Sandhill Crane, Inwood Hill Park

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Sandhill Cranes have a southern breeding range not too far north of Manhattan, in upstate New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. They frequently stopover in nearby Somerset, New Jersey, during migration. They breed in wetlands, and they will touch down in those or in expansive grasslands. They are not likely ever to land in Manhattan, and they are known to fly very high when migrating, which explains why they are so rarely observed here despite having a nearby presence and being large, unmistakable birds.

It never occurred to me that they even were a possibility until a birder reported one flying over the Bronx Zoo in May 2016. A report of seven Sandhill Cranes flying over Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan followed in December 2016. Then three more were seen over Fort Tryon in January 2017 by the same observer. It’s likely that another two were seen from midtown over the Hudson in December 2017.

These observations stoked my interest, but I saw no practical way to get the birds. Sandhill Crane appearances were not part of a daily movement pattern — they were notably infrequent. Plenty of birders were reporting from the Inwood area most days and not seeing any cranes. A dedicated Sandhill Crane watch of any length would almost certainly produce none. Still, it was a species to keep in mind.

Yesterday, 16 October, I went to Inwood Hill Park to do some sky-watching and river-watching. It was a decent, sunny morning with moderate northwest winds, and I was seeing some Bald Eagles floating overhead. Brant flocks were moving low down the Hudson.

At 11:48 a.m. I saw high-flying bird over Inwood Hill with just my eye and I focused my binoculars on it. It clearly was not a goose or a raptor. It had long, broad wings beating slower than a goose’s would, a long, outstretched neck, and feet trailing outstretched behind it. As it turned into sunlight, I noticed grey wings and body, and briefly a pale cheek patch and darker crown — a Sandhill Crane, flying southwest over the Hudson.

With only three other birders on record as having observed a Sandhill Crane in Manhattan in three other occurrences, the species must be considered among the rarest few I have had here. The North American population appears to be continuing a multi-decade trend of population increase, so perhaps it will appear here more frequently in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Interview with Kirtlandii Impact

Kirtlandii

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pectoral Sandpiper, Governors Island

PectSand

Pectoral Sandpiper (by Cathy Weiner)

 

On Sunday, September 30, a night of heavy migration had me birding Randall’s Island at dawn, where I found the first Nelson’s Sparrow of the year for Manhattan, and then Central Park, where there was not much of note.

I figured I was done with birding for the day, but then late in the afternoon, at 4:17 p.m., Cathy Weiner posted an alert with photos of a large shorebird at the Governors Island maintenance puddles. I quickly DMed her to say that it was a likely Pectoral Sandpiper, and that she should try to get more photos. It did not occur to me to try to chase it, as I recalled that the last ferry was at 4:15 p.m., so I would have no way to get to the island. Or so I thought.

Fifteen minutes later, after hearing that Ms. Weiner was still on the bird, I remembered that on weekends the ferry runs later. A quick check showed that I might still make it on the last ferry of the day, at 5:30 p.m. I gathered my stuff and set off for the subway.

I caught a train right away, but it was just a local. To go all the way to Bowling Green, the stop nearest waterfront on the Lexington Line, I would need the 4 train seven minutes behind it.

I reached the local’s last stop at City Hall, and since all trains were running local on the weekend, the 4 still had not caught up. It was 5:12, and I knew I could run to the Governors Island Ferry building in ten minutes if needed, as I had done this before. So I started running at an easy pace.

The stoplights and crowded streets were not favorable, but I still easily made it to the ferry boarding area by 5:24. Relief! I boarded the ferry, and with Weiner on her way to the puddles, I figured that my plans would work out.

And they did. I ran to the puddles and saw Weiner waiting for me there at 5:46. She had just viewed the Pectoral Sandpiper, and I got on it quickly. It was distant, at the far end of the largest puddle, and I could not approach closer because the area was fenced off. But I got good, diagnostic views, and that was all I needed.

Cathy Weiner’s find was historic — only the third all-time eBird record of Pectoral Sandpiper for Manhattan, and the first since October 2014 (a bird I reported on the first day of its appearance at Muscota Marsh in September 2014).  It was the first time this species had been recorded on Governors Island.

Sanderling, Governors Island

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Yesterday, 7 September 2018, Mary Beth Kooper found a Sanderling on the rocky northwest shore of Governors Island and quickly reported it on Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark on Twitter) at 12:23 p.m.

The Sanderling species had been a focus of mine ever since 23 July 2018, when another birder photographed three such birds on the tiny beach north of Yankee Pier on Governors Island. Sanderlings strongly prefer to forage on beaches, a habitat Manhattan almost completely lacks. With no prior historical eBird reports of Sanderling in Manhattan other than during hurricanes or as flyovers, I had not previously considered it likely as a next life bird. But new evidence requires reconsidering one’s outlook.

First, there are a lot of Sanderlings at nearby beaches in Brooklyn and Queens during the summer, sometimes thousands of them at Breezy Point, for example. The species is abundant throughout its range on appropriate habitats. Not only do birds wander, but they pass over other locations on their way to where they want to go. So Sanderling flyovers should sometimes be visible in Manhattan, and bad weather might sometimes bring birds down.

Second, even though Sanderlings prefer beaches, they are capable of feeding elsewhere. And the Governors Island beach, though small, is still large enough both to be visible to flying birds and accommodate the feeding needs of a flock. At low tide the beach is at least 300 square meters.

23 July 2018 was just such a bad-weather day — strong southeasterly winds were blowing, the result of a low-pressure system in the Atlantic. I was running in Central Park when I received the alert, and I raced home quickly and made it to Governors Island in less than an hour from the time of the alert. But the alert, just after 3 p.m., came as the tide was rising most quickly. So by 4 p.m. the small patch of sand had become submerged, and the Sanderlings had flown.

I tried again the following day at low tide. And I continued trying on many other days, including on 23 August, one day after another Sanderling had been photographed on the southwest shore.

I posted on Manhattan Bird Alert that birders should be checking the rocky shores of Governors and Roosevelt Island for shorebirds, including Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone. I mentioned that Sanderlings, Western Sandpiper, and White-rumped Sandpiper closely resemble more common Semipalmated Sandpipers, and that attention must be paid to subtle differences.

I am delighted that Ms. Kooper kept this advice in mind and found a very cooperative Sanderling.

I took the 2 p.m. ferry, landed on Governors Island by 2:08, and after a few minutes of walking had the Sanderling in sight. I was treated to close, naked-eye views from above the rocks of a bird I had spent many days seeking.

August Rarities in Central Park

After warning Manhattan birders from my @BirdCentralPark Twitter feed that Thursday-night radar was lighting up and that the morning could bring some good birds, I planned on looking for shorebirds in Inwood. I had already observed nearly every bird likely to occur in Central Park in the spring.

Those plans changed quickly, on Friday, 10 August 2018, when Robert DeCandido sent a 7:56 a.m. alert of Orange-crowned Warbler in the Central Park Wildflower Meadow, a species I still needed for the year. (As did nearly everyone else. Unlike 2017, when Orange-crowned Warbler was seen often during spring migration, 2018 brought perhaps only one such bird, seen on only one day.)

As I was getting ready to run to the North End, DeCandido found and reported another rarity: Yellow-breasted Chat southwest of the A. H. Green Bench, near the Wildflower Meadow.

The temperature was rising quickly (it would reach 86 F later) and it was a sunny day, so I knew that bird activity would soon decline. I ran to the Wildflower Meadow and looked around.

I did not see or hear any migrants, so I went to check the Green Bench area, which also had no birds of interest.

I knew that the species I was seeking almost surely were still in the area, whose dense foliage offered excellent habitat. I also knew that DeCandido and his birding group would be coming by soon, so I continued looking.

Half an hour later DeCandido and group arrived. Having Robert DeCandido around is a tremendous advantage, because DeCandido is a master of using sound to attract birds.

I have birded with him extensively, and I can relate dozens of times when no migrant activity was evident, yet after DeCandido played appropriate calls for a minute or two, warblers, vireos, and flycatchers would appear in nearby trees.

Such was the case again. We began seeing expected migrants like Canada Warbler, American Redstart, and Yellow Warbler. We even had an early Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Then DeCandido spotted the Yellow-breasted Chat again, in a fruiting tree on the northwest side of Wildflower Meadow, and everyone had great views of the perching bird.

Then we moved to the southwest corner of Wildflower Meadow, and the sounds DeCandido played drew in warblers to trees that had been empty before our arrival. We had Red-eyed Vireo, another Canada Warbler, an empidonax flycatcher, and a couple American Goldfinches.

After much waiting we noticed some rustling low in the brush, and DeCandido soon had everyone on a handsome Orange-crowned Warbler.

DeCandido’s observations of Yellow-breasted Chat and Orange-crowned Warbler set the earliest-ever records for fall migration for these species, the latter by over a month. A most remarkable morning in Central Park!

194 Manhattan Species Before June

A good winter combined with a very good spring helped me to set a new pre-June Manhattan record of 194 total bird species for the year 2018. The previous pre-June best was 189, shared by Andrew Farnsworth and me in 2017.

How good is the record? In 2012 I had 212 total birds for year but only 164 as of May 31. Since then my mid-year totals have varied: 173, 182, 175, 180, 189 for 2013 to 2017. 194 clearly is an outlier, and probably on-par with or a bit better than my best big year total of 214.

One reason for a general trend up in these counts is the increasing number of birders who issue chaseable reports, mainly through the Manhattan Bird Alert service I operate on Twitter (@BirdCentralPark), but increased use of eBird also makes a difference.

When @BirdCentralPark began in May 2013 we had only 200 or so followers. Now we have over 2,500, and we get reports tweeted at us by casual or visiting birders often in addition to the many reports from our regular users. It has become increasingly likely that good birds will be found and reported, making Manhattan birding more rewarding for everyone.

 

Barn Owl, Central Park

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

There is a Barn Owl roosting in a pine on the small hill with many pines immediately east of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park today, April 11.

This owl was first seen and reported just after sunrise on April 9 in nearby pines. Chased by Blue Jays, it quickly fled north and was not reported again that day.

Yesterday, on the evening of April 10, a birder crossing the park saw it fly out of the pines on Cherry Hill at 8:15.

The original finder, Mary Beth Kooper, found the Barn Owl again this morning at its current location, and, as she had done two days before, announced it to all by posting a tweet to Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark on Twitter).

The owl is roosting over 30 feet high, well-concealed by an old nest and dense pine foliage. Still, those viewing from near the trunk of the tree have at times been able to see the owl’s face.

Barn Owl was last known to be seen in Central Park for a day in January 2004. It is one of the most unexpected birds to show up here in the recent years, and very likely will be the best bird of 2018 in Central Park.

Best Birds of 2017

Despite initially having no intention of doing another year of competitive birding, I ended up doing one anyway, and I put up my best numbers ever: 214 Manhattan birds for 2017, extending my own ABA-countable big-year record from 2014 by another bird.

Usually I write about my “best” (rarest) birds of the year, but I have already written about some of them on my blog, and will touch on all of them in the highlights below. Just for the record, here is how I would rank them:

  1. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  2. Red Phalarope
  3. Tundra Swan
  4. Clapper Rail
  5. Least Bittern
  6. Cattle Egret
  7. Lesser Yellowlegs
  8. Boat-tailed Grackle

Coincidentally these also were the eight life Manhattan birds I added in 2017.

Here are some chronological highlights of the year:

  • January 10: Found my first good bird of the year, an Orange-crowned Warbler at Little Hell Gate marsh on Randall’s Island. This species would turn out to be unusually common during both spring and fall migration.
  • January 12: Mute Swans used to be seen many times throughout the year on Manhattan waters but lately they have become rare. A juvenile swimming at Little Hell Gate marsh was the only one I had in 2017.
  • February 14: Found and photographed Snow Buntings on Randall’s Island’s northeast shore. I would end up finding another pair of Snow Buntings at the same location in November.
  • February 16: Found and photographed an adult Glaucous Gull on the rocks off FDR Park on Roosevelt Island. It offered close views and lingered at the location for at least a couple weeks. It may also have gone on to appear at the Reservoir, where I had an adult Glaucous Gull—twice.
  • February 17: Canvasbacks on the Hudson at Riverbank State Park. These continuing birds were north of the usual West Harlem Piers location and I might have missed them on my first visit there on a cold, blustery day. I nearly gave up on my second try before deciding to check from Riverbank State Park, where they came clearly into view.
  • March 4: Long-eared Owl at Shakespeare Garden.
  • March 15-17: The unprecedented American Woodcock event. Some saw as many as 40 on the 16th. They were everywhere, in numbers never seen before in Central Park. At least one Wilson’s Snipe, too. My and Central Park’s first woodcock of the spring migration came on the cold evening of the 12th, a single bird flying up in Tupelo Meadow. I was delighted just to have one—in some years they can be very hard to find in Manhattan. I had no idea what was to come only days later.
  • April 3: Purple Sandpiper on the rocks south of FDR Park on Roosevelt Island. Yes, the species has become annual at this location and more people had it this year than ever before. But it is still a treat to see what was for a long time a true mega-rarity for the county.
  • April 11: My life Cattle Egret at Penn South. I raced to reach it, worried that the bird would not stay long in such a heavily-trafficked area, and was first on the scene. Then the bird stayed for nearly a month.
  • April 17: Immediately I suggested to Robert DeCandido and group that Purple Finches were likely today and Strawberry Fields would be a good place to find them, the birds appeared high in the trees.
  • April 21: Wild Turkey at Maintenance in the Central Park Ramble. At first I thought the prior evening’s eBird report from the Loch might be a hoax. Failing to find this large, conspicuous bird in the North Woods with Robert DeCandido the next morning increased my concerns. Then an afternoon Turtle Pond eBird report from a visiting birder came through at 6:33 p.m., and I was off on the chase and was first to re-find it and issue a Manhattan Bird Alert. It was my life Central Park Wild Turkey.
  • April 24: Greater Yellowlegs at Randall’s Island Little Hell Gate Marsh, a species that appeared more often than usual this year in Manhattan.
  • April 25: I went out in the rain to get the White-eyed Vireo reported near Sparrow Rock and made a second such trip to get the Blue-winged Warbler. The latter species was unusually scarce this year.
  • April 26: Saw and issued an alert on the Barred Owl over the Rustic Shelter in the Ramble in the morning. But my day was not done.
  • April 26: Red Phalarope on Randall’s Island’s northeast shore rocks in the afternoon. Briefly had a naked-eye view of a breeding-plumaged female as it perched just feet from me on the rocks at the east end of the saltmarsh.
  • April 27: Huge day—Worm-eating Warbler with Roger Pasquier; Yellow-throated Warbler near Tanner’s Spring and Yellow-throated Vireo at Shakespeare Garden Overlook, both with Robert DeCandido.
  • April 28: Had two Marsh Wrens near Bow Bridge very early, the only ones of the spring in Central Park. Then went to the North End and had Orchard Oriole with Robert DeCandido. I returned to the Ramble get the Pine Siskin at the feeders just before noon. Robert would go on to find a Clay-colored Sparrow below Nutter’s Battery by Meer. After an alert of the Clapper Rail at the Loch after 5 p.m., I ran there and saw it. Then, with some daylight still remaining, I walked toward the Meer with Tom Fiore and began searching for the Clay-colored. Karen Fung re-found it and issued an alert when Tom and I were nearby. We saw not only that but also our first White-crowned Sparrow of the year near it. An amazing day of birding!
  • April 29: Strong southerly winds brought some warblers much earlier than usual: Hooded, Cape May (singing near Tanner’s Spring), and Tennessee (singing at the Upper Lobe). A giant Snapping Turtle, the largest I have ever seen in Central Park, also appeared at the north end of the Upper Lobe.
  • April 30: Least Bittern over the Gill, the first appearance of this species in Central Park since 1989. After seeing it, I suggested to Ryan Zucker that we chase an alert of a Lincoln’s Sparrow at the Pool, as we could reach it quickly by subway and it was likely to stay in place. This decision proved fortuitous, as we not only got the Lincoln’s, but we also ended up being right on location when a Kentucky Warbler was found by the Loch. Getting Winter Wren and Least Flycatcher was good, too.
  • May 1: Andrew Farnsworth and I went to Governors Island mainly to try for Boat-tailed Grackle, which had been reported recently by a group visiting the island. We missed that, but Bobolinks were a great consolation prize.
  • May 2: I returned to Governors Island and found a male Boat-tailed Grackle.
  • May 3: Robert DeCandido’s calls quickly deliver a rare Black-billed Cuckoo. Later, in the afternoon, while watching for warblers at Summit Rock I hear of an American Bittern said to be at Tupelo Meadow. I go to look for it and do not see it. Then I meet a birder who claimed to have seen the American Bittern himself. I issue an alert at 3:08 p.m. and look for it again, this time along with many others. No one sees it. I wander back to Summit Rock. After 6:00 p.m. I encounter a birder who reported having seen the American Bittern along with a crowd of birders at Tupelo and even had a photo of the bird. How could this be when no new alert has been issued?  I issue the alert myself and run there. Success, finally!
  • May 7: A late-afternoon report of Semipalmated Sandpiper at FDR Park has me going there during light rain at 4:55 p.m. Then an alert of Eastern Whip-poor-will at the Pond arrives. I head to the Pond’s west side, by the waterfall, find the bird, and issue an alert with a photo of the tree where it was roosting.
  • May 9: I bird Central Park early with Robert DeCandido until I get an alert of Blue Grosbeak continuing at Battery Park. I find the grosbeak quickly, well north of the beehive location where it had earlier been noted. Then I start looking for the Summer Tanager, which Gabriel Willow had found at the north end of Battery Park. This takes over an hour, but eventually the tanager reappears and gives a close view to many.
  • May 11: Found my first Yellow-billed Cuckoo of the year south of the Rustic Shelter with Robert DeCandido.
  • May 14: Bank Swallow near the Reservoir North Pump House.
  • May 18: A male Mourning Warbler is found on the rocks beneath Belvedere and offers a close, clear view to many in the early evening.
  • May 19: I find a Bicknell’s Thrush near the Loch with Robert DeCandido and his group. The thrush sings in response to playback, giving the group its first-ever Bicknell’s.
  • May 21: I hear and then see a singing Willow Flycatcher at Turtle Pond.
  • May 23: An hour-long stakeout of Humming Tombstone gets me the reported Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
  • May 27: I bring show Robert DeCandido and group a singing Acadian Flycatcher at Warbler Rock—my last Central Park migrant of the spring.
  • June 2: My best look at Black Vultures, with Robert DeCandido, over the North Woods.
  • June 14: After a week of trying to get a Black Skimmer on the East River (as had been reported) or over the Meer, I went to Pier 45 in the West Village with Ryan Zucker. After seeing at least two Black Skimmers near the west shore of the Hudson, we saw three fly close by the pier. It’s a cool bird that very few birders ever have seen in Manhattan.
  • August 14: I wasted no time in getting to Sherman Creek to chase a report of Semipalmated Plover, a shorebird one does not get every year here.
  • August 25: The Lesser Yellowlegs found late the day before stayed another day, giving me another life bird in the maintenance puddles of Governors Island.
  • September 9: The first Bald Eagle and Broad-winged Hawks moving over Central Park—always a great way to begin the fall birding season.
  • September 10: It took me three attempts over two days to get the Connecticut Warbler at Sparrow Rock, but the hours of watching were worth it, as no other chaseable reports arrived this fall—a sharp decline from the relative abundance of the past few years.
  • September 16: After a Western Kingbird was photographed too late to chase yesterday on Governors Island, I went on the first boat and ran to the location on the south hills on a hot, sunny day. The kingbird never re-appeared.
  • September 29: The Philadelphia Vireo on Robert DeCandido’s walk near Green Bench in the North End gave everyone a great view of a bright bird.
  • September 30: Joe Girgente’s Dickcissel at Renwick Ruins on Roosevelt Island proved a pivotal bird for me. Both he and I got extended, close views, but no other Manhattan birders saw the species this year.
  • October 12: Quick chase to Randall’s Island’s northeast-shore saltmarsh yields both Nelson’s Sparrows and a Saltmarsh Sparrow (rarer) at close range.
  • October 14: Ryan Zucker texted me with a mid-morning report of Vesper Sparrow on the northeast fields of Randall’s Island. I ran over and saw it with him, the first of several Vesper Sparrows I would see in an unusually good fall for them.
  • October 22: First found the previous morning, the Fort Tryon Park Heather Garden Yellow-breasted Chat was not seen again the previous day. That is just as well, as I went to chase a more proximate report from Andrew Farnsworth in Sutton Place and did not re-find it. The next morning another alert from Fort Tryon arrived, and I went to chase it. When I arrived a handful of birders already were on the scene, some of whom had seen it just five minutes ago. I waited another forty minutes before it reappeared and soon gave me a brief look from the Heather Garden Terrace. This would be the last report of the year for the species in Manhattan.
  • October 22: But my day was not over. Shortly after returning home, I received an alert that Stefan Passlick had found an Eastern Meadowlark on a North Meadow ball field. It lingered the rest of the afternoon to the delight of many.
  • October 27: Red-shouldered Hawk would prove scarce this fall. I was happy to get an early one flying low over the Loch with Robert DeCandido and his group.
  • October 30: I have written at length about the evening’s Great Horned Owl over Evodia.
  • November 10: On a cold day with strong northwest winds Andrew Farnsworth and I had some low flyovers of Bonaparte’s Gull on the Dyckman Street fields, a very tough species to ever see in Manhattan. Upon returning to Central Park I was treated to another low flyover, that of Northern Harrier.
  • November 18: With widespread rain approaching, I decided to run to the Native Plant Garden on the southeast side of Randall’s Island, where I had American Tree Sparrows in late November the year before. To my delight one was there again.
  • November 23: I was extremely fortunate to be on the East River Greenway, on my way to Randall’s Island, when a low-flying Tundra Swan passed over the island and overhead on its way south. A private alert from a birder on Randall’s Islands northeast fields help assure this rare swan would not be missed.
  • November 23: Later that afternoon I chased and saw a Virginia Rail in the Central Park Ravine, another great Stefan Passlick find. This bird stayed at the location for many days.
  • November 26: I was one of the first to see the mega-rare Hammond’s Flycatcher that lingered for over two weeks in the Central Park Ramble.
  • December 3: Finally saw (along with Robert DeCandido and his group) the Boat-tailed Grackle (my first for Central Park) that had been associating with a large Common Grackle flock in the park possibly for as much as two weeks.
  • December 10: With the closest subway to the Dyckman Fields closed along with some stations on the 2, I had to go well out of my way to reach the three Horned Lark that were reported there. But even two hours after the initial sighting they remained, foraging around a puddle on the southernmost ball field. All of this came after already walking the length of Randall’s Island and back earlier in the morning with Ryan Zucker.
  • December 13: The late afternoon and evening produced a memorable goose migration event of enormous size. Many large, low-flying flocks of Snow Geese were seen and later heard, even hours after sunset, driven by unusual cold and favorable winds.
  • December 17: After several failed attempts this fall to hear an Eastern Screech-Owl at Inwood Hill Park, I was glad to receive reports of one being seen and heard on the 15th. I ended up hearing it whinny but never saw it.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Central Park

Female Boat-tailed Grackle (credit: AllAboutBirds.org)

As I have written before, Boat-tailed Grackle is not a species you should expect to find in Central Park even though it breeds in the New York City area and in neighboring New Jersey. When it is reported in Central Park, it is almost always a mistake. Common Grackles vary in size and tail length, and if you look at hundreds of them you are likely to find some that look larger than the others. A male Boat-tailed Grackle is not easily distinguished from a large Common Grackle by appearance alone, though the rounder crown shape of the Boat-tailed and the very large tail, often held in the shape of a “V,” are key features. Song and calls diagnostic for distinguishing these two species.

If you want to confidently identify a Boat-tailed Grackle amidst a loud flock of Common Grackles, your best hope is to find a female or immature. It’s overall brown color suggests Rusty Blackbird, but its long, thick bill and much larger size (as large or larger than Common Grackles) easily clinch the ID.

Recently in Central Park eBird reports of female Boat-tailed Grackle have appeared, with the first being on November 17. This report failed to give a specific location and was entered after sunset, despite referencing a morning birding time. A more reliable report, complete with photo and Sheep Meadow location, was submitted on November 25. This one also was entered late, but not so late as to make chasing impossible. I received the eBird alert at 2:49 p.m. and shortly after 3:00 I was running to the southern end of the park to do some searching.

By then the large grackle flock reported and photographed in the early morning was gone. It was a mild day, and the Sheep Meadow and surrounding lawn areas were filled with people. I found a smaller Common Grackle flock in the trees of the Hallett Wildlife Sanctuary, but I could not pick out any Boat-tailed Grackles.

The following day, that of the Hammond’s Flycatcher discovery, another eBird report listed Boat-tailed Grackle. this time in the Ramble where I had already spent much of the day.

Two days ago, on Saturday, December 2, I had what I thought was a prime opportunity. A user of Manhattan Bird Alert reported a female Boat-tailed Grackle among a large Common Grackle flock on Cedar Hill. Minutes later, as I was on my way, this finder noted that the flock had been startled and flew south toward the Boathouse. Despite much searching in that area and in areas to the south, I never found the flock.

Another bird alerts user reported seeing the flock at Maintenance and then watching it quickly fly north. I headed north, scanning the lawns on the park’s west side. I did not find any grackles whatsoever.

Yesterday I was birding with Robert DeCandido and Deborah Allen’s group, which was on its way to the Pond to see warblers and waterfowl. I remarked to Robert, as we were passing Cedar Hill, to keep an eye out for grackle flocks.

As we approached the Sheep Meadow, I saw a massive blackbird flock — hundreds of Common Grackles along with many European Starlings. I quickly eyed a leucistic Common Grackle, and remarked that it probably was the same one photographed on November 25 in the flock with the female Boat-tailed — which might be here, too.

The flock flew west, re-settling on the northwest corner of Sheep Meadow. I ran to chase it, and began scanning. Soon another member of the group spotted the immature (likely female) Boat-tailed Grackle under a nearby tree. We got close looks and were able to take good photos.

For me and everyone else in the group it was a new lifetime bird for Central Park. We later had the bird again that day in the trees of Hallett.

Prior to November, the last verified report of Boat-tailed Grackle in Central Park was on April 20, 2011 — a male that seemed to have been lingering in the area south of the Meer for perhaps a couple weeks, and whose distinctive sounds were noted.

 

Virginia Rail, Central Park Ravine

Coming into today, November 23, my chances to get Virginia Rail for the year were looking slim. The species had already made more than a few appearances in Manhattan in the fall migration season. We know this because the Wild Bird Fund (WBF) on the Upper West Side had treated at least six Virginia Rails. Most of these birds apparently had collided with buildings and clearly were injured.

On September 21 a Virginia Rail was found by Bryant Park maintenance staff in the typical place where rails or woodcocks appear: the southeast maintenance shed, which is surrounded by vegetation and offers birds privacy and shelter. It was said to look “stunned.” Staff immediately called NYC Audubon, and the rail was taken away to the WBF before any public reports were issued. The bird recovered and was released sometime later.

The morning of November 8 offered the first chaseable report, at 8:10: a birder on his way to work noticed a Virginia Rail perching on a Lexus near 48th Street and Park Avenue in midtown, and suggested that the bird might be in need of rescue, though it did not appear to be injured. (Kudos to the bird for having chosen a notably safe and well-engineered vehicle.) Having stepped away from my computer, I was five minutes late in reading the post. I then took a few minutes to relay the report to followers of Manhattan Bird Alert, some of whom surely would be nearby and might be able to step out for a look. Then I got dressed and headed for the subway to begin the chase.

Because of the time — right when or just before most people begin their workday — I did not expect anyone to attempt a rescue, which would minimally require an hour of commitment, between catching the bird, transporting it to the WBF, and then returning to work. My response was not going to be my fastest — I would normally aim for 25 minutes from alert to arrival in midtown — but I did not see how it was going to matter.

I caught the Lexington Line 6 train with only a short wait and was headed to midtown. At 8:42 I was approaching 59th Street and feeling confident that I would get the bird, which might be only five minutes away.

Then I saw a new message on my phone: someone had already captured the bird and set off for the WBF!

This was a first for me. I have done many chases over the years, surely at least a hundred involving some cross-town travel, but before then my attempts had been foiled purely by natural forces — mostly by birds simply choosing to go somewhere else. This was the first time a  human had seized a bird and spirited it away before I could see it.

Proof that the capture likely was unnecessary came within minutes: the Virginia Rail squirmed free of its captor, who had snared it in a cloth bag, and flew off west on 47th Street. Had the captor thought to post this news then, I would have been nearby and ready to continue the interrupted chase. But birders were not apprised of the escape until over an hour later. The bird was not reported again.

Today, in contrast, everything went right. One of Manhattan’s top birders, Stefan Passlick, found a Virginia Rail on the west side of the Ravine in Central Park’s north end. He posted clear directions to it along with a Google Maps screenshot at 2:02 p.m. on Manhattan Bird Alert. I ran to the scene and immediately saw the rail foraging nearby in front of a log in the moist, leaf-covered area — exactly where the Google Maps pin indicated it should be. This was easy!

Soon others showed up, and all were treated to close, extended views of a Manhattan rarity that was largely oblivious to the observers and their cameras. It was a delightful way to end a fine day of Thanksgiving birding.

This bird went onto linger at the location for many days.

The Wild Bird Fund later announced that it had released a rehabbed Virginia Rail in the North Woods on November 21. Whether or not this was the bird seen by many cannot definitively be determined and does not affect the ABA-countability of the bird.