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.

Long-tailed Duck became my 245th lifetime species for Manhattan and my 205th for the year. It certainly was the most common duck I did not yet have, a title that must now go to Surf Scoter — which is a great deal less common everywhere in New York City, though regular on the city’s southern shore.

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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.

I am at 195 birds for the year. But 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

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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.

The Northern Pintail became my 233rd lifetime Manhattan species and 191st of 2013.