(WARNING: this post contains explicit language.)
The family alcidae of the order charadriiformes includes puffins, murres and razorbills, along with their diminutives – auklets, murrelets and dovekies. Birders refer to this group in our familiar, corrupted Latin, as “alcids.” Alcids are unrelated to penguins, but share some of their features: black and white coloration, disproportionately short wings (though alcids, unlike penguins, can fly), strong diving and underwater swimming abilities and, in the case of puffins, a certain clownish aspect. These are ocean-loving birds that breed in colonies on remote cliffs and winter far out to sea. Your best shot at seeing them is to hire a boat.
On Sunday, along with three others, I birded Brooklyn’s coast from the Caesar’s Bay discount shopping plaza to scruffy Calvert-Vaux park. We had good looks at all the standby’s – common and red-throated loons, horned grebes, scaup, bufflehead, mergansers, etc. etc. – and I was trying not to feel too disappointed. As noon approached and we debated whether to head back to the train or trudge on to Coney Island, we ran into a man peering intently through a scope toward Coney Island Creek. It was Josh, someone I knew vaguely from Prospect Park, who’s been making a serious study of gulls of late.
(By a “serious study,” I mean not just looking for unusual ones, but marking subtle variations in plumage between immature specimens of our usual varieties. He is, in other words, the kind of birder that intimidates the hell out of me.)
While the fourth member of our party chose to head for the train, Alexis, Adelia and I accepted Josh’s offer of a ride to Coney Island. I hesitated when I saw the two-door car with a child’s car seat dominating the back, and my stiff, 50-something-runner’s legs protested outright, but I stayed silent and squeezed my way in.
We’d been planning to head for the pier, but Josh wanted to stop by the jetty at 37th street, and since he was the driver, who were we to object?
Josh set up his scope to check out the gulls. I scanned the water, saw a speck not too far from shore, and got it in my binoculars. The speck was close enough to give a general idea of the bird (high-contrast black and white, low to the water, un-ducklike profile), but too distant for me to tell what it was. I could think of one possibility that I didn’t want to say out loud; it seemed improbable (for one thing, the bird was way too close to shore) and I feared ridicule (could it just be a merganser seen from an odd angle after a tiring morning?). So instead I said, with studied casualness, “Hey, I see something out there. Would you mind putting the scope on it?”
I knew Josh wanted to keep looking at the gulls, but because he’s fundamentally a nice guy (and not actually so intimidating), he hid whatever annoyance he was feeling and got the scope on the bird. Here is what followed (more or less):
Josh – That’s a fucking alcid! Oh my god! Holy shit!
Me – Oh my god, a razorbill? That’s what I thought it might be, I just didn’t want to say. That’s a life bird for me.
Josh – (sounding a little doubtful) I think so, maybe . . . (long pause, looking through the scope) . . . oh my fucking god. Holy fuck, holy fuck! It’s not a razorbill, it’s a – holy fuck! – I think it’s a thick-billed murre. Holy fuck, it’s a murre.
With that last “holy fuck, it’s a murre” he jerked back from the scope as though he’d just received an electric shock. I took advantage of the moment to look for myself. Meanwhile, Alexis was setting up her own scope, and Adelia was thumbing through Sibley’s field guide.
Josh confessed that his hands were shaking, and said “holy fuck” a few more times. He wanted to tweet our discovery out to the world, but a twinge of doubt held him back. Could it be an immature razorbill? He squinted through the scope again. We needed confirmation – which neither I, Alexis nor Adelia, all relative novices, could provide. We needed an alcid expert.
Our expert arrived in the person of Heydi Lopes, a local birding phenomenon with 301 species on her Kings County list. (How did she get there so fast, binoculars around her neck, scope over her shoulder? Why, because she was on Coney Island already, of course – it’s the place to be on winter Sundays.) Heydi took a long look through the scope and rendered her verdict:
Thick-billed murre. No doubt about it.
Out went the tweet, up went a notice on the New York rare bird listserv. “Everybody’s gonna want to see this,” Josh assured us.
My own attention was beginning to wander. We’d found a great bird, sure, but there were other birds out there. Why, wasn’t that a long-tailed duck at 11:00 from the murre? I mentioned as much to Adelia and Alexis, who were also looking a little restless.
Josh sensed our lack of focus:
– Stay on the bird! We have to stay on the bird!
There are aspects of birding etiquette that I am only just beginning to learn. For example: if you discover an unusual bird, it’s considerate to share it with others (with some exceptions, such as owls, which I will explain one of these days). That means you are expected to stick around, keeping a close eye on the bird, so that you can direct your fellow birders to it when they arrive. Wandering away or allowing yourself to be distracted by scoters and long-tailed ducks would be, at best, a faux pas. At worst, it would make you a jerk.
As long as we’re stuck here waiting, allow me to introduce the bird of the week, which may well turn out to be my bird of the year (and yes, I know it’s only February). One of the largest alcids, thick-billed murres are famous for their diving abilities – they can descend more than 100 meters and remain submerged for three minutes or more. Though not exactly rare, they are rarely seen outside their Arctic breeding colonies or far offshore in the North Atlantic and North Pacific (they are bicoastal).
A thick-billed murre last turned up in Brooklyn about a year ago. Before that, the records show isolated sightings in 2013, 2010 and 2005.
And now one was floating just a hundred or so yards from Coney Island beach, ignored by local residents taking their daily constitutionals, oblivious to the waves churned up by a passing scow.
Other birders began to arrive. There was Rob, then Tom, Karen and Kathy . . . eventually, at least fifteen people converged on the beach. With so many observers, we could relax our relentless focus on the murre. A cry went up: “Alcid flying! It’s a razorbill!”
The razorbill flew low over the water, past the end of the beach to the other side of the private Sea Gate community, and we scrambled over the rocks of the jetty to get a better look. Confusion ensued.
– I’ve got it there.
– No, I’ve got it there.
– It’s by those gulls, heading right.
– Huh? It’s heading left.
– It just dove.
– No, it didn’t, I’ve got it.
Finally someone concluded: I think there are two of them (a suspicion that was eventually confirmed).
By this time the murre had also rounded the end of the beach in its westward drift. Some of the group headed out to Norton Point for a better look at it and the two razorbills. I was tired by then, and hungry, and at my alcid limit. I headed to Nathan’s and the F train.
. . .
Here, then, are this week’s additions to the list, all seen here in Brooklyn (wood ducks in the pond at Floyd Bennett, pipits by a parking lot along the Shore Parkway, killdeer and cowbirds while jogging the greenway from Canarsie Pier to Sheepshead Bay). Emboldened by reaching the 100-bird mark so early in the year, I’ve officially decided to narrow my quest to the five boroughs of New York City – with a special push to see as many birds as possible on my Brooklyn home turf.
99. Thick-billed murre**
101. Wood duck
102. American pipit**
104. Brown-headed cowbird
Just 96 to go.