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.