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Friday, November 20, 2015

Last Weekend's Birds

Last Friday evening I had been talking and texting with a few friends about the possibility of some interesting birds showing up the next morning. Weather forecasts called for a cold front moving into the northeast with strong northwest winds. I planned on being at Brooklyn's coast first thing in the morning. The predictions were pretty spot on.

Sometimes the best plans are disrupted by NYC's mass transit system. Actually, change "sometimes" to "frequently". The F train to Coney Island dropped all passengers at Kings Highway, that's five stations short of Coney Island. From there they were running shuttle buses, which more often than not are infrequent and slow. By the time I got to the boardwalk at Stillwell Avenue it was close to 8am, at least an hour later than I had intended. I quickly set up my scope and began scanning the water for seabirds and waterfowl. With the strong winds coming from behind and to my right, the structures on the north side of the boardwalk offered a nice windbreak. There were dozens of Northern Gannets diving for fish about a 1/4 mile out and across the entire horizon. It was the most I've seen this year. From the end of the fishing pier I counted a few Common Loons, but not much of anything else. I headed down to the edge of the water and started walking west towards the W. 37th Street jetty.

Laughing Gulls appeared to have increased in numbers since the previous week as they prepare for the push south for the winter. Earlier in the week there was an incursion of Franklin's Gulls along the coast and I hoped some had stuck around. No luck. Among the expected Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls I noticed a flock of Black Skimmers still hanging around. Later in the morning I observed 3 more trying to cross the harbor towards Staten Island, but the wind held them back.

As I stood next to the jetty at W. 37th Street scanning the whitecaps on the harbor, I began questioning my sanity. Without the benefit of a windbreak, the 40 mph driven sand particles felt like a facial administered by the Marquis de Sade. I lasted about 5 minutes before throwing my tripod over my shoulder and heading north across W. 37th Street. My thought was that any southbound migrants would have to cross the open water between Brooklyn and Staten Island. Norton Point is at the western end of Coney Island, so perhaps I'd be able to see some interesting birds from that vantage point. It turned out better than I expected.

As I walked along the edge of Gravesend Bay towards Norton Point the northwest gusts hit me full on and, at times, almost knocked me over. A few minutes into the walk I noticed a huge flock of blackbirds, balled up like a school of herrings, fighting their way into the powerful wind, attempting to cross the water at the narrows. Some split off and turned around, landing at a small park behind Norton Point. Once at the point I set up my scope close to a retaining wall and slightly out of the wind. Within a few minutes I realized that my focus for the next 90 minutes would not be on the open water, but rather on the sky above the neighborhood of Seagate, behind Norton Point.

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was built at the closest point between Brooklyn and Staten Island. This fact, apparently, is obvious to southbound migrating birds. From my perch at the edge of the Coney Island peninsula I watched in amazement as large flocks of songbirds, mostly dominated by blackbirds, flew in from the east, over the last few homes at the edge of the bay, then out and over the water towards the narrows. Early on in my watch I received a message from my friend Dennis that there was a Cave Swallow flying over the jetty at W. 37th Street. I quickly trained by bins in that direction and a minute or two later spotted an incoming flock of Common Grackles, with a single Cave Swallow trailing behind them. This was not only an extreme rarity for Brooklyn, but a life bird for me. I shouted out in excitement to an empty beach and the wind roared back in appreciation.

My friend Keir called a moment or two later asking if I thought the swallow was still around and would I recommend Norton Point to catch a glimpse of one. He and Josh joined me there about 10 minutes later. The mass movement of songbirds attempting to cross the water continued. In addition to the songbirds, we spotted a Sharp-shinned Hawk trying unsuccessfully to cross the bay, a Northern Harrier flying west only a couple of feet above the swells, a Merlin effortlessly making the trans-bay trip and an American Kestrel that surrendered to the gusts after about 3 seconds into the crossing. Throughout, we continued to receive tweets about Cave Swallow sightings near the boardwalk and W. 25th Street. We decided to pack up our gear and head back to the boardwalk.

I drove with Keir and he quickly found parking right at the end of W. 24th Street. As Keir rushed up ahead of me he joked, "You can tell which person already saw a Cave Swallow and which didn't". At that point I noticed a bird circling above his head and shouted, "Look up!" There were two Cave Swallows flying between a large apartment building and a nursing home directly above him. Unlike the punishing wind at the point, these two building created a huge windbreak and the midday sun made it feel nearly spring-like on the boardwalk. Josh caught up with us a few minutes later and the three of us watched in awe as first two, then four, then six and finally, nine Cave Swallows darted back and forth in the air above the boardwalk.

Cave Swallows are locally common in Texas and Mexico. Occasionally they will get carried on unusual wind systems into the northeast. This was the case for last weekend's event. As they turned around and began to move back south fairly large numbers of them were seen along the coast of Long Island and New York City. They were reported in all five of New York City's boroughs on Saturday and several even stayed around W. 24th Street in Coney Island until Monday. As I mention in a previous tweet Coney Island was probably the only place in North America where one could take the subway to go see Cave Swallows. These cooperative birds were seen and photographed by lots of people, but this photo by my friend Sean Sime of a Cave Swallow in front of the iconic parachute ride is by far my favorite.


Date: Saturday, November 14, 2015
Conditions: WNW winds 16 mph, gusting to 45 mph. Temperature 44º to 53º.
Locations: Coney Island; Coney Island--Norton Pt.; Coney Island-Boardwalk and W 25th St.
Species: 33

Canada Goose
Red-throated Loon (1.)
Common Loon (4.)
Northern Gannet (125.)
Double-crested Cormorant
Northern Harrier (1.)
Sharp-shinned Hawk (1.)
Bonaparte's Gull
Laughing Gull (82.)
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull (12.)
Black Skimmer (10.)
Rock Pigeon
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel (1.)
Merlin (1.)
Blue Jay
Horned Lark (1.)
Tree Swallow (1.)
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing (40.)
Snow Bunting (20.)
Red-winged Blackbird (approx. 1,200)
Common Grackle (approx. 800.)
Brown-headed Cowbird (approx. 500.)
Pine Siskin (4.)
American Goldfinch (50.)
House Sparrow

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