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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Weekend Birding Recap

My birding over the past weekend saw a change in venue, as well as, a search for another rarity that showed up along Brooklyn's coast.

On Saturday I was booked to lead a trip for the Linnaean Society of New York, so would miss anything unusual found in my home borough. This 136 year old non-profit organizes regular field trips around the tri-state area and free monthly presentations at the American Museum of Natural History. I usually lead 4 - 6 trips for them a year to various locations. Over the weekend I led a group of 16 people around Pelham Bay Park and surrounding environs.

Pelham Bay Park

The weather was blustery and the windchill seemed to be magnified as we gathered up our gear on the open, frozen expanse of the parking lot in front of Orchard Beach. As we began our walk into the forested Hunter Island, however, the windbreak and scenic, snow covered trails seemed to quickly warm people up. The North and South pine groves on the island were extremely quiet, with very few birds seen or heard. Small, scattered flock of mostly White-throated Sparrows were the dominant bird species that we encountered. This area is known for overwintering owl species, but none were found here. I continued our hike around to the south-east side of the island to a small cove in search of waterfowl.

The cove between Hunter Island and Twin Island (neither of which are actually islands as the water between was filled in long ago) was mostly frozen, but the northern edge and the area closer to the tiny Cat Briar Island was ice free and loaded with birds. Like Brooklyn's Dead Horse Bay, during most winters large numbers of scaup gather here and Saturday was no exception. There were smaller numbers of Brant. As we scanned, then rescanned the raft of feeding ducks we slowly began finding other birds - Gadwall, American Wigeon, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser and Red-breasted Merganser. A few minutes into our search, Matthieu Benoit, who was standing immediately to my right, said, "I've got a Eurasian Wigeon!" I followed his directions to the bird so I could get everyone in the group on it and in the process, stumbled on two Redheads. Both of these scarce and stunning species are highly sought after by birders in the winter.

From the cove we headed over to the beach and up to the north end of the boardwalk to scan the Long Island Sound. We were completely unprotected from the wind at this point, so only lasted a few minutes before surrendering to the cold and heading back to the parking lot. Along the way I spotted a Merlin flying passed that cooperatively perched in a tree, giving everyone good looks at this compact, aggressive falcon.

Searching the stands of conifers around the historic Bartow-Pell Mansion turned up only a short list of the expected winter birds and no owls. There were signs in the snow that this area was frequently used by deer. Wild Turkey can sometimes be seen here, as well, but not this past Saturday. I was nearly out of ideas for where to search for owls when I remembered a spot related to me by one of the local birders. I had never been there before and was navigating by his description. When I saw a stand of conifers in the distance, I knew we were going in the right direction. Quietly scanning the trees for white-wash, it only took a few minutes before we located a lone Long-eared Owl asleep near the top of a pine tree. I had reminded everyone to be extremely quiet and respectful of this nocturnal bird, but it was clear he was wide awake and not pleased. After a minute, I waved the group over and we left him in peace.

Veterans Memorial Pier

After my birding buddy Heydi and I found an Iceland Gull at Coney Island Creek on Sunday, January 19th, we began speculating on the next rare gull to be found in Brooklyn this year. We decided that it was going to be a Mew Gull, but that we would have to wait for our friend Shane to return from Texas before it was found. Shane is one of the top birders in New York State and seems to have a knack for finding rarities. He is extremely skilled when it comes to gulls and in 2010 found a Mew Gull in a flock of Ring-billed Gulls along the promenade at Gravesend Bay. He was currently working in Texas, but wrote me that he was returning Tuesday. While Heydi and I were half-joking about him finding a rare gull on his return, nobody really should have been surprised when he texted that Thursday that he was looking at a Common Gull at the Veterans Memorial Pier. Note that Common Gull and Mew Gull are common names for the species. The Common Gull (Larus canus canus) is the European and Asian subspecies and the Mew Gull (Larus canus) is the North American "flavor" found along the Pacific coast.

Needless to say, while I was leading birders around the Bronx on Saturday, dozens of folks were enduring frostbite conditions on a fishing pier in Brooklyn while searching for Shane's Common Gull. The pier is adjacent to a water treatment plant, which attracts large numbers of gulls, primarily the very similar Ring-billed Gull. While leading my group, I tried unsuccessfully to ignore the tweets coming into my phone with updates about the gull. It was eventually relocated and photographed by several people, determining my schedule for the next morning.

I only had a few hours available to look for the Common Gull on Sunday morning. My plan was to walk from the 59th Street R train station to the 58th Street pier adjacent to the Brooklyn Army Terminal. This spot is only a short distance to the north of the Veterans Memorial Pier and also where large flocks of gull roost in the winter. If the gull wasn't there, I'd walk to the other pier and hope for the best.

The weather on Saturday was a cakewalk compared to Sunday morning. The 58th Street pier was closed to the public, so instead I walked one block to the north to a dead end street overlooking the water. The wind was blowing directly off the water and caused my one open eye to tear up as I looked through my scope. There was nothing here, so I slung my tripod over my shoulder and started walking the 1.25 miles to Veteran's Memorial Pier. Along the way I reminisced with my birding buddy about the last time I was out in such brutal winter weather. It was early January 2011. That winter a rare Black-headed Gull was making semi-regular appearances on the pier, but Heydi's timing was off and she kept missing it. We made one final try during a morning when arctic blasts were chilling the entire Northeast. Thankfully, the bird was there, we quickly took some photos, then trudged off to thaw out somewhere far from the water. As we were leaving we spotted a lone birder heading towards the pier. With only his eyes showing through his hood and scarf was Queens birder, Jeff Ritter. We spoke briefly, I pointed him towards the bird, wished him well and hurried off to get warm.

On Sunday morning the gulls on the pier, with few exceptions, were ring-billeds. Periodically a few would come and go from the adjacent water or water treatment plant, but nothing unusual was seen. I tried to stay out of the wind by standing behind a 25 foot tall bronze memorial shaped like a speaking trumpet. It did little to temper the cold and wind. My heavy winter boots can usually protect my toes from the coldest weather, but after standing on a pier that was suspended above gale force wind churned waters for 45 minutes, the insulation's effectiveness was wearing off. We decided to call it quits and packed up our gear.

As we walked off the pier and towards Bay Ridge Avenue, a birder was heading our way. Unbelievably, it was Queens birder Jeff Ritter. We looked at each other, laughed and he said, "Haven't we done this before?" This was only the second time that I've EVER seen him at the pier.

Maybe next weekend I'll find the Common Gull and, hopefully, it will be a bit warmer on the water.


Location: Pelham Bay, Bronx
Date: Jan 25, 2014 8:30 AM - 12:00 PM
Species: 45

Eurasian Wigeon (1. Drake. Seen within flock of mostly scaup at cove between Hunter Is. and Twin Is.)
American Wigeon (9. Seen within flock of mostly scaup at cove between Hunter Is. and Twin Is.)
Redhead (2. Seen within flock of mostly scaup at cove between Hunter Is. and Twin Is.)
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye (5. Seen in water between Hunter Is. and Twin Is.)
Hooded Merganser (1.)
Red-breasted Merganser
Common Loon
Red-shouldered Hawk (1. Immature. Seen flying across cover from Twin Is. to Hunter Is.)
Red-tailed Hawk
American Woodcock
Long-eared Owl (1.)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (2.)
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Merlin (1.)
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren (1. Heard only.)
Gray Catbird (1.)
Northern Mockingbird
Eastern Towhee (2.)
Fox Sparrow
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, Blue Jay, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, American Goldfinch

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