About David Barrett

Birder and writer

Best Birds of 2017

Despite initially having no intention of doing another year of competitive birding, I ended up doing one anyway, and I put up my best numbers ever: 214 Manhattan birds for 2017, extending my own ABA-countable big-year record from 2014 by another bird.

Usually I write about my “best” (rarest) birds of the year, but I have already written about some of them on my blog, and will touch on all of them in the highlights below. Just for the record, here is how I would rank them:

  1. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  2. Red Phalarope
  3. Tundra Swan
  4. Clapper Rail
  5. Least Bittern
  6. Cattle Egret
  7. Lesser Yellowlegs
  8. Boat-tailed Grackle

Coincidentally these also were the eight life Manhattan birds I added in 2017.

Here are some chronological highlights of the year:

  • January 10: Found my first good bird of the year, an Orange-crowned Warbler at Little Hell Gate marsh on Randall’s Island. This species would turn out to be unusually common during both spring and fall migration.
  • January 12: Mute Swans used to be seen many times throughout the year on Manhattan waters but lately they have become rare. A juvenile swimming at Little Hell Gate marsh was the only one I had in 2017.
  • February 14: Found and photographed Snow Buntings on Randall’s Island’s northeast shore. I would end up finding another pair of Snow Buntings at the same location in November.
  • February 16: Found and photographed an adult Glaucous Gull on the rocks off FDR Park on Roosevelt Island. It offered close views and lingered at the location for at least a couple weeks. It may also have gone on to appear at the Reservoir, where I had an adult Glaucous Gull—twice.
  • February 17: Canvasbacks on the Hudson at Riverbank State Park. These continuing birds were north of the usual West Harlem Piers location and I might have missed them on my first visit there on a cold, blustery day. I nearly gave up on my second try before deciding to check from Riverbank State Park, where they came clearly into view.
  • March 4: Long-eared Owl at Shakespeare Garden.
  • March 15-17: The unprecedented American Woodcock event. Some saw as many as 40 on the 16th. They were everywhere, in numbers never seen before in Central Park. At least one Wilson’s Snipe, too. My and Central Park’s first woodcock of the spring migration came on the cold evening of the 12th, a single bird flying up in Tupelo Meadow. I was delighted just to have one—in some years they can be very hard to find in Manhattan. I had no idea what was to come only days later.
  • April 3: Purple Sandpiper on the rocks south of FDR Park on Roosevelt Island. Yes, the species has become annual at this location and more people had it this year than ever before. But it is still a treat to see what was for a long time a true mega-rarity for the county.
  • April 11: My life Cattle Egret at Penn South. I raced to reach it, worried that the bird would not stay long in such a heavily-trafficked area, and was first on the scene. Then the bird stayed for nearly a month.
  • April 17: Immediately I suggested to Robert DeCandido and group that Purple Finches were likely today and Strawberry Fields would be a good place to find them, the birds appeared high in the trees.
  • April 21: Wild Turkey at Maintenance in the Central Park Ramble. At first I thought the prior evening’s eBird report from the Loch might be a hoax. Failing to find this large, conspicuous bird in the North Woods with Robert DeCandido the next morning increased my concerns. Then an afternoon Turtle Pond eBird report from a visiting birder came through at 6:33 p.m., and I was off on the chase and was first to re-find it and issue a Manhattan Bird Alert. It was my life Central Park Wild Turkey.
  • April 24: Greater Yellowlegs at Randall’s Island Little Hell Gate Marsh, a species that appeared more often than usual this year in Manhattan.
  • April 25: I went out in the rain to get the White-eyed Vireo reported near Sparrow Rock and made a second such trip to get the Blue-winged Warbler. The latter species was unusually scarce this year.
  • April 26: Saw and issued an alert on the Barred Owl over the Rustic Shelter in the Ramble in the morning. But my day was not done.
  • April 26: Red Phalarope on Randall’s Island’s northeast shore rocks in the afternoon. Briefly had a naked-eye view of a breeding-plumaged female as it perched just feet from me on the rocks at the east end of the saltmarsh.
  • April 27: Huge day—Worm-eating Warbler with Roger Pasquier; Yellow-throated Warbler near Tanner’s Spring and Yellow-throated Vireo at Shakespeare Garden Overlook, both with Robert DeCandido.
  • April 28: Had two Marsh Wrens near Bow Bridge very early, the only ones of the spring in Central Park. Then went to the North End and had Orchard Oriole with Robert DeCandido. I returned to the Ramble get the Pine Siskin at the feeders just before noon. Robert would go on to find a Clay-colored Sparrow below Nutter’s Battery by Meer. After an alert of the Clapper Rail at the Loch after 5 p.m., I ran there and saw it. Then, with some daylight still remaining, I walked toward the Meer with Tom Fiore and began searching for the Clay-colored. Karen Fung re-found it and issued an alert when Tom and I were nearby. We saw not only that but also our first White-crowned Sparrow of the year near it. An amazing day of birding!
  • April 29: Strong southerly winds brought some warblers much earlier than usual: Hooded, Cape May (singing near Tanner’s Spring), and Tennessee (singing at the Upper Lobe). A giant Snapping Turtle, the largest I have ever seen in Central Park, also appeared at the north end of the Upper Lobe.
  • April 30: Least Bittern over the Gill, the first appearance of this species in Central Park since 1989. After seeing it, I suggested to Ryan Zucker that we chase an alert of a Lincoln’s Sparrow at the Pool, as we could reach it quickly by subway and it was likely to stay in place. This decision proved fortuitous, as we not only got the Lincoln’s, but we also ended up being right on location when a Kentucky Warbler was found by the Loch. Getting Winter Wren and Least Flycatcher was good, too.
  • May 1: Andrew Farnsworth and I went to Governors Island mainly to try for Boat-tailed Grackle, which had been reported recently by a group visiting the island. We missed that, but Bobolinks were a great consolation prize.
  • May 2: I returned to Governors Island and found a male Boat-tailed Grackle.
  • May 3: Robert DeCandido’s calls quickly deliver a rare Black-billed Cuckoo. Later, in the afternoon, while watching for warblers at Summit Rock I hear of an American Bittern said to be at Tupelo Meadow. I go to look for it and do not see it. Then I meet a birder who claimed to have seen the American Bittern himself. I issue an alert at 3:08 p.m. and look for it again, this time along with many others. No one sees it. I wander back to Summit Rock. After 6:00 p.m. I encounter a birder who reported having seen the American Bittern along with a crowd of birders at Tupelo and even had a photo of the bird. How could this be when no new alert has been issued?  I issue the alert myself and run there. Success, finally!
  • May 7: A late-afternoon report of Semipalmated Sandpiper at FDR Park has me going there during light rain at 4:55 p.m. Then an alert of Eastern Whip-poor-will at the Pond arrives. I head to the Pond’s west side, by the waterfall, find the bird, and issue an alert with a photo of the tree where it was roosting.
  • May 9: I bird Central Park early with Robert DeCandido until I get an alert of Blue Grosbeak continuing at Battery Park. I find the grosbeak quickly, well north of the beehive location where it had earlier been noted. Then I start looking for the Summer Tanager, which Gabriel Willow had found at the north end of Battery Park. This takes over an hour, but eventually the tanager reappears and gives a close view to many.
  • May 11: Found my first Yellow-billed Cuckoo of the year south of the Rustic Shelter with Robert DeCandido.
  • May 14: Bank Swallow near the Reservoir North Pump House.
  • May 18: A male Mourning Warbler is found on the rocks beneath Belvedere and offers a close, clear view to many in the early evening.
  • May 19: I find a Bicknell’s Thrush near the Loch with Robert DeCandido and his group. The thrush sings in response to playback, giving the group its first-ever Bicknell’s.
  • May 21: I hear and then see a singing Willow Flycatcher at Turtle Pond.
  • May 23: An hour-long stakeout of Humming Tombstone gets me the reported Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
  • May 27: I bring show Robert DeCandido and group a singing Acadian Flycatcher at Warbler Rock—my last Central Park migrant of the spring.
  • June 2: My best look at Black Vultures, with Robert DeCandido, over the North Woods.
  • June 14: After a week of trying to get a Black Skimmer on the East River (as had been reported) or over the Meer, I went to Pier 45 in the West Village with Ryan Zucker. After seeing at least two Black Skimmers near the west shore of the Hudson, we saw three fly close by the pier. It’s a cool bird that very few birders ever have seen in Manhattan.
  • August 14: I wasted no time in getting to Sherman Creek to chase a report of Semipalmated Plover, a shorebird one does not get every year here.
  • August 25: The Lesser Yellowlegs found late the day before stayed another day, giving me another life bird in the maintenance puddles of Governors Island.
  • September 9: The first Bald Eagle and Broad-winged Hawks moving over Central Park—always a great way to begin the fall birding season.
  • September 10: It took me three attempts over two days to get the Connecticut Warbler at Sparrow Rock, but the hours of watching were worth it, as no other chaseable reports arrived this fall—a sharp decline from the relative abundance of the past few years.
  • September 16: After a Western Kingbird was photographed too late to chase yesterday on Governors Island, I went on the first boat and ran to the location on the south hills on a hot, sunny day. The kingbird never re-appeared.
  • September 29: The Philadelphia Vireo on Robert DeCandido’s walk near Green Bench in the North End gave everyone a great view of a bright bird.
  • September 30: Joe Girgente’s Dickcissel at Renwick Ruins on Roosevelt Island proved a pivotal bird for me. Both he and I got extended, close views, but no other Manhattan birders saw the species this year.
  • October 12: Quick chase to Randall’s Island’s northeast-shore saltmarsh yields both Nelson’s Sparrows and a Saltmarsh Sparrow (rarer) at close range.
  • October 14: Ryan Zucker texted me with a mid-morning report of Vesper Sparrow on the northeast fields of Randall’s Island. I ran over and saw it with him, the first of several Vesper Sparrows I would see in an unusually good fall for them.
  • October 22: First found the previous morning, the Fort Tryon Park Heather Garden Yellow-breasted Chat was not seen again the previous day. That is just as well, as I went to chase a more proximate report from Andrew Farnsworth in Sutton Place and did not re-find it. The next morning another alert from Fort Tryon arrived, and I went to chase it. When I arrived a handful of birders already were on the scene, some of whom had seen it just five minutes ago. I waited another forty minutes before it reappeared and soon gave me a brief look from the Heather Garden Terrace. This would be the last report of the year for the species in Manhattan.
  • October 22: But my day was not over. Shortly after returning home, I received an alert that Stefan Passlick had found an Eastern Meadowlark on a North Meadow ball field. It lingered the rest of the afternoon to the delight of many.
  • October 27: Red-shouldered Hawk would prove scarce this fall. I was happy to get an early one flying low over the Loch with Robert DeCandido and his group.
  • October 30: I have written at length about the evening’s Great Horned Owl over Evodia.
  • November 10: On a cold day with strong northwest winds Andrew Farnsworth and I had some low flyovers of Bonaparte’s Gull on the Dyckman Street fields, a very tough species to ever see in Manhattan. Upon returning to Central Park I was treated to another low flyover, that of Northern Harrier.
  • November 18: With widespread rain approaching, I decided to run to the Native Plant Garden on the southeast side of Randall’s Island, where I had American Tree Sparrows in late November the year before. To my delight one was there again.
  • November 23: I was extremely fortunate to be on the East River Greenway, on my way to Randall’s Island, when a low-flying Tundra Swan passed over the island and overhead on its way south. A private alert from a birder on Randall’s Islands northeast fields help assure this rare swan would not be missed.
  • November 23: Later that afternoon I chased and saw a Virginia Rail in the Central Park Ravine, another great Stefan Passlick find. This bird stayed at the location for many days.
  • November 26: I was one of the first to see the mega-rare Hammond’s Flycatcher that lingered for over two weeks in the Central Park Ramble.
  • December 3: Finally saw (along with Robert DeCandido and his group) the Boat-tailed Grackle (my first for Central Park) that had been associating with a large Common Grackle flock in the park possibly for as much as two weeks.
  • December 10: With the closest subway to the Dyckman Fields closed along with some stations on the 2, I had to go well out of my way to reach the three Horned Lark that were reported there. But even two hours after the initial sighting they remained, foraging around a puddle on the southernmost ball field. All of this came after already walking the length of Randall’s Island and back earlier in the morning with Ryan Zucker.
  • December 13: The late afternoon and evening produced a memorable goose migration event of enormous size. Many large, low-flying flocks of Snow Geese were seen and later heard, even hours after sunset, driven by unusual cold and favorable winds.
  • December 17: After several failed attempts this fall to hear an Eastern Screech-Owl at Inwood Hill Park, I was glad to receive reports of one being seen and heard on the 15th. I ended up hearing it whinny but never saw it.
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Boat-tailed Grackle, Central Park

Female Boat-tailed Grackle (credit: AllAboutBirds.org)

As I have written before, Boat-tailed Grackle is not a species you should expect to find in Central Park even though it breeds in the New York City area and in neighboring New Jersey. When it is reported in Central Park, it is almost always a mistake. Common Grackles vary in size and tail length, and if you look at hundreds of them you are likely to find some that look larger than the others. A male Boat-tailed Grackle is not easily distinguished from a large Common Grackle by appearance alone, though the rounder crown shape of the Boat-tailed and the very large tail, often held in the shape of a “V,” are key features. Song and calls diagnostic for distinguishing these two species.

If you want to confidently identify a Boat-tailed Grackle amidst a loud flock of Common Grackles, your best hope is to find a female or immature. It’s overall brown color suggests Rusty Blackbird, but its long, thick bill and much larger size (as large or larger than Common Grackles) easily clinch the ID.

Recently in Central Park eBird reports of female Boat-tailed Grackle have appeared, with the first being on November 17. This report failed to give a specific location and was entered after sunset, despite referencing a morning birding time. A more reliable report, complete with photo and Sheep Meadow location, was submitted on November 25. This one also was entered late, but not so late as to make chasing impossible. I received the eBird alert at 2:49 p.m. and shortly after 3:00 I was running to the southern end of the park to do some searching.

By then the large grackle flock reported and photographed in the early morning was gone. It was a mild day, and the Sheep Meadow and surrounding lawn areas were filled with people. I found a smaller Common Grackle flock in the trees of the Hallett Wildlife Sanctuary, but I could not pick out any Boat-tailed Grackles.

The following day, that of the Hammond’s Flycatcher discovery, another eBird report listed Boat-tailed Grackle. this time in the Ramble where I had already spent much of the day.

Two days ago, on Saturday, December 2, I had what I thought was a prime opportunity. A user of Manhattan Bird Alert reported a female Boat-tailed Grackle among a large Common Grackle flock on Cedar Hill. Minutes later, as I was on my way, this finder noted that the flock had been startled and flew south toward the Boathouse. Despite much searching in that area and in areas to the south, I never found the flock.

Another bird alerts user reported seeing the flock at Maintenance and then watching it quickly fly north. I headed north, scanning the lawns on the park’s west side. I did not find any grackles whatsoever.

Yesterday I was birding with Robert DeCandido and Deborah Allen’s group, which was on its way to the Pond to see warblers and waterfowl. I remarked to Robert, as we were passing Cedar Hill, to keep an eye out for grackle flocks.

As we approached the Sheep Meadow, I saw a massive blackbird flock — hundreds of Common Grackles along with many European Starlings. I quickly eyed a leucistic Common Grackle, and remarked that it probably was the same one photographed on November 25 in the flock with the female Boat-tailed — which might be here, too.

The flock flew west, re-settling on the northwest corner of Sheep Meadow. I ran to chase it, and began scanning. Soon another member of the group spotted the immature (likely female) Boat-tailed Grackle under a nearby tree. We got close looks and were able to take good photos.

For me and everyone else in the group it was a new lifetime bird for Central Park. We later had the bird again that day in the trees of Hallett.

Prior to November, the last verified report of Boat-tailed Grackle in Central Park was on April 20, 2011 — a male that seemed to have been lingering in the area south of the Meer for perhaps a couple weeks, and whose distinctive sounds were noted.

 

Hammond’s Flycatcher, Central Park Ramble

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Photo credit: Deborah Allen

Yesterday, November 26, a Western-type empidonax flycatcher later determined to be a Hammond’s Flycatcher was announced in the Central Park Ramble by Robert DeCandido through the Manhattan Bird Alert service (@BirdCentralPark) on Twitter at 10:15 a.m. It first was seen on the southern border of the Ramble by the Lake, which is known to birders as the Riviera. Thirty minutes later I re-found it north of there at Swampy Pin Oak, just south of Azalea Pond.

This is the first record ever of Hammond’s Flycatcher for Manhattan (in fact, for all of New York City) and only the third record ever for New York State.

Many dozens of birders from all over the northeast are coming to Central Park today to see the the bird, which continues in the Ramble — first seen at 7:30 a.m. at Swamp Pin Oak and later reported at 9:48 a.m. east of there, toward the Oven.

To get real-time updates on this and all other Manhattan rarities, follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter.

 

Virginia Rail, Central Park Ravine

Coming into today, November 23, my chances to get Virginia Rail for the year were looking slim. The species had already made more than a few appearances in Manhattan in the fall migration season. We know this because the Wild Bird Fund (WBF) on the Upper West Side had treated at least six Virginia Rails. Most of these birds apparently had collided with buildings and clearly were injured.

On September 21 a Virginia Rail was found by Bryant Park maintenance staff in the typical place where rails or woodcocks appear: the southeast maintenance shed, which is surrounded by vegetation and offers birds privacy and shelter. It was said to look “stunned.” Staff immediately called NYC Audubon, and the rail was taken away to the WBF before any public reports were issued. The bird recovered and was released sometime later.

The morning of November 8 offered the first chaseable report, at 8:10: a birder on his way to work noticed a Virginia Rail perching on a Lexus near 48th Street and Park Avenue in midtown, and suggested that the bird might be in need of rescue, though it did not appear to be injured. (Kudos to the bird for having chosen a notably safe and well-engineered vehicle.) Having stepped away from my computer, I was five minutes late in reading the post. I then took a few minutes to relay the report to followers of Manhattan Bird Alert, some of whom surely would be nearby and might be able to step out for a look. Then I got dressed and headed for the subway to begin the chase.

Because of the time — right when or just before most people begin their workday — I did not expect anyone to attempt a rescue, which would minimally require an hour of commitment, between catching the bird, transporting it to the WBF, and then returning to work. My response was not going to be my fastest — I would normally aim for 25 minutes from alert to arrival in midtown — but I did not see how it was going to matter.

I caught the Lexington Line 6 train with only a short wait and was headed to midtown. At 8:42 I was approaching 59th Street and feeling confident that I would get the bird, which might be only five minutes away.

Then I saw a new message on my phone: someone had already captured the bird and set off for the WBF!

This was a first for me. I have done many chases over the years, surely at least a hundred involving some cross-town travel, but before then my attempts had been foiled purely by natural forces — mostly by birds simply choosing to go somewhere else. This was the first time a  human had seized a bird and spirited it away before I could see it.

Proof that the capture likely was unnecessary came within minutes: the Virginia Rail squirmed free of its captor, who had snared it in a cloth bag, and flew off west on 47th Street. Had the captor thought to post this news then, I would have been nearby and ready to continue the interrupted chase. But birders were not apprised of the escape until over an hour later. The bird was not reported again.

Today, in contrast, everything went right. One of Manhattan’s top birders, Stefan Passlick, found a Virginia Rail on the west side of the Ravine in Central Park’s north end. He posted clear directions to it along with a Google Maps screenshot at 2:02 p.m. on Manhattan Bird Alert. I ran to the scene and immediately saw the rail foraging nearby in front of a log in the moist, leaf-covered area — exactly where the Google Maps pin indicated it should be. This was easy!

Soon others showed up, and all were treated to close, extended views of a Manhattan rarity that was largely oblivious to the observers and their cameras. It was a delightful way to end a fine day of Thanksgiving birding.

This bird went onto linger at the location for many days.

The Wild Bird Fund later announced that it had released a rehabbed Virginia Rail in the North Woods on November 21. Whether or not this was the bird seen by many cannot definitively be determined and does not affect the ABA-countability of the bird.

 

 

 

Snow Buntings, Randall’s Island

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Snow Buntings are a rarity for Manhattan. I am delighted to have had them for a second time this year (the first was on February 14, at the same location). Yesterday, November 11, I saw and photographed two Snow Buntings on the rocky northeast shoreline of Randall’s Island, opposite ball fields 39 and 40. They have been reported continuing at the this spot again today.

In other birding news, the cold front that passed through on the morning of November 10 brought strong northwesterly winds all day, which led to decent raptor and waterfowl flight. It was the first productive day for observing diurnal flight in Manhattan for over a month. We have been stuck in a cycle of either southerly winds (driven by strong low pressure systems) or northeasterly winds.

The latter are generally unproductive for seeing raptor flight over Central Park, as birds, which want to move west away from the coast anyway, are deflected even further west, over the Hudson and into New Jersey. For example, on November 8 the Quaker Ridge (CT) hawk watch had a record-high one-day total of 277 Red-shouldered Hawks. Manhattan birders reported none that day.

At Inwood Hill Park on November 10 I tallied some new birds for the year: Northern Harrier, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Snow Goose, bringing my 2017 New York County total to 209.  I had only a single Red-shouldered Hawk there. I had Northern Harrier in Central Park again upon my return just before 2 p.m.

Great Horned Owl, Central Park

Yesterday, October 30, a Great Horned Owl was found roosting at nearly tree-top level in an oak at the southwest corner of Evodia Field (where the bird feeders are) in the the Central Park Ramble.

I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert (follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter) as soon as I saw the owl, but clearly many before me had seen it and not done so. That’s a shame. Nevertheless, a lot of people who would have otherwise missed seeing this infrequent Central Park visitor were able to hurry to the Ramble in the roughly 50 minutes of daylight remaining and see it.

Based on the questions I received on Twitter, some simply did not know that it was OK to issue a bird alert involving an owl. It is — at least on my service, which has over the years helped birders observe many owls, including Barred Owl in April of this year, Long-eared Owl in December 2016, and Eastern Screech-Owl in October 2016. Some other listservs and discussion groups still try to restrict such information, a quaint policy in 2017 given the popularity of sites (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) on which information can be disseminated freely.

Others wondered if it was ethical to report owls publicly. I would argue that it is almost always fine to do so at public locations in Manhattan. Of course “ethics” is a social construct, one that varies widely among people and times. Decide for yourself. But if you adopt a point of view simply because you see it written somewhere or hear it told to you, you are not doing your own thinking.

We report hundreds of other bird species, and sometimes they draw large crowds. Think back to last spring’s Cattle Egret or Least Bittern. Surely these birds were aware of increased human presence. Yet no one would fault the people who issued alerts on them. The birds lived on just fine, with the former remaining four weeks in a urban area dense with people and machinery.

You cannot reasonably argue that yesterday’s Great Horned Owl, resting nearly hidden over 60 feet above the ground, was bothered by a group of people quietly standing still and looking up at it. People would have been passing by the area all day anyway. The owl was partially obstructed from any vantage point, and it appeared to be looking away from the viewers.

Owls deal with more proximate annoyances nearly every day as they roost — other birds (Blue Jays, crows, even hawks) getting right in their faces, screeching loudly and mobbing them. That is usually how we humans find roosting owls, and how yesterday’s Great Horned Owl was found.

Some worry that non-birders or bird photographers will behave badly in the presence of an owl, but I have never seen this happen in Central Park. A large group of viewers, with mobile cameras ready to record any malicious deeds, is actually a source of safety for both people and owls. Park Rangers often are deployed to monitor owls and keep viewers in line, too.

But aren’t owls rare and endangered? No, not the ones we get in Central Park. They may be rare locally (in the park), but broadly — even just in New York State — they are doing fine, and are rated by the IUCN as populations of “least worry.”

But they rest during the day — doesn’t this make them special? Yes, it is an uncommon trait, but nighthawks and nightjars also are nocturnal, and no one seems to mind that these roosting birds (e.g., Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Chuck-will’s-widow) are reported and viewed by large groups.

And why should they mind? Again, these are not endangered species, and a gathering of humans observing them is the least of their problems. They get pushed around by both mammals and other birds during the day, and sometimes they fly off and rest somewhere else. Same with owls. That’s life for a nocturnal bird.

The issue of nesting owls is more complicated and sensitive, but Central Park does not have any.

If you accept that even “ethical” birders might occasionally flush a flock of Chipping Sparrows feeding on a lawn, then why all the fuss over respectful birders who sometimes merely draw the attention of roosting owls?

Yet many birders carry a double standard — one for owls and another for all other birds.

On top of this they add hypocrisy. They don’t believe in publicly reporting owls because they say the number of viewers should be minimized, but they themselves will race out to see any owl that they learn of publicly or privately. And once they see it, they call or text their friends to pass along the news.

This process has a number of problems, among them: it’s slow, and it’s not fair — many people get left out of the loop.

Everyone wants to see owls, even people who otherwise do not go birding. Owls are fascinating and mysterious, and seeing them in Manhattan is a rare treat, one that should not be just for the select few. Think about how glad you were the last time you got to see one. With little or no detriment to the owls, the benefits and costs are much the same as for birding in general.

Manhattan Bird Alert wants to help you see your next owl. For this to happen, owl finders need to report promptly. Many will thank you for your tweet, even if a few curmudgeons sniff at it. If you would rather report anonymously, just send @BirdCentralPark a DM (direct message) on Twitter or email me privately. If you prefer to post on eBird directly from the field, that works, too — alerts are issued almost instantly and I monitor them and will relay them.

November is the best month for Manhattan owling. Let’s have a good one!

 

 

 

 

Autumn Birds Arrive

September 9 brought at least two Bald Eagles and some Broad-winged Hawks over Central Park. Though the park had Broad-winged Hawk sightings at least several times after this date, there was no day where even a hundred (much less the thousands that are regularly seen from Westchester hawk watches) were reported.

September 10 delivered a Lark Sparrow at Triplets Bridge that was seen just before 10 a.m. and by 10:20 a.m. was not seen again. Toward midday a Connecticut Warbler, possibly the same one seen in the evening two days before, was reported at Sparrow Rock. Some saw it pop out of the brush during the afternoon. I watched for at least an hour and then went home. Observers were crowding around the brushy area, hoping to get a close look at the bird. This crowding discouraged the the Connecticut from doing the very thing they were waiting to see. When I returned after 5 p.m. fewer observers were there, but some still continued to watch close by the brush rather than at a binocular distance. I got lucky in that the bird finally decided to fly out of the brush and land nearby, so I had close views of it for fifteen seconds. Then it flew into the woods adjacent to Tanner’s Spring.

Nearly three weeks went by without my having a new year-bird. Then on September 29 I had the year’s first report of Nelson’s Sparrow at the northeast-shore saltmarsh of Randall’s Island.

On the next day, a Saturday, as I was birding the Pinetum with Robert DeCandido and others, an alert arrived of Dickcissel at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island on the east side of the Renwick Hospital ruins. The bird was in a fenced-in area with a small sparrow flock, so I knew the odds of a successful chase were high. I was also in touch with the finder, Joe Girgente, an excellent birder who spends much time on the island. I was on the scene quickly and enjoyed extended, close looks at the Dickcissel.

On October 12 I ran to Randall’s Island in the late morning, after another birder had reported two Saltmarsh Sparrows on the northeast-shore marsh. I walked into the marsh near low tide and had close views of both Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows walking on an area of exposed mud.

Two days later I would be called out to Randall’s Island again, as Vesper Sparrow was reported on the northeast ball fields. Ryan Zucker, a prodigiously accomplished birder just beginning ninth grade, was already on the scene. We quickly re-found the Vesper Sparrow among a small flock of Savannah Sparrows near the rocky shore.

The morning of October 17 had much migratory flight, and just after sunrise I heard the the call of American Pipits flying over the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. In recent years I have made many trips to Randall’s Island in November and December specifically looking to find this species feeding on one of the many lawns. I was delighted to put it on my year list early.

That brings us to yesterday, October 21. A Yellow-breasted Chat was reported at the Heather Garden of Fort Tryon Park mid-morning. Normally I would be running out the door and across the park to do the chase, but I had already birded much of the length of Central Park earlier that morning and had experienced firsthand the delays and service changes of the NYC subway’s A line that runs to Fort Tryon, which encouraged me to walk home from the North End rather than ride. With the subway’s website still indicating delays, I did not want to duplicate a bad experience. I also had in mind the Yellow-breasted Chats are notoriously shy birds and can remain hidden for hours on end. So I passed on the chase. As it turned out, no one observed the bird in the afternoon despite some watching for nearly four hours.

Today the chat was reported by the same observer in the same location again at 10:47 a.m. This was valuable information: the chat was likely to remain in the general area, having already spent at least a day there. A quick chase would have decent odds.

I still had to deal with the A train not making northbound local stops nearby, so I took the 1 train at 86th and Broadway, which required a bit more running both on the way to it and on the way to Fort Tryon from it. But by 12:15 p.m. I was in Fort Tryon on a sunny and unseasonably-warm day.

After some climbing and walking along paths, I reached the north end of Heather Garden to find several birders looking for the chat. One said that it had been in view three minutes ago, low on some vines bearing the blue berries it sought to eat. Encouraging news, so I began waiting and after 45 minutes the bird still had not re-appeared.

Then someone saw it fairly high up in a nearby tree, and I caught a glimpse of it. I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert to let everyone know that the Yellow-breasted Chat continued. Ten minutes later I saw it again, this time much more clearly, perching on a limb, viewed from the raised terrace immediately north of Heather Garden. It was soon time for me to leave, but others continued to see the chat occasionally throughout the afternoon.

I arrived home and had only a little time to eat and rest before another alert chimed in: Eastern Meadowlark at the Central Park North End ball fields. This is a very hard species to get in Manhattan, generally reported only once per year in the park (usually late October or early November) and perhaps once or twice at Randall’s Island. So I laced up my shoes again and ran! Within ten minutes I was on location with the bird, alone on a fenced-in field, clearly in view.

204 species for the year in Manhattan as of October 22. That’s my best count ever for this date (by two birds), but given the strength of my winter and spring seasons (the latter including some birds more often found in the fall) I do not expect to be break my record (213) this year.

 

Lesser Yellowlegs, Governors Island

I had my first Greater Yellowlegs in April 2013 at Sherman Creek. Since then I have had the species at least once every year — three times in 2017. Given that the Eastern population of Lesser Yellowlegs is somewhat larger than that of Greater, and that New York City shorebirding hotspots in other boroughs record relatively similar numbers of these birds, it is a mystery why Lesser Yellowlegs is so rarely observed in New York County (Manhattan).

Prior to yesterday, there had been only two eBird reports of Lesser Yellowlegs in Manhattan since 2010 — an unchaseable flyover in April 2010, and an appearance on the mud flats of Inwood Hill Park in July 2016 that was entered a couple hours too late to chase before the tide rose.

Yesterday, August 24, the fenced-in puddles on the southeast side of Governors Island, which have been hosting a variety of common shorebirds since spring, finally produced a rarity. After 3 p.m. Gabriel Willow of NYC Audubon found a Lesser Yellowlegs feeding among a mixed flock of shorebirds that included Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, a single Solitary Sandpiper, and Killdeer.

With the last ferry to Governors Island leaving on weekdays at 4:15 p.m., I could not do a same-day chase.

Today I took the first ferry of the morning, at 10, hoping that the Lesser Yellowlegs did not join in what was a large overnight flight. To my delight it and all the other species mentioned above were still present.

Semipalmated Plover, Sherman Creek

Birds are back! And so is this blog, after three months without a post.

I had some Black Skimmers over the Hudson in Chelsea on the evening of June 14 after trying many times over the preceding week to see them on the East River from Gracie Park, as one observer did on June 7, and from the Central Park Meer. These skimmers reliably fly from the southern Queens waterfront to the New Jersey Meadowlands most June evenings, within 90 minutes or so of sunset to do their feeding. They prefer to fish on smaller ponds because the surfaces are calmer (which is essential for skimming) and because fish are more likely to come to the surface there.

No Black Skimmers have been reported in Central Park since June 2015, when I had one over the Meer.

Another bird that I missed last year (and also in 2015) is the Semipalmated Plover. It is common in the boroughs that have beaches and oceanfront saltmarshes, but it has always been rare in Manhattan. I had my first one in August 2012, also at Sherman Creek.

This year one was found near low tide just before 9 a.m. on August 14. A Manhattan Bird Alert was issued on Twitter and by 10:22 I had arrived at Sherman Creek (in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan) and spied the bird in the distance on the mud flats.

Warblers — particularly Yellow Warblers — have started appearing in decent numbers over the past week along with the waterthrushes. Fall migration, which began for some birds in July, is now picking up. We are also at the time of year when the rarer shorebirds are most likely to touch down—possibly even in Manhattan.

Willow Flycatcher, Turtle Pond

This morning, 21 May 2017, I saw an empidonax flycatcher from the Turtle Pond Dock flycatching low on Turtle Pond Island. It was, by appearance, either a Willow or an Alder Flycatcher. The two species look almost exactly alike and can be differentiated in the field only by vocalization. This bird was quiet, and before I could play a recording that might elicit a vocal response it flew east. With the fence surround the adjacent lawn not yet open, I was unable to chase it and I went on with the morning’s birding walk.

Just after noon I returned to Turtle Pond. From the east-side landing (opposite the King Jagiello statue) I saw a flycatcher working over the marshy south shore. It flew across the pond toward me, and as it did, it began singing the characteristic “ritz-bew” song of the Willow Flycatcher. I heard another Willow Flycatcher respond faintly in song from the south shore as the first one continued singing near me.

This was the first time in six years of intense spring birding that I had ever heard a Willow Flycatcher sing in Central Park. I have heard them calling before, at least once every year since 2013.

I still have yet to hear an Alder Flycatcher sing in Central Park. Perhaps because its breeding range extends much farther north (compared to that of Willow Flycatcher) it is less likely to sing when passing through here. There is only one eBird report of Alder in Central Park that indicates song was heard. Other reports, which involve barely more than a handful of discrete occurrence dates over all time, mention call only.