Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Bird Count in the Fog, Part 2

Our Christmas Bird Count route. Blue is travelling, orange is where we actually counted. click on the photo for a better view. 

I've attempted to reproduce our route here, beginning and ending at Sebago in the Paerdegat. The blue sections were just travelling, no counting allowed there since, had the day been clearer, those waters and shoreline would've been visible from Floyd Bennett Field (called Barren Island on the chart) by someone with a high powered spotting scope. The sectors are carefully laid out to avoid double-counting - of course you can't stop a bird from flying from one sector to another but Louis was very clear that we couldn't start counting until we got to our assigned area. Of course this being my first Christmas Bird Count, I was imagining that everything I saw was something more interesting than what it was. May have been good that we had some distance to cover before we started - enough time for me to get my overactive imagination under control and admit that brants were brants and bufflehead were bufflehead, even off in the fog.

Once we got to Ruffle Bar and were beyond even theoretical sightlines from sectors on shore, it was time to start counting those birds! Louis had explained that our main goal for the day was to provide a count of Canada geese and American black ducks, birds who love the marshes of Jamaica Bay better than anywhere else. We started off with a couple of Northern Harrier hawks, and then started working our way east along the north shore, counting Canada geese, brants, and gulls as we went. Ruffle Bar has a lovely interior marsh that you can paddle into at high water, and we did - that's where we started seeing tons of the black ducks Louis was after, along with lots more Canada geese. I think it was in there that Louis suggested that I count the geese and he would watch for the ducks, because there were SO many of both in there. That worked pretty well. A lot of times we were counting by 10's because the flocks were just too big to go bird by bird.

It was as we were over near the entrance to the marsh that we got probably the most surprising bird of the day - and it was one of my favorites! If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that instead of watching for the first robin of spring, which is not an actual thing here in NYC because you see them in the parks all winter, I watch (and listen) for the first oystercatcher of spring. Oystercatchers are one of the common birds of the summer bay, I've usually started hearing their assertive "Wheet, wheet, wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet-wheet!!!" in March but I have seen a few in February too. Here's a paint doodle I did of them in Spring 2012 - 

and then of course there's The Early Bird, who reappears here every time I see an early oystercatcher who's come back before NYC's last snow of the year. They fly south for the winter and the first time I saw one on a snowy day I just couldn't help imagining that the bird was maybe having some regrets for not staying in Florida for another week or two.
American oystercatcher - Cape May, NJ
And here's a nice real photo from Wikimedia Creative Commons of one. Saying "WHEET!", of course.  

So, you get the picture, these are SUMMER birds. So we were not really expecting them - but then we heard that distinctive "WHEET!" - just one this time, not the strings that they let off in the summertime - and turned to see 5 of them flying by. The only reason I wasn't totally surprised was because Don Riepe, our Jamaica Baykeeper, had posted a great shot of some of them that he'd seen a week or two earlier.

However, this was pretty neat for the count because most sensible oystercatchers HAVE gone south by December, so the species doesn't come up until the "Rare" birds are being counted. There's definitely a spirit of friendly competition among the birders doing the count; the counts of the common birds are important but when they get to the rare birds and somebody gets one, everybody goes "Oooooh!". And if your sector is the only place where a certain bird was seen, it's called a "Save", and that is also a cool thing to get. Louis and I got two of these. One interesting procedural point for the count to is that to get a "save" you have to show a picture for it to be verified. Fortunately, our little flock landed on the Ruffle Bar sandbar, and although my little Ricoh WG-60 is not at all a satisfactory camera for bird photos, believe it or not, this was just good enough: 

Again, click on the photo to see better. The first one is on the left, and that one was kind enough to pose in profile so you can really see that it is what we said it was, then the other 4 are in the middle, one in front of one of the gulls and the other 3 standing between the 2 clusters of gulls.

So that was fun!

Our other "save" was seeing a few Dunlin on the next spots we went to visit, Little Egg Marsh and Yellow Bar Hassock. Dunlin weren't considered rare (that was the kind of bird that treated a group of Sebago hikers to an amazing mass flight "murmuration" last winter at Jones Beach) but we were in a really good place for seeing them on this foggy, foggy day. Louis got the picture there. Note to self: one thing I could definitely work on to be more useful next year would be those little wading shorebird types. I can't really tell one of those from the other, if I'd seen the dunlin and Louis hadn't we wouldn't have been able to claim them because I would've just said "Uh, some sort of sandpiper type?"

The marshes had lots more brants, bufflehead, black ducks, and Canada geese, plus a couple of great blue herons. We also saw a whole flock of mergansers doing this very neat coordinated diving routine. Louis spotted them first, then went to look at his phone to work out which kind they would be. I watched them all dive and surface and dive again while he was doing that; he looked up again and thought they'd flown away but I told him they were all underwater, and sure enough, a minute later they all popped up again. Very cool to watch.

We also heard a couple of loons, I've been seeing those out there on almost all of my paddles in the last couple of weeks.

I think that was it for our sightings. Louis kept the official ebird list for submission - click here to read that (and I have to admit I cribbed from that quite heavily for this post).

The potluck dinner at the Audubon Center at the boathouse in Prospect Park was delicious. The compilation happens after dinner. Here was the scene: 

They literally go through a list of the birds of NYC, calling on each sector for their counts - it takes a while but it was actually really interesting to hear who was seeing what, and where, and who wasn't seeing things. As far as range of species go, other people saw a lot more different kinds of birds than we did, but what we did have really added something to the data.
Click here for the Brooklyn Bird Club's writeup of the count results. Louis and I ("BT" on the photo) got a really nice little call-out.  Glad I joined in! 

Oh, yes - and somewhere between Little Egg Marsh and Yellow Bar Hassock, I finished my 300th mile of the year.

One thing I didn't mention - while we were watching birds, somebody else was watching us! But this is enough for today, I'll do Part 3 tomorrow to wrap things up.


Diane Stringam Tolley said...

This is absolutely fascinating! I've never even heard of a bird count. Even though I love birds, I would only recognize The Canada Geese and the Loons. I'm quite sure you would have tipped me out of the kayak!
And is that a seal?!

bonnie said...

I've learned a lot of birds since I started paddling in a wildlife refuge, but I could definitely learn more - it's amazing how many species the real birders recognize.

And yes, that's a seal!

Alana said...

This is so awesome. This comes a long way from my Mom throwing bread out of our apartment window because she knew I loved to see the birds come to eat it. I'm in awe of birders and the knowledge they must carry around in their heads - the plumage and behavior of each sex and the juvenile, the shape of their bodies, how they fly, how they feed - for proper identification. I wouldn't have been of any use to you on this trip! I wish two birding friends of mine (both working for the company I work for) were on Facebook, because I would share this with them.

bonnie said...

Thanks! Yeah, it's kind of amazing the amount of information these birders have in their heads. I really enjoyed this look into both the communities of winter birds (and late migrators) on the bay and the Brooklyn birding community.

Sounds like your mom got you off to the right start, though. :)