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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dawn Birding at the Marsh

Below is an edit of a piece that I just posted on the New York State birding forum:

I decided to take a break from searching for migrating songbirds in the wooded areas of Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. Instead, on Saturday morning Heydi Lopes and I headed down to the water's edge. We ended up birding at Brooklyn's Plum Beach from 5am until about 8am. Low-tide was at 4:35am and we had hoped to find some shorebirds on one of Brooklyn's few remaining mudflats. We were also looking for wading birds, rails and marsh sparrows within the small marsh that lies between the dunes to the south and parkway to the north. It was a pretty good morning with one nice surprise.

With only moonlight illuminating the beach when we first arrived, it was difficult to identify most of the birds within a fairly decent sized flock of shorebirds roosting close to shore. As the sky lightened we eventually figured out that they were mostly Sanderling, Least Sandpiper and Semipalmated Sandpiper. There was also a single Ruddy Turnstone in the mix. A few Black-bellied Plover were much farther from the shore, as were the ubiquitous oystercatchers and a couple of Willets.

This east-west peninsula on the north side of Jamaica Bay runs from Sheepshead Bay to Plum Channel. The eastern terminus gives birders access to the remnant marsh habitat here. Along our walk towards the rising sun we encountered a couple of hundred overturned horseshoe crabs having just made their annual pilgrimage to this beach to spawn. We spent probably 30 minutes flipping them back over so they could make their way back to the water and to also protect them from hungry, opportunistic gulls that would peck open their soft, vulnerable underside. I'm not sure how or why they always end up this way here. A ranger told me that strong outgoing tides could possible be to blame. Horseshoe crab populations are in steep decline and their eggs are an important food source for migrating shorebirds. If you ever see them struggling to right themselves, please lend a hand. They may look scary, but are quite harmless. Just lift them from either side of their shell and turn them back over.

The most obvious change at the marsh side of Plum Beach since my last visit 2 weeks earlier was the sound of lots of quarreling Clapper Rails. These chicken-like marsh birds are more often heard than seen as their scurry around under the cover of spartina grass, but on Saturday we spotted several walking around the edges of the mud and occasionally chasing each other. Another marsh bird we encountered here was Seaside Sparrow. Their wispy song is often described as a distant Red-winged Blackbird. Saltmarsh Sparrow is another marsh specialist that is usually only found in Brooklyn here or along Gerritsen Creek. I cupped me ears trying to tease out the weak, "whisper" song of this pretty sparrow with an orange-yellow face. We never heard one. A Little Blue Heron was seen mostly at the far west side of the marsh. Several terns circled the area and a large flock of Black Skimmers flew in and settled down on the beach at around 6am.

The morning's extreme low-tide drained the marsh down to the point where we were able to walk down into the muddy bowl at the center. At one point Heydi inadvertently flushed up a tiny wading bird that flew out in front of me. I shouted to her, "Least Bittern!" This Brooklyn rarity then quickly dropped down into the grass near the north side of the marsh. Our friends Keir and Tom, who had arrived about an hour after us, were making their way down the beach, and texted me almost immediately after I tweeted out news of the bittern. We waited for them before attempting to refind this tiny heron. Cautiously approaching the far side of the marsh to check the edges of one channel, we still managed to flush the bird again and it flew deeper into the marsh. I felt really bad for stressing the bird and we didn't pursue it again, instead we scanned with our scopes from the opposite side of the marsh. Not surprisingly, this small, secretive bird had vanished into the grass. This was only the third time that I'd seen a Least Bittern in Brooklyn in 22 years. The first one I found perched, uncharacteristically, in a cherry tree in Prospect Park. The date was April 4, 2004. Here's a photo of the bird taken by my friend Steve:


Location: Plum Beach
Date: May 17, 2014
Species: 47

Common Loon
Double-crested Cormorant
Least Bittern
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Little Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Clapper Rail
American Oystercatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Ruddy Turnstone
Least Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Laughing Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Least Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Black Skimmer (approx. 200)
Chimney Swift
Eastern Kingbird
Warbling Vireo
Fish Crow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Marsh Wren
Gray Catbird
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Seaside Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
Boat-tailed Grackle

Other common species seen (or heard):
Mute Swan, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, European Starling, House Sparrow

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