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Friday, December 28, 2012

Unusual Coastal Birds

Last weekend Heydi and I did a "seawatch" at Coney Island and spotted a couple of unusual birds, one of which was a life bird for me.

Our motivation to take the train down to Coney Island came from our friend Doug's recent report of alcids along the coast following a storm. Normally one has to take a boat fairly far offshore in search of these seabirds, so we jumped at the opportunity to find something interesting inshore. A couple of years ago we stumbled on a Thick-billed Murre close to shore at Coney Island, so I guess anything is possible.

The weather didn't seem too bad when I left my house. It was cold, but not unreasonably so. Walking to the subway station I didn't notice the wind, but arriving at the boardwalk made me think twice about my decision to go to the beach. Standing on the sand was a brutalizing experience. An arctic wind was blasting across the beach from West to East creating a scouring river of grit. To give you a better idea of the conditions, here is a very short video I shot from the beach. That's our friend, Keir, at the end of the video. Keir is from Scotland and remarked that the conditions, "Reminded him of home."

We decided that it would be best to use the bathhouse as a windbreak and scan the water with our scopes from that location.

There were large numbers of Long-tailed Ducks just off the shore. The first time we'd seen good numbers of them this season. There were also a good number of Bonaparte's Gulls fairly close. Oddly (to a human, anyway), most of the flying birds were flying directly into the strong winds. About 25 minutes into our watch I spotted a tiny black and white bird coming towards us from the East. It had tiny wings and was flapping feverishly against an unrelenting wind. The bird was so close to the shore that it was flying over the stone jetties. Eventually I got a quick side view of a neckless, football-shaped bird. I shouted directions to Heydi, who quickly focused in on the bird. It had a tiny bill, black face and a large patch of white behind the eye. It was a Dovekie! Heydi grabbed her camera and tried to take a photo as the diminutive bird passed directly in front of us. It seemed to hug the shore until it approached the Steeplechase Pier, when it veered South to fly around, rather than under the football field length wooden structure. I sent out a text alert to the birding community. Shane responded that he was on his way. Keir showed up about 20 minutes later.

The Dovekie wasn't relocated that day, but we did see 7 Razorbills. A few of these larger alcids were flying into the wind, but 4 did stop and rest in the water just offshore directly in front of us. The next day Doug spotted a Dovekie actively feeding in Coney Island Creek. The same bird? Possibly. Cornell's Lab of Ornithology has an interesting story on their eBird website about Razorbills moving far South of their normal range this winter. Many are now feeding off of Florida's coast. I don't know if there is a connection as to why Dovekies are being seen so close to shore or if it an entirely different problem. Now here is where it gets even weirder...

When I returned home on Saturday I had received an email from a woman that has come on several of my Green-Wood Cemetery birding tours. The subject line was, "Is this a Dovekie?" Yes, unfortunately, it is a Dovekie, a dead Dovekie. Like most people viewing this photo you'd expect that she found the deceased bird at Coney Island or some other local coastal area, but, no. This bird of deep oceans was found on the sidewalk in front of her home near Green-Wood Cemetery. The closest body of water to her home is likely the Gowanus Canal. The Gowanus Canal is a Federal Superfund Site, so presumably eating anything found in the water here would be ill-advised. Perhaps the Dovekie ate something here that drove it insane. In all seriousness, without the state wildlife pathologist performing a necropsy, I don't think there's anyway to know exactly how or why this cute, little seabird ended up on Stacey's doorstep. I'm just glad I got to see one in Brooklyn that was still alive.


Location: Coney Island, Brooklyn
Date: Dec 22, 2012
Comments: Sea-watched from bathhouse on boardwalk at end of Stillwell Avenue.
Species: 14

Long-tailed Duck (300.)
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Northern Gannet (7.)
Purple Sandpiper (2.)
Bonaparte's Gull (55.)
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Dovekie (1.)
Razorbill (7.)

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