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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Brooklyn Rarity in a Field of Black and White

Sunday morning, January 13th, began with dense fog shrouding coastal New York City. I had made plans to meet Heydi early to bird Floyd Bennett Field and Dead Horse Bay. One might think that looking for birds in the fog would be an exercise in futility, however, it is this type of weather event that sometimes leads disoriented birds to unexpected places. As I rode the bus down Flatbush Avenue I was excited at the prospect of finding, not just something new for the year, but something unusual.

We had tried twice, unsuccessfully, over the past couple of weeks to locate a reported Canvasback along the piers at Brooklyn Bridge Park. These large ducks are abundant throughout the country, just not in Brooklyn. The ever-growing Winter flock of scaup at Dead Horse Bay, we reasoned, might be a good place to spot one. I also wanted to find a flock of Horned Larks and, perhaps, a Lapland Longspur hiding amongst their ranks. Floyd Bennett Field is, for the most part, still off limits to the general public due to the ongoing FEMA and other emergency personnel presence post-Sandy. Horned Larks can usually be found feeding on the Cricket Field in the Winter. At least we'd be able to scan the field through the perimeter fence without having to access the park.

Our first stop after getting off the Q35 bus was the Cricket Field. The field was devoid of birds...not a good start to the day. We birded around the field edges then walked the 3/4 mile stretch along Flatbush Avenue to the trailhead for Dead Horse Bay. Along the way we crossed paths with a small feeding flock of passerines which included four Field Sparrows. Field Sparrows are grassland breeding birds that are normally only found around Brooklyn during migration, but over the past few years these lovely little sparrows seem to have become year round residents at Floyd Bennett Field.

One hundred yards in on the main trail to Dead Horse Bay the path splits into three. We took the path to the right, which brings you to the Northern-most section of the bay, nearest the Flatbush Marina. It is in this calm, wind protected cove that a flock of scaup gathers every Winter. Their numbers vary from year to year, from a few dozen individuals to several thousand. Horned Grebes and Buffleheads can always be found feeding and sleeping among the black and white ducks, although in much lower numbers. That Sunday the flock was huge, likely numbering close to 10,000 birds. Heydi and I set about scanning each individual in the huge black and white raft, convinced that there MUST be some other bird hiding in the flock. We had been at it for about 15 minutes when Heydi exclaimed, "I've got a Canvasback." Despite this bird being significantly larger than the surrounding scaup, I had a difficult time finding it. I eventually did, then decided to shoot a short video of the flock to show how large it had become. It seemed to go on forever:

By this point the fog had begun to lift a little, making scanning the water for other birds a bit easier. I wanted to try and digiscope a photo of the Canvasback and asked Heydi where it had drifted to in the flock as I had lost it again. She used a picket fence at the marina in the distance as a reference. I focused my scope then asked, "Where in relation to the Thick-billed Murre?" Huh?! I wasn't joking. I was looking at one of these monochrome pelagic birds slowly paddling around at the far perimeter of the scaup flock. It was unbelievable for a couple of reasons. First, these birds are normally found far out in the ocean. Second was, this was actually the second time a couple of years that I spotted a Thick-billed Murre in Brooklyn! I posted about the previous one here.

I grabbed my phone and called Doug Gochfeld, who immediately tweeted the NY birding community the following:

Rob Jett just called to report that he and Heydi Lopes have just found a Thick-billed Murre in Dead Horse Bay.

It is behind the usual massive flock of Greater Scaup (which includes at least one Canvasback that they just found).

From his description, it sounds like the Murre is roughly here:

Viewed from here:

If coming by car, you must park at Aviator Sports Parking Lot (across Flatbush Avenue, in Floyd Bennett Field), and walk south. I suppose that alternatively you could park in the Brooklyn Golf Driving Range, but it is not much closer and is technically private (I think).

The entrance to the Aviator Lot is here (at a traffic light):

Walk down the street to the access of the trails (a bus stop is also here) here:

Plugging these coordinates into Google Maps will yield a green arrow marking the locations.

Good Birding

My next calls were to Rob Bate and Keir Randall. I wasn't sure how long it would take for them to see the alert and knew they would try and get to Dead Horse Bay as soon as possible. I called Shane, forgetting that he was in Florida, and received this response:  :-(

For the next few minutes I fielded a string of phone calls requesting more information while Heydi took some photos and videos of the murre. By this point the bird had paddled around the the near side of the scaup flock and was just a short distance from shore. Here is her video:

While waiting for other birders to arrive, we decided to walk around to the south side of the small peninsula to the scan the water near Dead Horse Point.

Each time we thought that the fog was lifting another wave of grey would come rolling in. Finding birds far from shore was, at times, futile. However, a Razorbill feeding in the water a few yards from shore made up for any disappointment. There were at least a couple more of these alcids feeding a little farther out in the bay. I laughed at Heydi's frustration trying to photograph this unusual bird as it kept unexpectedly submerging then popping to the surface in exactly the "wrong" spot.

I called Rob, who was the first birder to arrive. He couldn't find the murre, so Heydi and I walked back down the beach to help relocate it. By the time we got there he had the bird in his scope. Keir arrived a few minutes later. At this point the murre was swimming around closer to the marina and at the back of the scaup flock. I received a call from Jean Loscalzo, who was on her way to Sheepshead Bay with a few Queens County Bird Club members to bird the bay from a boat. The murre was disappearing into the fog towards Plum Beach, to the West. I eventually re-found the bird sitting in the water beneath the bridge at the entrance to Gerritsen Creek and gave that information to the birders on the boat. Heydi, Keir, Rob and I decided to head back to Floyd Bennett Field to regroup and get some food at Aviator Sports.

As we ate, tweets, email alerts and phone calls kept coming in with up-to-the-minute details on the Thick-billed Murre's whereabouts. The bird had made his way all the way up Gerritsen Creek to Avenue U and was swimming around in front of the Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Center. After lunch we headed over to Marine Park.

The birding alert systems around New York work really well as there were a couple of dozen birders already present at or near the Salt Marsh Nature Center ogling the murre. The only individual that didn't seem happy about his presence was a Pied-billed Grebe who periodically tried chasing him away. At first, I was concerned that there might have been a health issue that forced the murre so close to shore, but he was actively diving and feeding on fish. So, perhaps, it was just the early morning fog that had affected his navigation. He was seen one last time the following day, then made his was to the Rockaway Inlet, passed Breezy Point and out into the Atlantic Ocean. I hope he has good memories of his visit to Brooklyn. I know I do.

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