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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

A Rare Bird For Brooklyn

My friend Doug is the regional moderator for a website called eBird. Free registration at allows birdwatchers to enter and track their bird sightings. Set up by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the organizations are able to compile the growing database to study bird population trends. Anyway, about a week ago a local birder entered in her eBird account that she had observed a fairly rare gull at Coney Island. When Doug asked her for more information, she sent him a photograph of the bird. Doug took one look at the photo and calmly alerted people in the birding community that Coney Island was likely hosting one of the most rare species of gull seen in North America. The boardwalk at Coney Island was about to be invaded by birdwatchers from all over the east coast and, perhaps, the country.

The birdwatcher who photographed the bird initially thought that it was a Black-headed Gull, based on the bird's red bill and legs. Black-headeds are rare but regular winter visitor around NYC. Had she seen the bird in January, it might not have been flagged by eBird, but I don't believe that there are any records of it in late-July or August. So here is the photo that Doug received (the gull is in lower left of the image):

Doug suggested that the bird was a Gray-hooded Gull (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus). Several of us wrote back agreeing with him. Never having seen one, let alone heard of it, I had to refer to my copy of "Gulls of the Americas", by Steve N. G. Howell and Jon Dunn. Here is how they describe the specie's status and distribution:

"Local in S. America and Africa."

"Uncommon to fairly common but local breeding resident (mainly Apr.-Sept.) along Pacific Coast of S. America and locally up to 40 km inland, from s. Ecuador (2˚ south) to s. Peru (17˚ south), ranging north rarely to n. Ecuador (1˚ north) and south rarely (mainly May-Oct.) to n. Chile (18˚ south); also a report from Panama. Accidental in Galapagos Is. (Aug. 1978)."

"Uncommon to fairly common but local breeding resident (Sept.-Apr., less common in winter) in e. Argentina (s. Santiago del Estero south to Buenos Aires). Ranges north in winter (mainly May-Oct.; locally to 1,000 m in Andean foothills) to nw. Argentina, Uruguay, and s. Brazil (22˚S), casually to Paraguay. Accidental visitor to Falkland Is. (Mar. 1992) and (geographic origin uncertain) in Fla. (Dec. 1998)."

Here is a link to an interactive range map. Bottom line - this bird is a long way from home.

I was busy during the week and couldn't make a run down to the beach to look for it. On Saturday we had to bring my niece to the airport and I figured that I'd go look for the gull after. Unfortunately, her flight was delayed and, since she was flying as an unaccompanied minor, we had to stick around until the flight eventually took off. Arriving back in Brooklyn late in the afternoon, I quickly grabbed my gear and bolted out the door to the "F" train.

The location was very convenient for mass transit. I took the train to the Stillwell Avenue station and walked a block to the Coney Island boardwalk. The gull couldn't have picked a more crowded section of beach. Early on, there had been concerns that all the human activity would scare the bird away, but I guess, gulls being the aggressive opportunists no matter where they are from, he seemed to be thriving on all the free food scattered about by us humans. The gull had been frequenting a stretch of beach adjacent the boardwalk in front of several food establishments and next to a children's sprinkler designed to look like a Palm tree (he felt at home). I arrived at 4:50pm and quickly spotted about a dozen birders looking for the Gray-hooded Gull. While scanning the group of folks with scopes, bins and digital cameras, wearing an assortment of floppy hats, vests and other birding gear it occurred to me that the boardwalk at Coney Island was probably the only place in the world where birdwatchers don't stand out. I asked around and nobody present had seen the gull, but within only a couple of minutes it flew in from down the beach and perched on a light post above me:

The gull seemed right at home with the Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls. At one point I spotted it eating food offered by someone on the boardwalk. Here's a shot that I took of it resting on the roof of the bathrooms:

Gulls are not generally the most interesting looking birds. Many are just varying patterns of black, white and gray. I found the Gray-hooded Gull to be quite striking, however. The deep, red bill and legs are not unique in the gull family, but the pale yellow iris bordered by a crimson orbital ring and set off by smokey head plumes gave it an elegant appearance. In flight, extensive white windows on its wings and white leading edges make it look like it has bright headlights on,  easily differentiating it from the dozens of other gulls flying around the beach and boardwalk.

Word of the gull has spread like wildfire, not just through the birding world, but also the mainstream media. Over the last several days articles about this rare visitor have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Some of the blogs that have posted stories are 10,000 Birds, The Birding Dude, The Gothamist and the American Birding Association's "Peeps Online".

On Monday, my wife and I took the day off and decided to do a little swimming at Coney Island. I brought my bins along, of course. From the shoreline, looking back at the boardwalk towards the gull's usual hangout, I could see birdwatchers lining the edge of the sand. I counted 50 people. When a man with a pair of binoculars and a digital camera hanging off his neck walked down to the water I asked him if he'd seen the gull yet. He hadn't and, apparently, the bird hadn't been seen that day with some people waiting in the blistering sun since 5am. Some of the birders crammed into a small wooden gazebo in front of the "Wonder Wheel" seeking shaded relief. When I saw that I chuckled to myself and went for another swim. At around 1pm I noticed small numbers of Laughing Gulls flying in from the water or the eastern beaches. They were settling in the sand at or near the Palm tree sprinkler. At 1:20 I scanned the birders on the boardwalk and saw that everyone was suddenly focused at a single spot in the sand just to the west of the sprinkler. The Gray-hooded Gull had returned and was drinking from the puddles created by the sprinkler.

After we had spent a couple of hours swimming and relaxing by the water Robin and I decided to walk down the boardwalk and check out the gull. We ran into our friend Joe, who had just arrived and was rushing to find the bird. I assured him he could slow down, that it was right next to the boardwalk several yards ahead of us. As Joe was setting up his scope, I was approached by a reporter from News Channel 12, a local cable news station. She wanted to interview me about the gull. Here's the online version of the story, in which Robin and I are merely in the background. Marge wrote me to say that she saw the broadcast version of the story and that they featured my entire interview. In that longer edit I explained a little bit about the the bird's range and history. When I saw the reporter packing up her gear and seemingly planning on leaving I asked if she had seen the gull. She hadn't and was actually going to leave without seeing it! I persuaded her to stay, look through Joe's scope and wait for the bird to get closer to the boardwalk so she could shoot some footage of it.

Before leaving we ran into our friend Peter, the president of the Brooklyn Bird Club. He mentioned that he had spoken with a birder who just flew up from Orlando to see the gull. He told Peter that he hadn't been to Coney Island in a very long time and that he had been a lifeguard on the beach here in 1952. I'm thinking that things have probably changed a bit, but at least the Cyclone, Wonder Wheel and Ruby's were still around. Plus, one new bird species.

If you go looking for the gull, after 1pm is the best time. Here is a map with his hangout near the boardwalk marked in red (click to enlarge):


The gull continues at Coney Island as of Wednesday, August 3rd. In addition, contrary to the range data I quoted from the Howell and Dunn publication, here is a link to a Brazilian map that shows Gray-headed Gulls in northern Brazil.

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