Friday, February 03, 2012

Coney Island Birds

I don't know why, but I keep ending up back at Coney Island. I suppose part of the draw is in the unexpected. Over the last few years I've seen some very unusual birds along this section of coastal Brooklyn, such as, Western Grebe, Gray-hooded Gull and Thick-billed Murre, just to name a few. Also, in the winter one can find a bit of solitude while walking along the beach here, well, much more than can be expected anywhere else in the borough. Listening to the gulls while ignoring the garbage-strewn shoreline of Coney Island Creek also has its charms.

I'm always surprised by the number and diversity of water birds that hang around Coney Island Creek in the cold months. Gulls love roosting on top of the exposed wooden ribs of the sunken barges here while waterfowl pick for bits of food below. On a recent visit there must have been a few thousand Brant peacefully resting in the creek. Suddenly they all panicked and took flight. I quickly scanned the sky looking for a Peregrine Falcon, Red-tailed Hawk or a Cooper's Hawk, which has been hanging around the area. I was surprised to actually spot three Turkey Vultures flying in from the south and soaring over the water towards the Verrazano Bridge. I guess these small geese don't know the difference between a scavenger and a predator. They just see a giant bird with large wingspan and sound the alarm.

Unless there is a strong west wind, the water is calm where the creek flows into Gravesend Bay. Loons, small groups of Red-breasted Mergansers, Bufflehead and other ducks lazily drift back and forth on the tide here. Lately there has been a single Horned Grebe spending time in this spot. These small birds are usually seen in Jamaica Bay and on the ocean in the winter. A good place to see a lot of them is at Dead Horse Bay. I look forward to early-Spring when they begin sprouting their namesake golden "horns".

Heading down West 37th Street brings me to the western end of Coney Island's public beach. A stone jetty here acts as the castle wall to keep non-residents out of the private Seagate community. It is also apparently an irresistible diner for hungry Purple Sandpipers. They can stay well hidden by the cracks between the seaweed encrusted boulders, but a close inspection can always turn up two or three of these arctic visitors nibbling on tiny crustaceans. It is also in this spot that I just saw a bird that's very unusual for Brooklyn.

On Wednesday afternoon Shane texted me that he and Doug were looking at two Razorbills off of West 35th Street in Coney Island. These relatives of puffins are more typically seen in the ocean and farther east on Long Island. Needless to say, it is a very difficult bird to see in Brooklyn. A couple of minutes after I received the text Heydi called. We commiserated over our bad luck and their really good luck and prayed that the birds stuck around until the weekend. Well...I couldn't wait until the weekend, so yesterday I bolted out to Coney Island at lunchtime. I walked the beach from Stillwell Avenue, stopping to scan the water every couple of blocks. There were thousands of mergansers and hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks, but nothing even remotely resembling the dark, blocky shape of a Razorbill. I made it to the last jetty, removed my scope from my shoulder and pushed the tripod's feet down into the sand. I planned on doing a quick binocular scan of the water off Seagate. Before I could even lift my bins to my eyes, though, I spotted one of the Razorbills directly in front of me, no more than 20 yards from the jetty. Several yards from that one was the second. The two alcids were paddling about parallel to the jetty and diving every few seconds.

I'm sure Heydi was happy for my good fortune, just as we were when Shane texted us. In fact, I'm pretty certain that I heard a distant "cheer" a few minutes after I sent my note out.

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