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 — 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.

 

 

 

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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 in public parks 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.

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 it doesn’t bother you to flush a flock of Chipping Sparrows feeding on a lawn, why should it bother you that people might draw the attention of an owl?

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. 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.

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.