Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Coney Island Birds

Saturday seemed like a good day ride the "F" train to Stillwell Avenue for some coastal birding at Coney Island. Peter Colen joined me.

There were strong gusts blowing in from the North, but the amusement parks and tall buildings parallel to the boardwalk acted as a windbreak, screening the sand from the arctic blast. The water from the newly renovated fishing pier seemed relatively calm compared to the whitecaps farther to the South and closer to Breezy Point. Tens of thousands of gulls were feeding on some type of bait fish. Masses of mostly white animals slowly drifted into the wind like flakes in a snow globe. We counted several Northern Gannets among the more common gulls. The annual overwintering Long-tailed Duck flocks haven't arrived and we only counted a small number of these striking, black, white and brown waterfowl. A flock of over 50 Sanderlings rested at the end of a rock jetty to the West of the Stillwell bathhouse.

We continued walking down the boardwalk to the Western-most jetty where we ran into Bobbi, Dennis and Kristin. They also had the idea to look for any unusual seabirds or seaducks carried in on the strong North winds. I asked if they'd seen any Purple Sandpipers. They hadn't, so I walked to the edge of the jetty and started to step up onto one of the boulders. A Purple Sandpiper immediately popped up from his hiding place between the green draped rocks. A second one was a few feet to his left. Both Common and Red-throated Loons were diving for fish in the bay between the jetty and Sea Gate.

It was nearly impossible to pick out any unusual gulls in the overwhelming mass of birds dominating the horizon. Eventually Peter and I gave up and decided to walk North, to Coney Island Creek Park to look for Snow Buntings.

By the time we arrived at the edge of Gravesend Bay, the wind seemed to have died down a little. We walked a few hundred yards to the West, where a tiny section of dune habitat is still relatively intact. I decided the edge of the dunes would be a more likely place to find Snow Buntings given its protection from the wind and the availability of seeds. My hunch paid off as a bunting scurried away from us and hid behind some vegetation. I called the bird in and a second one joined him. Peter has some very nice photos on his website here. After watching the birds for a few minutes we continued heading into Coney Island Creek to look for gulls and waterfowl. Along the way I spotted these tracks left by one of the Snow Buntings. I like how the "older" tracks on the downslope of the dune are disintegrating from wind action.

A lone cormorant and a mixed flock of Herring, Ring-billed and Great Black-backed Gulls were gorging themselves on a windfall of bait fish near the creek's old yellow submarine. Long, thin and silvery, I said to Peter that they looked like eels. After examining his photos and doing a little research online, I feel fairly certain that they were Sand Eels. Here's a good piece on the bait fish of Long Island waters.

With each new cold front, there's a possibility of some good bird showing up around the coast. You might even spot a Harbor Seal or two. So put on your long underwear, if you have to, and get outside.

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