Dickcissel, Central Park Pinetum

After finishing a midday workout, I was considering going to the Hudson today to watch for waterfowl driven to move by the sub-freezing overnight temperatures. I returned to my apartment and saw a NYSBirds posting alerting me to a more proximate opportunity: one of Manhattan’s most accomplished birders, Peter Post, had reported a Dickcissel in the Central Park Pinetum.

I had just several week ago chased a reported Dickcissel on the Great Hill only to find that it was actually an exotic escaped bird, probably a Yellow-fronted Canary. I had no doubt about the one today, however. Mr. Post is a noted expert who has been birding Central Park since long before I was born.

I arrived at the Pinetum roughly 40 minutes after Post’s 1:38 p.m. report, and no one had seen the bird since the original sighting. I was encouraged to see that Post, with his camera, was still looking. I surveyed the surrounding area, checking the Pinetum’s inner circle and also the newly-seeded lawn that had attracted many sparrows in recent weeks.

Just after 3 p.m. I saw some birders running and a camera flash going off. I ran toward them, to the area where the bird had originally been seen, the very northeast edge of the Pinetum just northwest of the Great Lawn. The Dickcissel was on the grass only twenty feet from the wire fence, but it did not stay there long. Camera flashes seemed to frighten it, and it flew up into a pine tree and then, apparently, away.

I had gotten a good look, but I wanted to see it again, so I went off looking for it. Most of the other birders stayed in place. After twenty minutes it reappeared on the same lawn from which it had flown. It eventually gave all birders extended, close looks as it walked across the lawn. It had only a hint of yellow on its eyestripe and a dull grey breast. It almost certainly was a female, or possibly an immature bird.

I had had the Inwood Hill Park Dickcissel in December 2011 and January 2012, so it was not a life Manhattan bird for me. It was, however, my first Central Park Dickcissel.


Nelson’s Sparrow, Golden Eagle, Eastern Bluebird

On 27 October I made a midday visit to the northern shore of Randall’s Island to look for waterfowl and sparrows. Nelson’s Sparrows were being observed at Pelham Bay Park to the north, and I had expected them to arrive at the northern saltmarsh of Randall’s Island, as they had last year in late October. It took nearly an hour of observing to get them definitively, but both a Nelson’s Sparrow and a Saltmarsh Sparrow appeared.

On the evening of 2 November, a cold front passed through and shifted winds to the northwest. I went to Inwood Hill Park the following morning and was treated to a parade of migrating raptors, including six Bald Eagles, one of which descended to the Hudson to try to grab a fish. I also saw Turkey Vultures, two Black Vultures, and two new species for the year: Snow Goose and a single adult Golden Eagle.

On 4 November I ran into Andrew Farnsworth on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. I had just reported seeing the Saltmarsh Sparrow again, and he came by to have a look. It took some time and some searching, but he eventually had one of the Nelson’s Sparrows pop up briefly.

On the morning of 5 November I decided I had better try for the Eastern Bluebird before it was too late. Some had been reported in the North End of Central Park on the Third, and I searched after my visit to Inwood Hill but did not find them.

A bit of background: I had had Eastern Bluebird the prior two years so it would not be a life bird, but it was still one that I wanted to get. In 2012 it was the first new species I got when Central Park re-opened following Hurricane Sandy. I missed many of the good hurricane birds and not only temporarily lost the big-year lead but also was in slight danger of allowing another birder a chance at second place. Getting the Eastern Bluebird almost immediately upon arriving at the Great Hill on 3 November 2012 was crucial both to restoring my confidence and to giving me the freedom to pursue other rarities. The Barred Owl that quickly followed (in the Ramble) virtually guaranteed that the big year race would be a two-man battle.

Even though I am not doing a big year in 2013, I think Eastern Bluebird is one of those regular migrants that a good birder ought to get. Also, it would be fun to reach the 200 mark again for my annual species count.

So I set out for the North End on foot at 10:30 a.m. on the Fifth. I had studied carefully the calls that these birds make, which would easily be distinguishable from those of the very few other birds in the park at this time of year. I also knew to watch along fence lines and in trees, where Eastern Bluebirds like to perch before sallying out to feed on ground insects.

I checked all the likely places near the Great Hill, where they had been seen the day before. After roughly 90 minutes of birding I was walking back home in the North Meadow thinking that my quest would be unsuccessful when I suddenly heard a bluebird whistling behind me. I turned to see a male Eastern Bluebird perching on the chain-link fence encircling the baseball fields. It soon flew out to join three other Eastern Bluebirds on a distant length of fence. It was a most colorful sight.

From this point on there are no more “expected” birds, and I already had many of the typical winter rarities earlier this year. Vagrants like Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, or Cave Swallow would benefit both my year and lifetime lists.