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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Last Weekend's Birds

This past weekend may not have had the best weather conditions for birding, but as my mentor the late Marty Sohmer used to say, "Sometimes the worst weather brings out the best birds". I could probably amend that to, "Sometimes the worst weather brings out the most desperate, fervid birders."

Saturday - Coney Island Creek and Norton Point

I wanted to try and wrap up a full compliment of gull species in Brooklyn before the end of January. The only way to do that is to spend nearly all of my birding time at the water's edge, which meant (as usual) Coney Island and Floyd Bennett Field. There had been reports of an Iceland Gull on Coney Island Creek and that would be another excellent gull to track down for the year. Despite light rain forecast for the late morning on Saturday, I was out the door and on the "F" train to Stillwell Avenue before sunrise. I would forego my usual routine of checking the water on the South side of the peninsula first and instead head directly to Coney Island Creek.

There is a small remnant of dunes and a sand spit near the mouth of Coney Island Creek across the water from Calvert Vaux Park. It is a favorite roosting spot for gulls, especially at low-tide. On Saturday, high-tide was early in the morning, so there weren't too many gulls there when I arrived. I thought that there might be more birds feeding in the channel off of Norton Point and headed down the beach hoping to find the Iceland Gull or something interesting before the rain came.

It was slack-tide when I set my scope up next to the seawall at the point. The jetty that is usually visible here was completely covered by water and, in one spot, the now narrow band of beach was blocked by the tide. Bonaparte's Gulls were enjoying the relative calm waters offshore and several dozen gracefully picked food from the surface of the water. Many more of these small, delicate gulls flew back and forth in the Lower Harbor. It was probably the highest concentration of them that I've experienced in Brooklyn. There were lots of Long-tailed Ducks offshore, as well, and a single Red-necked Grebe. After nearly an hour of watching the same birds, it was time to head back to the sand spit on the creek and find the Iceland Gull.

The weather began to deteriorate on the walk back to the creek. Temperatures dropped and a light, tolerable rain turned into wind driven hail. That was not so much fun and I ended up standing in the windbreak of a steel shipping container next to the running track at Leon Kaiser Park:

I decided I had had enough abuse, packed up my scope and bins, then trudged back to the train station.

Sunday - Floyd Bennett Field and Coney Island Creek

It was still dark when I walked across Flatbush Avenue from the bus stop into Floyd Bennett Field on Sunday. Mass transit was on time for a change, so I arrived a lot faster than I expected. The temperature was low enough that my breath froze on my mustache. Rather than walking the edge of the grasslands looking for raptor silhouettes, I waited inside of Aviator Sports for Heydi to arrive.

The full effect of the cold didn't hit me until we walked into the wind towards the cricket field. On top of my gloves I wore a pair of convertible mittens. The mittens are fingerless gloves with a mitten flap that pulls over the top. Normally, this double layer is a really warm combination. On Sunday I'm pretty sure that only electric heated gloves would have kept my fingers from freezing. Anyway, we tolerated the wind long enough to count 66 Horned Larks feeding on the cricket field, then walked to the leeward side of the berm East of the field for a brief respite.

We walked the edge of the grasslands, checked the small grass field next to the community gardens, explored the pine groves and scanned the bay off of Archery Road. The wind was coming out of the West so would be blasting directly into Dead Horse Bay. I thought it would be a good idea to skip that area. By 10 o'clock I decided to head over to Coney Island Creek and find me some gulls.

There were lots of gulls on the creek and adjacent field and running track of Leon Kaiser Park. The vast majority were Ring-billed Gulls, in fact, there were probably 2,000 just on the field alone. We set up our scopes at a high point on the dunes where we had a good view of the creek, the sand spit and Gravesend Bay. A cursory scan of the gulls didn't turn up anything unusual to the East, so we walked a short distance towards the bay and began scanning the birds standing on the sand and bobbing in the water.

This is why Twitter is such a great technology for birders

As we were scanning Gravesend Bay we received the following tweet from Tom Preston:

"Raven harassed by two peregrines behind Gravesend Bay middle lot"

I turned to Heydi and said, "We should be able to see that in our scopes from here." It's about 2 miles directly across the water from us, so I scanned along the shore until I found the parking lot, then began looking for the falcons and raven. After a moment I shouted to Heydi (who was only a few feet away, mind you), "I've got one of the peregrines!" Then, "The raven is up and to the right of it, circling!" She got on both birds and we both began laughing at the absurdity of the scenario. I tweeted back to Tom:

"thanks, scoped both birds from across the bay!"

Two birds in the bag, we walked back along the dune towards the sand spit. The flock there had nearly doubled in size as many more gulls had begun arriving at the elbow of sand that juts into the creek. I didn't immediately spot anything unusual, but did notice a Ring-billed Gull with an orange piece of plastic on its right wing. Some biologists use this method of "banding" gulls for their studies. There is a number imprinted on the plastic flap and, over time, the flag falls off. Heydi took a few pictures and thought that it might just be some debris stuck to the bird. I was fairly certain it was a banded bird, but wanted to take another look to be sure. I looked back in my scope, but the Ring-billed Gull must have flown as he was no longer in view. However, in his place was now an immature Iceland Gull! I pulled out my phone and tweeted:

"Iceland gull at Coney Island Creek on sand spit"

It seemed like less than a minute had passed when we received a text from Keir saying that they were looking at our Iceland Gull. Huh? We looked around and didn't notice anyone, then realized that Keir, Tom Preston and Tom Stephenson were about 75 yards to our right, but blocked from view by some shrubs and a stand of phragmites.

I headed home shortly after that, not only happy that I'd found the Iceland Gull, but also that a small group of us had been able to quickly share our sightings. It's hard to believe, but before smartphones, birders had to wait until the following Friday, when the Rare Bird Alerts came out, to find out what birds were being seen around their area. What will be the next technology that birders will adopt? Skype scopes?


Date: Saturday, 01/18/14 and Sunday, 01/19/14
Locations: Coney Island Creek, Coney Island--Norton Pt., Floyd Bennett Field
Species: 44

American Wigeon (4, Floyd Bennett Field.)
Greater Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
RED-NECKED GREBE (1, Norton's Point.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Cooper's Hawk
American Coot
Black-bellied Plover
Dunlin (22, Floyd Bennett Field.)
Purple Sandpiper
Bonaparte's Gull (119, Norton's Point.)
ICELAND GULL (1, Coney Island Creek.)
Great Black-backed Gull
Peregrine Falcon (1, Gravesend Bay.)
COMMON RAVEN (1, Gravesend Bay.)
Horned Lark (94, Floyd Bennett Field.)
Black-capped Chickadee
American Tree Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Brown-headed Cowbird

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, American Crow, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, House Sparrow

1 comment:

Michael Ivkov said...

Fantastic post.
I blog from the city, as well.

Exploring urban nature, birds, birdwatching, birding, hummingbirds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, hawks, raptors, wildflowers, trees, mushrooms, environment, binoculars, spotting scope