Happy New Year from Floyd Bennett Field (and our Encounter with the Snowy Owl)

Brooklyn Birding, Gateway National Recreation Area, New York Birding

Happy New Year from Sarah and Tim!  Over the holidays, many of you shared with us that you enjoy reading the blog, and we are very appreciative of this.  It motivates us to keep photographing and writing about our adventures in birding, so thank you for your support.  For our last post in 2014, we’ll go back to the very first day of the year, and show you another unique place to bird in New York City: Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

On New Year’s Day 2014, the Bird Nerds, a little hungover and tired, bundled up and drove to Floyd Bennett Field in search of Snowy Owls.  Last winter a very special event occurred, known as an “irruption” of Snowy Owls.  Every couple of decades these beautiful birds descend farther south than usual in large numbers; last year was the largest irruption in a century.  There are multiple theories as to why this happens, perhaps the owls have such a successful breeding season in the Arctic the large population needs to travel farther to find adequate hunting grounds.  Whatever the reason, we were excited that our interest in birding coincided with this irruption, and we were determined to find them.  We read that people spotted them easily at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and decided to check it out.

Floyd Bennett is an interesting place to bird because of its history.  This was the original municipal airport for New York City, opening in 1931, and later taken over by the National Park Service in 1972 when it became part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.  Here is a map posted at Floyd Bennett to give you perspective, note the original runways are still intact:


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When you drive or walk around Floyd Bennett Field, you can feel the expansiveness of the area.  It is one of the only places in New York City with large undeveloped fields, which are situated between the cracking, abandoned runways. The Snowy Owl’s primary habitat is the tundra, so they are attracted to large treeless tracts like airports and barrier islands.  On New Year’s Day we explored the area for the first time.  (Keep in mind this was before we owned a camera, so our narrative will have to suffice.)

When we first scanned the fields we were deceived by many plastic bags posing as Snowy Owls. You’d be amazed how similar a Target bag in a gentle breeze looks to an owl’s head.  Many other birders were looking at the area, when something bright-white caught our collective eye.  It was a Snowy Owl, sitting on the ground in the middle of the field.  He was far away, but even at this distance you could tell how large and spectacular this bird was.  We watched for awhile, during which time the owl did not move except to blink and turn its head slightly; eventually we drove to the bay to look at ducks.  After we had our fill of Buffleheads it began to get dark, so we drove back to the fields for one last scan.  By this time all the other birders were gone.  We drove towards the exit and about 60 feet ahead of us a Snowy Owl was perched right on the guardrail.

To see a Snowy Owl this close up is a wonderful experience that we wish everyone could have.  They are huge, regal birds, two feet tall with a five foot wingspan, beautiful white feathers flecked with black, and big yellow eyes.  We took as many terrible I-Phone photos as we could and lingered, watching the owl.  Eventually the owl took flight, and we marveled at its huge wings as it flew over the car and beyond the aviation center at the entrance gate.  It was one of our top moments in birding (if not the best) and a great way to start the year.  Behold, the best photo we took that day:

Snowy Owl- New Year's Day 2014, through binoculars and an i-phone.  Also motivation to buy a camera.

Snowy Owl- New Year’s Day 2014, through binoculars and an i-phone, with the Freedom Tower in the background. Also, motivation to buy a camera.

For the reasons mentioned above, Floyd Bennett is one of our favorite places to bird, and we are excited to finally post about it. We went twice in the past few weeks, here’s what we found:

On Novemeber 15th we drove to FBF.  The same fields that attracted Snowy Owls last winter draw raptors throughout the year.  We arrived and saw this Kestrel flying from one small tree to another, posing near the car for a few minutes.  The American Kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon, about the size of a dove.

Kestrel at Floyd Bennett Field

Kestrel at Floyd Bennett Field

We parked near the bay, and to Sarah’s delight, there was a colony of cats living in a small stick cavern.  We brought some leftover cat food with us on our next visit, only to find dozens of dishes filled with pounds of food already laid out. Apparently others are taking good care of these kitties.  

Cats Floyd and Bennett living near the bay

Cats living near the bay

We walked the perimeter of this large parking lot, and were thrilled to find a group of Eastern Bluebirds fluttering around (our first in Brooklyn) along with some other common, yet special birds such as the White-throated Sparrow.

Eastern Bluebird- the state bird of New York!

Eastern Bluebird – the state bird of New York!

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Another Brooklyn first for us on this day was the Purple Finch. These birds are similar looking to the House Finch which we see more often, so it took a bit of detective work to confirm the distinction.  The male Purple Finch is indeed more purple, rather than rusty red, and the color extends to the sides and back of the bird.  The females have more contrasting streaking than a House Finch, and a bolder face pattern which you can see in the picture below.

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Female Purple Finch

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Male Purple Finch

Next we drove to the Northeast corner of FBF, which has a nice view of an inlet to the bay where you can see waterfowl.  In the Winter there are almost always Brants here, which look like small Canada Geese with a white neck band.

View of New York City from the Northwest corner of Floyd Bennett Field

View of New York City from the Northeast corner of Floyd Bennett Field

After scanning the bay we headed back to the fields.  We saw more Kestrels hunting:

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Kestrel perched looking for prey

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Kestrel in flight

Then Tim saw something new land on the runway.  He went over to inspect, and found a group of about twelve Horned Larks LL.

Horned Larks

Horned Larks

We’ve seen this bird in field guides and on birder’s checklists, in fact they are rather common.  But Horned Larks prefer open fields, dessert or tundra, none of which we have around New York City, so the Bird Nerds have never seen them.  They are nice little birds, larger than a sparrow, with a black and yellow face and a little black feather horn.

Pair of Horned Larks

Pair of Horned Larks

Horned Lark

Horned Lark (horn not evident in these pics).

It was getting dark so we headed to the car, but before we left we heard a ruckus in a large barren tree across the field.  It was filled with a flock of European Starling, chatting away.

Tree with Starling for leaves.

Tree with Starling for leaves

We visited Floyd Bennett on another occasion recently, December 21st.  At this time of year, many songbirds have migrated to warmer places, but waterfowl consider our climate perfect for wintering.  These birds spend the Summer in the Arctic and migrate here for the Winter months.  Therefore bird watching in the Winter is all about waterfowl (including ducks, geese and seabirds), some you can even find in breeding plumage.

We brought the spotting scope out and scanned Jamaica Bay.  A group of White-winged Scoters flew by, and in the distance we saw a sleek Common Loon (our first in Brooklyn).  Common Loons breed inland on lakes in the Summer, so this bird was in non-breeding plumage – a dark grey back with a white throat and chest.  Unfortunately, the loon was too far out to get a good picture, but some curious Harbor Seals where closer to shore.  We have seen quite a few Harbor Seals lately while birding, here is a picture:

Harbor Seal Nose

Harbor Seal Nose

Other waterfowl we saw on this trip included a group of American Wigeons hanging out on a small sandy beach, and groups of Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers and Brants.

However, there are some songbirds who are Winter residents in our area (and who are much easier to photograph). In some nearby shrubs we found a flock of Song Sparrows and one Field Sparrow, which we have only seen once before.

Song Sparrow at Floyd Bennett Field

Song Sparrow at Floyd Bennett Field

Finally, we’ll leave you with one of our most boisterous year-round residents, the Northern Mockingbird.  Most people have probably heard this bird singing a long string of songs while perched on a wire.  We see the Mockingbird on almost every outing, but this particular bird was quite happy to work it for the camera as he or she gobbled down berries.

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We hope you had a great 2014 and wish you many bird sightings in the new year!  Here are the lists:

Floyd Bennett Field – January 1, 2014 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Brant
Canada Goose
Gadwall
American Black Duck
Bufflehead LL
Red-breasted Merganser
Horned Grebe LL
Cooper’s Hawk
Gull sp.
Snowy Owl LL
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling

Floyd Bennett Field November 15, 2014 11:55 AM – 2:25 PM
Brant
Canada Goose
American Wigeon
Double-crested Cormorant
Northern Harrier
Red-tailed Hawk
Laughing Gull
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
American Crow
Horned Lark LL
Black-capped Chickadee
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Purple Finch

Floyd Bennett Field – December 21, 2014 2:01 PM – 4:18 PM
Northern Mocklingbird
White-throated Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
American Wigeon
Bufflehead
Common Loon
Herring Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Northern Flicker
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Brant
Canada Goose
Red-breasted Merganser
Double-crested Cormorant
Ring-billed Gull
American Black Duck

One thought on “Happy New Year from Floyd Bennett Field (and our Encounter with the Snowy Owl)

  1. Magnificent! I want to thank Tim and you for the time you take to put this all together and share your joy. I am truly a birdie person and always said, “when I die I want to come back as a BIRD! Thank you Sarah and Tim and we wish you a healthy, joyous, peaceful, New Year 2015! Xxxooo

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