The news first appeared on the New York Birders group on Facebook late yesterday afternoon — Gabriel Willow had received photos from a friend who had been observing an unusual bird perching on his balcony and elsewhere around the building, perhaps for six weeks. The photos indicated either Tropical or Couch’s Kingbird, with a description of the call pointing toward the latter. Already dozens of birders were planning to visit the location from which it could be publicly viewed, the west side of Washington Street between Jane and Horatio Streets. Neither Tropical nor Couch’s Kingbird had ever been recorded in New York State.
In fact, Couch’s Kingbird almost never was observed any farther north than Texas. It is no surprise that Western Kingbirds sometimes appear in New York, as they range throughout the middle and western section of the United States north into Canada. Strong westerly winds can cause them to veer off course as they move south in the fall until they encounter the East Coast. But a Couch’s Kingbird would need to travel over 800 miles north, not south, to arrive in New York from where it is usually found, in addition to veering excessively far east. And that is the sort of mistake very few birds make.
I was still at home when the bird in question was re-found this morning on Hudson Street between Bank and Bethune at 8:15. Andrew Farnsworth and others later heard it calling and the Couch’s identity was confirmed. It then flew back to the Washington and Jane Street location, where it remained through 9:30.
I arrived in the area at 9:55. I saw twenty birders searching for it, but none appeared to be seeing it. So I walked around the neighborhood to try to find it elsewhere, knowing that these birders would issue an online alert if it returned.
I walked over to the Hudson Street location near Bleecker Playground and saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but no Kingbird. Then I continued ambling around, visiting the High Line, and occasionally checking in on the primary location to see if all binoculars were raised. This went on for nearly two hours.
At 11:45 I heard someone yell, “Got it!” I ran from a block away to see the Couch’s Kingbird perching high atop the trees by Washington and Jane, its yellow belly gleaming in the sunlight. It appeared to be roughly the size of an Eastern Kingbird, and it gracefully swooped around the trees and out over the street to catch flies.
By then, forty birders had assembled on the east side of Washington Street, all of them seeing a bird they had never before seen in the city.
The Couch’s Kingbird was my 213th Manhattan species of the year and my 242nd lifetime.