200 Bird Thursday – week 14 (and Staten Island, too)

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Barely visible swarm of northern gannets

I reached a milestone this week: I can finally claim to have birded in all five boroughs of New York City. My maiden foray into the wilds of Richmond County didn’t yield any new birds, but I enjoyed Great Kills Park (so much so that I spent the entire morning there instead of running farther south to check out a few more spots, as planned).

In the process, I learned that S79 Select Bus Service from Bay Ridge is pretty zippy, and that while Staten Island is big (and Hylan Avenue singularly charmless), it’s still possible for a carless runner to get around a pretty wide swathe of it.

A bonus: using Bay Ridge as a jumping-off point means I can finagle a Middle Eastern lunch and groceries out of my Staten Island expeditions.

But back to birds. I picked up some new species, including one that’s rare-ish, but the highlight of the week was a massive gannet swarm in Dead Horse Bay on Tuesday. I was standing on Plumb Beach in the freezing cold, wondering why the hell I’d chosen to come out on such a miserable day, when the gannets I’d seen flying aimlessly back and forth over Rockaway Inlet suddenly converged on the bay in a frenzy. With hundreds of white wings flashing, one dove headfirst, then another, then another, then more, each sending up a geyser of water as though the bay was being shelled by heavy artillery. I forgot all about the cold and just watched, mouth agape. It was one of those “is this really New York City?” moments.

I captured some crappy iPhone video footage, which I will spare you; it’s notable mainly for showing the Belt Parkway in the background  . . . because, yes, this is really New York City.

But if you want to see something really cool, take a look at what the professionals at National Geographic put together here. As a bonus, you will learn about “bait balls.” (The birds in the National Geographic link are Cape gannets, an African species, but the behavior is identical to the northern gannets we have hereabouts.)

The week’s new birds, all seen in Brooklyn:

129. Blue-gray gnatcatcher
130. Palm warbler
131. Greater yellowlegs
132. White-crowned sparrow
133. Lesser yellowlegs
134. Northern parula warbler
135. White-eyed vireo

The lesser yellowlegs, a shorebird, was my “best” sighting of the week, if “best” means most unusual. The greater yellowlegs is fairly common, but lesser yellowlegs are scarce enough – especially this early in migration – that my online report raised a big, red “unconfirmed” flag. Which is a little annoying . . . not least for the questions and doubts and second-guesses it stirs up. Did I actually see what I thought I saw? Did I create a bird out of my own fevered imagination? Am I the worst birder ever?

As susceptible as I am to self-doubt, I’m sticking with this one. On my way in to the Salt Marsh Nature Center last Tuesday (the same day as the gannet swarm), I had seen a long-beaked shorebird with gangly, bright yellow legs working the mudflats below the headquarters building.

Cool! A greater yellowlegs was a new bird for me in New York.

I walked a circuit of the marsh and fields (spotting a first-of-the-year white-crowned sparrow), then looped back to the start of the trail. I noticed that the yellowlegs had moved a bit south, to a more expansive mudflat. The small cove where I’d first seen it now held another two yellow-legged shore birds. Three yellowlegs! Cool and cooler!

As I looked at the two new birds, though, I was puzzled. There was something “off” about them. It was their beaks, I decided. They weren’t long enough. If I were categorizing beaks on a scale from “stumpy” to “whoa,” the first bird was definitely a “very long.” These two were, at best, “medium long.” The birds also seemed generally smaller . . . I pivoted from one mudflat to the other (I could see all three birds from the same vantage point, but not at the same time), trying to gauge the difference, until the first bird very thoughtfully flew over to join the other two, and its hulking-in-comparison size was clear.

So there you have it, eBird. One greater and two lesser yellowlegs. Doubt me if you will, but I stand by my report.*

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Blue-gray gnatcatcher (Photo credit: Robert Burton, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

I ended the week with two earlier-than-usual migrants in Prospect Park, a lovely northern parula warbler and a white-eyed vireo.

The bird of the week, though, is the humble blue-gray gnatcatcher. Even if you’ve never heard of this bird, if you spend any time at all in wooded areas, you’ve almost certainly heard its nasal, wheezing call and glimpsed it flitting around the treetops. Tiny and hyperactive, gnatcatchers can be quite pretty when the light is flattering (something we can all relate to).  Especially in early spring, when you’re starved for color and you happen on an individual whose “blue” dominates its “gray” – well, it’s a welcome sight. Best of all is the way gnatcatchers arrive en masse at the start of spring migration. One day there are none, or only vague rumors of some, and the next, the woods are buzzing with ’em. That was pretty much how it was this week: I didn’t see any, and then I saw a bunch.

I can’t wait to see what flies in this coming week.


 

*Unlike the lesser black-backed gull I kinda-sorta-maybe thought I saw from Calvert Vaux Park, a report I bracketed with “maybes” initially, added more questions to later, and eventually deleted entirely. As you can see, I’m not including it on my list here.

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