Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Gray-hooded Gull at Coney Island

Over the past week, I have been watching reports of a vagrant Gray-hooded Gull, from happy birders who saw it and frustrated birders who missed it. The gull has been present at Coney Island since at least July 24; whether it arrived earlier than that is unknown. However, its presence was only reported publicly several days later, after an eBird reviewer figured out that the Black-headed Gull reported to eBird was really a Gray-hooded Gull. That set birders in motion, both New York birders who wanted to see the gull for their state and county lists and birders from other states who wanted the potential life bird. Andrew, Corey, and Rob have all seen it, and even The New York Times and New York took notice.

The reason for all this fuss is that the Gray-hooded Gull (Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus) is very rare in North America. The species is called Gray-hooded Gull by the A.O.U., but elsewhere it is known as Gray-headed Gull. Only one other individual has been documented in the United States, in Florida in 1998 (pdf). Peter Harrison's Seabirds: An Identification Guide shows two populations: one in central South America, ranging from the southeastern coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast, and the other in Africa south of the Sahara. According to Howell and Dunn's Gulls of the Americas, the South American population is slightly larger and has paler uppersides and head markings. There has been some discussion over which population this bird came from. To me, South America makes the most sense since a lot of birds migrate between North and South America anyway; it could have joined a northbound flock this spring and wandered around. Then again, we get an occasional bird from Africa on the East Coast, so that may not be ruled out completely.

Anyway, yesterday I went to Coney Island to try to see the bird myself. As I rode the trains, first NJ Transit and then a series of subway lines, I hoped that the Gray-hooded Gull would make an appearance that afternoon. When I arrived, I found a cluster of birders on the boardwalk. They had not seen it yet, but soon enough another birder walked past and indicated that the gull was a little way down the beach. Sure enough, it was sitting on top of a yellow metal pole, with a group of birders clustered around it. The poles were out on the beach, somewhere between 10th and 12th Streets. If you click through the photo and click on the map in the right column, you can see the approximate location.

The gull seemed fairly tolerant of people; I imagine that a bird would have to be pretty tolerant in order to take up residence at a place as busy as Coney Island. (Even on a weekday, the beach was crowded with sunbathers and swimmers.) The gull stood still as several people walked by, but then a woman with a clipboard walked right up to the pole, and the gull flushed. It flushed a few times as I stood on the beach watching it. Each time it picked a pole that had a Laughing Gull on it and made the Laughing Gull vacate the pole so that it could take its perch.

When I was satisfied with my looks at the Gray-hooded Gull, I walked a bit down the boardwalk to see what other birds might be around. I walked out the long fishing pier and found some Common Terns, Barn Swallows, and a mix of gulls on the water. Including the Gray-headed Gull, I added six species to my Brooklyn list.

If you have not seen the Gray-hooded Gull yet, and have the time this week to do it, I recommend going to see it. The location is easy to reach both by car and by public transportation, and it is easy to find the bird once you get there. The gull has been appearing pretty reliably in the area around the 12th Street entrance, especially in the afternoons. This is a great find and one that may not be repeated for a long time.