My 2018 Manhattan Big-Year record: 230

The biggest New York bird story of 2018 was, of course, the Central Park Mandarin Duck. For weeks, in November and early December, it attracted worldwide media attention. I spent much of my time doing interviews and creating the content on Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark on Twitter) that kept thousands of new followers apprised of the comings and goings of Central Park’s avian celebrity.

At the same time, my own birding in 2018 had gone exceptionally well — which was not  initially the plan.  After incrementally increasing my own ABA-rules Manhattan big-year record in 2017 (from 213 to 214) I had no intention of doing yet another big year in 2018. Competitive big-years require huge time and effort, even when the geographic focus is just at the county level. I wanted to spend much more time on my work in Deep Learning, a branch of Computer Science, which I did.

I still enjoyed getting in an hour or two of birding most days, in January and February 2018. Thanks to unusually cold weather, rarities showed up frequently during these months, and it did not take much time to get them. Without really trying to run up a big total, by late February I had nevertheless assembled a strong list and was well ahead of everyone else in the eBird Top 100. So, I decided to post my results and enter the fray.

I figured that taking six weeks off to bird intensely again (mid-April through May) would be fine. I could do nearly all of it in Central Park, just minutes from where I live, and see how it went. Why waste the good winter results?

Big-year birding results come quickly. In a good Manhattan January one might get 60 birds in the first week or even in the first couple days, as some did in 2019. Then things slow until April. But by the end of May I expect to have roughly 85% of my total for the entire year — if I have given full effort and done things right.

The 2018 spring migration season for Manhattan was unusually rewarding, as I mentioned in a previous blog post. I had 194 species, 5 better than I or anyone had done before, giving me a reasonable expectation of breaking my big-year record of 214.

Early July brought more encouraging news: Red-breasted Nuthatches were having an early irruptive move, suggesting the possibility of a finch irruption, and with it an extra three to six species one would not normally get. Most noteworthy of the 2018 finch irruption was Evening Grosbeak, a once-per-decade bird for Manhattan at best, which I would have much later in the year on November 19.

Summer shorebird season went very well, too, including such rarities as Sanderling, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Lesser Yellowlegs.

By August 10, with help from the sharp eyes of Robert DeCandido, I had added Yellow-breasted Chat and Orange-crowned Warbler, my 200th and 201st birds of the year. By then I was fairly certain that my 214 record would fall.

Along the way I ended up having only my second-ever perfect warbler year, in which I observed every regularly-occurring warbler. My first one was in 2012. Though Connecticut Warbler on September 23 was the last to fall, the toughest of them all came on August 15: Golden-winged Warbler, a species I had not had at all since 2012.

Virginia Rail (214) on October 8 tied the record, and new life bird Sandhill Crane (215) on October 16 broke it.

The next target was the all-time eBird big-year record of 221 set by Andrew Farnsworth in 2011, the year of Hurricane Sandy. This was not an ABA-rules record because Farnsworth, one of the world’s best long-distance birders, lists whatever he can observe from Manhattan locations, even birds that clearly are outside the boundaries of Manhattan — as eBird both allows and recommends.

The good fortune of a finch irruption was quickly followed, in November, by the even better fortune of a massive owl irruption. First, Long-eared Owl on November 1, then Barred Owl the next day, then Northern Saw-whet Owl on November 10. Barred Owl tied the record at 221. Two days later, Harris’s Sparrow broke it, my 222nd ABA species of the year.

Of my remaining birds, the best one was Short-eared Owl on November 22, which I myself found on Randall’s Island, another new life bird and my 227th of the year.

My last bird of the year was Great Horned Owl on December 8, my 230th.

I tried hard to add another. Red-necked Grebe had started showing up around the city, and it even appeared off Randall’s Island on December 31, well outside of Manhattan waters near Rikers Island in the Bronx. I thought Cackling Goose and Glaucous Gull were possibilities, too, but they never showed.

2018 was a remarkable birding year. I am glad I got to take full advantage of it. I will not be doing this sort of thing again soon!