Interview with Kirtlandii Impact


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











Cattle Egret, South of Penn Station


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.

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.



Winter 2016 Review

December 2015 was unusually mild, and unseasonably warm conditions continued to prevail over Winter 2016, allowing some species that are usually gone by January to linger throughout part or all of the season. At the same time these conditions discouraged a number of species that usually visit Manhattan in the winter from moving south.

The overall effect was an excellent winter species total for me of 86 through March 21, just one bird off my best (in 2013). By contrast my lowest post-2011 total was 78 last year (2015). But Winter 2015 was better than my species total for it suggests, just as Winter 2016 was not as good.

The problem is that my Winter 2016 total is padded with lingering species that I would be certain to get later in the year, and it is missing many that will be very difficult to get.

These common species that lingered include Cedar Waxwing, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Gray Catbird, Swamp Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Northern Flicker, and two warblers: Wilson’s and Black-and-white. Yes, I generally do have a few of these birds (not the warblers) during the winter, but not all of them.

I missed Lesser Scaup, which in other years was an easy winter bird, and one that is very hard to get later in the year. I also missed Horned Lark, American Pipit, both loons, Long-eared Owl, Red-necked Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, and American Tree Sparrow. Most of these species were not reported by anyone. There was a single report of Red-necked Grebe on the Hudson in Chelsea, but travel time would have made the chase odds not so good. Common Loon is still very likely to show up on the Reservoir this spring (and on the East River), but there is less-than-even chance for Red-throated Loon.

As I said in my first post of 2016, I am not planning another big year. Still, I like winter birding. Very few birders go out in the winter. Aside from the feeder area, I mostly have Central Park to myself.


I had two life birds this winter — Lapland Longspur on January 31 and Glaucous Gull on March 6 — which is outstanding. Last winter I did not have any.

I did not write up my chase of the Glaucous Gull on the Reservoir, which was well-reported but which lingered for roughly only a half-hour after the initial report. I was particularly glad to get this species because an unexpected event forced me to cancel a visit to Governors Island in March 2015 where a Glaucous Gull ended up being observed.

I also had these very good birds: Great Horned Owl, Pine Siskin, Orange-crowned Warbler, Ring-necked Duck, Snow Goose, Common Merganser, Common Goldeneye, Canvasback, Horned Grebe, MerlinAmerican Woodcock, and Common Raven.

[Follow-up: The last ten days of the March were very productive for finding new species for the year. I added these:

87 Golden-crowned Kinglet Central Park–The Ramble 23-Mar
88 Pine Warbler Central Park–The Ramble 23-Mar
89 Fish Crow Central Park–North End 25-Mar
90 Eastern Bluebird Central Park–North End 26-Mar
91 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Central Park–Great Hill 27-Mar
92 Osprey Riverside Park–79th St. Boat Basin 30-Mar
93 Great Egret Central Park–Turtle Pond 31-Mar
94 Palm Warbler Central Park–North End 31-Mar
95 Chipping Sparrow Central Park–North End 31-Mar

95 species is my highest-ever total through March 31.]

Lapland Longspur, Randall’s Island

Just as I was about to head to the gym at 1:58 p.m. I received a text alert of an NYSBirds posting: Tom Fiore had learned of a Lapland Longspur on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island from another birder and had seen it for himself. The gym would have to wait.

The last eBird record of Lapland Longspur in Manhattan on land is from 1956 — a retroactively-entered historical record from Central Park. Andrew Farnsworth observed a pair via overnight flight call recording in 2010. For Manhattan it is thus an extreme rarity. Nevertheless, it has been on my short list of species I expect to get for some time. One reason is that it keeps showing up nearby every year. There was a 2013 observation in Van Cortlandt Park just to the north in the Bronx. There are annual observations of it at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

Another reason is that Manhattan has suitable habitat for it. Lapland Longspurs like to winter on open grasslands and tilled fields, and they seem to travel near the water when they pass through the New York City area. So Randall’s Island and Governor’s Island are great for it, and the fields of Inwood Hill Park also offer possibilities — a stopover point for those moving along the Hudson.

I printed out the directions to the bird, dressed appropriately (galoshes because Randall’s Island fields tend to flood when snow melts), and ran for the subway, catching the express to 125th Street. From there I ran across the RFK Bridge and onto the island’s northeast fields. I saw no other birders. I also saw no bird. Then it popped up out of the grass right next to the shore, just south of the sign for ball field #31. It was ten yards away, and my presence did not seem to bother it. I observed it for a few minutes and issued a #birdcp Twitter alert at 2:48 p.m. Then I left the area — I did not want to risk spooking the bird and making it harder for others to observe. Andrew Farnsworth found it in the same place 90 minutes later.

A Big Week, But Not a Big Year

In the first eight days of 2016 I had 62 bird species in Manhattan, my strongest-ever start to a year. My list is notable for the many fall birds that remained during the unusually warm December: Orange-crowned Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Towhee, Cedar Waxwing, and Northern Flicker.

It is also notable for the absence of many species, mostly waterfowl, that I usually have in January. I had no unusual ducks, geese, or gulls, just Brant and Red-breasted Merganser. No loons.

Even so, I definitely will not be doing another big year in 2016. I have done four of those, the first of which — in 2012 — was the subject of my book.

Big-year birding requires a great deal of time and effort spread throughout the year. In 2016 I want to focus on some other challenges. I’ll still bird when I want to, perhaps even quite a bit at times. But I don’t want to put much effort into chasing or searching for species that I regularly have — and there are a lot of those.

Exactly how many? I did some list comparison to find out. I had 191 birds appear on both of my 2015 and 2014 year-lists. Of these, 179 also were on my 2013 list. A few, like Long-eared Owl and Chuck-will’s-widow, are rarities that could not be expected to show up most years. Still, this leaves roughly 175 birds that form the core of an annual Manhattan list. Only five Manhattan eBirders reported even this many species in 2015.

I will continue commenting here on both my own birding and Manhattan birding in general. To all my readers, best wishes for a great 2016!

Best Manhattan Birds of 2015

Three lists, actually. I chose my best birds based on how rare they are for Manhattan and how uncommonly observed they were in 2015, with extra points for personal life birds. The second list is for the many great birds that “everyone” saw. Last, my most regrettable misses of the year.

My stats for 2015: 203 bird species in Manhattan and over 500 miles of walking/running in pursuit of them.

My Best Birds of 2015

  1. Franklin’s Gull, 13 November, 70th Street Pier on the Hudson. A life Manhattan bird for me and just a few others, part of an epic migration the likes of which had not been seen on the East Coast since 1998.
  2. Purple Sandpiper, 18 May, Roosevelt Island. Another life Manhattan bird for me,  the species was first reported on Roosevelt Island two weeks prior, but the report was issued after sundown so I could not chase. Then another report appeared late on 17 May which Andrew Farnsworth was able to successfully chase from Peter Detmold Park, but which I could not reach in time. I staked out Detmold the next afternoon and got the bird, which was not seen again. Prior to 2015 there had been only one eBird report of Purple Sandpiper in Manhattan in the past 25 years
  3. Cliff Swallow, 10 April, Harlem Meer. Cliff Swallows pass over Manhattan in migration annually, but unlike the more common swallows, they are almost never seen low over Central Park waters. Deborah Allen found these birds, which gave excellent views and also added to my life list.
  4. Black Skimmer, 22 June, Harlem Meer. Watching this large, distinctive bird appear out of the twilight darkness and gracefully skim the southwest corner of the Meer was a huge thrill and it left me with my most memorable birding image of the year.
  5. Black-headed Gull, 19 january, Randall’s Island. Jacob Drucker saw a Black-headed Gull flying west over the Hudson on 15 January near sunset. I most likely saw the same bird four days later feeding over the Harlem River.
  6. Red-necked Grebe, 16 March, south of 70th Street Pier on the Hudson. Red-necked Grebes are not observed most years in Manhattan though they were unusually abundant in 2014. In 2015 they were a lot harder to find. This one was just offshore, a naked-eye bird.
  7. Bank Swallow, 30 April, Reservoir. Another life bird for me, and long overdue.
  8. Canvasback,  22 February, Randall’s Island NE Shore. In recent years this species has become rarer in Manhattan, and only a few birders had it in 2015.
  9. Northern Pintail, 17 March, Randall’s Island NE shore. A drake Northern Pintail made a rare, extended appearance on Central Park waters in Fall 2013. Otherwise, as was the case in 2015, it has been very hard to get. I had a trio of females swimming just offshore from Randall’s Island. In the fall I had some flying over the Hudson in flocks of Canada Geese.
  10. Greater Yellowlegs, 9 May, Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Close views of a wading bird.
  11. Grasshopper Sparrow, September, Grassy Knoll, Central Park. One of Adrian Burke’s many great finds this year, it offered fleeting glimpses to a small group of birders on the afternoon of the 26th. Andrew Farnsworth later had another on Roosevelt Island.


Best Manhattan Birds of 2015 Seen by Multitudes (Including Me)

  1. Couch’s Kingbird, January, Chelsea. Probably a once-in-a-lifetime bird for Manhattanites, it attracted a large viewership from all over the East Coast.
  2. Chuck-will’s-widow, April, Bryant Park. This species is extremely rare in the New York City area, so all the more amazing that it has been found and observed by many in each of the last three years. This one lingered for for a full week.
  3. Sora, October-November, the Loch in Central Park. This cooperative bird, which also seemed to have an injured wing. remained in place for well over two weeks.
  4. Common Redpoll, January-March, Evodia Field. It first appeared on 24 January and was reported up to 9 March — an unusually lengthy extended stay, but understandable given the very cold winter and the reliable food supply from the feeders.
  5. Dickcissel, September, Maintenance Area, Central Park. After a visiting birder reported it on eBird I ran to the area and re-found it. It lingered for one more day. Another Dickcissel showed up on the Great Hill on November 1 and stayed for two weeks.
  6. Eastern Whip-poor-will, September, the Loch in Central Park. It stayed just a day, the 26th, but was widely reported and seen by many.
  7. Long-eared Owl, March, Shakespeare Garden and Cherry Hill. I found this owl roosting in the same Shakespeare Garden yew tree that has previously held a Northern Saw-whet Owl. Apparently it moved to Cherry Hill the next day and was seen by many over the following several days.
  8. Eastern Meadowlark, November, Rockefeller Park. Single bird stayed on the lawn for three days — very unusual behavior for the species, which is an extremely hard one to get in Manhattan. I had mine in Central Park in the spring.
  9. Blue Grosbeak, May, the Ramble.
  10. Connecticut Warbler, September, Trinity Church graveyard. At times two birds giving excellent close views at this historic location.
  11. Great Horned Owl, November-December, the Ramble. Since 8 November this owl has taken up residence in the Ramble, to the delight of many.
  12. *”Western” Flycatcher, November, Central Park Ramble. If confirmed as a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, which plenty of evidence indicates it was, this bird would go to #1 or #2 on this list. Similarly if Pacific and Cordilleran Flycatcher are merged back. Until then, it is the Schrodinger’s Cat of 2015 Manhattan birding.


My Most Regrettable Misses

  1. Red Phalarope, October. Only Andrew Farnsworth saw this bird. He found it swimming at Muscota Marsh, but within minutes it flew off and could not be re-found.  I had strongly considered joining him that morning and then decided against it because the overnight winds were weak. Sound reasoning, but in the words of Gob Bluth, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
  2. Tundra Swan, 19 October, the Battery. Bad communication likely cost me a life bird. I went to Pier 11 after an juvenile Tundra Swan was reported at Brooklyn Bridge Park, which under good conditions can be seen from Manhattan. Andrew Farnsworth arrived before me and found visibility too poor to view the bird even if had been out in the open — which it wasn’t. I lingered in the downtown area to do some unrelated photography and headed uptown at 2 p.m. What I did not know then is that one of Brooklyn’s top birders saw the Tundra Swan clearly in Manhattan waters near the Brooklyn Bridge at 1:45. He issued an alert from his own Twitter account, but I had no way to receive it. I learned of the sighting only after I returned home. I went back to the Battery area and walked the eastern shore to 21st Street. I did not see the bird, nor did any other Manhattan birders.
  3. Glossy Ibis, April. There were a few Manhattan reports of this species in mid-April, all as flyovers, and hence, unchaseable. The most frustrating report, however, was one from Spuyten Duyvil Creek on the 13th of a Glossy Ibis photographed walking near the shore. Because the photographer was not a regular birder (and did not know what the bird was, only that it seemed out-of-the-ordinary), no alert was issued and the photo was not posted until after dark.
  4. Cave Swallow, 15 November. I was scanning the Reservoir for Cave Swallows at 9:35 a.m. when I received a Twitter alert of one off Hoboken flying over the Hudson possibly into Manhattan waters. Had I known the exact location from which to watch, I could have reached it in thirty minutes or so by running  across the park to the west side subway. Instead I ran back to my apartment to check the location on the web, which added at least twenty minutes to my travel time in addition to the short delays I encountered on the Lexington line. I then ran from 23rd and Park to the Hudson, but my arrival time of 10:40 was too late — the bird was no longer being seen by the finder, and it never reappeared either for him or for me. Could it have been a Manhattan bird? I’ll never know, but it was a crushing miss as Cave Swallow movements of this magnitude come once in twenty years. There had also been a Cave Swallow at Randall’s Island the day before, reported four hours after the fact but apparently unchaseable even had the report been immediate.
  5. Eastern Bluebird, November. Generally Central Park has over a handful of appearances of Eastern Bluebird each November. This year there were only a couple reliable reports, and despite six dedicated visits to the North End on days with good winds to do my own searching, I could not observe it. First time in three years I have not had the species.
  6. Yellow-throated Warbler, May. I was less than 200 yards away from the Point, where this bird was being seen on the morning of 5 May. After the alert was issued I arrived in well under a minute. Within ten minutes another 50+ birders were crowding the Point, but no one else saw it because apparently the alert was sent 15 minutes after the bird was initially seen and several minutes after sight of it was lost.
  7. Clay-colored Sparrow, 28 Sep. The bird was reported on the Great Hill at 5:50 p.m. I ran from home and was on the scene by 6:15 — sadly,  over ten minutes too late. What?
  8. Kentucky Warbler, 4 May. Reported singing in Riverside Park near 120th Street at 6:05 p.m.on a hot, humid evening, it disappeared by 6:40 and was neither seen nor heard again. After running across town at rush hour to chase it, I also wanted to disappear and neither be seen nor heard again.
  9. Semipalmated Plover. 28 July and 8 August. I chased both the July report on Governors Island and the August report at Spuyten Duyvil Creek with no luck. Usually these birds linger for the day (or several days), but not this year.
  10. Acadian Flycatcher, May-June. Easy to get in 2012, this species has been much harder since then and it was very hard in 2015 when only a couple distinct birds were reported in Central Park on eBird.
  11. Virginia Rail, October. Two chaseable birds: one on the 18th in Hudson Heights, which I did not bother to pursue on account of time, distance, and laziness; and one on the 30th near Rockefeller Center, which I chased the next day after learning of it late. Someone had it very early that morning; when I looked in the afternoon I could not find it, and no one else did, either.

Franklin’s Gull, Riverside Park

The Franklin’s Gull looks very similar to the Laughing Gull. Both are common throughout their ranges, with the former occurring in the central swath of North America and the latter along the East Coast. I see Laughing Gulls frequently during summer and fall, mostly on Randall’s Island and in New York Harbor, but occasionally even on the Reservoir. I had never seen a Franklin’s Gull.

In fact, prior to this year there had been only one eBird record of Franklin’s Gull in New York City, and only a few in the entire metropolitan area.

But a powerful storm in the midwest coupled with sustained, strong westerly wind flows extending to the East Coast set in motion an epic Franklin’s Gull flight last week that brought large numbers of the species to New Jersey, New York, and adjoining states.

The morning of Friday, October 13 is when the first observations arrived, from Staten Island and Long Island. I had seen the wind map and was thinking about the possibility of vagrants. I intended to search the North End of Central Park midday for land birds, but Andrew Farnsworth suggested visiting the Hudson River to try for the Franklin’s Gulls. Given how far away the reports were, I thought the chance for success was very low, but then more reports came in and it was apparent that a large flight was taking place. I needed to visit the places where gulls congregate, as this is where the Franklin’s Gulls were likely to go.

My plan was to check out the Reservoir first since it was nearby and it always has a large gathering of gulls. Then I would zip down on the subway to Battery Park — the closest accessible point in Manhattan to where the Franklin’s Gulls were being seen — and watch the harbor and the Hudson.

Shortly after I had run to the Reservoir, at 1 p.m., an alert arrived from Jacob Drucker: he had seen two Franklin’s Gulls moving south on the Hudson River from the 70th Street Pier at 11 a.m. (A dead cell phone battery had prevented an immediate report.) Now it made no sense to waste time going to Battery Park — I needed to run for the Hudson, which I could do in under 2o minutes.

Cold westerly winds gusting over 30 mph hit me as soon as I arrived. I figured these would help to push birds over to the Manhattan side of the river, and indeed many waterfowl were taking shelter there in the marinas and coves. I wanted to check these calmer areas, so I walked south along the shore to just past 59th street. The Franklin’s Gulls were unlikely to be resting, but if they were then I would have no trouble identifying them at such close range.

I was disappointed to see a fairly steady stream of gulls moving south along the western side of the Hudson, nearly a mile away. The tall cliffs just beyond the New Jersey shore appeared to be sheltering these gulls from the wind somewhat. I had no chance of identifying Franklin’s Gulls at that distance (though I could just make out some Great Black-backeds), and it would not have helped me anyway — I needed Manhattan birds, meaning those no farther than the midpoint of the river.

At 2:51 p.m. I saw two very small gulls flying low to water, moving slowly, rising and falling. I was on the shore and they were just beyond and south of the 70th Street Pier.  At first I thought they might be Bonaparte’s Gulls, but then I saw their dark upper wings and partial hoods. They were Franklin’s Gulls!

I felt fortunate to have the observation and to be part of this historic day for East Coast birding. Andrew Farnsworth would get his on the East River just as the sun was setting. No other subsequent reports came from Manhattan.

A Spate of Year Birds

I have not posted in a few months because I was not observing any exceptional birds. The summer shorebird season was disappointing, with nothing new for me but the common and expected Semipalmated Sandpiper. There is still time for shorebirds, as two of the best from last year arrived in the late-September to early-November period.

Raptor movements have been sparse due to prevailing winds with easterly components. Still, I have managed to see the usual Osprey, Broad-winged Hawk, and Red-shouldered Hawk, the latter two only in very small numbers.

Then, in just the last eight days, I added five new birds to my year list.

  1. Many saw the two Connecticut Warblers that lingered at in the Trinity Church courtyard on September 21 and 22;
  2. An immature Red-Headed Woodpecker appeared in the Evodia area of Central Park on morning of the 24th;
  3. An Eastern Whip-poor-will was found roosting on a tree limb at the south end of the Loch early on the morning of the 26th. I raced out to see it, and it remained there the entire day;
  4. Later, on the afternoon of the 26th I had to run out to the North End again to chase a Grasshopper Sparrow on the Grassy Knoll. It appeared furtively a few times, sometimes in flight;
  5. Today, the 29th, a birder visiting from the West Coast reported on eBird seeing a Dickcissel in the Maintenance area of the Ramble sometime between 10:30 and noon. The description checked and the other birds on his list made sense, so I ran to Maintenance shortly after seeing the 12:23 eBird Rare Bird Alert.

The eBird report suggested to me that the bird had been on the small lawn directly east of the all-metal maintenance shed. It was said to associating, as Dickcissels often do, with a flock of House Sparrows. There was a such a House Sparrow flock there, occasionally drinking from the water that collected at the base of a public fountain. I stealthily watched the fountain area for fifteen minutes. No Dickcissel.

I also checked the perimeter of the area, which included the Maintenance Meadow proper. After forty minutes I still did not have the bird.

Then I decided to look into  the northeast corner of Maintenance, where I could see some House Sparrows feeding atop tall grasses and weeds and occasionally perching on the wire fence that encloses the entrance to the shed. Soon the Dickcissel appeared on the tall grass. Of the several Dickcissels I have seen in Manhattan, this one had the brightest yellow breast. It also had a very yellow supercilium.

Paul Sweet’s American Museum of Natural History midday walk was at Maintenance, so I told Paul about the bird and he brought the group over. After some minutes of searching he found the Dickcissel perching on the tree.

The Dickcissel lingered in the general area for the entire day and was seen by many.