Friday, January 09, 2015

Brooklyn's 2014 Bird Highlights

Another year of birding is behind us with lots of great avian experiences to reflect on and share with friends. Since Brooklyn is the patch where I focus most of my birdwatching I've decided to spend a few minutes recounting some of the more memorable county sightings. The birds mentioned range from "state rarity" and "first county record" to just scarce in Kings County.

January

The irruption of Snowy Owls into New York City that began at the end of November 2013 continued into 2014's New Year. The "Polar Vortex" of that season likely made these beautiful arctic owls feel right at home as they attempted to make a living within various habitats throughout the entire Northeast. In Brooklyn they were seen at Bergen Beach, Coney Island Creek Park, Dead Horse Bay, Floyd Bennett Field, Marine Park, Ruffle Bar and on the capped landfills at Fountain and Pennsylvania Avenues. They didn't begin to head back towards the arctic until the middle of March.

Red-necked Grebes are scarce during the winter in the coastal waters of Brooklyn. One or two are usually seen every year. However, 2014 saw a huge incursion of these medium-sized diving birds into our coastal waters. The unusually long period of cold weather froze over 92% of the Great Lakes. The Red-necked Grebe is one of several water birds that overwinter on the Great Lakes. This loss of habitat killed many birds and forced many other farther south. In 2014 rather than seeing one or two grebes along Brooklyn's coast birders were actually seeing flocks. The highest number came on February 18th when my friend Shane spotted 20 together off the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Red-necked Grebes were reported around the borough until the beginning of April.

Another excellent bird seen in Brooklyn in January was Cackling Goose. Not surprising it was spotted by human bird magnet Doug Gochfeld on January 4th in Coney Island Creek. A second one was observed at the end of November in Prospect Park by my friend Sean.

January is an excellent time to look at gulls, not just because there isn't much else to look at, but also because of their increased abundance and the likelihood of picking out a European vagrant or North American rarity. The running joke amongst my circle of local birders is that if a rare gull is around, our friend Shane Blodgett will be the one to find it. On January 24th he did just that, finding a Common Mew Gull on the Veterans Memorial Pier roosting among hundreds of the very similar Ring-billed Gull. That bird was seen for only three days.

Another really nice gull for the year was a young Iceland Gull. Initially spotted on the beach at Coney Island, it was seen along Coney Island, Coney Island Creek and Gravesend Bay for the duration of the month. A final sighting was reported on Prospect Lake in March.

Some of you may remember my crazy effort to chase a Brooklyn Glaucous Gull back on December 24, 2013. Ironically, that individual ended up remaining around the coast through the New Year and was even spotted at late as May 7th on Coney Island Creek by Heydi, Keir and I while doing a Big Spring Birding Day.

One final note about Brooklyn's January birds was the continuing presence of two young Red-headed Woodpeckers in Green-Wood Cemetery. While this beautiful woodpecker is occasionally seen passing through the area during migration, it is extremely rare for them to overwinter in the borough. During the fall migration an unusually high number of them were reported around the city. While doing a hawkwatch from the highest point in the cemetery on November 4th, I watched one red-headed as it flew in from the north, landing in a tree not far from my perch. In November the first year bird was still sporting brown feathers on its head, so it was really nice to watch this and a second cemetery bird developing their signature brilliant red plumage over the months. When the month of May rolled around and spring migration was in full swing the two Green-Wood Cemetery woodpeckers disappeared, presumably heading back north to find a mate and nest.


March

February was a fairly quiet month for rarities in Brooklyn, but March saw a good bird near the Verrazano Bridge. Unfortunately it was less than a one-day-wonder and more like a one hour bird. While birding from the Veteran's Memorial Bridge on March 5th, Shane spotted a Thick-billed Murre. Normally this is a species that is seen far offshore during pelagic birding trips. To his credit, Shane managed to take a few identifiable photographs before this small black and white bird disappeared.


April

On April 14th, while birding in Prospect Park, Jennifer Kepler spotted and photographed a Swallow-tailed Kite. The bird was flying high over the park's "Lullwater". To my knowledge, this was only the second record of this raptor of the southeastern United States. I'm not sure if this bird has been expanding its range farther north, but it seems ridiculously far from the expected breeding range.


May

May brings thousands (if not millions) of north-bound migrants through the County of Kings. Besides the annual wave of colorful singing birds it also brings hopes and expectations for a rare avian prize. Last year a few of the local birders got lucky and added a check or two to their lists. Here are the top honors.

While birding near the Maryland Monument in Prospect Park on May 2nd, my friend Keir looked up into the sky at exactly the right moment...when a Black-necked Stilt was passing overhead. Here is how he described the moment on his eBird checklist:

"Rare for Brooklyn and I think a first for Prospect Park. At around 7.30am at the Maryland Steps, Lookout Hill. I picked up the bird to the south, flying medium high towards the north. When I put my bins on it I was amazed to see a black and white shorebird with long bright trailing red legs! I knew instantly that it was this species. I got off two shots, the better of which is pretty bad but possibly acts as a record shot just based on shape."

Two days later, during a Brooklyn Bird Club lead trip to Green-Wood Cemetery, a Chuck-will's-widow was spotted resting in the open on top of a headstone. The next day it (or a different one) was heard calling in Prospect Park by Doug Gochfeld, Heydi Lopes and Sean Sime. They phoned me and I rode my bike into the park where I found the bird still singing loudly from the darkness of the park's Breeze Hill. I wrote about the experience here. This was actually the second time I'd experienced one of these rarely seen birds in Brooklyn and the first time I'd actually heard one.

Kites are rarely seen in Brooklyn, primarily because New York City doesn't fall within their range. It is for that reason that lightning striking twice for Jennifer Kepler seemed so unlikely. But strike it did on May 10th while she was birding in Green-Wood Cemetery and looked up to see (this time) a Mississippi Kite. The next day five birder's paths randomly converged at the Crescent Water, a pond in the cemetery. While discussing this unlikely bit of luck, I looked up only to spot a Mississippi Kite. That night I received a three word text of disbelief from one of the five that I still keep on my phone. Censored for this post, it simple reads, "A f*****g kite!"


August

Royal Terns are not so much rare in New York City as rarely seen in Brooklyn. This very large tern is primarily seen along the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic Coast. Terns in general are known as wanderers and royals appear mostly on the south shore of Long Island regularly. 2014 saw sporadic appearances of between 2 and 3 of these impressive seabirds around Dead Horse Bay, Plum Beach and Coney Island beginning on August 10th with one late sighting on November 17th.

For reasons that will become obvious later in this blog, Plum Beach became the place to find unusual birds in 2014. While it has always been one of the best places to look for shorebirds in Brooklyn, a couple of other species shined a spotlight on this tiny spit of remnant beach on the bay. The first occurred on August 29th when Shane Blodgett sent out word that he was looking at a King Eider a short distance from the shore. I wrote a brief description of the event in this posting. Fortunately the bird stuck around for three days and was seen by several people. As far as I've been able to determine, this was only the third record of this large seaduck in Brooklyn.


September

September can be a month for unexpected vagrants species around New York City and last year one showed up. When my phone chimed with a bird alert on the 20th I was more surprised by the species of bird than by the person who found it. My friend Shane was at it again, this time he had spotted a Western Kingbird hawking for insects at the edge of the water in Calvert Vaux Park. Several of the borough's regular weekend birding warriors were relatively close by, so Shane kept an eye on the bird until we all arrived. This was the second record for the borough, the first being two years earlier, spotted by me in Prospect Park.


October

The month of October began with Shane Blodgett pulling yet another great rarity out of his bag of avian tricks. I was starting to think he had a menagerie of wild birds caged at home that he released during slow birding periods. This time it was a Northern Wheatear which he found foraging along the edge of the dunes at Plum Beach. Shane explained to me that the long stretch of sustained northeast winds at the time motivated him to look for possible vagrants from northeastern Canada, such as a wheatear. So I guess he didn't have this one in a cage at home. A first for Brooklyn (and NYC), this bird remained in the area for six days and was enjoyed by several dozen people.

Another relatively rare bird seen during the month was a Grasshopper Sparrow in Prospect Park. This lovely sparrow used to breed in the grasslands at Floyd Bennett Field, but is now quite rare around New York City, being observed in Brooklyn only three times in the past seven years. In addition to one seen in Prospect Park on the 20th an second was spotted in the recently created Brooklyn Bridge Park on November 13th by Heather Wolf. Declining numbers of this bird in New York State now have it listed as a species of "Special Concern".


November/December

Without question the big news for Brooklyn in 2014 came on November 15th when birder Kai Sheffield reported finding a Cassin's Kingbird at Floyd Bennett Field. This flycatcher of western North American rangelands and savannas winters from Southern California to northern Central America. It had only been seen in New York State once before in 2007 in Montauk. In fact, there have only been three other records of this species in the northeastern United States outside of New York. Needless to say, a lot of people went in search of the bird the following day. It wasn't until a week later that it was relocated at Floyd Bennett Field next to the community garden. Incredible, it has remained in that general area until as recently as January 5th. The current stretch of extremely cold weather will be a challenge for this bird's continued survival.

Not nearly as rare, but still a great find for Brooklyn in 2014 was a Le Conte's Sparrow. It was spotted by my birding-partner-in-crime Heydi Lopes on November 30th at Floyd Bennett Field. Ironically, she found it along a grassy stretch at the edge of Jamaica Bay where we had located one on October 6, 2012. I wrote about it here. Since that day we'd always referred to that area of the park as "The Le Conte's Spot". An extremely skulky, hard to see bird, the individual she found last year was extremely cooperative, sticking around for two days and giving really good views to several dozen lucky birders.

Then the Snowy Owls returned.

Cornell's eBird website lists Kings County as recording 275 species (+66 other taxa) in 2014. You can see the entire breakdown of species in bar chart format here.

Just one final note. I've purposely left a few shorebirds off this summary as I will be following up shortly with a posting just on the 2014 shorebird sightings of Plum Beach. Here's to good birding in 2015.

1 comment:

Josh Janvrin said...

Thanks for these highlights. It feels as though we went through the year with you. We're looking forward to 2015 will bring for you and us.

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