The Elusive Golden-winged Warbler

GWWarbler

Golden-winged Warbler (Wikipedia)

The last section of my book discussed relative warbler rarity in Manhattan. At the time I wrote it, I did not believe that enough eBird data existed to reliably choose which of the 36 regularly-occurring warblers was the rarest (I settled on a top six). Four years later it is safe to say that this title goes to the Golden-winged Warbler.

[This species has suffered a severe decline in population. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers an excellent explanation here.]

I was fortunate to see one in September 2012 with many other observers at Strawberry Fields. The bird had been reported there at least twice, beginning in late morning, so it definitely was lingering in the area. Even so, observing it again required two hours of watching and waiting.

I vaguely recall a reliable message-board report of a Golden-winged Warbler at Maintenance in the fall of 2013, but it came much too late — perhaps the following day — to chase it. There also was a text-alert issued for one in the fall of 2014 at the Upper Lobe, which many chased — I was on the scene in ten minutes — but no one found.

Just this last May (2016) Andrew Farnsworth had a Golden-winged Warbler in East Midtown, but the bird was moving through trees so quickly that he was unable to keep it in sight and I abandoned the chase within minutes.

Fast-forward now to this past Saturday, 3 September 2016. At 4:16 p.m. Manhattan Bird Alert (on Twitter) was issued for a Golden-winged Warbler at Maintenance by the fenced-off storage area. I was there in ten minutes, but I saw no birders looking for it — a bad sign. Eventually the man who issued the alert returned, and in conversation I found that the alert actually was issued almost at least a half-hour late because of “technical difficulties” — which is to say an unlikely combination of a yet-earlier finder’s phone running out of power and  the eventual alerter initially sending his alert improperly so it was not re-tweeted.

Give a Golden-winged Warbler a half-hour head start late on a windy day and odds are it will not be found. I searched for two hours, and was later joined by upwards of ten other birders. No one got it. Still, a clear photograph of it perching by the chain fence was later posted on eBird, leaving no doubt that a male Golden-winged had been present earlier.

The very next morning Deborah Allen sent a Manhattan Bird Alert of a Golden-winged Warbler at 8:00 a.m. on the south end of Maintenance. I was in bed and did not see the alert until 8:07. Twenty minutes later I was at Maintenance looking for the bird, which turned out, as I learned from Deborah, to be different from yesterday’s — this time a female.

It was a pleasant, clear Sunday, and many birders searched Maintenance and the surrounding area trying to find the Golden-winged. Again, none succeeded. It appears that there was again a delay (11 minutes) from initial sighting to the time of report. I did not have a good reason to be birding early that morning, as the northeast winds, blowing for a second straight night, were likely to drain the park of birds while doing little to refill it, and that is just how things went. My response to the alert was slow, but another birder already was in the Ramble and chased the alert immediately. He did not get it, either.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Highlights

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.

The Lapland Longspur was my 252nd life Manhattan bird, and my first such of 2016.

Eastern Meadowlark, Randall’s Island

Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna)

Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) (Photo credit: Larry Meade)

I mentioned the Eastern Meadowlark several times in my book. Though not a rare bird in general, it is extremely hard to find in Manhattan, and is not reported in Central Park every year. It is more regular in Queens and Brooklyn, though still an uncommon bird worth reporting anywhere in New York City.

I ran many miles over the North End of Central Park and over Randall’s Island in 2012, during my big year, trying to observe this bird. I even visited Inwood Hill Park in search of it.

Recent reports of it in Queens suggested that a visit to nearby Randall’s Island was in order. It has been reported before on Randall’s Island and along the East River in Manhattan. Randall’s Island ought to be tremendously appealing to Eastern Meadowlarks, as it is filled with acres of mostly-unused grassy baseball and soccer fields.

I ran across the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge and began birding the south end of the island at 10:50 a.m. I saw many kinglets of both species there, but nothing unusual.

After two hours I had made my way to the northern shore just east of the pedestrian bridge to the Bronx when I flushed a large yellow-breasted bird out of thick grass and into nearby trees. It was my life Manhattan Eastern Meadowlark. It did not want me anywhere near it, and for five minutes I observed it perching atop the shoreline trees and flying from tree to tree. Then I lost sight of it, and was not able to re-find it again.

It became my 190th species of the year and my 232nd lifetime in Manhattan.

Summer update

It’s been two months since my last report, and fall migrants are already passing through. Let’s look back at some interesting birds that have appeared in the interim in Manhattan.

A Red-headed Woodpecker appeared over Evodia on May 27 and lingered just southeast of there in the Ramble for roughly a week.

A couple Purple Martins were observed over Turtle Pond in Central Park beginning June 14 through June 19, reported only by one observer. I watched for them and might have seen one flying high at midday but cannot say so conclusively.

A Black Skimmer was reported feeding over the model boat pond in Central Park at 10 p.m. on July 10. I arrived at 11 p.m. that night, and visited again on some successive nights, but did not see it, nor have I seen them on the Reservoir at night, an even more likely spot to check. Black Skimmers had been photographed last in July 2008 on the model boat pond.

Yesterday afternoon, August 5, I visited Swindler Cove Park in Inwood just after low tide and was treated to a flock of fifty Semipalmated Sandpipers ranging over the Sherman Creek mudflats, giving me my 175th bird species of the year. These birds appeared in 2012 on these mudflats in large numbers, as many as 200 at peak. along with other more unusual shorebirds.

The last couple days have also brought reports of a variety of expected warblers and flycatchers in Central Park.

I am pleased to see that my recent book, “A Big Manhattan Year,” continues to sell well on Amazon. If you want to learn more about birding Manhattan, or just want to read a good big-year story, you should check it out.

Another big four months — but this is all!

In the last chapter of my book A Big Manhattan Year I state that I have no intention of doing another big year. Nevertheless, I have spent nearly all of 2013 near or at the top of the Manhattan eBird leaderboard. I do not expect to stay there.

I have put in only 75% of the effort that I did last year, but I have been fortunate to get 95% of the results (meaning that with full effort I would expect to have five to seven more birds). A very strong winter, with rarities from Randall’s Island and the Central Park Reservoir, has partially made up for a dismal spring migration. I will close April 2013 with 129 species; at the same time in 2012 I had 131. The biggest difference was that by then I had a great many rare warblers: Prothonotary, Yellow-throated, Orange-crowned, Kentucky, and Tennessee, along with both of the Central Park sandpipers and Orchard Oriole — none of which I have this year. The birds just have not shown up (except for Yellow-throated Warbler and Orchard Oriole at Inwood Hill Park).

I will continue birding — the peak of spring migration should occur over the next two weeks — but I will do it to enjoy one of nature’s grand spectacles and not as a competitive activity. I will dial down the effort level even more, as I have some other projects that deserve greater focus, including marketing my book to a wider audience.

Those of you who are going at it competitively this year know that the next few weeks are make-or-break. I closed May last year with 164 birds, and I expect the leader this year to finish May close to this number, as the warblers will eventually come — they are just late. This is no time to sleep in. Be ready to bird five hours per day or more and chase alerts as they occur. Go!