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.

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Semipalmated Plover, Sherman Creek

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

There have been some noteworthy new year-birds along the way. The female Blue-winged Teal of June 4 at Swindler Cove Park was unexpected, particularly for the time of year.

I also 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.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Governors Island

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.

 

 

 

 

Least Bittern, Central Park Ramble

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Least Bittern (30 April 2017, David Barrett)

It was already an amazing week for me and for Manhattan birding in general. I added two life birds: Red Phalarope, on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island on April 26, and Clapper Rail, at the Loch on April 28 (almost certainly the bird released by the Wild Bird Fund after rehab on April 24).

A warm air mass with southerly winds pushed migrant birds farther north, bring many species to the area over a week sooner than usual. I finished April with 20 more birds for the year than I had ever had before at this time.

The biggest surprise of all came this morning at 8:14 a.m., when I received a Manhattan Bird Alert text (from @BirdCentralPark on Twitter, see here to follow) of Least Bittern in a tree high above the Gill. I ran from the Reservoir and saw a handful of birders already eyeing it. Shape, size, and coloring all checked.  It was my third life Manhattan bird of the week.

The last recorded appearance of Least Bittern in Central Park was on May 29, 1989 on Starr Saphir’s Ramble walk. Lenore Swenson took note of this bird in her journal. It is much rarer than American Bittern, which is observed in Central Park at least once in most years.

 

Wild Turkey, Central Park

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Wild Turkey at Maintenance area

An hour after sunset on Thursday, April 20 eBird relayed the report, with photos, of a Wild Turkey at the north end of Central Park, by a stream known as the Loch. I immediately tweeted the report to followers of Manhattan Bird Alert. The bird was said to be lingering at the Loch, flying back and forth over it, and allowing close approach from people. None of this is surprising for a Wild Turkey, but it is odd that no regular birders were there, at a recently very popular warbler spot, to observe and report it in real time.

It rained over Thursday night, during which time the turkey presumably would have roosted in a tall, nearby tree.

On Friday morning the search was on, with birders (including me) scouring the Loch and nearby North Woods\. The latter would make excellent turkey habitat and would have few people to disturb it. None of us found it that morning, nor was it reported elsewhere in the park. How could a large, conspicuous bird, one that moves around mostly by walking, suddenly disappear?

Then at 6:33 that evening a new lead emerged: an eBird report by a Brooklyn birder of Wild Turkey earlier that afternoon at Turtle Pond. Was I being pranked? The Ramble had many birders active in the afternoon who would have issued text alerts had they seen it, and Turtle Pond receives a huge amount of foot traffic.

I ran to Turtle Pond to investigate. Since it was getting late, I checked the trees, too, for a possible roosting bird. Still no turkey.

I figured that nearby Tupelo Meadow would be a pleasant spot for a Wild Turkey, so I checked there. Maintenance Meadow would be also make a quiet foraging spot, but again, no bird.

Then I saw it, a large, dark blob walking slowly aside the paved path immediately east of the Maintenance tool shed:

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This Wild Turkey was the first documented appearance of the species in Central Park since January 2009, and the first for me in the park.

It remained in Central Park yesterday (Saturday), ending up in the Cherry Hill and Falconer’s Hill areas after appearing early in the east section of the Ramble.

Today (Sunday, April 23) it was spotted on a lawn at the extreme southwest corner of the park near Columbus Circle.

 

 

 

Cattle Egret, South of Penn Station

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My photo of today’s Cattle Egret

 

Ever since last October, when strong winds and rain brought at least several Cattle Egrets to the area (Van Cortlandt Park and Brooklyn), I have been expecting a Manhattan occurrence at some point. I figured it would come as a flyover, most likely over the Hudson but possibly anywhere. An appearance on the fields or marshes of Inwood Hill Park or Randall’s Island would have been another likely possibility.

So it came as a huge surprise when today (11 April 2017) I saw an NYSBirds post at 10:33 a.m. announcing a Cattle Egret on a lawn between 8th and 9th Avenues and between 28th and 29th Streets in Manhattan.

I had been birding the Ramble, so I had a head start on getting there. I ran to the west-side subway and caught a train to Penn Station. Another short run from there and I was on the scene in twenty minutes.

The egret was on walking on a “lawn” with much bare ground. It came within twenty feet of me, and did not seem overly bothered when other birders arrived.

I learned that it had been at this location at least since yesterday. Someone informed NYC Audubon about it, and then NYC Audubon issued the alert.

It was a life Manhattan bird for me and for every one of the dozens who came to see it — the first confirmed record of the species in Manhattan as far as I know, and certainly the first such on eBird.

A Great Week of Winter Birding

I am not doing another public big year, but I am birding. This week produced some of the best finds of the winter.

On February 14 I had two Snow Buntings on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island, and at least one of them posed for a close photo.

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Snow Bunting

That same day I also had a Red-throated Loon, my first of the season and the first one I have had in nearly two years, seen from the same location swimming in the East River.

The day before I had Common Loon on the Reservoir, a species I had only once in 2016. Generally, Common Loon is the easier of the two to observe in Manhattan, not only on the rivers but also in the sky. But last fall the loon flights were nearly all very high, out of the range of my binoculars (I do not use a scope). I recall seeing at least a handful of loon flyovers in previous years at more accessible heights. And the loons were not touching down in the rivers as far as I could tell, which seemed odd. In the winters of 2012 and 2013, seeing loons on the rivers was easy — they were visible in decent numbers (1-4) on nearly every trip to the Hudson or the East River.

The best bird of the week was the immature Glaucous Gull I had on the 16th at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, which is part of Manhattan. There have been a few reports of such a Glaucous Gull in the area recently, including briefly on the Central Park Reservoir. I was delighted to get a closeup photo of the bird.

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Glaucous Gull

On the 17th I chased a Manhattan Bird Alert (Twitter) report of Canvasbacks at West Harlem Piers Park, a flock that had been appearing occasionally at this location in recent weeks. That is also where I had a flock of Canvasbacks in February 2016. When I did not see them at the tweeted location, I climbed the bridge to Riverbank State Park and found the flock just north of 135th Street by a water treatment plant. This time my photo had to be from afar.

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Canvasbacks

Today, the 19th, I had Greater Scaup off Randall’s Island. I believe that the relatively mild winter — after what was briefly a very cold mid-December start — has caused fewer scaup to pass through the area, and probably also fewer of other species, such as Long-tailed Duck, which has been absent from Manhattan reports so far in 2017.

My Best Manhattan Birds of 2016

I observed 206 bird species in Manhattan in 2016, of which these were the best:

  1. Swainson’s Warbler – April 28 – This one-day wonder at Strawberry Fields drew a massive crowd and led to a New York Post feature.
  2. Lapland Longspur – January 31 – Lingered for three days on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. It was the first modern-day eBird record of the species in Manhattan.
  3. Western Tanager – November 24 – This vagrant found at City Hall Park continued despite increasing cold for three weeks.
  4. Seaside Sparrow – May 5 – Initially four, then three, these sparrows lingered at Clinton Cove by the Hudson in Midtown West for nearly a week.
  5. Glaucous Gull – March 6 – Responders to the late-morning alert of this gull on the Reservoir had barely forty minutes before it ceased being seen, the first recorded appearance there of this species in twelve years.
  6. Cackling Goose – October 23 – Perhaps the only fully-documented occurrence of this species on land (or water) in Manhattan  on eBird, the very small size of this goose left no doubters. It stayed at the Dyckman ball fields of Inwood Hill Park for at least a week.
  7. Chuck-will’s widow – May 8 – Manhattan birders have been spoiled by occurrences of this bird every year since 2013. Still, it is in general mega-rare. This year it showed up in Mugger’s Woods in the Ramble for a day.
  8. Purple Sandpiper – 25 April – There are barely a handful of eBird records of this species on Manhattan land or waters. I had it on the rocks at the extreme south end of Roosevelt Island, as in 2015.
  9. Eastern Screech-Owl – October 3 – Since the last of the Central Park Eastern Screech-Owls moved on in March 2011, this species has been a rarity in Manhattan. A family of them showed up at Inwood Hill Park in June 2014. In 2016 a single one was seen and heard there for at least a couple days in October and again in late December.
  10. American Bittern – May 8 – Not quite annually reported in Central Park, this bittern was seen by many in and around the Oven in the Ramble, just for a day.
  11. Lesser Black-backed Gull – December 10 – This third-cycle bird off Randall’s Island in the small bay by Little Hell Gate Saltmarsh is only the second I have ever had in Manhattan.
  12. Virginia Rail – September 9 – This well-reported bird in the Ramble gave dozens of birders their life Manhattan Virginia Rail. I had it in 2013 in the Loch and should have had it in 2015 in a planter in midtown.
  13. Bobolink – May 11 and September 24 – Though a regular, very high-flying migrant over Manhattan, these birds are only rarely seen near ground level. Many had the single male Bobolink that stayed near the Oven for a day in May. I also had a Bobolink in the fall feeding at the Randall’s Island northeast-shore saltmarsh.

Honorable mention goes to two owls — Great Horned and Long-eared; Canvasback, Common Merganser, Cerulean Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Dickcissel, Wilson’s Snipe, and Blue Grosbeak.

Western Tanager, City Hall Park

After several days of powerful westerly winds, occasionally with gusts to 40 mph, it was not unreasonable to expect that a western vagrant might show up in Manhattan. Others have been appearing in the area: Cave Swallow on the south coast of Queens; Ash-throated Flycatcher in Brooklyn on the 19th and 20th.

I first learned of a possible Western Tanager at 1:30 yesterday afternoon (23 November) after running to Randall’s Island. A friend texted me about an unconfirmed eBird report of it at City Hall Park. The finder was an accomplished, visiting California birder. His description of the bird was detailed and covered the relevant points for a valid ID of this species. I had no reason to doubt his report, so I turned around and headed back home, expecting that I would chase it.

His report did not, however, say where in City Hall Park he saw the bird. I was hoping that in the interim someone nearby would go to this park and re-find it. Though considered a “micro-park,” City Hall Park is nonetheless four blocks long and over a block wide.

I arrived at City Hall Park shortly after 3 p.m. The friend who texted me about the report had already found the Yellow-breasted Chat that had been continuing in the area. In the 75 minutes that we birded we came across some lingering warblers — a couple Black-throated Blue, a couple Common Yellowthroats, and an Ovenbird. But we did not observe the Western Tanager, nor did any other of a handful of late-day birders.

In the evening, the original finder posted a low-quality photo that lent some support to his claim.

I knew that many would be trying for the bird early the next morning, so I planned to wait for a report. It did not take long to get one. At 8:17 a.m. a Manhattan Bird Alert was issued on Twitter announcing that the Western Tanager had been re-found.

By 9:08 I was on the scene. Initially I checked the south side of the park, but was surprised to see no birders present. Would they leave so quickly after finding a mega-rarity? Probably not, but it was Thanksgiving. After fifteen minutes I ran to the north section and saw a half-dozen birders focused on something high in the trees. They were on the Western Tanager, which was just southeast of the Tweed Courthouse and northeast of City Hall. We got acceptable, somewhat back-lit views of the bird foraging and occasionally vocalizing in the treetops.

The last previous confirmed report of the species in  Manhattan was in early March 2008. That bird had lingered in Central Park for over two weeks.

One observer reported a Western Tanager at the Reservor in June 2001.

Before that, I see an eBird record of a three-day appearance at the Pinetum in December 1990.

A Western Tanager was also reported by an astute, reliable birder in May 2010 at the Upper Lobe, but even he got only a brief look and the bird could not be re-found.

It therefore seems fair to consider today’s find a “once-in-a-decade” bird for Manhattanites.