipment seemed to draw an inordinate amount of stares and over-the-shoulder gazes. One would think that after the Gray-hooded Gull birder's circus over the past summer that Coney Islanders would be used to us.

Our route took us from Stillwell Avenue to the fishing pier, west to the last jetty before the gated community of Sea Gate, then north along West 37th Street to Coney Island Creek Park.

We scanned the water from the boardwalk before heading out onto the pier and found that there was an unusual number of Northern Gannets present. Normally flocks of these large diving birds can only be found on the ocean off of the Rockaway Peninsula, with small numbers venturing into the bay on strong south winds. Yes, despite its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, Coney Island is inside of the Rockaway Inlet and, technically, on the Lower New York Bay. For that reason, the beaches there don't see the large waves that surfers enjoy along the Rockaway Peninsula. Also, the large number of scoters (and occasionally eiders) that can be seen on the ocean from locations, such as, Breezy Point or Fort Tilden are only seen from time to time off of Coney Island. Anyway, I decided to walk out to the end of the Steeplechase Pier to see if we could get better looks at the gannets and any other seabirds as there were a lot of birds that were just too far off to identify positively.

I've never managed to take any decent photos of a gannet, but here's a really nice one by my friend Steve Nanz:

From the edge of the boardwalk to the end of the fishing pier is nearly 1/4 mile. Scanning from out over the water at that distance actually makes a big different when one is looking at little specks of birdlife on and above the water. We walked out to the end of the T-shaped wharf. Fishermen lining the edges of the pier jiggled their lines hoping to snag Atlantic Herring. When space opened up at the end of the pier we set up our scopes and scanned the flocks of plunging gulls and lines of flying seaducks. We quickly spotted both Common and Red-throated Loons. I've noticed that one Common Loon seems has taken up residence in the water just below the fishermen and has been hanging around the pier since November. Is it possible that this smart loon noticed that the fishermen attract schools of fish with their rows of shiny, dancing lures? The most abundant duck off the pier appeared to be Red-breasted Merganser, with flocks numbering in the hundreds. Smaller numbers of Long-tailed Ducks were relatively close to the beach.

After about 20 minutes on the pier we headed down onto the sand for the walk to the west end. We stopped briefly below the old parachute ride tower to look at a Peregrine Falcon spotted earlier sitting high on the structure.

I explained to the group that the majority of gulls encountered sitting on the beach along the route are Ring-billed Gulls. There are also small numbers of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. However, there is always the possibility of a rare gull appearing, so it is important to at least do a quick scan of these abundant birds. Over the last couple of years some unusual gulls found in Brooklyn are Black-headed Gull, Mew Gull, Iceland Gull and the uber-rarity Gray-hooded Gull. One somewhat rare gull that has been showing up around coastal New York in increasing frequency is the Lesser Black-backed Gull. Heydi and I spotted a juvenile lesser black-backed in Coney Island on January 2nd. I was hoping I'd be able to relocate it for the group on Saturday.

The nearly 1 mile walk to the western jetty didn't turn up any rarities but Rusty did spot a pair of Ring-billed Gulls with blue leg bands. I don't recall the numbers but it was not the same banded bird that I found on December 23rd. I'll post the results once Rusty receives them.

There were thousands of gulls in the channel off of the jetty, as well as, lots more gannets. There had been a Red-necked Grebe hanging around this area, but we weren't able to find it. One winter visitor that I was able to find for the group was Purple Sandpiper. These arctic breeders will hang around the rock jetties in Coney Island until early Spring, when they head back up to the tundra. If you try to find them be sure to look closely between the boulders and rocks closest to the breaking surf. They may not look very purple, but in the right lighting, and especially in breeding plumage, they show a purplish iridescence.

The sand spit on Coney Island Creek was loaded with gulls and, predictably they were nearly all ringed-bills. I say nearly because among the common birds was a single juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull, likely the same one Heydi and I spotted a week earlier.

The creek and its sunken, wooden barges held an interesting assortment of birds. The most abundant were the Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese. Other birds seen were Brant, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Red-throated Loon and Great Blue Heron. One relatively unusual sighting was of a Snow Goose hanging out within a flock of Canada Goose. There was something very interesting about this goose that I'll cover in detail in the next posting. From the end of West 23rd Street we scanned one of the old barges on the opposite shore that was covered with roosting gulls. At this point, I don't think I need to tell you which species:

While we were scanning the gulls a very large adult Cooper's Hawk flew passed us and landed in a tree next to the Mark Twain Junior High School handball courts. It was joined by a second one which perched on top of the court fencing. All of the birds scattered. Then we noticed something rather odd. A squirrel began climbing up the tree in which the hawk was perched. This brazen little mammal came to the branch the held the large raptor and slowly started to walk towards it. Another squirrel appeared to be plastered to the chainlink fence on which the other Cooper's Hawk was perched. Perhaps the squirrel in the tree thought he could entice the hawk to fly, in which case the little gray rodent would scurry away. The hawk didn't budge and the squirrel eventually got bored and slinked away.

In all, it was a pretty good trip with most folks adding a few more species to their growing 2012 year list.


Date: 01/07/12
Locations: Coney Island, Coney Island Creek
Species: 27
Leader: Rob Jett
Observers: David B., Rusty Harold, Dennis Hrehowsik, Rob Jett, Heydi Lopes, Bobbi Manian, Janet Schumacher, Bob Washburn, Michael Yuan, Ann, Phil

Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Greater Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Great Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Cooper's Hawk
Peregrine Falcon
Bonaparte's Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
European Starling
House Sparrow

1 comment:

Gene said...

What a delightful site. Thanks.


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