About David Barrett

Birder and writer

Mandarin Duck Mania, Central Park

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Mandarin Duck by Gus Keri

Last week a certain duck became a media sensation, and I was taken along for the ride. Gus Keri’s video of the male Mandarin Duck at the Central Park Pond, posted on my Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter account,  had already gone viral over two weeks prior, when the duck first appeared there on October 10.

Jen Carlson of Gothamist interviewed me and wrote the story that introduced the broader New York world to the mysterious Mandarin Duck. Then the duck frustrated everyone by disappearing two weeks. I thought he had been eaten by a raptor.

But on October 25 we learned that the Mandarin Duck lived on, seen at the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Hudson. By Sunday, October 28, the Mandarin Duck had returned to the Central Park Pond.

Julia Jacobs of the New York Times met with me to view the duck on October 30, and her brilliant story was published early the next morning. It quickly became the most popular story on the New York Times website and was liked tens of thousands of times on Twitter.

Since then, I have been doing a great many interviews with reporters from news organizations all over the world about the Mandarin Duck, which continued to draw hundreds of admirers to the Central Park Pond this last weekend hoping to see and, better yet, take a photo or video of the vibrantly-colored bird.

Many are finding joy in observing the Mandarin Duck, and I am delighted that my alerts account has been able to help them locate him and display their footage.

Let’s be clear: this Mandarin Duck is of domestic origin. He is not a wild bird, and he certainly is not ABA-countable or eligible for the eBird database.

Right now, though, he is New York City’s most famous duck, and we are glad to have him.

 

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Sandhill Crane, Inwood Hill Park

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Sandhill Cranes have a southern breeding range not too far north of Manhattan, in upstate New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. They frequently stopover in nearby Somerset, New Jersey, during migration. They breed in wetlands, and they will touch down in those or in expansive grasslands. They are not likely ever to land in Manhattan, and they are known to fly very high when migrating, which explains why they are so rarely observed here despite having a nearby presence and being large, unmistakable birds.

It never occurred to me that they even were a possibility until a birder reported one flying over the Bronx Zoo in May 2016. A report of seven Sandhill Cranes flying over Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan followed in December 2016. Then three more were seen over Fort Tryon in January 2017 by the same observer. It’s likely that another two were seen from midtown over the Hudson in December 2017.

These observations stoked my interest, but I saw no practical way to get the birds. Sandhill Crane appearances were not part of a daily movement pattern — they were notably infrequent. Plenty of birders were reporting from the Inwood area most days and not seeing any cranes. A dedicated Sandhill Crane watch of any length would almost certainly produce none. Still, it was a species to keep in mind.

Yesterday, 16 October, I went to Inwood Hill Park to do some sky-watching and river-watching. It was a decent, sunny morning with moderate northwest winds, and I was seeing some Bald Eagles floating overhead. Brant flocks were moving low down the Hudson.

At 11:48 a.m. I saw high-flying bird over Inwood Hill with just my eye and I focused my binoculars on it. It clearly was not a goose or a raptor. It had long, broad wings beating slower than a goose’s would, a long, outstretched neck, and feet trailing outstretched behind it. As it turned into sunlight, I noticed grey wings and body, and briefly a pale cheek patch and darker crown — a Sandhill Crane, flying southwest over the Hudson.

With only three other birders on record as having observed a Sandhill Crane in Manhattan in three other occurrences, the species must be considered among the rarest few I have had here. The North American population appears to be continuing a multi-decade trend of population increase, so perhaps it will appear here more frequently in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Kirtlandii Impact

Kirtlandii

I am honored to be featured in Kirtlandii Impact’s first “My Birding Story,” in which I answer some well-chosen questions on my birding experiences. What is my favorite birding find of all time in Manhattan? Read the interview and find out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pectoral Sandpiper, Governors Island

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Pectoral Sandpiper (by Cathy Weiner)

 

On Sunday, September 30, a night of heavy migration had me birding Randall’s Island at dawn, where I found the first Nelson’s Sparrow of the year for Manhattan, and then Central Park, where there was not much of note.

I figured I was done with birding for the day, but then late in the afternoon, at 4:17 p.m., Cathy Weiner posted an alert with photos of a large shorebird at the Governors Island maintenance puddles. I quickly DMed her to say that it was a likely Pectoral Sandpiper, and that she should try to get more photos. It did not occur to me to try to chase it, as I recalled that the last ferry was at 4:15 p.m., so I would have no way to get to the island. Or so I thought.

Fifteen minutes later, after hearing that Ms. Weiner was still on the bird, I remembered that on weekends the ferry runs later. A quick check showed that I might still make it on the last ferry of the day, at 5:30 p.m. I gathered my stuff and set off for the subway.

I caught a train right away, but it was just a local. To go all the way to Bowling Green, the stop nearest waterfront on the Lexington Line, I would need the 4 train seven minutes behind it.

I reached the local’s last stop at City Hall, and since all trains were running local on the weekend, the 4 still had not caught up. It was 5:12, and I knew I could run to the Governors Island Ferry building in ten minutes if needed, as I had done this before. So I started running at an easy pace.

The stoplights and crowded streets were not favorable, but I still easily made it to the ferry boarding area by 5:24. Relief! I boarded the ferry, and with Weiner on her way to the puddles, I figured that my plans would work out.

And they did. I ran to the puddles and saw Weiner waiting for me there at 5:46. She had just viewed the Pectoral Sandpiper, and I got on it quickly. It was distant, at the far end of the largest puddle, and I could not approach closer because the area was fenced off. But I got good, diagnostic views, and that was all I needed.

Cathy Weiner’s find was historic — only the third all-time eBird record of Pectoral Sandpiper for Manhattan, and the first since October 2014 (a bird I reported on the first day of its appearance at Muscota Marsh in September 2014).  It was the first time this species had been recorded on Governors Island.

Sanderling, Governors Island

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Yesterday, 7 September 2018, Mary Beth Kooper found a Sanderling on the rocky northwest shore of Governors Island and quickly reported it on Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark on Twitter) at 12:23 p.m.

The Sanderling species had been a focus of mine ever since 23 July 2018, when another birder photographed three such birds on the tiny beach north of Yankee Pier on Governors Island. Sanderlings strongly prefer to forage on beaches, a habitat Manhattan almost completely lacks. With no prior historical eBird reports of Sanderling in Manhattan other than during hurricanes or as flyovers, I had not previously considered it likely as a next life bird. But new evidence requires reconsidering one’s outlook.

First, there are a lot of Sanderlings at nearby beaches in Brooklyn and Queens during the summer, sometimes thousands of them at Breezy Point, for example. The species is abundant throughout its range on appropriate habitats. Not only do birds wander, but they pass over other locations on their way to where they want to go. So Sanderling flyovers should sometimes be visible in Manhattan, and bad weather might sometimes bring birds down.

Second, even though Sanderlings prefer beaches, they are capable of feeding elsewhere. And the Governors Island beach, though small, is still large enough both to be visible to flying birds and accommodate the feeding needs of a flock. At low tide the beach is at least 300 square meters.

23 July 2018 was just such a bad-weather day — strong southeasterly winds were blowing, the result of a low-pressure system in the Atlantic. I was running in Central Park when I received the alert, and I raced home quickly and made it to Governors Island in less than an hour from the time of the alert. But the alert, just after 3 p.m., came as the tide was rising most quickly. So by 4 p.m. the small patch of sand had become submerged, and the Sanderlings had flown.

I tried again the following day at low tide. And I continued trying on many other days, including on 23 August, one day after another Sanderling had been photographed on the southwest shore.

I posted on Manhattan Bird Alert that birders should be checking the rocky shores of Governors and Roosevelt Island for shorebirds, including Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone. I mentioned that Sanderlings, Western Sandpiper, and White-rumped Sandpiper closely resemble more common Semipalmated Sandpipers, and that attention must be paid to subtle differences.

I am delighted that Ms. Kooper kept this advice in mind and found a very cooperative Sanderling.

I took the 2 p.m. ferry, landed on Governors Island by 2:08, and after a few minutes of walking had the Sanderling in sight. I was treated to close, naked-eye views from above the rocks of a bird I had spent many days seeking.

Dickcissel and Pine Siskin, Central Park

Dickcissel, Central Park North End

On migration-season Fridays, Robert DeCandido offers a birding walk in the Central Park North End. He starts early, 7 a.m. or so, well before the scheduled walk time of 9 a.m., to scout the area and also to get in some good birding at the best time.

Two weeks ago he found Orange-crowned Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat on his scouting walk, the first of which he tweeted while I was still in bed, so the chase took a bit longer than I would have liked.

On this last Friday, August 24, I was up earlier, so that when Robert’s 8:00 a.m. tweet of a Dickcissel opposite the Green Bench arrived, I did not have much left to do to before going on my way.

It’s remarkable how this small area, around the Green Bench, produced two rarities worthy of regional mention in a short time frame.

I ran and reached the location by 8:27, and within a minute I saw the Dickcissel poking its head above the grass. I even got a decent photo.

Dickcissel is not recorded every year in the park; the last known appearance of it there was noted by only one birder in October 2016. Before that, Robert DeCandido and Deborah Allen found one on the Central Park Great Hill on 27 May 2016, and I quickly chased it and saw it along with Deborah.

I am delighted to have had at least one Dickcissel in Manhattan every year from 2011 to 2018.

Today, August 25, Robert DeCandido continued to produce. I joined him for a walk around the Ramble on a pleasant but not-too-birdy morning. The Ramble was alive with the calls of Red-breasted Nuthatches. Altogether I had at least ten of them.

We saw and heard several of them in the trees of Bunting Meadow, immediately north of the Upper Lobe. Robert noticed another, drabber bird associating with the nuthatches, one with brown streaking on the breast and a sharp bill — an unexpected Pine Siskin, the first of the year for Manhattan! This also is the earliest-recorded fall date on eBird of a Manhattan Pine Siskin.

 

 

August Rarities in Central Park

After warning Manhattan birders from my @BirdCentralPark Twitter feed that Thursday-night radar was lighting up and that the morning could bring some good birds, I planned on looking for shorebirds in Inwood. I had already observed nearly every bird likely to occur in Central Park in the spring.

Those plans changed quickly, on Friday, 10 August 2018, when Robert DeCandido sent a 7:56 a.m. alert of Orange-crowned Warbler in the Central Park Wildflower Meadow, a species I still needed for the year. (As did nearly everyone else. Unlike 2017, when Orange-crowned Warbler was seen often during spring migration, 2018 brought perhaps only one such bird, seen on only one day.)

As I was getting ready to run to the North End, DeCandido found and reported another rarity: Yellow-breasted Chat southwest of the A. H. Green Bench, near the Wildflower Meadow.

The temperature was rising quickly (it would reach 86 F later) and it was a sunny day, so I knew that bird activity would soon decline. I ran to the Wildflower Meadow and looked around.

I did not see or hear any migrants, so I went to check the Green Bench area, which also had no birds of interest.

I knew that the species I was seeking almost surely were still in the area, whose dense foliage offered excellent habitat. I also knew that DeCandido and his birding group would be coming by soon, so I continued looking.

Half an hour later DeCandido and group arrived. Having Robert DeCandido around is a tremendous advantage, because DeCandido is a master of using sound to attract birds.

I have birded with him extensively, and I can relate dozens of times when no migrant activity was evident, yet after DeCandido played appropriate calls for a minute or two, warblers, vireos, and flycatchers would appear in nearby trees.

Such was the case again. We began seeing expected migrants like Canada Warbler, American Redstart, and Yellow Warbler. We even had an early Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Then DeCandido spotted the Yellow-breasted Chat again, in a fruiting tree on the northwest side of Wildflower Meadow, and everyone had great views of the perching bird.

Then we moved to the southwest corner of Wildflower Meadow, and the sounds DeCandido played drew in warblers to trees that had been empty before our arrival. We had Red-eyed Vireo, another Canada Warbler, an empidonax flycatcher, and a couple American Goldfinches.

After much waiting we noticed some rustling low in the brush, and DeCandido soon had everyone on a handsome Orange-crowned Warbler.

DeCandido’s observations of Yellow-breasted Chat and Orange-crowned Warbler set the earliest-ever records for fall migration for these species, the latter by over a month. A most remarkable morning in Central Park!

194 Manhattan Species Before June

A good winter combined with a very good spring helped me to set a new pre-June Manhattan record of 194 total bird species for the year 2018. The previous pre-June best was 189, shared by Andrew Farnsworth and me in 2017.

How good is the record? In 2012 I had 212 total birds for year but only 164 as of May 31. Since then my mid-year totals have varied: 173, 182, 175, 180, 189 for 2013 to 2017. 194 clearly is an outlier, and probably on-par with or a bit better than my best big year total of 214.

One reason for a general trend up in these counts is the increasing number of birders who issue chaseable reports, mainly through the Manhattan Bird Alert service I operate on Twitter (@BirdCentralPark), but increased use of eBird also makes a difference.

When @BirdCentralPark began in May 2013 we had only 200 or so followers. Now we have over 2,500, and we get reports tweeted at us by casual or visiting birders often in addition to the many reports from our regular users. It has become increasingly likely that good birds will be found and reported, making Manhattan birding more rewarding for everyone.

 

Bicknell’s Thrush, Central Park Ramble

Bicknell’s Thrush (from allaboutbirds.org)

This morning Roger Pasquier heard the song of a Bicknell’s Thrush at Evodia (the Ramble bird feeder area). He later told Anthony Collerton about it and pointed out the bird, a warm-toned thrush associating closely with a grayer Gray-cheeked Thrush. Collerton issued a Manhattan Bird Alert (follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter) to let everyone know. He himself had not heard the bird sing.

I arrived at Evodia some minutes later, after Collerton had left, and quickly found a pair of thrushes on the east side of Evodia that matched the stated description. I announced my find to other birders nearby just as the bird was flying to the west side of Evodia.

As I have written before, visual identification is not sufficient to claim a Bicknell’s Thrush, as Gray-cheeked can look much the same. One needs to hear the Bicknell’s song, which ends with a thin, rising pitch.

Both thrushes were staying silent and had wandered out of view. When we started playing the Bicknell’s song on a mobile phone, one of the thrushes came back into view and perched overhead, calling “whee-er”. Soon it flew down and sang. We had our Bicknell’s!

Shortly thereafter I called it in again for Anders Peltomaa and Al “Big Year” Levantin and elicited singing in response. Same later for Joseph DiCostanzo and his American Museum of Natural History walk.

I also heard the Bicknell’s Thrush sing on its own, unprompted, just east of the Gill Source at 10:18 a.m.

A half-hour later Robert DeCandido came by Evodia and helped members of his birding walk see and hear a singing Bicknell’s Thrush.

American Bird Conservancy President Mike Parr and his group were nearby at the time and might have heard the Bicknell’s song. To be sure, I used my phone to call it back again and everyone got close views of the calling and singing  bird.

Bicknell’s Thrush remains a rarity not just in Central Park but throughout its tight migration range along the East Coast. Since identification requires hearing its song, it is possible to get it only during spring migration. Even then, the time window seems to be narrow — I have never had Bicknell’s on more than one day in any May, and there are usually at most only a few days in any May when I hear much thrush song in Central Park. The possible date range for it here seems to be May 12 to May 25, judging by historical Central Park records and my own experience.

 

 

Kirtland’s Warbler, Central Park

When I saw Kevin Topping’s 5:05 p.m. tweet of a “possible” Kirtland’s Warbler on the northwest side of the Central Park Reservoir, I immediately relayed it to Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark). Of course I had some doubts — Kirtland’s Warbler had only one confirmed eBird record in all New York State (2014, Hamlin Beach State Park on the shore of Lake Ontario), and a female Canada Warbler would be at least 10,000 times more likely.

By 5:15 I had heard from a friend that Kevin was “fairly sure,” so I got ready to chase. Along the way I received a photo of the bird, which strongly supported the ID.

Because I did not know the exact location of the bird, I ended up taking the longer route around the east side of the Reservoir. I finally saw Kevin at 5:31 p.m. at 91st Street and West Park Drive, but he no longer was on the bird.

Then Ryan Zucker arrived, and soon he and his mother had re-found the bird slightly northwest of the previous location. From that point forward the bird stayed in view, sometimes moving from tree to tree but remaining in the same general area, where it had an abundance of insects on which to feed. It had been a hatchout day in the park, and many other warblers were enjoying the feast.

On the way I had privately posted Andrew Farnsworth of the find, and by 5:58 p.m. he had it, too — the only bird native to the continental United States that he had not yet recorded.

It likely is the rarest bird that has been found in Manhattan during the time I have been birding. By the time I left at 6:29 p.m. over 100 birders were on the scene.

Surely some birders will be traveling to Central Park tomorrow from all over the region, hoping to re-find this bird. Manhattan Bird Alert will try to keep everyone informed!