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Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Shorebirding in Brooklyn

I love old maps. I especially like old maps of Brooklyn and New York City. Besides the artistic qualities of these hand drawn works, they give me insight into what the environment may have been like during bygone eras. This is the Beer's map of Brooklyn from 1873 and is one of my favorites. That year construction of Prospect Park had just been completed, much of central and eastern Brooklyn was still farmland and the southeastern coast was still dominated by marshes and creeks. In fact, one could have actually paddled from Gravesend Bay, east along Coney Island Creek, into Sheepshead Bay and continued around the back of Plum Island, then north up Gerritsen Creek to Kings Highway. Today you'd have to pull your canoe out of the water at West 6th Street and the Belt Park, then carry it over a mile east to East 15th Street and Emmons Avenue to the western terminus of Sheepshead Bay. Also, Plum Island is no longer an island, but a peninsula (Plum Beach) and Gerritsen Creek now ends a mile short of Kings Highway. Only tiny remnants of those wetlands remain and I sometimes picture in my mind huge flocks of shorebirds stopping off there during migration. In 1873 the Eskimo Curlew (now considered extinct by many) was likely a regular visitor among the tens of thousands of migrating shorebirds stopping off in Brooklyn. While on its last legs when this map was created, the now extinct Labrador Duck could probably have still been seen along the coast of Brooklyn.

Over the past weekend several of us local birders descended on Plum Beach in search of migrating shorebirds. I don't think anybody was expecting to rediscover the Eskimo Curlew, although, since most shorebird species are long distance migrants there is always the possibility of spotting a wayward individual amongst the usual suspects. The most extreme local example of this occurred in 1998 when birder Bill Benner discovered a Broad-billed Sandpiper on the West Pond of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. This Eurasian species of shorebird had never been seen in the lower 48 states of the US! You can read Bill's account of the experience here.

Dawn on Saturday morning began with just a light drizzle. But by mid-morning it was fully raining. Not the best conditions for looking at tiny shorebirds through a spotting scope, but the birds didn't seem to mind. The most common shorebird at low-tide was probably Semipalmated Plovers, with Semipalmated Sandpipers coming in a close second. After an hour of standing in the rain my rain gear had begun loosing its water repellency and my scope was starting to fog. I was uncomfortable, but when Dennis and Bobbi waved Heydi and I over to check out an interesting pair of birds, I quickly forgot about those problems. A pair of relatively robust sandpipers were standing on the exposed mudflat about 200 yards to the south. Dennis thought that they might be Pectoral Sandpipers. Not an exceedingly rare species, but certainly scarce for Brooklyn. I couldn't be sure due to the distance and rain on my lenses, but the pair eventually flew much closer revealing a scaly back pattern, long, slightly drooped bills, but mainly a distinctive heavily streaked breast that ends in a sharp delineation at a white belly. They were definitely Pectoral Sandpipers. A nice spot, and worth my current soggy state.

Heydi and I left as the tide came in and the bird numbers seemed to be going down. We didn't see many more shorebirds on Saturday, but later that afternoon we did spot a Bald Eagle soaring over the community garden at Floyd Bennett Field.

As I set my alarm clock on Saturday night I was optimistic that the next morning would be much drier at Plum Beach. If only optimism was enough to control the weather. With umbrella in hand, I headed out the door at 5:20am towards the subway and another rendezvous with the "Brooklyn Bad Weather Birders". The meeting wasn't actually a planned outing, but there were at least six Brooklyn birders desperate to see shorebirds at Plum Beach, weather be damned!

Heydi and I were the first out on the mudflats, with Tom and Louis close behind. At around 7am I spotted a Gull-billed Tern sitting on the sand spit that borders Plum Channel. This species actually breeds south of New York, so was a nice surprise. We eventually spotted a second one. Most terns dive for fish, however this unusual species grabs prey, such as insects, from near the ground. On Sunday we watched the pair frequently grabbing dragonflies from close to the ground on the marsh side of the dunes.

One of the species that we always hope to find at Plum Beach in early August is Piping Plover. Tom and a couple of other folks had already seen a few here earlier last week, but they were not to be found on Saturday. At around 9:45am on Sunday, though, Heydi spotted a flock of 5 of these tiny plovers flying across the water and onto the exposed mudflat. Endangered in New York State and threatened federally, these adorable little birds face a gauntlet of dangers from feral cats to beach-oriented recreation, including collisions with off-road vehicles. Ongoing federal and state management programs have helped, but much more is needed to get their populations up.

I had been taught that the best time of day for shorebirding is at low-tide along coastal mudflats and sandbars. On Sunday, however, we noticed that many more birds were coming in to Plum Beach on the incoming tides and then feeding along the wrack line. As we were leaving on Sunday a few hundred "peeps" were just arriving. Perhaps that is because most of the bars and flats on Jamaica Bay become completely covered in water with Plum being one of the few refuges above water outside of the East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

This coming Saturday high-tide at Plum Beach is at 7:03am. So if this theory holds water, there should be a lot of shorebirds there when I arrive at dawn. Maybe an Eskimo Curlew with show up...


Dates: August 2, 2014 and August 3, 2014
Location: Plumb Beach
Species: 53

Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron (1.)
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Clapper Rail

American Oystercatcher
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Killdeer (1.)
Spotted Sandpiper (1.)
Greater Yellowlegs
Ruddy Turnstone (15.)
Sanderling (100.)
Least Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper (350.)
Short-billed Dowitcher (3.)

Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Least Tern
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Black Skimmer

Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Eastern Towhee
Savannah Sparrow
Boat-tailed Grackle

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, American Black Duck, Mallard, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Sparrow

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