I took this photo and release it with a Creative Commons BY-SA license.
Author Archives: David Barrett
How to Start Birding
Birds mostly are small and difficult to see well with only the unaided eye. A pair of binoculars is essential for birding. The good news is that this likely will be the only thing you have to buy, and the cost need not be high.
You might also want some knowledge about the birds you will observe and about how to observe them.
We recommend using binoculars with eight, ten, or (maybe) twelve magnification and an objective lens diameter between 30 and 50 mm. Binoculars usually are specified by these two numbers, for example as being 8×40.
The larger the objective lens diameter, the more light in your view, and the larger your field of view. More magnification narrows your field of view but makes things look larger.
Our personal preference is 10×42, as the field of view is still large and more details are visible, particularly when birds are distant. Now that binoculars are made of lightweight materials and streamlined construction, the weight difference is negligible between these and smaller ones.
Binoculars with 12x magnification have grown in popularity and users seems pleased with them. For looking at still, perching birds they should be fine, but they will make it harder to stay focused on birds that move often, like warblers, or on birds in flight.
We also appreciate having close focus ability, that is, being able to focus on birds nearby, which some binoculars cannot do. How close? Our binoculars can still focus at eight feet, but if you can get twelve feet or better you probably will be pleased. Sometimes birds land nearby and give amazing views, and you don’t want to miss those.
We don’t recommend so-called “compact” binoculars for birding, though some birders carry these around in a handbag for unexpected bird encounters when doing other things.
Read more about choosing and understanding binoculars here.
Advances in manufacturing have made good binoculars affordably priced. This used to not be the case, and older online guides recommend spending much more than is necessary today.
We think that adequate binoculars can be had online for $50 or so, likely similar in quality to what we used in our first few years of birding. These Gosky 10×42 binoculars are $65 after you apply the coupon, for example.
If you spend more, you can get sharper views: better construction, better glass, better coatings.
These Vortex Diamondback HD binoculars ($229) are excellent in all regards and come with a lifetime warranty against any damage, even if the damage was your fault. They are similar in quality to what we use now.
Shop around. There are many manufacturers and choices. The mentions above are simply examples, and we do not receive any payment or consideration for them.
Once you have binoculars, you are going to want to go birding. You will find that you can bird almost anywhere, that birds are around us even in the middle of urban areas like Manhattan, where we do our birding.
Of course, you will find a greater variety of birds in parks and on and along bodies of water.
How you go about birding is up to you. If you are more social, you might want to go with some friends, perhaps with some who already know a bit about birding.
We liked going to the park and experiencing nature on our own. It’s up to you.
We started by simply observing birds, looking and listening, and then trying to figure out what they were. This deductive process can be a lot of fun. We would remember the details of the bird, saving its image in our mind, and then check online and in a guide book to try to match what we observed to a species.
Now the process is even easier, and you can do it in the field thanks to the excellent and free Merlin Birding app.
Once you have downloaded this app to your smartphone, it will suggest birding packs of photos and sounds to further download. Download the pack relevant to where you live. For example, we use the US: Northeast pack.
Now you can set up one of the most useful features of Merlin: you can have it display the birds you are likely to encounter in your area in approximate order of their abundance.
Go to the menu at the top, right-hand side and choose “likely birds.” Further select for current location (which the app will suggest), Today, and sort by “Most likely.”
Now the app should display something like this:
The bar graph displayed shows relative abundance of the species in your area during different times of the year.
These are indeed the most common birds in our area. You can go right down the line and learn a bit more about them, including more photos (which are useful because often male and female birds look different and appearance may vary depending on the time of year).
For example, the Mallard:
We suggest quickly reviewing the fifteen to thirty most common birds in your area before you go birding. You can then enjoy the thrill of recognition, and you will have an idea of what to expect.
The most prevalent beginner-birder mistake is thinking that some common bird is actually some other rare bird. By using the “likely” sort in Merlin, and focusing first on learning the most common birds, you can do much to avoid this error.
The Merlin App also has a powerful bird-photo identification tool driven by AI. With good photos, we find that it is almost always right (90+%) in suggesting the most likely species. The app also can identify your birds by asking you questions.
When you want to learn more about a bird species—what habitats if prefers, what it eats, how and where it breeds, etc.—visit Cornell’s AllAboutBirds website, which has a wealth of information not only on each species but on birds in general.
In particular, we recommend the Bird ID Skills section of this site, which has excellent instruction on how to become better at birding.
Once you can reliably identify most of the birds you encounter, consider making a free account on eBird and using it to track what you observe and find out what others are reporting.
We run Manhattan Bird Alert on Twitter. Our daily posts of alerts, photos, videos, and commentary have helped many to learn birding or to enjoy it more. Check it out!
Now is a good time to begin your learning, starting with the common birds. By the end of May over 90 new bird species will have passed through Manhattan in addition to those already observed this year. The arrival pace stays fairly manageable through mid-April and then a torrent of birds arrives in early May.
Best to you on your birding!
Purple Gallinule, Central Park
On the late morning of November 2, 2019 I had just reached the Dock at Turtle Pond in Central Park when my mobile notified me of a Twitter post of a possible Clapper Rail at the east end of Turtle Pond.
I ran right over and saw a rail foraging along the shoreline with a bill too short for a Clapper Rail. It looked more like a Common Gallinule based on bill size and shape, but it had the wrong coloring. Then I realized it was an immature PURPLE GALLINULE, a most unexpected bird!
How unexpected? The last recorded occurrence of the species in Manhattan was from June 1928, over 90 years ago, also in Central Park.
The bird continued foraging along the north shore of Turtle Pond the rest of the day, showing no concern for the many admirers who came by to view and photograph it.
It must have flown out that night, as it was never reported again in following days.
Along with the White-winged Dove in April, it should share honors as the rarest bird of the year both for Central Park and for all Manhattan unless something even more extraordinary shows up in the few remaining weeks of 2019.
White-winged Dove and White-rumped Sandpiper
I hope that everyone is following @BirdCentralPark on Twitter, because that is where the action is: daily bird reports, photos, and videos. With 19,000 followers now, @BirdCentralPark has become one of the largest birding-focused accounts on Twitter. I put a lot of time into providing high-quality content on it and on our other borough-based accounts: @BirdBronx, @BirdBrklyn, and @BirdQueens.
This website still attracts a healthy amount of daily traffic, though, so for the sake of completeness, I want to mention two new life birds from 2019.
The first, White-winged Dove, occurred months prior, on April 14. An experienced birder reported this mega-rare vagrant after 3 pm at Evodia Field in the Central Park Ramble. It stayed there the rest of the afternoon, feeding on the ground with many Mourning Doves beneath the bird feeders. Though this was an excellent habitat for White-winged Dove, the bird was not observed there, or anywhere else in the area, in the following days—a one-day wonder.
The other life bird showed up mere days ago, first on August 9. The rising tide quickly submerges the Spuyten Duyvil mud flats at Inwood Hill Park, so that by the time I received an eBird notice of a White-rumped Sandpiper there, it was too late to reach the flats in time to see it. I tried later in the afternoon anyway, as sandpipers have been congregating on the rocks, but had only a flyover Lesser Yellowlegs.
With moderate migration taking place the night of the 9th, I held little hope that I would re-find the White-rumped Sandpiper there the next day at noon low tide. As I was on my way to Inwood Hill from Sherman Creek, though, another birder did exactly that. I ran over to her and quickly confirmed her find, and issued the alert on Twitter.
I had been waiting a long time to get that bird, nearly five years. One had been found on 4 October 2014 near the same location, at the adjacent Muscota Marsh. The finder did everything he could to help me get it, even personally calling me. But I was in downtown Manhattan, and I did not pick up the alert in time. Even if I had picked it up right away, I would have had to leave dinner quickly to arrive before the bird went out of view.
Learn Bird ID with the Merlin App
1) Download the free Merlin Bird ID app from Google Play or the App Store.
2) The app will ask to further download packs of birding photos and sounds. For New York City birding, you will need the US: Northeast pack, so choose this one. If you want other packs, too, that’s fine.
3) Go to the menu at the top, right-hand side and choose “likely birds.” Further select for current location (New York, NY presumably), Today, and sort by “Most likely.”
4) You’re done! The app should now be displaying something like this:
The app displays birds roughly in the order of how abundant they are now at the location you have selected, which for us is New York City. This ordering is useful, as you want to learn the most common birds first, as they are the ones you will see most often and you do not want to be confused about them.
Clicking on any element of the list takes you to an entry containing more photos of the bird, a brief description of the bird’s behavior and appearance, recordings of its sounds, and a map of the species’ range:
Remember that males and females of any given species might look different, as is the case with Mallards, and also with Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, and many others. Likewise, many birds differ in plumage based on age, like Bald Eagles and Ring-billed Gulls. Furthermore, some species look different depending on whether it is breeding or nonbreeding season for them. Spring is breeding season for nearly every species, so for now you can focus on the photos that depict breeding plumage.
Identifying birds based on their songs and calls is a more advanced birding skill, but a most rewarding one. The Merlin app has the basic sounds you need to get started.
The first 30 to 40 birds on the Merlin list should be fairly common anywhere in New York City. After that, differing habitats come into play. Because they have large coastal and saltmarsh areas, Brooklyn and Queens commonly get waterfowl and shorebirds that are quite rare for Manhattan. Current examples, for early March, are Horned Grebe and Long-tailed Duck.
Nevertheless, Manhattan does exceptionally well at getting songbirds during spring migration, and birders come from all over the world to visit Central Park and observe these birds in April and May. At least one hundred new bird species for the year will pass through Manhattan between now and the end of May.
By starting now, you can be ready to recognize the colorful birds of spring as they arrive. Different species have different arrival patterns, but in general, each has a two-week period of highest likelihood, some longer, some shorter. Any individual bird might spend only a day or two in Central Park before moving on, though some, like Cedar Waxwing and Gray Catbird, will stay for the summer and breed in the park. You continue to see many of the same migrant species day after day (until the species as a whole has passed through), however, because as some individual birds depart, others arrive.
Spring migration begins slowly, so time prior to mid-April is good for learning. You might even want to skip ahead in the Merlin settings and look, not at today, but at some future date to see what will be arriving. By late April, the new arrivals can come at a furious pace, perhaps even ten new species on a single day. It’s an exciting and beautiful time! With the Merlin app, you can be ready for it.
For instruction on how you can best assimilate all this knowledge and use it in the field, see the four Inside Birding videos from the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy.
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!
Mandarin Duck Mania, Central Park
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.
Sandhill Crane, Inwood Hill Park
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
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!
Pectoral Sandpiper, Governors Island
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.