The Elusive Golden-winged Warbler


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.






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.

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.

Long-tailed Duck, Hudson River, Inwood

The Long-tailed Duck was perhaps my top nemesis bird. I should have had it during my 2012 big year on one of the morning watches during Hurricane Sandy, but I was not at the right vantage point. Since then I have made many trips around Manhattan looking for it at likely times and places, but until today, never finding it.

There are a couple days each year, usually in early March, when thousands of Long-tailed Ducks gather in New York Harbor and along the southern shore of Brooklyn and Queens. You would think this is the best time to see the species in Manhattan, but I have taken Staten Island Ferry rides and also watched from the Battery and the west side Greenway then and have not seen any. It seems that nearly all of these Long-tailed Ducks proceed northeast and do not pass over Manhattan or follow the Hudson. That is not to say it is impossible to see one — there were a couple observations of single Long-tailed Ducks this year in March from Battery Park or nearby. But you need to go very early, or else have luck on your side.

I also checked the Battery area this January when the Hudson River was mostly frozen over, thinking that the lack of open water to the north would drive birds into the harbor, which remained unfrozen. As far as I could tell, it did not.

I watched for these ducks, too, at Randall’s Island and on many visits to Inwood Hill Park.

I went to Inwood Hill Park, the Dyckman fields, today (October 30) mostly to sky-watch. It seemed like a good day for Golden Eagle, Snow Goose, and Northern Harrier. I also scanned the fields for sparrows and other land birds, but did not find anything unusual.

Andrew Farnsworth joined me just after 3:15 p.m., and we watched from the pier at the marina. Aside from a low pass by an adult Bald Eagle, I was not seeing much of interest. Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks were flying very high, and a Peregrine Falcon occasionally visited the area.

But at 3:45 things got interesting. Andrew noted a distant flock of ducks flying south very low over the river. Before they were close enough to identify they reversed direction briefly and then continued south. As they approached I could see dark wings with white on the face, neck, and flanks. They were a dozen Long-tailed Ducks!

They soon reversed direction again (they did this quite a bit) and headed back north, out of view. Perhaps they encountered and joined another flock, because a few minutes later we saw what turned out to be 46 Long-tailed Ducks flying back and forth over the river, this time going past us toward the the George Washington Bridge and then turning around and again proceeding north.

Nelson’s Sparrow, Golden Eagle, Eastern Bluebird

On 27 October I made a midday visit to the northern shore of Randall’s Island to look for waterfowl and sparrows. Nelson’s Sparrows were being observed at Pelham Bay Park to the north, and I had expected them to arrive at the northern saltmarsh of Randall’s Island, as they had last year in late October. It took nearly an hour of observing to get them definitively, but both a Nelson’s Sparrow and a Saltmarsh Sparrow appeared.

On the evening of 2 November, a cold front passed through and shifted winds to the northwest. I went to Inwood Hill Park the following morning and was treated to a parade of migrating raptors, including six Bald Eagles, one of which descended to the Hudson to try to grab a fish. I also saw Turkey Vultures, two Black Vultures, and two new species for the year: Snow Goose and a single adult Golden Eagle.

On 4 November I ran into Andrew Farnsworth on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. I had just reported seeing the Saltmarsh Sparrow again, and he came by to have a look. It took some time and some searching, but he eventually had one of the Nelson’s Sparrows pop up briefly.

On the morning of 5 November I decided I had better try for the Eastern Bluebird before it was too late. Some had been reported in the North End of Central Park on the Third, and I searched after my visit to Inwood Hill but did not find them.

A bit of background: I had had Eastern Bluebird the prior two years so it would not be a life bird, but it was still one that I wanted to get. In 2012 it was the first new species I got when Central Park re-opened following Hurricane Sandy. I missed many of the good hurricane birds and not only temporarily lost the big-year lead but also was in slight danger of allowing another birder a chance at second place. Getting the Eastern Bluebird almost immediately upon arriving at the Great Hill on 3 November 2012 was crucial both to restoring my confidence and to giving me the freedom to pursue other rarities. The Barred Owl that quickly followed (in the Ramble) virtually guaranteed that the big year race would be a two-man battle.

Even though I am not doing a big year in 2013, I think Eastern Bluebird is one of those regular migrants that a good birder ought to get. Also, it would be fun to reach the 200 mark again for my annual species count.

So I set out for the North End on foot at 10:30 a.m. on the Fifth. I had studied carefully the calls that these birds make, which would easily be distinguishable from those of the very few other birds in the park at this time of year. I also knew to watch along fence lines and in trees, where Eastern Bluebirds like to perch before sallying out to feed on ground insects.

I checked all the likely places near the Great Hill, where they had been seen the day before. After roughly 90 minutes of birding I was walking back home in the North Meadow thinking that my quest would be unsuccessful when I suddenly heard a bluebird whistling behind me. I turned to see a male Eastern Bluebird perching on the chain-link fence encircling the baseball fields. It soon flew out to join three other Eastern Bluebirds on a distant length of fence. It was a most colorful sight.

From this point on there are no more “expected” birds, and I already had many of the typical winter rarities earlier this year. Vagrants like Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, or Cave Swallow would benefit both my year and lifetime lists.

Northern Pintail, Central Park

After I finished trading the market this morning, I had a brilliant idea: visit the Hudson by Inwood to watch raptor and waterfowl migration. Winds would be favorable (northwest and strong) for the first time since the cold air arrived yesterday. I emailed Andrew Farnsworth to let him know my plan.

It turns out Farnsworth was, as usual, already a step ahead. He had been birding the Dyckman ball fields area of Inwood Hill Park since 10 a.m. and his lengthy eBird list arrived in my inbox before I was even ready to leave.

He warned me that the birds were flying high and that I would want to bring a scope, but 10 x 42 binoculars were all I had, and besides I was already walking across the park on my way to the C train at 86th Street. He was on his way back home, but he planned to be back in the afternoon again.

I went first to Fort Tryon Park, thinking that the extra 200+ feet of elevation would help me get better views. I arrived at 12:40 p.m. Within ten minutes I saw an adult Bald Eagle fly low and directly overhead — I was off to a great start. But this was nearly all I saw, and after forty minutes I decided to try the Dyckman fields.

I immediately started seeing more birds, mostly geese and Red-tailed Hawks, that were swerving east over the hill and thus not passing over Fort Tryon.

Somewhat later, at 2:35 p.m., a text alert arrived: Sandra Paci (who took part in the birdathon in honor of Starr Saphir) had found a male Northern Pintail on the Lake in Central Park, just west of the Point.

Right away I texted Farnsworth that I had to leave Inwood to chase the pintail.

Northern Pintail observations in Central Park are extremely rare. The last verified one was from February and March of 2007, when a male pintail overwintered on the 59th Street Pond. They can be had in flight over the East River, but that takes a lot of watching and some luck.

The one on the Lake was, as the expression goes, a “sitting duck.” All I had to do was reach it before it flew away. (Not a trivial concern — the Blue-winged Teal I found on the Lake in spring flew off after little more than an hour.)

I went directly toward the the Dyckman 203rd Street station and quickly caught the express train going downtown. By 3:20 I was in Central Park on the south side of the lake, west of Bethesda Fountain and north of Cedar Hill.

I scanned the shoreline of the Point and quickly found the duck sleeping under a tree branch near some Mallards. It was well concealed from most viewing angles and not showing any movement. If this is how it was when Sandra found it, it was certainly was not an easy find.

By 3:30 I was on my way back to join Farnsworth for more migration-watching in Inwood. We got in a half-hour of viewing before he had to leave, with the highlight being another low-flying adult Bald Eagle.