Wednesday, October 01, 2014

New Rarity for Brooklyn's Plum Beach

The start of October birding brought a great new species to the borough of Brooklyn. It was no surprise to local birders (or anyone who knows him) that the bird was discovered by my friend Shane Blodgett. With several decades of birding experience under his belt, he seems to have the knack (the skills, really) to frequently be in the right place at the right time. It is also pretty amazing that it was found at Plum Beach, a location that has been host to several very good birds this year. The bird that he was rushing to get the word out about was a Northern Wheatear!

Shane was the person who also found a rare King Eider at Plum Beach on August 29th. Here's a selection of rare or scarce birds that have been observed so far in 2014 along this stretch of detritus strewn beach in Brooklyn:

King Eider
Least Bittern
Whimbrel
Hudsonian Godwit
Marbled Godwit
Ruff
Baird's Sandpiper
Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Iceland Gull
Gull-billed Tern
Black Tern
Royal Tern

I received Shane's call just as I was finishing up breakfast. I had actually been planning on cycling out to Plum Beach this morning, but was now afraid it might take too long pedaling and I'd miss the bird. I texted Bobbi, Keir and Sean to find out if any of them were driving to Plum and if I could bum a ride. Keir was stuck in traffic having already been to Plum before the wheatear was discovered. He was desperately trying to turn around. Bobbi was already on her way to pick up a few friends at various points in Brooklyn. Sean had to walk his daughter to school and told me if I could get to his place quickly, I'd have a ride. I packed my gear, ran out the door and got to the subway just as a train was pulling into the station. He's two stations away, so when I arrived, he was only just walking back to his house with his 3 year old son. Phew!

Parked the car at the beach, grabbed our gear, Sean put his son on his shoulders and we hoofed it down the 1/2 mile stretch of beach where Shane and Cory Finger were keeping tabs on the bird until other birders arrived. We made it in time. Here's a short video I shot of it:



This is my second sighting of a Northern Wheatear, but the first in North America. My first was in Spain. It was early spring and my wife and I were staying at a beach resort near Tarifa. One early morning, before breakfast, I was walking down the beach with my bins. I spotted a pair of birds flying north across the open water from Africa. They flew passed me and landed on a fence enclosing a small corral for horses. They were both wheatears. I wondered how far they had traveled and where they were headed. Eastern Canada, perhaps? This species is one of the longest traveling of any songbird. From Wikipedia:

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The Northern Wheatear makes one of the longest journeys of any small bird, crossing ocean, ice, and desert. It migrates from Sub-Saharan Africa in Spring over a vast area of the northern hemisphere that includes northern and central Asia, Europe, Greenland, Alaska, and parts of Canada. In Autumn all return to Africa, where their ancestors had wintered.

Birds of the large, bright Greenland race, leucorhoa, makes one of the longest transoceanic crossings of any passerine. In spring most migrate along a route (commonly used by waders and waterfowl) from Africa via continental Europe, the British Isles, and Iceland to Greenland. However, autumn sightings from ships suggest that some birds cross the North Atlantic directly from Canada and Greenland to southwest Europe (a distance of up to 2500 km). Birds breeding in eastern Canada are thought to fly from Baffin Island and Newfoundland via Greenland, Ireland, and Portugal to the Azores (crossing 3500 km of the North Atlantic) before flying onwards to Africa. Other populations from western Canada and Alaska migrate by flying over much of Eurasia to Africa.

Miniature tracking devices have recently shown that the northern wheatear has one of the longest migratory flights known - 30,000 km (18,640 miles), from sub-Saharan Africa to their Arctic breeding grounds.

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This migration route map shows how amazing these birds are, especially considering that, on average, they only weight about as much as a slice of bread:



At one point the Plum Beach bird began making its way towards the west end of the beach. We lost track of it for about 10 minutes, but Cory relocated it near the new rock jetty close to the parking lot. I caught up with the bird just in time to watch it fly passed me towards the east, briefly perching in a plastic bag festooned Ailanthus tree. I managed to get it into my scope for one of the birders who had just arrived, then the bird dropped into the dune grass and vanished. As of this posting (3pm), the wheatear has not been seen again.

If you have the time, I do recommend checking the area early in the morning tomorrow as you might get lucky. Here's a map to Plum Beach for driving. The closest mass transit would be to take the 2 train to Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College. Exit the subway and take the B44, which goes down Nostrand Avenue, then turns onto Knapp Street dropping you near the parkway at the western end of Plum Beach.

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