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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Brooklyn Christmas Bird Count Overview

Given the past 2 month's unseasonably warm weather with few intervals of northwest winds, nobody should have been surprised by this year's dearth of winter birds during Brooklyn's Christmas Bird Count. Probably the only good news was that Prospect Park's vagrant Painted Bunting survived, making it a new species for the Kings County's CBC. A rare Black-headed Gull also hung around the park's lake. The last time this gull was recorded on a Christmas Count here was in 1983.

On Friday the winds shifted to the north and I was cautiously optimistic that we would finally see some winter birds. Josh, Peter and I arrived at Floyd Bennett's grasslands before sunrise hoping to spot some owls. We walked the runways at the edge of the grass in the dark, blustery hour before the sun came up. Nothing. I think we were spoiled by two previous years of Snowy Owls in Brooklyn. In fact, last year we spotted three species of owl at Floyd Bennett Field during the count. This year zilch. The weather patterns not withstanding, it also really hurt that the managers of this national park decided to mow the grasslands two weeks before the count. It is supposed to be done in August, giving some of the vegetation time to regrow. Some of the typical and irregular species that forage or hunt in these fields are Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, Eastern Meadowlark and Savannah Sparrow. The only animal on the fields this year were a couple of feral cats...but that's a story for another day.

Josh and I volunteered to make the run across the peninsula to Dead Horse Bay. Near the marina at the north end a huge flock of scaup usually lingers during the cold months. Sometimes other waterfowl will mix in with them, as well as, Horned Grebes. On Saturday the northwest wind was blasting across the water so hard that we had to set up our scopes behind the hull of a derelict boat to use as a windbreak. For the first time in over a decade there wasn't a single scaup at Dead Horse. There wasn't much of anything there other than some scattered Brant. We hurried back to meet the rest of the team at Archery Road and figure out where we might scrap up a few birds.

After conferring with Ron, Josh and I decided to split from the main group and check the coast by Raptor Point. Also, a short distance down the beach is a small, seldom birded pond Heydi and I have named "Raptor Point Pond". Sometimes it is filled with water, sometimes it isn't much more than a mud flat. After Friday's rainfall, I figured it would be full and that maybe we would find a wading bird or large shorebird.

There is a small, grassy peninsula near the western end of the pond with a narrow trail through the vegetation. From here one gets a nice overview of the entire pond. I always walk up very slowly and quietly to avoid flushing any birds that may be along the near edge. On Saturday I was particularly careful as the water was very high and didn't want to sink into the mud. We did a quick scan. Nothing. I took two more steps, then a small rail shot out from directly in front of my right foot and skittered across the water to the opposite side. It immediately disappeared into the phragmites. The bird was a mostly grey, short billed rail with greenish yellow feet and legs and mostly unmarked dark brown primaries, nape and mantle. Josh and I stared at each other in disbelief. SORA?! We briefly toyed with the idea of the only other two small, short billed rails - Black Rail and Yellow Rail. I immediately ruled out Black Rail as it is a tiny bird, small enough for me to hide in my two cupped hands. Yellow Rail was out for two reasons. Our bird had no orange-yellow streaks on the upper body and no white in the wings when it flew. Josh reminded me that there had actually been quite a few Sora sightings over the fall and the incredible warm weather may have encouraged one to stick around. This is the first time I've seen a Sora at Floyd Bennett Field and my first for a Christmas Bird Count.

A lack of birds at Dead Horse Bay and a virtually denuded grassland gave us more time to cover areas that usually went unchecked. Unfortunately it was slim pickings wherever we looked. I was almost glad, though, because as the day progressed I got sicker and sicker. By 3pm my voice was completely gone. I missed the compilation dinner and ended up spending the next two days mostly in bed. Next year will be much better, I'm sure of it...

Below are the preliminary results for all Brooklyn location provided by compiler Rick Cech. Rare and irregular species have been highlighted in RED. The YELLOW column is just Floyd Bennett Field (including Dead Horse Bay).


Locations Key for chart:

NS = North shore of Brooklyn
PP = Prospect Park
GW = Green-Wood Cemetery
OH = Owls Head Park
MP = Marine Park
FB = Floyd Bennett Field
BB = Bergen Beach
SC = Spring Creek
JB = Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
RP = Riis Park
BP = Breezy Point
BT = Bush Terminal


To put this year's "unusual" results in perspective, below is a chart of highlights and low-lights. Note how many species were at a 10 year low.

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