Boat-tailed Grackle breeds within a mile of Manhattan, at Liberty State Park in New Jersey, and also in southern Queens in New York City. It is a common bird within its habitat — freshwater and saltwater marshes near the coast — but this habitat does not include Central Park, nor does the bird appear with any regularity elsewhere on the island of Manhattan proper. The marshes in Manhattan, at Inwood Hill, Sherman Creek, and Randall’s Island, probably are not extensive enough to attract the species.
Though most Boat-tailed Grackles do not migrate, New York is near the northern end of their range, and eBird records indicate that these birds leave during colder months and return in late winter or spring. This movement offers a slim chance for a Boat-tailed Grackle to appear anywhere in Manhattan.
In April 2011 a male Boat-tailed Grackle showed up near the Central Park Meer. It was photographed and heard vocalizing, allowing it to be identified with certainty. At the time I was enjoying my first spring as a birder and I recall reading about the bird on a blog. I wish I had chosen to chase it, but that is simply not a thing I was doing at the time. Though I was keeping a dated list of the species I had observed, I had not yet been exposed to the notion of a “big year.” I had not yet even joined eBird, so it made little sense to go to the North End just to find one grackle with a tail longer than the other grackles. I read that there still was dispute then as to whether the bird at the Meer really was something other than just a large Common Grackle. So I stayed away.
Within five months I was regretting that decision. I joined eBird in September 2011, and entered my list for the year, wanting to see how it ranked against others. As I relate in my book, this is when I started to think competitively about birding.
Since 2011 there has been no reliable observation in Central Park of Boat-tailed Grackle. There are only a few known records prior to 2011. Outside of Central Park but still in Manhattan, Ben Cacace had a female bird perching on Pier 11 in July 2015. The female can be identified to species on sight with much greater reliability than the male because of its coloring.
Even before the Pier 11 sighting, I had been thinking that with the species breeding on Staten Island and in Jersey City, New Jersey, it made sense to check nearby. Birds wander in search of better foraging areas.
Governors Island was on my mind as a place to look for Boat-tailed Grackle. This is the first year that the island would open early to visitors, on May 1, after opening in previous years in late May — an opportunity to try for birds that were still moving around, trying to find the best habitat. On April 23 I learned that an NYC Audubon birding group had been given special permission to visit Governors Island before the general opening and that it had found at least one Boat-tailed Grackle on a lawn at the extreme south end of the island. I knew then that a May 1 visit would be essential.
I made such a visit, accompanied by ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth. We got some good birds, including Bobolink, Greater Yellowlegs, and many Least Sandpipers, but we did not find a Boat-tailed Grackle.
I returned to Governors Island today on the 10 a.m. ferry. I went directly to the south end lawns and scanned them for grackles. Few people were in the area and the open lawns proved attractive foraging grounds for blackbirds. I had no trouble finding grackles, but all revealed themselves to be Common. One bird drew my attention by perching alone in a tree and displaying a long tail. I had only a distant view, the intervening lawn off limits due to pesticide application. It did not vocalize, and soon it flew off. I had to move on.
Later I saw a pair of grackles on the Play Lawn area. The one on the left was clearly larger than the other, had a longer, sharper bill, a very long tail held in a V-shape, blue iridescence on the body and — the clincher — a rounded crown, not the flat crown of a Common Grackle. This was a male Boat-tailed Grackle, the object of my search.