Thursday, May 08, 2014

A Big Birding Day in Brooklyn

Last Saturday Heydi, Keir and I teamed up to do a "Big Day" of spring birding. Our day consisted of hitting some key birding spots only within the borders of Brooklyn from 4am until we either ran out of birds or ran out of steam. It turned out that conditions weren't ideal for some groups of birds, but we still ended the day with a very respectable 132 species.

We had talked briefly a few times over the previous 2 weeks about a strategy, but finally got serious about our agenda on the Thursday before over a couple of pints. The first weekend in May isn't generally the best time to see the greatest diversity of northbound migrants, but Keir wouldn't be able to participate this coming weekend, so we decided to give it a shot. The one benefit we might have was that there were some lingering winter birds around that we wouldn't normally see on a typical spring Birdathon. Our finalized list of locations was Dreier-Offerman Park, Floyd Bennett Field (twice), Gravesend Bay (southern parking lot), Green-Wood Cemetery, Hendrix Creek, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (western edge, Brooklyn), Paerdegat Basin, Plum Beach, Prospect Park and the Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park.

During past spring Birdathons my team would start the day at a tiny patch of remnant wetlands behind a baseball field at the edge of Paerdegat Basin. Two out of three years we spotted Barn Owl hunting over the marsh, so Heydi, Keir and I thought we'd give it a shot. With flashlights in hand we walked to the edge of the wetland at around 4am. It was pitch black and completely silent. I played recordings of rails and marsh sparrows to try and call out some birds. Nothing. We stayed for about 20 minutes, then packed it in and headed west along the coast to Floyd Bennett Field, then Gerritsen Creek.

One of our target birds at Floyd Bennett Field was American Woodcock. These birds nest there and can usually be heard making their nasal "peent" courtship call at night. We were also hoping to hear Ring-necked Pheasant, meadowlark and Field Sparrow. Three out of the four birds were heard relatively quickly, then we headed west to our next stop. The wetland habitat around the Marine Park Nature Center on Gerritsen Creek is generally good for night-herons, shorebirds, rails and Marsh Wren. From 5:10am to 5:30am it was good for 9 species, none of them particularly rare, in fact, we didn't find any of our target birds. Sticking to a tight schedule, we left Marine Park by 5:30am.

Prospect Park is the best location in Brooklyn for finding warblers and other songbirds. Our plan was to be there by first light and spend between 5 and 6 hours, picking up about 90 species. My best single day in Prospect Park was a little over 100 species, but that was in mid-May. It was still a bit early in the season and many species had yet to arrive in New York City's parks, in particular, flycatchers, which represent around 10 species. We'd be lucky to find 3 or 4.

From the moment we entered Prospect Park at its north end, it seemed like we'd do really well with warblers. They were all along the worn, dirt path that parallels Flatbush Avenue. At the Vale of Cashmere we probably picked up 8 more species of warbler, as well as, both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles and Scarlet Tanager. There were dozens of birders in the park and I had to remind our group (really just me) to keep socializing to a minimum so we could keep to our schedule. We let others know that we were doing a big Brooklyn day and to text us if they found anything good. One tip we received was from Dale Dyer, who had spotted a Hooded Warbler near the north end of the Prospect Park zoo, or the opposite side of the park from where we were when word came through. Luck was on our side and we eventually found this beautiful warbler right were Dale had left him. By the time we were ready to leave Prospect Park for our next location we had added 96 species to our day list.

We had two primary targets at our next stop, Green-Wood Cemetery. They were Monk Parakeet and Red-headed Woodpecker. If we hadn't seen Chipping Sparrow yet, this was also the place to find one as they nest in the cemetery's numerous conifers. As usual, lots of Monk Parakeets were right at the main entrance and, thankfully, at least one of the Red-headed Woodpeckers was still hanging around. We also picked up a couple of raptors, including Cooper's Hawk.

On our way to Dreier-Offerman Park we made a quick stop along Gravesend Bay to look for Purple Sandpipers. At a stretch of exposed boulders just below the promenade we found a small flock of these arctic breeding shorebirds. We spent all of about 5 minutes scanning the bay for waterfowl and seabirds, then hopped back in the car for the short ride to Dreier-Offerman Park.

Dreier-Offerman Park is on a small peninsula and the species of birds found there can vary quite a bit as there is a creek on two sides and the large open water of Gravesend Bay off of the point. There are also large grass fields, as well as, secondary growth along the fringes. On the water we hoped to find a good selection of gulls, wading birds and waterfowl. On the fields, maybe a meadowlark or "grasspiper" and along the edges, some warblers, sparrows and maybe an Indigo Bunting or Blue Grosbeak.

Within about 10 minutes into our walk towards the end of the peninsula we found probably the most peculiar spring Big Day bird imaginable in Brooklyn - an immature Glaucous Gull. I'm guessing that it is the same individual that was seen sporadically in this area through the winter. He is a long way from home and should be feeding in the waters a lot closer to Greenland than the Coney Island Cyclone. Another good lingering winter bird we found was a Black Scoter. Normally seen in the ocean, this individual has been hanging around close to shore at the cove at the north side of Dreier-Offerman Park. I hope that there isn't anything wrong with the bird as this seems like abnormal behavior.

A radio controlled helicopter club was enjoying their hobby on the main grass field, so there was no chance of finding meadowlarks or any birds at that spot. We did luck out on the return walk passed the creek. While we were scanning a growing flock of gulls on the sandspit across the water Keir spotted an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. This is another bird that was seen here frequently during the winter months.

With the wind picking up and temperatures dropping we headed to Plum Beach to look for shorebirds and marsh sparrows.

It was close to low-tide when we arrived at this stretch of beach and marsh on Jamaica Bay. Normally shorebirds would be feeding here once the mudflats become exposed. Unfortunately 20 mph wind were blowing off the white-capped whipped bay. Any shorebirds in the vicinity would be hunkered down somewhere out of the wind. A trio of Willets were the only shorebirds large enough to tolerate the gusts. We also managed to spot a pair of early Least Terns, as well as, two Forster's Terns. Four species that we needed to find on the marsh side of Plum, Clapper Rail, Marsh Wren, Saltmarsh Sparrow and Seaside Sparrow were nowhere to be found. We cut our losses and headed to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. The western end of the refuge's West Pond falls within Kings County, so it would be the only location there where we'd bird.

We pulled into the parking lot at around 6:30pm, 15 hours after Heydi and Keir picked me up in front of my apartment. The three of us seemed to struggle as we took our scopes out of the car. It was obvious that our energy levels were waning as we contemplated walking the 1 mile route. Hurricane Sandy breached the West Pond necessitating the much longer counter-clockwise route to the west side of the pond turned cove. With occasional rain droplets and cold winds blowing off the water, I wasn't too optimistic we'd find many more birds. The refuge is normally a great spot for a variety of wading birds, but not on Saturday. Our "definite" nesting pair of Osprey at Marine Park was mysteriously missing early in the morning, but one flying over the Brooklyn side of the bay saved us the big miss. In addition, a Horned Grebe, another lingering winter bird, was spotted paddling around within a large flock of Brant. There weren't any birds in or around the breached West Pond and I was starting to worry about the storm clouds and rain on the horizon. I wondered if there was any point in spending any more time shivering and hoping for more birds. A passing crow cawed a nasal "uh-uh", giving me my answer and one final bird for the day - Fish Crow.

Best of luck and good birding to all the teams participating in this Saturday's International Migratory Bird Day "Birdathons".

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Date: Saturday, May 3, 2014, 4:05am to 7:40pm
Locations: Dreier-Offerman Park; Floyd Bennett Field; Gravesend Bay--Southern Parking Lot; Green-Wood Cemetery; Hendrix Creek; Jamaica Bay West--Brooklyn; Paerdegat Basin; Plumb Beach; Prospect Park; Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park
Species: 132
Checklists: 11

1) Brant
2) Canada Goose
3) Mute Swan
4) Wood Duck
5) Gadwall
6) American Black Duck
7) Mallard
8) Blue-winged Teal
9) Green-winged Teal
10) Greater Scaup
00) Greater/Lesser Scaup
11) Black Scoter
12) Bufflehead
13) Red-breasted Merganser
14) Ruddy Duck

15) Ring-necked Pheasant

16) Common Loon
17) Pied-billed Grebe
18) Horned Grebe

19) Double-crested Cormorant

20) Great Blue Heron
21) Great Egret
22) Snowy Egret
23) Green Heron
24) Black-crowned Night-Heron
25) Glossy Ibis

26) Turkey Vulture
27) Osprey
28) Cooper's Hawk
29) Red-tailed Hawk

30) American Coot

31) American Oystercatcher
32) Killdeer
33) Spotted Sandpiper
34) Solitary Sandpiper
35) Greater Yellowlegs
36) Willet
37) Lesser Yellowlegs
38) Purple Sandpiper
39) Least Sandpiper
40) American Woodcock
00) shorebird sp.

41) Laughing Gull
42) Ring-billed Gull
43) Herring Gull
44) Lesser Black-backed Gull
45) Glaucous Gull
46) Great Black-backed Gull
47) Least Tern
48) Forster's Tern

49) Rock Pigeon
50) Mourning Dove

51) Great Horned Owl

52) Chimney Swift

53) Ruby-throated Hummingbird

54) Belted Kingfisher

55) Red-headed Woodpecker
56) Red-bellied Woodpecker
57) Downy Woodpecker
58) Hairy Woodpecker
59) Northern Flicker

60) American Kestrel
61) Peregrine Falcon

62) Monk Parakeet

63) Eastern Phoebe
64) Great Crested Flycatcher
65) Eastern Kingbird

66) White-eyed Vireo
67) Yellow-throated Vireo
68) Blue-headed Vireo
69) Warbling Vireo

70) Blue Jay
71) American Crow
72) Fish Crow

73) Northern Rough-winged Swallow
74) Tree Swallow
75) Barn Swallow

76) Black-capped Chickadee
77) Tufted Titmouse
78) White-breasted Nuthatch

79) House Wren
80) Winter Wren
81) Carolina Wren

82) Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
83) Ruby-crowned Kinglet

84) Veery
85) Hermit Thrush
86) Wood Thrush
87) American Robin

88) Gray Catbird
89) Brown Thrasher
90) Northern Mockingbird

91) European Starling

92) Cedar Waxwing

93) Ovenbird
94) Worm-eating Warbler
95) Northern Waterthrush
96) Blue-winged Warbler
97) Black-and-white Warbler
98) Nashville Warbler
99) Common Yellowthroat
100) Hooded Warbler
101) American Redstart
102) Northern Parula
103) Magnolia Warbler
104) Blackburnian Warbler
105) Yellow Warbler
106) Chestnut-sided Warbler
107) Blackpoll Warbler
108) Black-throated Blue Warbler
109) Palm Warbler
110) Yellow-rumped Warbler
111) Prairie Warbler
112) Black-throated Green Warbler

113) Eastern Towhee
114) Chipping Sparrow
115) Field Sparrow
116) Savannah Sparrow
117) Song Sparrow
118) Swamp Sparrow
119) White-throated Sparrow
120) White-crowned Sparrow
000) sparrow sp.

121) Scarlet Tanager

122) Northern Cardinal
123) Rose-breasted Grosbeak
124) Red-winged Blackbird
125) Common Grackle
126) Boat-tailed Grackle
127) Brown-headed Cowbird
128) Orchard Oriole
129) Baltimore Oriole

130) House Finch
131) American Goldfinch

132) House Sparrow
000) passerine sp.

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