Bobolink, Central Park Oven

The Bobolink in general is a common bird, but it is a very difficult one to observe in Manhattan. Venture a few miles west, to the New Jersey Meadowlands, or to the coastal marshes of Brooklyn and Queens, and you can find plenty of them during spring and fall migration. You also can observe their migratory flights very early in the morning over Manhattan. Sometimes you can hear their flight calls. Rarely they alight on trees in Central Park in passage, never lingering long before continuing on.

Around 10 a.m. today I encountered AMNH Ornithologist Joseph DiCostanzo and Lenore Swenson in Tupelo Meadow. They told me that they had learned of a male Bobolink in the Oven forty minutes prior, and that they had observed it themselves before it flew off and was not re-found. Joe had attempted to issue an alert on the bird but the email apparently did not go through.

I had come across Bob “Birding Bob” DeCandido and his group earlier and I was birding with them when I got the news. We eventually made our way to the Oven but did not observe the Bobolink. Along the way we had a mystery flycatcher, seen only briefly, and my first-of-season Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Maintenance Meadow.

As a small digression, I should mention that I had a great time birding with Bob. Many know that Bob uses recorded calls and songs to draw in birds, as do many top birding guides. Birds that are perching still sometimes move and reveal themselves; some birds that are out of sight will fly in to check out the commotion; and some that are in sight but high up will descend to levels where they are more easily viewed. The result is that members of Bob’s group see a lot of birds and often get excellent views of them. I certainly had better views than I usually do on my own.

Yesterday, Bob found a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Tupelo Meadow. I had remained in the Maintenance Meadow, along with many others who were part of a different birding group. Bob ran back to Maintenance to let everyone — not just his group — know of the cuckoo. We enjoyed extended views of the bird flying and foraging high over Tupelo.

Today, after initially striking out at the Oven in search of the Bobolink we moved on to Swampy Pin Oak. Warbler Rock, and the Rustic Shelter, where we saw Indigo Bunting, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and Blackburnian Warbler, among others..

Bob suggested we finish with one more pass over the Oven and then onto the Point. As we we turned onto the dirt path leading to the Point, I began to hear Bobolink song. So did Bob, and he already had the bird in sight, atop a bare tree over the Oven. The Bobolink continued singing loudly, moving around to various high perches both at the Oven and later toward the north to the Captain’s Bench area.

This was my first visual Bobolink in Central Park — I had heard one singing two years ago in the North Woods. What a way to end the morning! With the temperature rising and warblers becoming more scarce, I headed home.



Seaside Sparrow, Hudson Greenway

Thursday, May 5, was cloudy and cold — just like most days this last week. I had taken a walk in the afternoon to the North End as much for exercise as for birding. When I returning home shortly after 4 p.m. I figured I was done for the day.

But at 6:26 p.m. a Manhattan Bird Alert came through from Adrian Burke: he had found three Seaside Sparrows at a small park known as Clinton Cove at 55th and the Hudson Greenway.

My first thought was, “How can I chase these birds?” I live on the Upper East Side, so I would have go entirely across town and then roughly a mile south. I ran across the park to the AMNH subway stop at 81st Street and immediately caught a southbound train to 59th Street. From there I ran to  the location.

Seaside Sparrow is one of the very rarest Ammodramus-type sparrows for Manhattan. There are records on eBird, all in Central Park, from 1923, 1974, and 2011. I had one briefly in October 2014 on Randall’s Island’s northeast saltmarsh, a place you would expect the species, as it gets Nelson’s Sparrows annually.

Where I found Adrian Burke and the sparrows was not at all a place that a Seaside Sparrow should want to be. The three sparrows were moving quickly on foot on a narrow median strip of mostly bare ground and some plants and trees between a paved lane for runners and cyclists and a paved lane for pedestrians.

Walkers, runners, and dogs occasionally scared a sparrow to short flight, but they remained in the area. One ventured onto the eastern edge of a large lawn on the Hudson side.

I was first on the scene, and, along with a couple others who showed up, got great views from less than ten feet. The sparrows appeared not to mind our presence as they went about their foraging.

These sparrows went on to defy expectations by remaining at this location during both the following day and the day after that — today, May 7.

Another Seaside Sparrow was found at 65th and the Hudson Greenway on the morning of May 6. It, too, has remained in place since then. A fourth Seaside Sparrow appeared at the Clinton Cove location, also on May 6. An American Kestrel was observed catching and carrying away one of the Clinton Cove sparrows that same day.


Swainson’s Warbler, Strawberry Fields

Last night’s winds looked unfavorable for birding this morning. For the first few hours after sundown they were light and southwesterly, encouraging Central Park migrants to fly out. Later they switched to northwesterly, discouraging flight into the park. So I did not intend to do any early birding, and temperatures in the low 50s only strengthened the case for waiting.

After seeing #birdcp Twitter reports before 7 a.m., I knew that some good birds probably had remained in the park — Nashville and Worm-eating Warbler, for example. But I had already observed these in recent days and had no interest in chasing them.

As I was having breakfast a 7:22 a.m.a Twitter alert arrived, issued by Alice Deutsch, one of the park’s most expert and well-traveled birders: “Swainson’s Warbler, Imagine mosaic.” My first thought was that she meant Swainson’s Thrush, a common bird but one that would be early and first-of-season for Central Park, so worth reporting. But a few minutes later she tweeted, “Confirming, and it’s singing.” It had to be a Swainson’s Warbler, just as she had written — she would not bother confirming a common thrush, nor would anyone care that one was singing.

This meant I had to get to Strawberry Fields — fast! No time to finish eating. I put on running clothes, packed my bag, and I was out the door.

At 7:46 I arrived at the mosaic to see 25+ birders looking into the shrubs to the south. Almost immediately the Swainson’s Warbler sang and then popped up to perch on some foliage several feet off the ground. Then it flew another 5o feet south, landing in a tree, where it continued singing but was not being seen. Soon it was found on the ground, inside and underneath the dense shrubs. This is where it stayed during the time I viewed it (as late as 9:35 a.m.) and, I am told, the remainder of the day.

Within 90 minutes over 150 people had stopped by to see this rarity. It has been recorded only four times in Central Park with multiple observers (each time in May, in 1973, 1979, 1990, and 2000). A very reliable single observer had it at the Upper Lobe, briefly, in May 2012.

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.

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.

Wilson’s Snipe, The Point, Central Park

Yesterday, April 10, a Wilson’s Snipe was reported at the Point in the Central Park Ramble just after 7 a.m. I was immediately faced with a question that I knew would come up often throughout the 2014 spring migration season: do I chase this bird? I am not trying to do a big year in 2014, at least not with anywhere near the level of effort that went into my 2012 big year, and probably not even with the much-reduced effort level of 2013. Still, I enjoy the challenge of birding and I like to observe rare birds. I did a great job again at winter birding, so my total species for the year places me among top few (now second place, 101 species) on the eBird New York County “Top Birders” list, not far from the overall lead. It was a pleasant morning and I can run to the Point in under ten minutes, so I decided to chase the snipe. I got it, but only after a short delay when I first checked the shore of the Point that faces the Boat House.

Wilson’s Snipe figured in my 2012 big year — one appeared at the Upper Lobe and I had to choose between chasing it or chasing a much more distant Yellow-throated Warbler in the limited time I had before a lunch date. I chose to get the snipe, and I ended up getting the Yellow-throated Warbler with Starr a couple weeks later. Wilson’s Snipe is a very good bird for Central Park, one that gets reported roughly once per year. One also appeared in 2013 in nearly exactly the same place on the Point.

When the “do I chase this bird?” question arises next time, I am more inclined to say no — unless it is a life bird. I want to get my securities trading business going, and this requires beginning work by 8 a.m. or so. I probably will make exceptions for some of the best migration mornings. Or I might go out very early, at first light, which is already 6:30 a.m. and will be 6:00 a.m. in a few weeks. This can be a very productive time to bird, when the city is quieter and the parks are mostly empty.

I went out at 7:15 a.m. today, April 11, for what promised to be an excellent morning, one followed by a day and night of moderate south-southwest winds. It was disappointing. There clearly was a huge flight of Northern Flickers, which could be seen everywhere, both in the air and on the ground. I saw at least 50. Many Ruby-crowned Kinglets arrived, too. Just two days ago I was delighted to see a single one, my first of the season. Today I saw at least 15, and they finally outnumbered the Golden-crowned Kinglets.

I added three new species for the year: Palm Warbler, Field Sparrow, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. But I observed no other warblers, not even Yellow-rumped (which I had seen a few days ago), nor did I have any Blue-headed Vireos.

I did reach the 100-bird milestone for the year (101), and so for the sake of comparison I looked back at the prior two years. As of April 11 in 2012 I had 94 birds; in 2013, 98. Of course, spring migration in New York was a disaster last year. All these numbers show is that I have had successively better winters. We will see what happens with the 60+ species that are slated to arrive over the next six weeks.

Migrants move on

Wednesday, May 22, was a good day for birding Central Park. There was decent warbler variety, with a Mourning Warbler appearing at times on the Point in the afternoon and evening. An Alder Flycatcher was seen and heard there in the morning, and it may have been the empidonax flycatcher that I saw there in the afternoon. Since it did not vocalize then, I could not make the species ID. Cedar Waxwings, some of which will linger throughout the summer, were also observed frequently in flocks throughout the park.

The good birding days began on May 9 and it appears that May 22 was the last of them. Yesterday very little bird song could be heard in the Ramble, aside from some Baltimore Orioles, Red-eyed Vireos, and Blackpoll Warblers. I noticed a Spotted Sandpiper working the northeast shore of Turtle Pond. Aside from these, it was very quiet. It had the steamy feeling of a June day.

It is possible that we get one more push of migrants. We did last year — May 25, 2012, was a great day, one of the few best of the spring. I certainly would not count on it, though.

I added Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Cedar Waxwing on the 22nd. Common Nighthawk and Chuck-will’s-widow appeared openly on the same day last week and were widely reported; Least Flycatcher and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron showed up at Randall’s Island.

As I have said before, I am not trying to do another big year. I expect that other responsibilities will take precedence over fall birding (which can begin as early as mid-July), but I probably will get out to Randall’s Island and Swindler Cove Park for the summer shorebird season.

My 100th bird of the year

I added four new birds for the year today to bring my total to 102 species in Manhattan in 2013. These were Savannah Sparrow and Barn Swallow, with multiple numbers of both seen on the NE shore of Randall’s Island; Fish Crow, of which two were calling as I returned over the 103rd Street pedestrian bridge over the East River; and a single Pine Siskin seen at the Evodia feeders in the Central Park Ramble at 3:25 p.m. 

It took roughly ten miles of running/walking to do all this, which included an early morning visit to the Ramble that turned up nothing new.

Even though I am not planning on doing another big year in 2013, I am slightly ahead of last year’s pace. As of April 13, 2012, I had 94 species, but on I added six birds on the following day. Last year my 102nd species came on April 16.  

This is an exciting time of year to be birding. You can expect to average nearly two new birds each day between now and the end of April, that is if we get decent weather and things go the way they did last year.