Thursday, January 16, 2014

Last Weekend's Fog Birding & More

Continuing my theme of exploring Brooklyn's coastal habitats for interesting Winter birds, last weekend I spent time at Coney Island, Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay. Although Saturday's weather was comically abysmal, it did yield one very nice bird.

Years ago I would never have thought about looking at "seagulls"*, but have come to appreciate this family of bird's wide range of size, shapes, plumages and behaviors. Given the somewhat steep learning curve, as well as the fact that the best gulling is sometimes carried out during the worst Winter weather here in the Northeast, I guess it is an acquired taste, like caviar or raw oysters. Although, if you attempt to eat the aforementioned while sitting on a beach with several thousand gulls you might make a whole lot of new best friends. In any case, much of my Winter birding of late has been in search of rare or unusual gulls.

Saturday morning's pleasantly mild temperatures were a nice change from the week's "polar vortex" arctic chill that numbed New York. The downside was that we awoke to a thick curtain of fog blanketing nearly the entire city. I decided to head down to Coney Island anyway, assuming that the fog might bring some birds off the ocean and close to shore. I also figured that the fog would eventually lift revealing lots of amazing birds...maybe. If the birds never materialized, I'd at least get to take some photos of the surreal, horizonless landscape created by the haze.

My birding buddy, Heydi, met me at the Stillwell Avenue train station where we planned out our agenda for the morning at Dunkin' Donuts. Low-tide wouldn't be until around 10:30am, so we'd have plenty of time to bird along the South side of the peninsula, then head up to Coney Island Creek and around to Norton Point on Gravesend Bay. I've found that the strong currents in the Ambrose Channel off of the Western end of the Coney Island peninsula attracts a great diversity of Winter birds. Perhaps we'd spot something unusual.

It became very obvious early on that we wouldn't be seeing much in the pea soup fog conditions. Scoping the water from the bathhouse at the end of Stillwell Avenue was pointless. Visibility from that vantage point was probably only about 50 yards off the shoreline. We decided to walk out onto the end of the fishing pier, where we'd be about 250 yards out into the bay. It was the only time that I'd even been on the pier when there weren't any fisherman. I thought, like birders, they were out in all conditions. Does the fog affect fish? Anyway, visibility from the fishing pier wasn't much better and we probably heard more birds than we saw. Male Long-tailed Ducks have begun courting and their yodeling "ow-owdle-ow, ow-owdle-ow" calls drifted in and out of the haze. Listen to the Long-tailed Duck:



There are a few regular gull roosting areas on the sand between the fishing pier and the Western jetty near Seagate. One can usually encounter a couple of thousand gulls here along the 1 mile walk, but for whatever reason, there were very few. I wondered out loud where they were all hiding.

The conditions on the North side of the peninsula were better only in that we were out of the wind. Like our experience along the beach side, there were very few gulls present. Foolish optimism had us pushing on, however, and we walked the approximately 1/2 mile West to Norton Point. There were a few of the expected gulls on the jetty, as well as, many Long-tailed Ducks, a few Red-breasted Mergansers and a single scaup close to shore, but nothing unusual. On a patch of grass above the seawall behind us a small flock of Snow Buntings foraged in the stubbly grass. We decided to persevere and wait for the fog to lift, which it did very briefly.

At 10:10am the sky brightened and the fog lifted to the point were we could see several ships anchored in the lower harbor and the tops of the Verrazano Bridge towers floating above a thin layer of fog. We were taking some photos of the unusual conditions when I noticed a gull flying along the edge of the water coming from our right. I thought it was a Bonaparte's Gull, but as it got close I saw a red bill and casually mentioned that it was a Black-headed Gull. The bird passed within 15-20 yards of us, Heydi managing to shoot a couple of record photos. The bird was closely following the shoreline around the point, flying into the wind roughly South-East, then East and out of view. This rare European visitor to North America shows up periodically along coastal New York State. The last time I saw one in Brooklyn was in January 2011. I posted about it here. You can see some of Heydi's rare bird photos here.

Dead Horse Bay and Floyd Bennett Field

The fog never completely cleared on Saturday and we felt lucky to have found the Black-headed Gull during the short lived respite. From Coney Island we headed off to Floyd Bennett Field with visions of rare birds in our moisture addled brains.

Most birders drive they cars around the expansive habitats of Floyd Bennett, but Heydi and I usually walk the entire park checking the grasslands, remnant pine forest, scrub habitat of the "North Forty" and coastal waterfront for anything and everything. Our latest mission has been to find Lapland Longspur or Rough-legged Hawk around the grassland and Eurasian Wigeon or eiders in the water. Across Flatbush Avenue, at Dead Horse Bay, the ever-growing scaup raft keeps us coming back in search of something unusual hiding among the field of bobbing black, white and brown waterfowl.

Despite our tireless resolve, we only managed to tally mostly just the expected species of Winter birds (which is actually not too bad if you scan down the list below). Maybe this weekend Brooklyn's wildlife will surprise me with something unforeseen. If you follow my Twitter feed, I promise you'll be the second to know.

*Note: There is no such thing as a "seagull" other than Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

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Date: 01/11/14 and 01/12/14
Locations: Coney Island (Seagate), Dead Horse Bay, Floyd Bennett Field
Species: 42

Brant
American Wigeon (22, Floyd Bennett Field.)
Greater Scaup (Usual huge assemblage at Dead Horse Bay.)
White-winged Scoter (2, Dead Horse Pt.)
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Cooper's Hawk
Killdeer (Floyd Bennett Field.)
Sanderling (5, Seagate.)
Purple Sandpiper (2, Seagate.)
Black-headed Gull (1, Seagate.)
Snowy Owl (2.)
Northern Flicker
Merlin (Floyd Bennett Field.)
American Crow
Horned Lark (88, Floyd Bennett Field.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch (Floyd Bennett Field.)
Snow Bunting (12, Seagate.)
Field Sparrow (1, Floyd Bennett Field.)
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow

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

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