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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Coney Island Birds & Boats

On Sunday I led a Linnaean Society group on what has become my usual winter walking loop of Coney Island, which includes the western end of the boardwalk to Coney Island Creek and back. When back at the boardwalk we also continued for a short distance, east, towards Brighton Beach. The whole walk is about 4 miles, but with good company and good birds, it seems a lot shorter distance. While perhaps not as productive as the last Linnaean trip (Eurasian Wigeon, Red-Necked Grebe, Northern Shrike and Lapland Longspur), we still managed a couple of nice highlights.

Strong west-south-west winds in the early morning kicked up substantial whitecaps on the Lower Bay making spotting birds on the water challenging. A single Red-necked Grebe was seen on the west side of Steeplechase Pier, possibly the same one that has been in that general area all winter. Loons were nearly non-existent, we didn't see any scoters and merganser numbers were much lower than in previous weeks. At first I didn't think any Long-tailed Ducks were around until a fairly large flock, which was invisible in the chop right in front of us, took flight. The high-tide and gusting winds pushed the surf up over the western jetty forcing the Purple Sandpiper flock practically up against the chain-link fence that separates Seagate and Coney Island. It was possibly the only benefit to the tempestuous wind and water.

An unusually high-tide had Coney Island Creek's gull sand-spit reduced to just a narrow stretch of beach. The expected roost of several hundred birds was only a paltry few dozen individuals. All was not lost, however.

The allure of Coney Island Creek is not just in the variety of birds found here, but also in the unique landscape. Sections of the creek are littered with the remains of sunken barges and other ships, as well as, one small submarine. I've been curious about the history of these derelict scows and how they ended up here and finally found some answers. According to the book "The Fascinating Forgotten Wrecks of New York Harbor" by Gregory Peduto, "...Most of the creek's wrecks were construction barges from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge project, but many older locals recall a time when World War II vessels were stripped of parts and abandoned there". My friend Dave has told me stories about how when was very young he used to play on abandoned military landing crafts that littered the shores of Coney Island Creek and Floyd Bennetty Field. As for the submarine, the New York Times published an interesting article about it here.

The slowly rotting remains of these ships are like an artificial reef and offer a convenient roosting and foraging place for a variety wildlife. During the summer months Black-crowned Night-Herons can be found quietly resting within the exposed beams. Year round, waterfowl forage around the edges of the old ships. During the winter months, Ring-billed Gulls are the dominant species sleeping or preening on these wooden islands. On Sunday, while scanning a small flock of Ring-billed, Herring and Great Black-back Gulls roosting on one of the partially submerged barges, I located an unexpected rarity - an Iceland Gull. The cooperative bird remained resting in that spot for at least 45 minutes and was still present when we left. Here's another view of the bird:

Near the mouth of the creek a small flock of courting Red-breasted Mergansers comically stretched their necks out, pointed their bills skyward and danced along the water. A couple of males seemed confused by a juvenile male, whose plumage looks very similar to the female's.

When we returned to the boardwalk, I stopped to scan a flock of mostly Ring-billed Gulls on the sand near the aquarium. My first Laughing Gull of the year was tucked in among the nearly homogenous flock of ringed-bills. It seems a little early for this bird, however I think this season has been anything but typical.


Date: 03/11/12
Locations: Coney Island and Coney Island Creek
Number of Species: 34

Canada Goose
Mute Swan
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Northern Gannet
Great Blue Heron
American Coot
Purple Sandpiper
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
American Crow
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
House Sparrow

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