It seemed liked an innocuous idea. Seven birders, a boat for hire, and a cruise around lower New York Harbor and vicinity looking for good birds. What could possibly go wrong? After all, the forecast was for mostly sunny skies, light winds, and no big waves. Therefore the seven of us who climbed aboard a boat in Brooklyn early yesterday morning did so without trepidation, indeed, we were eager to get out on the water.

We made our way from our boat’s berth out to and around the tip of Breezy Point, seeing the typical and expected ducks like Long-tailed Duck and Red-breasted Merganser. A surprise was a Common Merganser, a bird we don’t see much in New York City and especially not flying over the coast in Brooklyn. We made our way out past Breezy and were soon watching Northern Gannets plunge-dive and the first of our two Razorbills.

Northern Gannets above and a Razorbill below

I had been hoping to finally find a Common Murre in Queens but we had no luck, mostly because we didn’t steam too far out into the open ocean as the goal of our trip was to explore near shore locations, hoping to find the stuff that was always just a bit to distant to identify with a spotting scope from land but that always seemed good in our imaginations.

Sadly, the rarities that we all were imagining stayed in our minds as we cruised across lower New York Harbor from Queens through Brooklyn waters and into Richmond County, otherwise known as Staten Island. Our goal there was to circumnavigate both Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island, two artificial islands built to house people who needed to be quarantined after enraged (and probably drunken) Staten Islanders burned the quarantine facilities there in the 1850s. The islands have long been abandoned and now host heronries in the summer and a horde of gulls in the winter. The best birds we came up with on our circuit of each island was Great Cormorants in breeding plumage, very nice birds to see but not the rare gulls for which we were hoping. A bunch of Harbor Seals of Swinburne Island was a nice consolation though.

Harbor Seals

Swinburne Island

Great Cormorant off Hoffman Island

Great Cormorant in flight near Swinburne Island

From the duo of forgotten islands off of the forgotten borough we made our way north in the shadow of the Verrazano Bridge to Gravesend Bay for some more Brooklyn birding. We finally connected with a decent gull there when we spotted an Iceland Gull but the real highlight of the bay was the flock of Greater Scaup that took to wing as we steamed past.

lots of Greater Scaup

We then steamed along the Coney Island shore without finding anything of note before heading under the Marine Parkway Bridge and making our way into Jamaica Bay, the home this winter of a veritable flock of Red-necked Grebes, a Barrow’s Goldeneye, and, lately, a Eurasian Wigeon. En route, we chummed away and managed to attract a host of gulls behind the boat, mostly Herring Gulls but with an occasional Ring-billed Gull or Great Black-backed Gull joining in the fray.

Herring Gull

We got the grebes without a problem but the wigeon was a no-show and the Barrow’s Goldeneye was only spotted by one of us. It was fun exploring the bay by boat. It was fun, that is, until the guy driving the boat drove us out of the channel and onto a sandbar. He managed to power through that one but then we hit another and we were stuck waiting for the tide to come up and we still had half an hour until low tide! Can you guess how we spent our time?

That’s right, we birded!  In fact, we did a Big Sit from our perch in Jamaica Bay and managed to find fifteen species which was pretty impressive considering our location in the middle of the bay in about two feet of water. Much hilarity ensued, and the cracking of many jokes, and we managed to pass the time reasonably well. Eventually, the tide came in and we got off the bottom, none the worse for wear, and headed for home.

Though we didn’t see everything we hoped for we did enjoy our day on the water. We learned a bit about just what is out in the areas that we can’t quite bird from land and had a great time doing it. And that was well worth being stranded for an hour and a half.

a Bufflehead that flew past as we made our way to dock

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.