I heart NY – I’ve been here two and half years, growing my life list the whole time, and I still haven’t been to all the amazing birding sites in the city. I checked one off yesterday, though, with a bike trip to Floyd Bennet Field, the airport-turned-park that I’d previously only cruised through on my way to Jamaica Bay.
Floyd Bennet is best known as a place to see grassland birds, which my lists have been horribly light on since I left the farm; 2007’s year list, for instance, included neither Bobolink nor Northern Harrier. My particular targets this time out were Horned Lark, the afore-mentioned Harrier, and American Kestrel. Kestrels turn up in various places around the city, on their own and in the talons of hungry Red-tails, but they’ve been good at not turning up in my field of view. I only saw the one last year, and that was driving in Western New York – no good if I wanted to tally the bird for a Big Green Big Year.
On the way up, I got my year Common Loon among the fishing boats in Sheepshead Bay – a sighting that I foolishly took for a good omen. Then I got a tantalizing, scramble-for-my-binoculars look at a lightish hawk that I thought for a moment might have a white rump just as we were riding along the outside fence of the park, but it had disappeared into the sky by the time I’d pulled the bins out of my backpack and never reappeared.
Inside the park, we quickly realized that there was a lot more going on than we had anticipated – model car racing, two separate soccer games, and a lot of people driving up and down for no apparent reason – and also that grasslands are not much good for blocking the wind. Immense flocks of Canada Goose and Brant were gliding in regularly to graze, but it was hard to really enjoy them with what felt like a giant hand impeding our progress as we pedaled.
We stopped at the community gardens, and walked around a little in hope of Horned Lark – a hope which proved forlorn. We did find a flock of mixed blackbirds foraging in a stand of small ornamental trees, which included my year Brown-headed Cowbirds as well as Red-winged Blackbird and Common Grackle, but no Rusty Blackbirds, which we’re supposed to be keeping an eye out for. When we got tired of watching blackbirds frolic, it was back into the headwinds for us.
Not much further on, we came across a track where several individuals were riding what looked like the bizarre offspring of go-carts and sailboats. It seemed like a better idea than what we were doing, in the moment, although the sailcarters could only go around and around. We stopped in a parking lot near some signs that instructed us to keep the hell out of the grassland bird nesting area, since that seemed like it might be a good place for grassland birds, and I walked the perimeter (carefully keeping out as instructed, though that meant trudging the shoulder of the road and thus putting my mortal coil in danger of idiot drivers) while Todd watched the bikes.
I’d walked about three-quarters of the way to the end of the road when I saw something take off from a fencepost and ascend steeply. I had a pretty good idea of what it might be even before I got my binoculars to my eyes – an idea that was confirmed not only by the bird’s color and conformation, but by the way it started hovering over the field, beating into the wind. Kestrels are the only falcons that can pull off this nifty trick. After hovering for a few seconds, the Kestrel (a largish female) dived, only to come up empty and start all over again.
Though I never did get my Larks or Harrier, I saw two more Kestrels and a couple of rather out-of-place seeming Northern Flickers before we decided to head back. The wind, with low cunning, managed to be in our face from Floyd Bennet all the way through Sheepshead Bay (where another look in the water revealed the largest and most terrifying concentration of Mute Swans I’ve ever seen) and along Gravesend Bay. In consolation, the greenway there turned up several large mixed flocks of Scaup (although not as large as the ones present in February.) Once we finally got off the waterfront and away from the mother-loving wind, there was not much birding left to do nor light left to do it in, although a few Monk Parakeets were kind enough to fly over as we passed Greenwood Cemetery, squawking distinctively.
Overall,though I got less than half of my targets, I can’t complain – any day with four year birds in late March is a good day. Next weekend I’ll be in Pinellas County, Florida, with any luck picking up goodies like Sandhill Crane and Gray Kingbird (although all for naught as far as BGBY is concerned) and after that, migration should be swinging.
Rock Dove Columba livia
House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
American Black Duck Anas rubripes
Mute Swan Cygnus olor
Common Loon Gavia immer
Canada Goose Branta canadensis
American Robin Turdus migratorius
Brant Branta bernicula
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
American Kestrel Falco sparverius
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Bufflehead Bucephela albeola
Greater Scaup Aythya marila
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Monk Parakeet Myiopsitta monachus