It’s March! Time to start thinking about spring migration, which will soon bring waves of new birds to the five boroughs. Already, crocuses and snowdrops are blooming, cedar waxwings are flocking in parks and backyards and landscaped median strips, and the voice of the blackbird is again heard in the land.
I celebrated the turning of the calendar by heading to Rockaway, Queens – more specifically, to Breezy Point on the peninsula’s far western tip. Getting to Breezy Point is not easy. After the Q35 bus drops you off at the southern terminus of the Marine Parkway bridge, there’s no public transportation that goes west. Having a car wouldn’t particularly help, either, since Breezy Point is a private community (more on that in a bit), with guards, chain link fencing and electronic gates to keep out nonresidents.
What you can do – what I did – is enter the beach at Fort Tilden and then walk the shore. And walk. And walk. (Or, in my case, run – though the sand makes it a slog.) It’s about a mile and a half from Beach 169th street to the start of the Breezy Point Cooperative (which appears on my city map as a grayed-out mystery zone), and at least that far again to the tip of the peninsula.
Water? Bathrooms? Sorry, you’re out of luck.
Fort Tilden, my point of entry, is a gorgeously creepy place. Established in 1917 and named after former New York governor Samuel J. Tilden (better known as the guy who lost the disputed presidential election of 1876 to Rutherford B. Hayes), it was beefed up during World War II with the addition of fortified bunkers facing out toward the Atlantic, as well as new barracks to accommodate more than a thousand troops. During the Cold War years, it was home to the 69th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Batallion, bristling with Nike Ajax and Hercules missiles. The base was decommissioned in 1974. Today, its buildings and fortifications are gutted and derelict and covered in graffiti. (You can read more about Fort Tilden – and view a photo gallery – here.)
The fortifications of the Breezy Point Cooperative, while softer than those of Fort Tilden, have proved more enduring. The Cooperative is actually the holding entity for three separate communities, Roxbury, Rockaway Point and Breezy Point itself. All three were founded in the early 20th century as summer bungalow colonies, populated primarily by Irish-Americans. (You can find a nice description and some additional history over at Forgotten New York.) And all three remain tight-knit, insular and exclusionary. The men and women who created a working-class Irish paradise of modest bungalows out here at land’s end were admirable in many ways – but they were also stone racists. To this day, Breezy Point remains 98.2 percent white.
The area was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy – not just by the storm surge, but also by fires that erupted when the seawater shorted out electrical systems. One of my most enduring memories of that night is huddling in our apartment in front of the television (in Park Slope, we never even lost power) and watching Breezy Point burn. The conflagration consumed more than a hundred homes.
As I trudged toward the tip of the peninsula, I bristled, as I always do, at the “Private Property” signs (especially the nice, shiny new ones that presumably went up post-Sandy, thanks to the reconstruction aid that poured into the community). Armed with the advice and directions I’d gleaned from the National Park Service’s site (the shore is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area), I was prepared to argue righteously with anyone who dared try to stop me.
But no one did. I saw a few people walking their dogs, some construction vehicles reenforcing the dunes, and other than that – just sand and sea and sky.
Oh, and many, many long-tailed ducks, some of them in squealing, chattering groups. (Was it really just two months ago that I was so excited to see a long-tailed duck for the first time? Yes, it was. And you know what? I still love seeing them.)
This week’s bird of the week is another fairly common one – the black-bellied plover. I saw about thirty of these close to the Breezy Point tip, huddled with at least half again as many dunlin atop a long, sandy ridge midway between the water and the dunes. All were in their drab, non-breeding plumage. I would probably not have been able to identify them in a shorebird line-up, but at this time of year, only a few species are hanging around. The plovers were the larger ones, with the short, thick bills; the dunlin were the pint-sized, roundish ones with longer, down-curved bills. (While researching this post, I found a handy guide for the shorebird-challenged, via the City Birder. The original resource is Jack Connor’s The Complete Birder: A Guide to Better Birding, which I clearly need to buy.)
The last time I saw black-bellied plovers was on Cape Cod, with my friend Beth, 28 years ago (has it really been that long? yes, I’m afraid it has). It was late spring, and they were in their breeding plumage – black below, white head and shoulders, mottled black and white backs. I’m afraid Beth called them “penguin birds.” The ones I saw on Tuesday looked more like the two in the photo at the top of this post (taken in a different location by my birding friend Gus), but seeing them still reminded me of Beth.
This week’s list may be short, but it prefigures what I hope will soon be a wave of sightings of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds:
106. Black-bellied plover*
*New York first
** Life bird
93 to go.