Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Two Insane Birders with Metrocards

It began innocently enough. Heydi, Steve and I volunteered to cover the New York Botanic Garden for the annual Bronx leg of the Christmas Bird Count this past Sunday. As usual, Steve drove, but this year he had a family commitment and had to leave at noon. Rather than deal with the hassle of commuting back to Brooklyn from the Bronx via mass transit, Heydi and I decided to leave early, as well, and drive back with Steve. We figured that we would still have at least a few hours left of sunlight to try and find some end of year birds in Brooklyn. What we didn't count on was an MTA grand tour of said borough that would unfold after we left Steve.

Heydi and I agreed that spending the rest of the afternoon birding at Floyd Bennett Field, where annual arctic species tend to show up, would be our best bet for something new. Steve dropped us off at the 2 train's Grand Army Plaza train station at around 12:30pm. We'd take the train to the end of the line at Brooklyn College where we would hop on the Q35 bus, which runs down Flatbush Avenue to Floyd Bennett. It was around 1pm, when we were boarding the bus, that something happened that derailed our simple plan. The following Tweet came in from a friend of ours:

Dennis Hrehowsik ‏@deepseagangster - Glaucous Gull, Coney Island Creek Park in water behind Seagate homes.

A Glaucous Gull in Brooklyn (or anywhere around New York City) is a rare occurrence. This species breeds in the high Arctic and, if you are a fan of nature documentaries, is the dominant gull you'd see flying around the far Northern scenery. In recent years I've been close to catching this bird in my bins twice in Brooklyn, but missed it by minutes both times. At first, I was reluctant to change my plans and race to Coney Island, as it would take a very long time to get there from the mass transit hole where we currently sat, but Heydi convinced me it could be done. As we sat on the bus at Avenue H and Flatbush Avenue, we tried to calculate the fastest bus/train/bus/walking route. Then we received a message from our friend Keir that he was on the Q train at Avenue H heading to Coney Island and were we coming. By hook or by crook, my friend.

If we got off the bus and back on the 2 train, we'd have to go backwards, to Atlantic Avenue, then transfer to the Q train heading back South. I thought that would take way too long, so Heydi suggested a few bus-to-train options that seemed a bit faster...if we timed the connections right.

We stayed on the Q35 heading South down Flatbush Avenue. At Avenue S we'd transfer to the B2 bus, which would take us West, to the Kings Highway station of the Q train, which goes to Coney Island. As we were stopped at the traffic light near the intersection of Avenue S, we saw the other bus in the turning lane waiting for the signal to change. The Q35 stopped and we ran towards the bus stop around the corner, getting there just as the other bus was pulling in. As we settled in for the third leg of our trip, we checked our phones for any Glaucous Gull updates. Nothing. No news is goods news, perhaps.

We were chomping at the bit as the B2 crept through traffic towards its final stop in front of the elevated train station. The signal indicating an incoming train was beeping, so we ran to the turnstiles at the Q train station and up the flight of stairs to the platform. The train was just pulling in. I called Keir from the train to find out if he had found the gull yet. He had just arrived at Leon Kaiser Park and still had a 15 minute slog down the beach until he got to the last spot where it had been seen.

Normally, when I go to Coney Island Creek Park I'll walk the 1.5 miles from the train station, but not knowing if the Glaucous Gull was still around, we were concerned it might take too long. Heydi suggested that, if we time it right, we could take the B36 bus from in front of the Stillwell Avenue train station down to its last stop on West 37th Street and Surf Avenue in front of the Seagate community. That would save us about 1 mile. Luck continued to be on our side, as the bus was pulling up as we exited the train station.

I called Keir from the bus to make sure the gull was still present. He told me that some people walking down the beach had flushed it, but that it just flew a short distance to a rock jetty and was still hanging around. He assured me that he'd keep an eye on the bird and wait for us to arrive. Several blocks from the end of the bus line the driver had to assist an elderly passenger and engage the rear lift gate so she could exit with her walker. The passenger exited, but then the driver had a problem with the automatic lift. It wouldn't retract. I could see Heydi sweating, as the driver repeatedly engaged then disengaged the mechanism. Five minutes went by before he got it working and we were back underway.

It had started to rain lightly just as we exited the bus and headed North along West 37th Street. I called Keir again to double-check his location. I learned that he was actually much farther to the South-West from Coney Island Creek Park than I had anticipated and right at Norton Point. It would be probably another 10 minutes of brisk walking once we got to the edge of the water.

Keir was about 150 yards away, next to the rock jetty, and I gave him the "thumbs up", "thumbs down" signal to find out if the gull was still there. He didn't respond. Heydi's shoulders noticeably slumped down. I planted my tripod and scope in the sand and asked about the bird. "I looked away for a moment, when I looked back, he was gone", was his response. "How long ago", I asked. "About five minutes ago." I thought about the five minutes we lost while the bus driver fiddled with the lift gate.

I wasn't about to give up, though, because I had just taken 2 trains, 3 buses and walked over a mile to see this arctic gull. We spent about 30 minutes scanning the water and the shoreline East and West of us. There were lots of Bonaparte's Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls on the shore and in the water. A lone male Surf Scoter preened in the water a few hundred yards to the South-West. Other expected waterfowl in the area were Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead and Red-breasted Merganser. Farther out in the harbor a few dozen Northern Gannet patrolled and dove for fish and a single Purple Sandpiper sat on the jetty in front of us.

I had dinner plans in the city at 6pm, so was quickly running out of time to find this bird. I suggested to Heydi and Keir that, perhaps, it was back near the sand spit in Coney Island Creek. Large numbers of wintering gulls roost at that location and we were getting close to the end of the day. The train station was back in that general direction anyway, so I started walking. Those two hung back, scanning and rescanning the water in Gravesend Bay for a large, all white gull. As I walked I noticed that many more gulls were along the beach than when we first arrived. Every 20 yards or so, I would stop, plant my scope and scan the flocks ahead of me. At 3:24pm I received a text from my buddy Sean, who knew I was chasing after the gull. "Any luck", he wrote. I typed back, "No", then my went back to scanning the gulls up ahead. Five minutes later I focused in on a large, all white gull walking in shallow water near the sand spit. It was the Glaucous Gull. I turned around and started waving my arms at Heydi and Keir. Not sure if they saw me I called Heydi, whose phone was busy because she was calling me. I hung up and answered her call. "I got it", is all I said, then saw her running down the beach, leaving her scope with Keir. Thankfully, the gull was still present when a very much out of breath Heydi put her eye up to my scope. "I need to get a photo", she said, so we continued down the beach.

As some point, just short of the sand spit and the last spot where we had seen the gull, it disappeared. I'm not sure how an individual bird that is so conspicuous among our common species could just vanish, but I no longer had the time to figure it out. I packed my scope and bins in my backpack, slung my tripod over my shoulder, wished my two birding buddies a happy holiday and trudged off to the F train and home. So to summarize the use of my Metrocard on Sunday, I took the R train, Q35 bus, B2 bus, Q train and B36 bus (also took the F and D trains that night). Any New Yorkers who are familiar with the transit system would probably agree that it was truly a Christmas miracle that I actually managed to find my bird.

The Glaucous Gull was my 251st species in Brooklyn for 2013 and my 305th Brooklyn life bird.

Here is a good video on how to separate the Glaucous Gull from the similar Iceland Gull.

1 comment:

Christopher Eliot said...

Great video link. (And glad you got the bird!)

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