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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Rare Sparrow for Brooklyn

I spent Saturday from sunrise until just after 5pm scouring Floyd Bennett Field for birds. Three seasonal specialties I was hoping to find were American Pipit, Dickcissel and Eastern Meadowlark. By the end of the day I experienced a lot of migrating sparrows with one major discovery that was a life bird for me.

I met Heydi on the bus on the way down Flatbush Avenue. Once at Floyd Bennett we walked the runway towards the cricket field with the rising sun at our backs. Savannah Sparrows seemed to be popping out of the weed-covered berms every few feet. As we approached the cricket field small flocks of sparrows continued to drop in after their night's flight. Flocks of robins were also flying in from everywhere. A pair of Black-bellied Plovers sitting in the center of the field spooked and flew off. The pair called back and forth as they headed south towards the bay.

After surveying the weedy edges of the field we headed towards the community garden, following the edge of a dirt berm that parallels the roadway. A juvenile White-crowned Sparrow was among a mixed flock of Savannah Sparrows, Palm Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Eastern Phoebes hawked for insects from perches in ailanthus and sumac trees.

The community garden was active, but mostly with more Palm Warblers and Savannah Sparrows. A nearby mockingbird seemed to have a preference for flycatcher vocalizations and alternately sang excellent impersonations of Eastern Phoebe and Willow Flycatcher.

After an early break for lunch we decided to head back to the cricket field to search the weedy edges for a possible Dickcissel. We also planned on walking the paths of the North Forty. Fellow birder Rich Fried was at the cricket field and joined us for the unexpectedly, mosquito-infested walk along the northern-most environs of Floyd Bennett Field's property. About 1/4 mile into the walk we encountered a fairly large mixed flock of songbirds feeding along the trail. The dominant species was White-throated Sparrow, but there were also Song Sparrows, juncos and Indigo Buntings. There were also several species of warbler, many phoebes and Red-eyed Vireos. At one point a very bright Philadelphia Vireo appeared in the branches above us from within the fast moving, feeding flock. At an intersection in the trail the feeding birds made a right turn and followed the mowed track, looping back towards where we initially encountered them. A moment later I spotted a Dickcissel in a low shrub at the left edge of the trail. While I was trying to describe the location to Rich and Heydi, the bird disappeared into the tangle. Fortunately it popped back out a moment later.

Rich headed back to his car parked near the cricket field while Heydi and I continued through the North Forty. The bird activity started slowing down and the only other excitement along the 1.25 mile trail was a large Eastern Ratsnake that slithered across the path in front of us (it actually startled me).

The campgrounds within the conifers at "Ecology Village" was nearly devoid of birds so we continued our marathon to a small, weedy field adjacent to a baseball field. There were more Savannah Sparrows there and not much else. I thought it might be interesting to bird a narrow stretch of grassy habitat that runs parallel to Jamaica Bay towards the Gil Hodges Bridge. It was low-tide and I thought we might be able to walk the shoreline, pass under the bridge and continue to bird at Dead Horse Bay. About 100 yards into our walk, however, a small, pale-orange bird popped up out of the grass to our left then quickly dropped down out of sight. It had a very weak flight that reminded me of the typical marsh sparrows we see locally on migration - Saltmarsh Sparrow, Nelson's Sparrow and Seaside Sparrow. Its orange coloration had me excited and we "pished", hoping the bird would reveal itself again. It did and my heart raced when I focused in on it. At first we could only see the bird's face and thought it was a Grasshopper Sparrow. It made an unfamiliar twittering sound, then climbed up a little higher in the mugwort-dominated patch. Heydi snapped a few photos and we looked at them in the camera's view finder. After comparing the image to plates in a field guide we were certain that it wasn't a grasshopper, but rather the more rare Le Conte's Sparrow. I took out my phone and sent a text to the "Brooklyn Birds" text alert group. I also made a couple of phone calls to friends who might be able to get there to see this rare Brooklyn visitor. According to my phone log I sent the text at 3:46pm. We stuck around for nearly 2 hours trying to get better looks and more photos. This sparrow of wet grasslands is not well understood due to its very secretive nature. It was relatively late in the day so I didn't expect many birders to be able to get out to Floyd Bennett Field. I knew once the word spread that lots of people would come searching on Sunday. While Heydi and I were walking back to the bus at Flatbush Avenue, Mike, Keir and Chris drove up to us. I gave them updated directions to the bird (it had moved farther West along the trail). That night I learned that they did actually find the bird and Chris was able to take a few photos.

The weather the next day was cold and wet. Having birded for 10+ hours and walked over 10 miles on Saturday I opted to stay home and rest. Heydi went back to help folks try and relocate the sparrow. Unfortunately it was never seen again. I felt bad for the people that missed this beautiful little bird, but took some solace knowing that at least three other people were able to see it. My friend Doug found the previous Le Conte's Sparrow in Brooklyn on 10/8/2008. That bird was seen at Plum Beach, which is just across Plum Channel from where we spotted Saturday's bird. Perhaps they pass through this area every year unnoticed during migration. I'll be sure to check both of these locations every year in early October.

Here are some not-so-great but definitely identifiable photos that Heydi took:

Here are a few more shots taken by Chris Eliot after we left:


Location: Floyd Bennett Field
Date: Oct 6, 2012 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Number of Species: 60

Ring-necked Pheasant (1.)
Double-crested Cormorant (45.)
Great Egret (1.)
Osprey (5.)
Cooper's Hawk (2.)
Black-bellied Plover (2, Cricket Field.)
Killdeer (1, by puddle across from Community Gardens.)
Great Black-backed Gull
Forster's Tern (100.)
Red-bellied Woodpecker (1.)
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (1.)
Downy Woodpecker (1.)
Northern Flicker (3.)
American Kestrel (2.)
Merlin (2.)
Peregrine Falcon (3.)
Eastern Phoebe (10.)
PHILADELPHIA VIREO (1, bright individual in mixed flock on North Forty trail.)
Red-eyed Vireo (4, in a mixed flock on North Forty trail.)
Tree Swallow (12.)
Black-capped Chickadee (1.)
Tufted Titmouse (2.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (1.)
White-breasted Nuthatch (1.)
Marsh Wren (1, path at end of Archery Road.)
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1.)
Gray Catbird
Common Yellowthroat (6.)
American Redstart (1.)
Northern Parula (1.)
Magnolia Warbler (2.)
Black-throated Blue Warbler (1.)
Palm Warbler (15.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Eastern Towhee (2.)
Field Sparrow (1.)
Savannah Sparrow (60.)
LE CONTE'S SPARROW (1, appx. 100 yards west of end of Archery Road.)
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow (2.)
White-throated Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow (1.)
Dark-eyed Junco (4.)
Indigo Bunting (4, 1 berm by Cricket Field, others North Forty Trail.)
DICKCISSEL (1, North Forty Trail.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow

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