Fly by! Birders flock to Coney to see unique gull

Fly by! Birders flock to Coney to see unique gull
Photo by Olaf Soltau

Meet the coolest bird in Coney Island!

Birders of a feather flocked together at the People’s Playground this week after a shorebird so rare it had only been recorded in North America once before landed on the beach.

The gray-hooded gull, typically indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and coastal South America, touched down last week and bonded with a gaggle of laughing gulls just off the Boardwalk.

A birder first noticed the gull’s unusual light gray throat, yellow eye and crimson legs, as it strutted near a plastic palm watering tree just off W. 12th Street on July 24, before posting a photo to a website run by the National Audubon Society on July 24.

The picture circulated on several birder websites and, of course, Twitter, prompting bird-lovers throughout the region to make a pilgrimage to Coney Island with their best binoculars in tow.

And most got what they came for — even our photographer was able to capture the star of the show.

But no one has been able to identify the bird’s gender and origin, where it sleeps, and whether it has a mate — though it appeared to enjoy eating cheeseballs fed by Coney Island sunbathers.

“The bird was there all day Sunday but it wasn’t there Monday morning or Saturday morning,” said Morgan Tingley, a Berkeley doctoral student. “It appears to be attracted to a plastic tree shooting water out of it directly in front of the Wonder Wheel.”

Other birders tried to psychoanalyze the tropical gull, observing that it tried to hang out with its ring-billed and great black-backed gull cousins but was reluctant to fly with them.

“He’s kind of following his own beat — kind of a hanger-on maybe, but he doesn’t seem shy,” said birder Olaf Soltau.

This isn’t the first feathered frenzy to hit Coney Island.

Four years ago, birders made a beeline to Coney Island Creek to witness the rare sighting of a Western Reef Heron, native to Western Africa.

And many elder birders remember seeing a Spotted Redshank not far from Jamaica Bay in 1993.

But this gull may stick around for a while.

Tingley believes it could try to “hybridize” with one or more of the other gulls, even though it picked a challenging time to get its groove on, as breeding season is just about over and the gull is already molting out of its sexy plumage.

No one could figure out how the bird strayed so far from its homeland, but its appearance had some wondering if there were more of its kind on the way.

“Birds get drawn away from their population all the time,” said Tingley. “Sometimes it leads to birds colonizing new places, but a lot of the time it leads to the bird being alone from its species.”

The birds appearance even piqued the interest of one of the city’s most famous birder.

“If I lived in the neighborhood I’d be out there with binoculars right now,” said Manhattanite and author Jonathan Franzen.

Franzen added that he wouldn’t schlepp out from Manhattan, but couldn’t see this particular bird anyway, because he is in California right now.

But for some of the birders who made the trip, the thrill of seeing a once-in-a-lifetime species paired with eating a more-than-once-in-a-lifetime all-beef frank could not be passed up.

“A lot of birders were saying, ‘Well, we’re here, we might as well go to Nathan’s,’” said Tingley, who, incidentally, passed on the wiener. “But I had a turkey sandwich for lunch.”

The rare gray-hooded gull traipsed along the sand in Coney Island on Monday as scores of birdwatchers traced its every step.
Photo by Olaf Soltau