Purple Gallinule, Central Park

On the late morning of November 2, 2019 I had just reached the Dock at Turtle Pond in Central Park when my mobile notified me of a Twitter post of a possible Clapper Rail at the east end of Turtle Pond.

I ran right over and saw a rail foraging along the shoreline with a bill too short for  a Clapper Rail. It looked more like a Common Gallinule based on bill size and shape, but it had the wrong coloring. Then I realized it was an immature PURPLE GALLINULE, a most unexpected bird!

How unexpected? The last recorded occurrence of the species in Manhattan was from June 1928, over 90 years ago, also in Central Park.

The bird continued foraging along the north shore of Turtle Pond the rest of the day, showing no concern for the many admirers who came by to view and photograph it.

It must have flown out that night, as it was never reported again in following days.

Along with the White-winged Dove in April, it should share honors as the rarest bird of the year both for Central Park and for all Manhattan unless something even more extraordinary shows up in the few remaining weeks of 2019.

Learn Bird ID with the Merlin App

 

MerlinBanner

1) Download the free Merlin Bird ID app from Google Play or the App Store.

2) The app will ask to further download packs of birding photos and sounds. For New York City birding, you will need the US: Northeast pack, so choose this one. If you want other packs, too, that’s fine.

3) Go to the menu at the top, right-hand side and choose “likely birds.” Further select for current location (New York, NY presumably), Today, and sort by “Most likely.”

 

4) You’re done! The app should now be displaying something like this:

MerlinS2

 

The app displays birds roughly in the order of how abundant they are now at the location you have selected, which for us is New York City. This ordering is useful, as you want to learn the most common birds first, as they are the ones you will see most often and you do not want to be confused about them.

Clicking on any element of the list takes you to an entry containing more photos of the bird, a brief description of the bird’s behavior and appearance, recordings of its sounds, and a map of the species’ range:

MerlinMallard

 

Remember that males and females of any given species might look different, as is the case with Mallards, and also with Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, and many others. Likewise, many birds differ in plumage based on age, like Bald Eagles and Ring-billed Gulls. Furthermore, some species look different depending on whether it is breeding or nonbreeding season for them. Spring is breeding season for nearly every species, so for now you can focus on the photos that depict breeding plumage.

Identifying birds based on their songs and calls is a more advanced birding skill, but a most rewarding one. The Merlin app has the basic sounds you need to get started.

The first 30 to 40 birds on the Merlin list should be fairly common anywhere in New York City. After that, differing habitats come into play. Because they have large coastal and saltmarsh areas, Brooklyn and Queens commonly get waterfowl and shorebirds that are quite rare for Manhattan. Current examples, for early March, are Horned Grebe and Long-tailed Duck.

Nevertheless, Manhattan does exceptionally well at getting songbirds during spring migration, and birders come from all over the world to visit Central Park and observe these birds in April and May. At least one hundred new bird species for the year will pass through Manhattan between now and the end of May.

By starting now, you can be ready to recognize the colorful birds of spring as they arrive. Different species have different arrival patterns, but in general, each has a two-week period of highest likelihood, some longer, some shorter. Any individual bird might spend only a day or two in Central Park before moving on, though some, like Cedar Waxwing and Gray Catbird, will stay for the summer and breed in the park. You continue to see many of the same migrant species day after day (until the species as a whole has passed through), however, because as some individual birds depart, others arrive.

Spring migration begins slowly, so time prior to mid-April is good for learning. You might even want to skip ahead in the Merlin settings and look, not at today, but at some future date to see what will be arriving. By late April, the new arrivals can come at a furious pace, perhaps even ten new species on a single day. It’s an exciting and beautiful time! With the Merlin app, you can be ready for it.

For instruction on how you can best assimilate all this knowledge and use it in the field, see the four Inside Birding videos from the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy.

 

 

Mandarin Duck Mania, Central Park

MandarinGusKeri

Mandarin Duck by Gus Keri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Interview with Kirtlandii Impact

Kirtlandii

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dickcissel and Pine Siskin, Central Park

Dickcissel, Central Park North End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

August Rarities in Central Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

194 Manhattan Species Before June

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

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

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

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

 

Bicknell’s Thrush, Central Park Ramble

Bicknell’s Thrush (from allaboutbirds.org)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Kirtland’s Warbler, Central Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Barn Owl, Central Park

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

There is a Barn Owl roosting in a pine on the small hill with many pines immediately east of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park today, April 11.

This owl was first seen and reported just after sunrise on April 9 in nearby pines. Chased by Blue Jays, it quickly fled north and was not reported again that day.

Yesterday, on the evening of April 10, a birder crossing the park saw it fly out of the pines on Cherry Hill at 8:15.

The original finder, Mary Beth Kooper, found the Barn Owl again this morning at its current location, and, as she had done two days before, announced it to all by posting a tweet to Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark on Twitter).

The owl is roosting over 30 feet high, well-concealed by an old nest and dense pine foliage. Still, those viewing from near the trunk of the tree have at times been able to see the owl’s face.

Barn Owl was last known to be seen in Central Park for a day in January 2004. It is one of the most unexpected birds to show up here in the recent years, and very likely will be the best bird of 2018 in Central Park.