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Monday, February 10, 2014

Weekend Bird Updates & Ha-hah-way Flocks

Bird activity around New York City in early February reminds me of slack-tide on the water. During nearly every month of the year it seems like there is always some group or groups of birds on the move, either heading to or away from their breeding grounds (or preparing for said movement). In addition, Winter storms tend to deliver unusual and unexpected vagrant species to our local parks. However, for the first half of February things seem to fall into a state of equilibrium. Nothing new is passing by and recent, seasonal species have settled into predictable routines, not unlike us birders. Another side effect of this slow period is that, unless I am leading a trip for one of the local organizations, I don't tend to run into my local birding friends very often. That will change as March approaches and the first of the North-bound songbirds begin to arrive.

Coney Island walk for the Linnaean Society of New York

My walk for the Linnaean Society on Saturday fit into that category of "slack-tide" birding. While the weather was comfortably cold, the bird activity on the Lower Harbor, Gravesend Bay and Coney Island Creek was relatively slow. When I lead trips there is always a glimmer of hope in the back of my head that something exciting will show up. For this coastal area I was thinking a rare gull or, perhaps, a vagrant grebe. Well, if wishes were birds ... beggars would fly? Or something like that. We did manage to see a nice assortment of the expected Winter visitors, including very close looks at a flock of Snow Buntings on the beach at Coney Island Creek Park.

Green-Wood Cemetery

I literally ran to Green-Wood Cemetery on Sunday as I didn't have a lot of time available to bird. My aim was to check on the immature Red-headed Woodpecker that had decided to overwinter in Brooklyn, then see if the Red-tailed Hawks had started work on their nest.

The woodpecker was perched on the trunk of a dying Sycamore Maple on Arbor Avenue when I arrived. This spot is about 100 yards inside the cemetery's main entrance and the red-headed has been seen here reliably for nearly 3 months. He is beginning to develop the namesake red feathers on his head and, hopefully, will stay long enough that folks will get to see him in full, dazzling plumage.

I did see two adult Red-tailed Hawks in the cemetery, whether they are a mated pair was unclear and there didn't appear to be any recent activity at last year's nest tree.

Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay

The previous Saturday I spent nearly 6 hours tromping around Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay. With above freezing temperatures overnight and through the day, the thawing waterways sported large chunks of floating ice. Mini icebergs littered the shoreline. I shouldn't have been surprised to spot a few Harbor seals lolling about on these temporary "islands". I love seeing these blubbery, endearing animals in Brooklyn and feel compelled to point them out to the unsuspecting. At the end of Archery Road I asked a group of people if they wanted to see a seal and offered looks through my scope. After a quick look, an older woman inquired, "How did you know he'd be out there?" I was tempted, but didn't give her a silly answer, and only explained they he actually found us and not the other way around.

On the shore along Mill Basin I scanned the water for waterfowl, grebes and cormorants. On the glass calm bay there were a few dozen Horned Grebes in the water from the parkway bridge, to my left, and towards Canarsie Pol to the North. Many more than I'd seen this Winter. Barely discernible at such a far distance, but unmistakable in color and shape, a Snowy Owl was perched high in a tree across the channel. Before the end of the day, I'd count four more in the area.

Heydi spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk in a tree near the parkway and we decided to walk down the shore to get a better look. A few moments into the walk we noticed a trio of Killdeer on the defrosting sand in front of us. Killdeer are one of a handful of shorebirds that are hardy enough to regularly survive Winter in New York City. The others are Black-bellied Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Purple Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe and American Woodcock. In the time it took me to shoot a few photos of the shorebirds, the hawk took off.

When we emerged from the sandy footpath through the dunes and onto the beach at Dead Horse Bay I couldn't believe my eyes. The scaup flock was missing! All Winter there had been a massive raft of scaup on the water between the beach near the path and the Flatbush Marina to the North. After a few minutes of scanning with my scope I realized that they had moved out of the protective cove and into Plum Channel. The loose string of ducks stretched half a mile, from the parkway bridge and out into the bay. The birds were a bit too far for my optics to discern if there were any birds other than scaup in the flock.

Off of Dead Horse Point and heading West towards Coney Island was a huge gathering of Long-tailed Ducks. When I first saw them from a distance I'd assumed that they'd be Brant or scaup as it's not unusual to see flocks of these species that number a couple of thousand individuals. Once focused in on the birds I began counting as I scanned from East to West. I started by counting groups of ten, but there were too many, so I did it in groups of 50. I gave up at 2500 as more birds flew in or shuffled around. After several minutes I stopped looking and just listened. From 500 yards away the comical yodeling call of hundreds of courting Long-tailed Ducks put a smile on my face. I learned recently that the Cree indians called this bird the "Ha-hah-way", named for the sound of their call. What do you think:

Here's a good piece on Birdnote about the "Music of Long-tailed Duck".


Dates: 02/08/14 and 02/09/14
Locations: Coney Island, Coney Island Creek, Green-Wood Cemetery
Species: 47

American Wigeon
Greater Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Cooper's Hawk (1, Green-Wood Cemetery.)
Red-tailed Hawk (2, Green-Wood Cemetery.)
American Coot
Purple Sandpiper
Great Black-backed Gull
RED-HEADED WOODPECKER (1, Green-Wood Cemetery.)
Peregrine Falcon (1, Coney Island.)
Monk Parakeet
Horned Lark (3, Coney Island Creek.)
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Cedar Waxwing (15, Coney Island Creek.)
Snow Bunting (12, Coney Island Creek.)
Fox Sparrow (3, Green-Wood Cemetery.)
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco (27, Green-Wood Cemetery.)

Other common species seen (or heard): Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, American Black Duck x Mallard (hybrid), Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow


Date: 02/01/14
Locations: Dead Horse Bay and Floyd Bennett Field
Species: 48

American Wigeon
Greater Scaup
Long-tailed Duck (Approx. 2500 off Dead Horse Point.)
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe (75.)
Red-necked Grebe (1.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Northern Harrier (1.)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (1.)
Cooper's Hawk (1.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1.)
Black-bellied Plover (5.)
Killdeer (3.)
Great Black-backed Gull
Snowy Owl (5.)
Northern Flicker
Horned Lark (100.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow (1.)
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird (1.)
House Finch
American Goldfinch

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

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