Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Saturday's Great Birding Tour

This past Saturday's trip that I lead for the Linnaean Society of New York to Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay turned out better than I could have planned. While many of the expected over-wintering songbirds and raptors seemed to have vanished from the borough, I did manage to find for the group several special birds that thrilled everyone, including me.

My plan for the day was to begin first thing at the boat ramp overlooking Jamaica Bay. A large parking lot here faces Ruffle Bar, with the western end of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge out of view on the opposite side of the island. A rare BARROW'S GOLDENEYE has been seen periodically at the West Pond at the refuge, usually taking off to parts unknown early in the morning. The beautiful black and white bird has also been observed from Floyd Bennett Field by a few people in the bay off the western side of Ruffle Bar. Our group spent a long time scanning in the bay off of the boat ramp, but couldn't find the barrow's. There were lots of Brant, Canada Goose, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe and a scattering of Common Goldeneye. From the south end of the parking lot we could see a fair number of American Wigeon and Gadwall. We drove done to the Archery Road to get closer looks and, hopefully, relocate the EURASIAN WIGEON discovered the previous weekend.

As it's name implies, the Eurasian Wigeon is not a North American breeding bird. This lovely waterfowl with the bright russet head winters from Iceland, the British Isles, northern Europe, southern Russia and Japan south to the eastern Atlantic islands, Africa, Arabia, India, the Malay Peninsula, southern China, Formosa and the Philippines. We are fortunate in New York in that every winter a few individuals stray down the northeastern coast. The water on the bay was glass calm making finding any birds fairly easy. There were about 50 American Wigeon near or around the bases of the old wooden pilings at this cove, but no eurasian. Both Great Cormorant and Double-crested Cormorants rested at the tops of the black, wooden columns making for a nice comparison of these two related shags. Finally Diana exclaimed, "There's the eurasian!" The bird had flown in and joined with the American Wigeons to our left. With the morning sun at our backs, we all had excellent views of the brightly colored bird as it rested in the still water.

While the group marveled at this lovely duck, a few of us continued scanning farther out into the water where we spotted one, then two RED-NECKED GREBE. Redoubling my efforts and making a few more scanning passed across the horizon, I realized that there were a total of five of these rare, large grebes present. We may have dipped on the barrow's, but so far the morning was going great. I decided to bring the group to Raptor Point to try for the barrow's in the water near Bergen Beach, then walk the runways to look for the NORTHERN SHRIKE that showed up this past December. As it turned out, the water off the point at Mill Basin was nearly devoid of waterfowl and the bay near Canarsie Pol only contained a few Common Goldeneye. Here's a good page that describes the differences between the Common and Barrow's Goldeneye.

The NORTHERN SHRIKE at Floyd Bennett Field was initially discovered on December 4, 2011. It was seen by many folks up to early January then vanished, presumably to head back up to the Adirondack Mountains, where it is more typically found. It was then spotted near Field "G" again by Arie Gilbert on January 31st. I was unsuccessful on several previous attempts to relocate it, but decided to try again with the Linnaean Society group. This time I found the bird perched at the top of a birch tree near the back of Field "G". Over the course of about 20 minutes the bird dropped down to lower perches eventually disappearing into the underbrush. Thankfully, everyone in the group got good looks at this rare bird before it dropped out of view.

After a lunch break at the Aviator Sports complex, I lead the group across Flatbush Avenue to Dead Horse Bay. The cove at the bay here is where over-wintering scaup gather. Over the years that I've been coming to this spot the flock size has varied greatly. During some years only a few dozen waterfowl can be found sleeping close to the shore. Other years I've tallied as many as 30,000 birds in a single flock. Brant, Canada Goose, black duck, Bufflehead, Long-tailed Duck, Red-Breasted Merganser, Horned Grebe and loons are also seen in the bay, but the big draw is really the spectacle of a giant, floating raft of birds. On Saturday, they didn't disappoint and the group was treated to a flock of approximately 20,000 mostly Greater Scaup. I'm sure if I had the patience (and time) that I might have been able to find some Lesser Scaup mixed in. Here is a scaled down photo of the flock:



Floyd Bennett Field is one the most reliable place to find Horned Larks in Brooklyn during the winter, but for some unknown reason we had trouble locating these arctic breeders on Saturday. There are only a few spots where these birds can be found feeding - the Cricket Field, the small field in front of Aviator Sports, the patch of grass on the north side of the community gardens and along the runways. Except for the runways, I had checked these places a couple of times. After returning from Dead Horse Bay I planned on ending the trip, but asked the group if they wanted to go back to the Cricket Field for one last try for the larks. Three times was a charm. When we arrived I spotted a flock of 15 birds feeding in the grass. Then as I was counting the birds in my scope I spotted a single LAPLAND LONGSPUR! Before I could get everyone on the bird, the flock panicked and took flight. A kestrel had flown over the field. The larks and longspur circled back and forth across the grass in tight formation before coming to rest a little closer to us. Everyone got to see this particularly rusty-colored individual, which made for a great ending to an already successful field trip. Ironically, I had just posted here last Wednesday about my disappointment with the absence of longspurs around NYC.

To find either a Eurasian Wigeon, Red-Necked Grebe, Northern Shrike or Lapland Longspur while leading a birding trip in Brooklyn would be considered a very successful outing. Finding all four was, well, extraordinary. I guess the birding gods were listening.

Note: None of the photos above except for the scaup at Dead Horse Bay were taken on Saturday and are for illustrative purposes only.

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Floyd Bennett Field
Feb 18, 2012
33 species

Brant
Canada Goose
Gadwall
EURASIAN WIGEON (1, end of Archery Rd.)
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Mallard
Northern Shoveler
Greater Scaup
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon
Horned Grebe
RED-NECKED GREBE (5, bay off of Archery Rd.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
American Kestrel
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Northern Flicker
NORTHERN SHRIKE (In birch trees at back of Field "G".)
American Crow
Horned Lark (15, Cricket Field.)
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
LAPLAND LONGSPUR (1, within Horned Lark flock on Cricket Field.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Red-winged Blackbird
House Sparrow

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Dead Horse Bay
Feb 18, 2012
11 species

Brant
Greater Scaup (approx. 20,000)
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon
Horned Grebe
Great Cormorant
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
European Starling

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