Purple Sandpiper, Roosevelt Island

I have had my eye on the Purple Sandpiper for a few years now. It occurs regularly in winter and early spring off the south (and less frequently off the west) shore of Brooklyn, and also has appeared at nearby Liberty State Park (in New Jersey, but right off upper New York Harbor) and at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. There is a historical record of it on Governors Island from 1985. The species almost certainly passes through Manhattan waters every year. Yet there have been no chaseable reports of Purple Sandpiper in Manhattan during the years I have been actively birding (since 2011) until May of this year.

I expected to find it first on the rocky northeast shore of Randall’s Island, one of the best few spots in the county for finding shorebirds and other unusual waterfowl. I visited Randall’s Island dozens of times in the cold months, always scanning the rocks for birds. But I never saw a Purple Sandpiper there.

Then in the early evening of May 3 this year, a reliable birder observed three Purple Sandpipers on the rocks south of Roosevelt Island. It appears that he was initially unclear as to the ID of the birds, which might explain why he did not report them until well after sundown. I got in touch with Andrew Farnsworth, who can view Roosevelt Island clearly from his apartment using a scope. He looked for the sandpipers to reappear the next day, but he did not see them. I figured they had flown along on their way.

Then this last Sunday, May 17, I was online when an eBird Year Needs Alert arrived at 7:18 p.m. Another reliable birder had seen a single Purple Sandpiper on the rocks at the south end of Roosevelt Island shortly after 6 p.m. The bird soon went out of view on the east side of the rocks, which is perhaps why the birder did not issue a real-time text alert. With Four Freedoms Park, from which he did the viewing, closing at 7 p.m., it would be impossible to look for the bird from where he did. My only option would be viewing it from the Manhattan shore of the East River at 51st Street, part of Detmold Park.

Could I reach it in time? I would have to get dressed, take the subway to 59th or 53rd, and then run to the river. This would take 30 minutes or so — I have done it before — and that would leave me barely 15 minutes before sundown. The Manhattan skyline probably already would be shading Roosevelt Island. Moreover, had no idea if the bird had come back into view. It seemed the chase was likely to be a huge waste of time. I texted Farnsworth to see what he was going to do.

Unbeknownst to me, Farnsworth had immediately grabbed his binoculars and set out for Detmold (a few minutes away) as soon as the alert arrived. He ended up not only seeing the Purple Sandpiper, but also a flock of twelve Dunlin that were flying between the rocks and nearby Belmont Island. By the time I heard back from him it was just after sundown and much too late for me to go. I would have to try for these birds the next day, with no guarantee that they would remain overnight.

Monday began foggy, and Farnsworth was unable to see the rocks and check for the bird. By the time the fog cleared the tide was near its high and probably not suitable for the sandpiper to forage on those rocks. I would have to go later in the afternoon, a bit after low tide, for the best chance of seeing the bird.

My plan to take the F subway line to Roosevelt Island was, shall we say, derailed by a subway power outage in Queens that put the F line out of service. I would have to go on foot from 63rd and Lexington to 51st and the East River, and I would miss out on having a close view of the rocks. In fact, I would be over 360 meters from those rocks.

I arrived at Detmold Park at 4:35 and saw no Purple Sandpiper. At 5:03 I saw a small sandpiper flying between Roosevelt Island and Belmont Island and then back. I thought it might have been the Purple, but because of the distance and the poor light from overcast skies I could not be sure. It disappeared again on the west side of Roosevelt.

At 5:35 I was close to leaving when I saw a small peep walking on the rocks and briefly popping up in flight. It stayed in view for less than 30 seconds. But I saw it clearly. It was dark on top with a lighter underside and a plump, rounded shape — definitely not a Spotted Sandpiper. Nor was it tail-bobbing. It was clearly foraging right off the rocks themselves, a behavior you would generally not see among the more common sandpipers that occur in the area, which prefer to probe mud. It had to be the Purple Sandpiper, my 249th lifetime Manhattan bird.

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Lincoln’s Sparrow, Central Park

Monday, May 4, began four days of very good to excellent birding in Central Park. All except Tuesday could make the top five for the spring when it is all over. I had Cape May Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Worm-eating Warbler multiple times. I also added Summer Tanager and Indigo Bunting.

I had some painful misses, too. A reliable observer had Kentucky Warbler singing in Riverside Park near 121st Street at 6:05 p.m. on Monday. I was not able to chase immediately, and the bird was in a particularly difficult location for me to reach quickly. I had to run across Central Park and much of the Upper West Side to the 86th Street subway station, at Broadway. From there I took the train to 116th Street, and then I had to run another seven blocks. It took me until 6:55 to reach the scene, by which time the bird had been in hiding for a half-hour. I searched with others for another half-hour and never re-found it.

On the following day I had much less far to run. An 11:16 an NYNYBIRD text alert told of a Yellow-throated Warbler at the Point being viewed at 11:15. This came while I was at Evodia, less than 300 yards away. I was at the Point in a minute, figuring I would have an easy bird. Amazingly, no one was on the Yellow-throated, which was said to have flown a bit. Instead, they were looking at a common Canada Warbler! More bad news was that the Yellow-throated had not been seen for fifteen minutes. The people who found it had phoned in the report to another birder, who then issued the text alert. Within ten minutes a hundred birders had come to the Point, but despite their searching it was not observed again.

There are two lessons here: 1) if you are seeing and extremely rare bird and it flies, follow it! Do not just stand there and start looking at something else. Warblers rarely fly far — they tend to move to adjacent trees; 2) Be set up to use our alert systems, NYNYBIRD and BirdCP,  on your cell phone. The directions for setting up BirdCP are on a top-level tab on this website.

Now, about the Lincoln’s Sparrow. It is the rarest regularly-occurring sparrow in Manhattan, at least twice as hard to get as the White-crowned Sparrow. Unlike the latter, the Lincoln’s is almost never found in multiple numbers or with other sparrows. White-crowned Sparrows will frequently associate with a small flock of Chipping Sparrows and remain visible for extended periods on lawns or rocks. Thus, if you get a report of White-crowned Sparrow you have a decent chance of chasing it and seeing the bird. Lincoln’s Sparrow, by contrast, prefers banks of marshes and margins of lawns and woods, and the bird tends to dart for cover quickly when it sees people. You need timing and luck to see a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and you also need to remember that it is a migrant that turns up in May in the spring and late September through October in the fall. I have had it as few times as once per year and as often as seven times during the years I have been very actively birding.

On Thursday morning I was birding along with Joe DiCostanzo’s American Museum of Natural History group when a text alert of Lincoln’s Sparrow from the west side of Balcony Bridge arrived. I figured it was worth a chase, as the bridge is high enough above the stream that birds probably are not bothered by viewers from above. It took only a few minutes to run there, but I saw no other birders and no bird. It was only after closer examination of the area that I saw movement in one of the evergreen shrubs. The Lincoln’s was feeding right on the shrub’s needle-filled branches.

Then I saw a text message that had come in several minutes before: Joe had found a Black-billed Cuckoo on the trees south of Turtle Pond! Of course I ran right back up the hill past Belvedere Castle only to find that the cuckoo was no longer being seen. And it was not seen again.

Had I known that Joe would find a Black-billed Cuckoo almost immediately upon my departure, I would have stayed. This cuckoo, the harder-to-get of the two, is a great (though regular) rarity. But I did not know that, and the odds were hugely against my missing anything significant by taking a ten-minute absence. So I would do the same thing again. The Lincoln’s Sparrow is a bird well worth getting when you have the chance, and I still have another two weeks this month — plus two weeks in the fall — where a Black-billed Cuckoo is possible.