Monday, January 12, 2015

The 2014 Shorebirds of Plum Beach

It was probably about 5 years ago when only three or four local birders made regular seasonal forays to Brooklyn's Plum Beach. That number jumped by quite a bit last year.

I learned about this shorebird stopover from my friend Shane Blodgett, one of those regulars. This remnant coastal dune and marsh habitat is a magnet for migrating long-distance travelers in need of feeding and resting. Typically, most birders around New York in search of shorebirds visit the protected habitats at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge's East Pond, 5 1/2 miles across the bay to the northeast. The year 2014, however, saw a shift in focus towards this tiny sand spit a stone's throw from Coney Island. Perhaps it was an increase in interesting observations at Plum Beach or motivation by a new crop of local birders to increase their Kings County life list, whatever the reason, the new attention resulted in an incredible species list by the end of the year.

Like Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Plum Beach is part of Gateway National Recreation Area (US National Park Service). Unlike JBWR, which is methodically monitored by rangers and park police, Plum Beach has been referred to by some rangers as "The Wild West" as there is little enforcement ever seen here. Protection for the migrating birds that use it as a resting/feeding stopover is nearly non-existent and these animals face a gauntlet of challenges:

- Until recently there was a large feral cat colony (although a few cats still persist).
- Kite surfers ply the waters at the edge of the beach during migration, chasing off bird flocks.
- Despite warning signs near the parking lot, illegal poachers can be frequently found harvesting shellfish on the exposed mudflats where birds are attempting to feed.
- At the protected inner marsh fisherman regularly use large nets to capture "bait fish".
- Every day dozens of dog owners illegally run their pets offleash allowing them to chase already exhausted shorebirds.

In spite of all the troubling conditions at Plum Beach, Brooklyn birders managed to tally an impressive 27 species of shorebirds. To put that in perspective, world renowned birding hotspot Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge counted 31 species of shorebird. The four species seen there that were missed by Plum Beach were American Avocet, Long-billed Dowitcher, American Woodcock and Wilson's Phalarope. I could be wrong, but I suspect that the woodcock was spotted along the wooded trail that leads to the East Pond and not actually at the pond. It makes me wonder how much more productive the shorebird activity would be at Plum Beach should the National Park Service made an effort to enforce the existing laws intended to protect the environment and wildlife in this national park.

On a more positive note, the highlight shorebird species observed at Plum Beach in 2014 was a Ruff. This Eurasian shorebird breeds in sub-Arctic and Arctic tundra meadows in northern Europe and Siberia and is known to occasionally stray into North America. This sandpiper has been seen around Long Island several times over the past 20 years, three times at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge since 2006. The individual seen and photographed by Bobbi Manian at Plum Beach was a first time sighting for Kings County.

I can't wait to see what we will find this year.

Below is last year's shorebird list from Plum Beach.

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Plum Beach 2014 Sightings (180 species +29 other taxa)
Shorebirds List:

1) American Oystercatcher
2) Black-bellied Plover
3) American Golden-Plover
4) Semipalmated Plover
5) Piping Plover
6) Killdeer
7) Spotted Sandpiper
8) Greater Yellowlegs
9) Willet
10) Lesser Yellowlegs
11) WHIMBREL
12) HUDSONIAN GODWIT
13) MARBLED GODWIT
14) Ruddy Turnstone
15) Red Knot
16) RUFF*
17) Stilt Sandpiper
18) Sanderling
19) Dunlin
20) BAIRD'S SANDPIPER
21) Least Sandpiper
22) White-rumped Sandpiper
23) BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER
24) Pectoral Sandpiper
25) Semipalmated Sandpiper
26) Western Sandpiper
27) Short-billed Dowitcher

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