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Thursday, December 13, 2018

A Christmas Bird Count 18 Years Ago

This Saturday will be my 19th year covering Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field for the annual Christmas Bird Count. It will also be my first as the team leader. I thought it might be fun to look back at my experience from the first year. Unfortunately, it appears that I didn’t write anything down in 1999, but I did manage to locate my report from the second year. Before my involvement, the entire 1300+ acres was covered by just Ron Bourque and his late wife Jean. In 2000 there were four of us on the team. On Saturday we’ll finally have enough birders on our team to adequately cover our entire area (Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay and Four Sparrow Marsh). Maybe we’ll find something really cool. Note that on my species list I used the old common name “Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow” as it wasn’t changed to Saltmarsh Sparrow until 2009:


SUBJECT: Dead Horse Bay, Floyd Bennett Field, Four Sparrow Marsh
DATE: Saturday, 16 December, 2000
OBSERVERS: Ron Bourque, Jean Bourque, Mike Higgiston, Rob Jett

For me, the annual Christmas Bird Count is the symbolic conclusion to another year of birding. While I will probably spend a few more hours tracking down this winters avian residents before the end of the calendar year, the CBC stands out as more than just another day outdoors with my binoculars. I want to know everything there is to know about birds and to be able to predict the unpredictable. The consummate hunter knows not only where to find his prey, but also, when to look. There is always an element of luck involved with our type of hunting but the "count" gives me an opportunity to see if I've learned anything over the preceding year.

Saturday’s bit of luck was the fact that weather predictions were off by about six hours and we didn't have to spend the day walking around in open fields in the drenching rain. On the downside, many of the expected seasonal species were seen in very low numbers.

Mike and I started off at Four Sparrow Marsh. The inner marsh was virtually deserted. As we approached the opening near Mill Basin we flushed a Common Snipe which zigzagged low towards the Belt Parkway bridge. The ground was extremely soft due to the recent rainstorms and, unlike the snipe, we had to step carefully. The habitat near the shore is a landscape of windblown grass and mussel shoals sprinkled with generous amounts of bottles, Styrofoam, driftwood and derelict recreational boats. Scanning the grass we found a small group of low feeding sparrows. In the group there were at least a couple of Song Sparrows, one or two Swamp Sparrows and a couple of other unidentified, very evasive sparrows. A close watch from our respective dry, flotsam platforms finally revealed that there were two Sharp-tailed Sparrows in the flock. I took a step off my piece of wood in an attempt to flush the birds towards Mike and promptly lost my right leg in knee deep muck. I imagined the birds amusement as they stayed put on their safe island only a few yards away watching me struggling to pull myself back onto my perch.

Before we returned to the car I had the silly notion to try and tramp a trail through the towering forest of Phragmites in the field just west of the marsh. Mike positioned himself atop a tall mound of wood chips and prepared to track whatever came flying out. I may have felt like a Cocker Spaniel but within the first ten feet a fluttering, whistling Woodcock shot straight up like a pheasant and headed towards the back of the reeds. For some strange reason I began barking.

We met Ron and Jean back at Floyd Bennett and Ron decided we should start looking for owls. Mike and I headed straight to the section were we located a couple of Saw-whet Owls last year. No luck, but Ron caught up to us after having just flushed a Barn Owl. We didn't see it but continued looking for signs of other owls. I meandered away from the others and began checking a small section of pines. As I walked I unconsciously scanned the soft, spongy ground beneath the conifers for signs of an owl roost. Something higher up caught my attention. At eye level I noticed a small, white downy feather trapped in the needles on the end of a branch. It fluttered ever so slightly in a light breeze that wafted through the pines. I thought that maybe a raptor had plucked it from its hapless prey or perhaps a bird had been preening further up the tree. My eyes continued following upward in the feathers likely trajectory and stopped at a Barn Owl perched near the top of the pine.

Back on the grasslands it was time to spread out and walk the entire length of every field. As expected Savannah Sparrows were common but meadowlarks seemed to be missing. A familiar sound was approaching us and I searched for the source. "Pip-pit, pip-pit, pip-pit, pip-pit", an American Pipit was heading our way and flew by just over our heads. As we came to the end of the second to last field Mike shouted for our attention. A Short-eared Owl flew up from its roost near the edge of the runway. A few crows immediately descended on the owl in an attempt to "run it out of town". The Short-eared didn't seem that concerned about the crows as it eventually stopped and perched on a small nature refuge sign at the side of the road. When the crows did get too close the owl always seemed able to effortlessly maneuver itself above its pursuers.
Ron was becoming increasingly concerned that he hadn't seen any meadowlarks yet. We talked in depressed tones about their rapidly declining numbers and how years ago one local naturalist predicted that by the year 2000 they'd be extinct. At the last field we checked Mike spotted a lone meadowlark. Then it was joined by seven more birds. We were overjoyed as we watched the flock of bright yellow birds pass in front of us; their halting, staccato wing beats trying to evade our sights. But our aim was true, our trigger fingers at the ready with pen and checklist and we "got" our birds.


Floyd Bennett Field/Four Sparrow Marsh - 1 2/1 6/00

Horned Grebe
Great Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Green-winged Teal
Greater Scaup
Red-breasted Merganser
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk (Floyd Bennett Field)
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Merlin (Floyd Bennett Field)
Peregrine Falcon
Ring-necked Pheasant
Common Snipe (Four Sparrow Marsh)
American Woodcock (Four Sparrow Marsh)
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Dove
Barn Owl (Floyd Bennett Field)
Short-eared Owl (Floyd Bennett Field)
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Black-capped Chickadee
American Robin
European Starling
Northern Mockingbird
American Pipit (Floyd Bennett Field)
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Four Sparrow Marsh)
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Eastern Meadowlark (8, Floyd Bennett Field)
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

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