Superb Owl Sunday at Floyd Bennett Field

“Elizabeth, do you want to go on a bird walk in the dead of winter to an abandoned airfield? Please, please, please?”

It should come as no surprise to you that she said yes.

Floyd Bennett Field, the decommissioned airport on the southern edge of Brooklyn, has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s one of the many places in the outer boroughs that I’ve been wanting to visit, but somehow the prospect of spending 4+ hours on public transit just to get there and back has always dissuaded me. And despite my love of barren landscapes, I didn’t necessarily want to roam the runways alone. But that Cassin’s kingbird…those owls… Alas. So, when I saw that there was a NYC Audubon field trip to Floyd Bennett Field on “Superb Owl Sunday,” to be led by urban naturalist Gabriel Willow, I jumped at the chance.

Horned Larks
Horned larks (Eremophila alpestris)

The target birds for this trip were the so-called “snow birds,” avian visitors from the far north who can sometimes be found in the flat, tundra-like habitat of Long Island’s south shore and barrier islands: snowy owl, snow bunting, horned lark, Lapland longspur, rough-legged hawk.

After a bumpy but surprisingly short drive on the Belt Parkway, we arrived at our destination. We began in a small parking lot by the ranger station, scouring a stand of pitch pines for birds and hoping that we’d be lucky enough to spot one of the northern saw-whet Owls that have been found roosting in the area. However, the diminutive owl was nowhere to be seen, and with the exception of one downy woodpecker and one black-capped chickadee, we came up empty.

We continued on in the van, driving slowly down the iced-over runways and scanning the fields for any sign of movement. Having searched for snowy owls before (with varying degrees of success), I was very familiar with how difficult it is to distinguish owl from white plastic bag, and let me tell you that it’s even more frustrating when said bags are adorned with yellow smiley faces. The elusive snowy plastic bag, taunting us with well wishes (“Have a Nice Day!!!”). Needless to say, we did not see any owls.

What we did spot, in great numbers, were northern flickers. They were everywhere, their yellow-shafted feathers flashing in the winter light as they flew about. In all, I must have counted at least 15 individuals along the runways, many probing for insects in the frozen ground.

(At this point, I should note that although birding by car is definitely not my favorite mode of birding, it was very nice not to have to traverse the 2-3 miles of runway on foot in February!)

Birders at Fort Tilden
Winter birders

Once we got our fill of flickers (and resigned ourselves to the reality that this would be Superb Owl Sunday in name only), we headed to the boat ramp overlooking Jamaica Bay. I was glad to leave the confines of the van and gladder still to spend some quality time with my favorite ducks. I find myself growing increasingly fond of waterfowl and am beginning to think it’s only time before I start researching spotting scopes.

This area did not disappoint. To the north of the boat ramp, Gabriel zeroed in on a raft of upwards of 50 horned grebe. Being so small, they were difficult to see without the aid of a scope, but once I got a look at them I began seeing their bright white cheeks everywhere. Also seen in this area were several red-breasted mergansers, some distant red-throated loons, a flyby great cormorant, bufflehead, and a pair of American wigeon. Looking south along the shore, we spied some female common goldeneyes and greater scaup (a taste of things to come).

At Mill Basin Inlet, we got some amazing looks at at least six red-throated loons swimming close to shore. These loons are more elegant than their “common” cousins, with dainty bills that point up in the air (as opposed to the common loon’s heavier bill that is usually held parallel to the water). A little hoity-toity, but lovely! My eagle-eyed girlfriend then spotted a dark raptor perched in a birch tree on the far shore, which turned out to be an immature red-shouldered Hawk, a lifer for me—and my 200th species! As I privately celebrated, a harbor seal popped its head out of the waves and splashed around, as if echoing my delight.

Before heading to lunch, we did one last sweep for horned larks by the Aviator Center—success! There were around 45 or 50 feeding in the grass—but no Lapland longspurs—and we watched them from the van, careful not to spook them.

Greater Scaup
Greater scaup (Aythya marila)

Once we finished warming up in the cafeteria, we crossed the Gil Hodges Bridge to see what Rockaway Inlet had in store for us. Upon our arrival we immediately noticed a huge raft of at greater scaup bobbing in the waves. (I have to say that I’m proud of myself for nailing all my scaup IDs recently.) As Gabriel combed through the flock of looking for lesser scaup, he came across a surprising find: a white-winged scoter! I would have loved to have seen it, but it kept dipping out of view whenever the scope was passed to me. That was okay, though, as there were other exciting species close by.

The inlet was filled with red-throated loons, red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead, clownish long-tailed ducks, horned grebes, and…wait, what’s that by the second pylon? Sitting low in the water, only it’s bigger than a horned grebe and smaller than a loon…and the the bill is heavy and yellow…with a very faint rusty wash on the neck. Holy shit, a red-necked grebe! Last year they were seen all over the New York area (except by this girl) but in general they’re pretty rare here. I got some great looks at it as it preened in front of us, as well as one truly terrible photograph. Without a doubt the highlight of my day (the bird, not the picture).

Blurry Red-necked Grebe
Preening red-necked grebe (Podiceps grisegena). Great bird, terrible picture.

Fort Tilden was our final stop and our best bet at finding the other two scoter species or maybe a purple sandpiper. But the beach was pretty quiet, and all we saw were some common loons and some very (very) distant black scoters halfway across the horizon. It was getting cold by this point, so we packed up into the van and headed back to Manhattan, stopping briefly at the playing fields to watch one last flock of horned larks whirl about in the air.

All in all, a very satisfying day thanks to a stellar guide and a great group of fellow birders. We may not have seen any Superb Owls or Seahawks (no, those buteos don’t count), but that red-necked grebe! Wonderful.