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Monday, July 27, 2009

Riding to the Beach

I've been taking advantage of the great weather and cycling to Riis Park two to three times a week. If I get home early enough during the week, I quickly change, hop on my bike and head south.

Jacob Riis Park is one of New York City's best kept secrets. Managed by the National Park Service, this ocean front park has miles of beautify, clean beaches. There is bus service to the beach that runs regularly, but this summer I've noticed more people than ever before arriving by bicycle.

Several people have asked me about the best bike route, so here is how I go:

I cut through Prospect Park, exiting at Park Circle. From there I turn left at Parkside Avenue, go a block, then ride through the center of the Parade Grounds. Make a left at Caton Avenue, go one block, then turn right on Rugby Road (Rugby becomes 14th Street). Turn left at Avenue K, then turn right on Bedford Avenue. Bedford has a very nice bike lane which you take all the way to the end, to Sheepshead Bay. At Emmons Avenue make a left. Emmons isn't my favorite street, but you only stay on it a short distance, to Brigham Street, where you pick up the bike path that follows the shore. Cross Flatbush Avenue at the crosswalk (the only crosswalk button that actually works in NYC) and continue following the bike path south, along side Floyd Bennett Field. Cross back over Flatbush near the toll plaza and continue over the Gil Hodges Bridge. At the other side of the bridge cross Rockaway Blvd. and ride down Beach 169th Street to the boardwalk. On the return trip, you may want to make a stop at Randazzo's Clam Bar on Emmons Avenue.

Growing up in New York near the ocean, and taking family vacations along the eastern seaboard instilled in me a great love and appreciation for the coast. I'm sure I'd loose my mind if I had to live in a land-locked state. On a recent trip to the beach I was watching a fisherman surfcasting. He had small bells attached to the end of his rod that would ring if a large fish began tugging on his line. With his gear locked into a white, PVC rod holder, the fisherman relaxed on the sand, occasionally glancing up at his line swaying in the surf. For whatever reason, watching this idyllic scene stirred an early memory from a vacation the family took to Assateague Island, Virginia.

My father and I were walking down the beach, stopping every once in a while to watch fishermen cast their lines or to examine their catch lying in the sand. We came upon one man who had a huge, odd-looking fish he had just reeled in. It was mostly flat, with large, rounded wing-like fins, a mouth with whisker-like structures at the corners and eyes set high on its head. The fish reminded me of a stingray, but the fisherman assured me that it wasn't and, in fact, he had no idea what kind of fish he just landed. Having just learned about a living fossil called the Coelacanth,
my thoughts drifted and I fantasized about the possibilities of discovering a mysterious, new species. In my young mind, I assumed that all fishermen knew everything about fish, so if they landed something unknown, it must truly be unique. When I learned that it was called an Atlantic Angel Shark and not another living fossil from the deep, I was a little disappointed. I don't think I've lost much of my child-like inquisitive nature and, whether I'm birding in a city park, or walking along a beach, I find myself scanning the sky, surf, sand or tidal wrack for something new and interesting. This past Saturday I spotted something rare and unusual at Riis Park.

It was about 12:55pm and I was drying off after taking a swim. My back was to the water, when Robin exclaimed, "Is that a pelican?" I turned around and, sure enough, a Brown Pelican was cruising in from the west a short distance from shore and just above the waves. It turned right, then came to rest in the water about 100 yards from shore. I was astounded. What the heck was a Brown Pelican doing at a New York City beach?! Pelicans do, occasionally, stray from their more southerly range into NYC waters and there had been a few reports of them at Jones Beach over the last week, but it was the farthest thing from my mind at that moment. Also, what are the chances that one would show up, and plop down in the water in front of a birdwatcher (who wasn't birding)?
I've seen Brown Pelicans many times, but primarily in Florida. After I posted my sighting on the New York State Birds discussion group, I received an email from a friend. She and her husband, who are both serious birders, were also at Riis Park on Saturday, but left a few minutes before the pelican appeared. As I've pointed out before, sometimes finding a "good" bird is purely a matter of luck. (FYI-I didn't have my camera with me, so the photo above was one taken in Florida.)

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