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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Bird Count at Floyd Bennett Field

Yesterday was the Brooklyn leg of this year's Christmas Bird Count. This is my 14th year covering Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh. For several years prior to that I was part of the team(s) that surveyed Prospect Park. I decided to switch my location when I discovered that, while Prospect Park's 526 acres were being scoured by a few dozen birders, Ron and Jean Bourque were the only ones tallying the birds in an area nearly three times the size. I've come to really enjoy the exhausting sunrise to sunset marathon as every year seems to have its own challenges and surprises.

This year we had 9 people on our team. Several of us decided to arrive at Floyd Bennett over an hour prior to sunrise. We hoped to find owls hunting over the grasslands, as well as, listen for woodcocks. While Keir, Peter, Will and I were listening to the distant "hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo" of a Great Horned Owl from the center of the grassland, Bob texted me that a Snowy Owl was perched on a sign a short distance north-west of our location. We could see the owl silhouetted against the illuminated bleachers of the soccer fields. Peter walked over and managed to get this photo before it flew off to the east and across the bay to Ruffle Bar. A crow was in hot pursuit.

A major objective yesterday was not only to tally all the expected species and semi-rare species, but also to locate the Cassin's Kingbird that arrived in Brooklyn on November 15th. This south-western flycatcher has only been seen in New York State twice, and never on a Christmas Bird Count. Our plan was to stake out the area around the community garden, where it had been seen as recently as Friday. We had enough people on our team that we would take turns watching that spot from dawn until dusk. There were several species seen in the "kingbird" spot, from this young Cooper's Hawk to a late Common Yellowthroat. Many other birders throughout the day stopped by to look for the kingbird, unfortunately, it was never seen. Perhaps, after 35 days, he decided to turn around and head back to a warmer climate.

One of our regular winter visitors to Floyd Bennett Field is the far northern breeding Horned Lark. It took us a few hours before we finally found a flock of 34 feeding in the short grass at the north side of the community gardens. Occasionally we'll find a rare Lapland Longspur within their ranks. While a couple were spotted earlier this season there weren't any during the count.

Access to the protected grasslands is restricted but the National Park Service gives us permission to walk the fields for the Christmas Count looking for overwintering species. Ring-necked Pheasant, Eastern Meadowlark and Savannah Sparrow are the usual suspects flushed up during the walk. We used to find Short-eared Owls here, but their numbers in New York State have plummeted and they are now rarely seen. For reasons that are unclear, other species here have also gone way down. I'm sure the presence of feral cats plays a big role in the lack of birds. The NPS should be making an attempt to remove them, but they aren't. Anyway, this year we didn't see any meadowlarks, tallied only three Savannah Sparrows and a single pheasant.

The overwintering flock of scaup at Dead Horse Bay has increased by about a thousand birds since the previous weekend. There wasn't anything unusual mixed in among the field of black, white and grey, although a few Horned Grebes were in the area. Farther offshore were flocks of Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Bufflehead. Off of Dead Horse Point I spotted a single Red-necked Grebe. Later in the day I found 3 more together in the bay off the end of Archery Road. We finished the Dead Horse Bay section of the count by walking the 1 mile route along the shoreline from the Flatbush Marina side of the bay, around the point, under the Gil Hodges Bridge to Aviator Road, then back to the main parking lot.

Keir, Peter, Will and I decided to stay until after sunset, giving one last shot to finding a Short-eared Owl hunting on the grassland or a calling woodcock. First we stopped at the parking lot near the boat ramp that overlooks Jamaica Bay. Large numbers of gulls come into roost at this spot. They are primarily Ring-billed Gulls, but there is always a chance for something else to be hiding within the huge flock. I had just counted about 1,200 individuals (more birds were still arriving) when a car pulled up, two kids exited the vehicle, then proceeded to run through the middle of the flock chasing all the birds out into the bay. Oh well, so much for that idea. We didn't have any luck with Short-eared Owls or woodcocks, either.

While many people were a little disappointed that we didn't find the Cassin's Kingbird, it was still a pretty good day. We missed a few of the expected species, but still ended up with a very respectable 58 species of birds. This was the second highest number ever recorded for the Christmas Count at Floyd Bennett Field (only off by 6 species). I really can't complain, though, especially when I get to see this tiny owl. It was only the second time in 14 years that I've seen one on the Christmas Count and the first time that we've tallied 3 species of owls. I can't wait until next year.


Date: 12/20/14
Locations: Dead Horse Bay and Floyd Bennett Field
Species: 58

Canada Goose
Mute Swan (1.)
American Black Duck
Greater Scaup (2,500.)
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
*Ring-necked Pheasant (1.)
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe (4.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Northern Harrier (2.)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (1.)
Cooper's Hawk (1.)
Red-shouldered Hawk (1.)
Red-tailed Hawk (1.)
Ring-billed Gull (1,200.)
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl (1.)
Snowy Owl (1.)
Northern Saw-whet Owl (1.)
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker (1.)
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel (1.)
Peregrine Falcon
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark (34.)
Black-capped Chickadee
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1.)
Hermit Thrush (1.)
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
*Common Yellowthroat (1.)
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow (3.)
Savannah Sparrow (6.)
Fox Sparrow (2.)
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Count week: Cassin's Kingbird

*Saves for Brooklyn

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