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Thursday, February 12, 2015

My Birding Patch

I believe the concept of "patch" birding came about as a way for an individual to become intimately familiar with the seasonal ebb and flow of the wildlife in their neighborhood. It also helped scientists track small changes in the status and abundance of species. Originally it likely meant a literal tiny patch of habitat, such as ones yard, but that has expanded a little especially in urban areas. During my first several years of birding I seldom strayed from my local park, Prospect Park. Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that I rarely bird outside of the borough of Brooklyn. Twenty something years later I've made it a point to learn as much as I can about when and where to find the seasonal birds in a slightly larger patch...the county of Kings. So where am I looking for birds in Brooklyn right now?

If I spent a single, winter's day in Prospect Park, on average, I would tally around 60 species of birds. When Prospect Lake isn't frozen that number could be a little higher as a nice mix of overwintering waterfowl can usually be found there. A good number of the winter songbirds could be counted filling up on seeds at the Brooklyn Bird Club feeders on Breeze Hill. Occasionally, you might spot an interesting northern specialty, such as Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll or, rarely, Evening Grosbeak. Similar species would be found in nearby Green-Wood Cemetery. It's a bit limiting for me so I tend to mainly bird Prospect Park when spring migrant songbirds are on the move, otherwise I spend much of my cold weather birding along the littoral zone.

Brooklyn is surrounded by water (sort of), so it makes sense to spend time birding those areas. Granted, it can get a little unpleasant standing at the edge of the shore in blustery weather, but the pay off sometimes makes it well worth the numb toes or frostbitten fingers. So what birds could possibly make this "worth it"? First, there's the abundance of gulls. The vast majority of the gulls seen along the coast will be the holy trinity - Ring-billed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. With a little patience and perseverance, though, you could be rewarded with Bonaparte's, Black-headed, Iceland, Lesser Black-backed or Glaucous Gulls. And if you are really lucky (or named Shane Blodgett) you could find a rare Mew Gull amongst the thousands of Ring-billed Gulls. The Northern Gannet, a large seabird which looks similar to gulls, but is more closely related to cormorants, can also be seen off the Brooklyn coast.

Alcids, the family of seabirds which include puffins, are also rare visitors along the Brooklyn coast. I've seen Thick-billed Murre three times around the borough and have also observed Razorbills and a single Dovekie.

While the above alcids are rare, and I wouldn't expect to see them every winter, it doesn't hurt to look. From the rare to the abundant, if you want to see a variety of waterfowl, Brooklyn's waterways have got them in spades. So far this year 25 species of ducks have been observed in my patch. I haven't seen all of them yet, but close. There are also lots of loons, grebes and cormorants. Several years ago we had a rare Western Grebe off of Coney Island. Feeding among the crags in the rock jetties overwintering Purple Sandpipers are an annual presence. Other shorebirds that sometimes prefer Brooklyn's refrigerated coast to a tropical winter far south of NYC are Black-bellied Plover, Killdeer, Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Dunlin and Wilson's Snipe. American Woodcocks occasionally stay through the winter at Floyd Bennett Field, Marine Park or Green-Wood Cemetery.

Just a short distance up from the high water line the habitat and bird species change a little. Tangles of grasses, small fruit-bearing shrubs, vines and small trees provide food and protection for a variety of sparrows, finches, woodpecker, thrushes, nuthatches, blackbirds and hardy Yellow-rumped Warblers. These birds seem to thrive in places like Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, Canarsie Park and Marine Park. On open fields Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, American Pipits and the occasional Lapland Longspur feed on stubbly grass. These vigilant birds seem to realize that they are open targets for the dozens of raptors who are also on the look out for a good meal. They are constantly looking around while feeding. Last Saturday we tallies the following raptors at just Floyd Bennett Field: Northern Harrier, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk (2), American Kestrel and Merlin.

The past two weekends had stretches of weather that weren't ideal for birding, but that rarely discourages me. On Saturday, the 7th, I lead a trip to Coney Island and Coney Island Creek Park for the Linnaean Society of New York. Bird activity was a bit slow, but we still managed to see a few good birds, as well as, some Harbor Seal sightings. The highlight of last Sunday was watching a pair of Rough-legged Hawks hunting over the grasslands at Floyd Bennett Field. One was a dark morph plumed individual and the other a light morphed. I've seen this northern raptor in Brooklyn several times over the last 20 years, but this was the first time I'd seen two together. Read more about Rough-legged Hawks here.

I'm still deciding where I'll be going for frostbite this coming weekend, but here is a list of Brooklyn's coastal areas including remnant marshes and creeks. Hendrix Creek is a good spot for a nice variety of waterfowl as the water treatment plant at that location prevents the water from freezing.

Brooklyn's Winter Coastal Hotspots

Upper Bay (mostly pier birding)
Gravesend Bay
Lower Bay
Jamaica Bay
Coney Island Creek
Sheepshead Bay
Gerritsen Creek
Dead Horse Bay
Mill Basin
Paerdegat Basin
Fresh Creek
Hendrix Creek
Spring Creek


Date: Feb 1, 2015 - Feb 8, 2015
Locations: Bush Terminal Piers Park Coney Island, Coney Island Creek, Dreier-Offerman Park, Floyd Bennett Field, Green-Wood Cemetery
Species: 68

American Wigeon
Northern Shoveler
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Greater/Lesser Scaup
Long-tailed Duck
Red-breasted Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Northern Harrier
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Coot
Black-bellied Plover
Purple Sandpiper
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Snow Bunting
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Purple Finch
American Goldfinch

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, House Sparrow

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