Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Coney Island & Floyd Bennett after the Snow

I decided to cancel my Saturday Linnaean Society trip to Coney Island due to the forecast massive blizzard. As it turned out NYC didn't get hit with too much snow, although 60 mph wind gusts would have made birding along the coast futile. I opted to go to an afternoon movie with my wife and head over to Coney Island on Sunday. From there Heydi and I would do some more birding at the newly re-opened Floyd Bennett Field. It was a beautifully sunny day with most of the expected seasonal wildlife, culminating with one very nice find.

When we arrived at Coney Island the tide was higher than I'd ever seen. The tide program that I use listed it at 5.91 feet, which would be the maximum for the year. The boulder jetty at the extreme Western end of the beach was nearly covered with water, with waves washing over much of its length. There are usually Purple Sandpipers foraging along the rocks at this spot. You can see from the photo that they would have had no protection from the waves on Sunday.

Long-tailed Ducks were the most abundant waterfowl seen, with several hundred flying back and forth in the Lower Bay. The next most common duck was Red-breasted Merganser. We were hoping to located some scoters, or maybe, an uncommon Red-necked Grebe, but that was not to be. Hundreds of gulls foraged along the shore feeding along a line of mussels that had washed up from the storm. They were primarily Ring-billed Gulls with smaller numbers of herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. A Razorbill was diving near the end of the jetty closest to West 33rd Street. These relatives to the puffin are normally very rare Brooklyn visitors, but have been seen around the coast for most of this Winter. Previously they would have generated a lot of excitement among local birders. Now they are merely yesterday's news. After 90 minutes and 1.25 miles we slung our tripods over our shoulder's and walked North, to Coney Island Creek Park.

The wind was blowing from the North-Northwest, so I expected that the conditions on Gravesend Bay would be colder and choppier than on the South side of the peninsula. Fortunately, though, it was actually fairly mild. There were lots of Common and Red-throated Loons, as well as, Horned Grebes on the bay. The annual large raft of scaup usually seen on the opposite side of the bay from us appeared to be MIA. Between a sanitation department facility and the marina at Bay 41st Street a Harbor Seal stuck his head out of the water and sniffed the air. He was probably disappointed with the "bouquet". We continued to walk East into Coney Island Creek.

Within the creek and its assortment of sunken wooden barges were most of the usual suspects - Brant, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, scaup, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull. A single Common Goldeneye diving within a flock of Buffleheads was unusual for the creek. We spent about 15 minutes scanning all the gulls and eventually found something different. A Lesser Black-backed Gull was hanging around with several Herring Gulls. As the name suggests, he is superficially similar to the common Great Black-backed Gull, but significantly smaller. These birds are uncommon around NYC, but are regular Winter visitors around the coast.

It was still early, so we headed back to Stillwell Avenue station and took the train up to Avenue U. From there we connected with one, then a second bus over to Floyd Bennett Field. The National Park Service had just announced that the park was reopened after 3 months as a staging area for emergency services resulting from Hurricane Sandy's devastation. I usually spend a lot of time exploring Floyd Bennett during the Winter and was excited to get back in to search for "snow" birds. Some of our target species were Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting or even a Rough-legged Hawk. I reminded Heydi that the water off of Archery Road is also a good spot to look for Eurasian Wigeon. That restarted an ongoing discussion we've had about how often female eurasians might be overlooked as they are similar to the common American Wigeon hens. In addition, most people (myself included) are so focused on the beautiful, reddish head and buffy crown of the males, that the females could easily go unnoticed...

...So we're standing on the shore of Jamaica Bay and I spot a small dabbling duck out of the water and walking on the sand. It looked sort of like a female American Wigeon, but something was not quite right. The main thing that stood out was that the head was a warm, brownish tone, not the gray with fine speckles I would expect on a female wigeon. The head was darker than the brown of the breast plumage. Our immediate thought was that it was a female Eurasian Wigeon. Heydi followed the bird with her camera, snapping off a bunch of shots. I used my phone to look online for identification information.

We were fairly certain that the bird was, in fact, an Eurasian Wigeon, but wanted to wait until we could use Heydi's photos to compare with field guides and online info. One of the field marks that differentiates the American and Eurasian hens is the underwing coverts or "wingpits" seen in flight. According to an article in the American Birding Association's "Birding" magazine:

"Americans have pure white axillaries that contrast with gray underwing coverts. Eurasians show no contrast in the underwing, as the axillaries appear gray in the field. In the hand, it is clear that the axillaries of Eurasian Wigeon are white, covered with fine, silvery vermiculations. In bright sunlight the gray axillaries of Eurasian Wigeon can appear to be white."

You can download the entire "Birding" article that compares female American and Eurasian Wigeons here.

The bottom line is that, after many years of wondering if female Eurasian Wigeons ever visit Brooklyn, the answer is most definitely "Yes". You can see the rest of Heydi's wigeon photos here.

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