Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Day of Casual Birdwatching

Gorgeous weather in Brooklyn today - sunny and warm. Chrissy and I headed down to Plum Beach for the first time since last summer - certainly the first time since I became a birdwatcher. A steady ocean breeze battled the strong heat from the sun to make quite a comfortable afternoon by the water. Luck was on our side today; through no planning of our own, we arrived when the tide was out. The water took up what seemed like 2/3 of its high-tide capacity. We walked out to the water's edge and Chrissy claims we were so far out he could see around Kingsborough Community College. I was more interested in the birds. With my new binoculars, about which I am still finding new things to be amazed, I could see a swirling flock of birds that was so far away I couldn't find a trace of it with my naked eye.

I'll warn you -- I'm fairly new at birding, and sparrows and gulls I haven't even begun to study in earnest. I just figured out that all the little brown jobs in Park Slope are house sparrows, so you'll forgive me if my IDs are a little tentative. My eye just skims past flocks of gulls to the next interesting thing, especially if I don't have my field guide or a pen and paper (which I didn't today).

The first bird of note, standing on a sandbar at the water's nearest edge, I'm pretty sure was a great black-backed gull. This thing was sizable. Nearly as big as a goose. I kept my distance. As a gull-related aside, I love to watch a gull wheel up into the air with a clam in its beak and drop the clam onto the packed sand below. Sometimes the gull has to take a second or third try, and it's got to be fast or else another gull will rush in and steal its quarry. After a successful drop, it's like watching a lottery winner get swarmed by distant relatives begging to share in the wealth.

We walked out to the water's farthest edge to get close to some dots I was pretty sure would be birds upon closer inspection. A large flock of brant dotted the water between Plum Beach and Rockaway Point and only a few meandered about on the sandbars. In this area I also saw what I'm fairly sure were red-breasted mergansers - nice, shaggy crest and red bills. I also noticed some tiny buffleheads bobbing up and disappearing in the waves. I'll tell you now, buffleheads hold a special place in my heart and I get unreasonably happy to see them.

While I was peering at the many bobbing dots, I said to Chrissy, "Wouldn't it be funny if the tide came in and we didn't notice?" I peered at dots for a few more minutes and turned around to see that the way I had come out to this sandbar was now separated from the other high areas by a ten foot channel of three inch deep water. Good work. We splashed our way back inland and made our way along the beach, past several abandoned boats, to the other side of the beach that faces Dead Horse Bay. From there with my binocs I had a great view of the biggest group of buffleheads I've seen to date - probably 20. I invented a dance to celebrate.

Turning my attentions away from the sea, I noticed a large white bird relocating within the grasses. I resolved to find it later. Soon I found a bird tormenting a little silvery fish in a marshy pool. It had long, yellow legs, a long, dark, pointy bill, a light body with brownish speckling on head, neck and chest, and a clean whitish belly. My best guess, after consulting Mr. Sibley, is that I saw a lesser yellowlegs.

After navigating more carefully through the grasses than last year, I found a place where I could see the white bird. Long necked, yellow-billed, and sporting graceful breeding plumes on its behind, the great egret seemed to be playing a game of peekaboo with me - ducking down below grass level, popping up, ducking down, popping up somewhere else. It reminded me of that old gag where someone makes it look like he's walking down stairs where we all know there aren't any. That one's a classic.

I also spent a few minutes in Prospect Park today, killing time before work. I only had time to make a circuit around the pools, and didn't see much. One pair of mallards and one pair of ring-necked ducks, a robin, a cardinal, and a bunch of tufted titmice were my haul for that ten-minute period.

We're off to Rhode Island for a few days to attend a family gathering. We'll probably do a letterbox series on the way there tomorrow, and I'll let you know if I see any cool birds. (All birds are cool.)

1 comment:

AKA Bird Nerd said...

Me again.

I live on a small bay in Puget Sound called Vaughn Bay. When the tide is out, the gulls - mostly Glaucous-winged - do their clam drop thing. It is interesting to note that the Northwestern Crows have learned to drop clams as well. However, they prefer to let the gulls do the work and then they swoop in for the steal.

Many of the birds you mention, we don't have in Puget Sound. To you easterners, seeing a Northern Cardinal is so-so. But to me, it is a thrilling experience. I have yet to get a good photo of one. I plan to visit my granddaughter in Maine in July. Maybe then. I'm usually on the east coast at frigid Christmas.