Semipalmated Plover, Sherman Creek

Birds are back! And so is this blog, after three months without a post.

I had some Black Skimmers over the Hudson in Chelsea on the evening of June 14 after trying many times over the preceding week to see them on the East River from Gracie Park, as one observer did on June 7, and from the Central Park Meer. These skimmers reliably fly from the southern Queens waterfront to the New Jersey Meadowlands most June evenings, within 90 minutes or so of sunset to do their feeding. They prefer to fish on smaller ponds because the surfaces are calmer (which is essential for skimming) and because fish are more likely to come to the surface there.

No Black Skimmers have been reported in Central Park since June 2015, when I had one over the Meer.

Another bird that I missed last year (and also in 2015) is the Semipalmated Plover. It is common in the boroughs that have beaches and oceanfront saltmarshes, but it has always been rare in Manhattan. I had my first one in August 2012, also at Sherman Creek.

This year one was found near low tide just before 9 a.m. on August 14. A Manhattan Bird Alert was issued on Twitter and by 10:22 I had arrived at Sherman Creek (in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan) and spied the bird in the distance on the mud flats.

Warblers — particularly Yellow Warblers — have started appearing in decent numbers over the past week along with the waterthrushes. Fall migration, which began for some birds in July, is now picking up. We are also at the time of year when the rarer shorebirds are most likely to touch down—possibly even in Manhattan.

Black Skimmer, the Meer

Black Skimmer (Wikipedia)

Black Skimmer (Wikipedia)

Since the one-time 10 July 2013 appearance of Black Skimmers at Conservatory Water (aka, the model boat pond), I have wanted to add these birds to my Central Park list. I had already looked for them in New York Harbor and on Governors Island in June and July 2012 after Andrew Farnsworth had one on the East River, as I mentioned in my book. As then, at least ten turn up regularly in the sheltered bays surrounding Liberty State Park. You would think that observers on the southwest shore of Manhattan and on Governors Island would see them frequently, but this is not the case — such sightings have been rare.

I had observed the Black Skimmer in Manhattan once before, in October 2012 in the wake of Hurricane Sandy on the Hudson River, but it was a very distant and unsatisfying view.

There was a single report of two Black Skimmers feeding over Turtle Pond in late July 2014, the only known occurrence of them in Central Park that year. These birds used to be seen regularly on Turtle Pond after sundown in June and July of 2003 and 2006. Now one must be a great deal more fortunate in order to see them.

Last Friday, 19 June 2015, one was observed on the Meer at 8:50 p.m. and reported on eBird the following day. Naturally I visited the Meer that evening despite a light mist and occasional drizzle, but I did not see a skimmer.

I wanted to try again when conditions were more favorable. This means mostly clear skies (so the birds are not discouraged from flying several miles to Central Park from their breeding grounds at Breezy Point or elsewhere) and relatively calm winds. Skimmers require calm water for feeding, which is why they prefer small, sheltered bodies of water like Turtle Pond or Conservatory Water).

Yesterday, 22 June, the conditions seemed right, so I ran to the Meer, arriving at 8:37 p.m. just as the sun was setting. I soon saw a large bird with dark wings and a long bill flying over the water, but it turned out to be a Black-crowned Night-Heron. Otherwise, not much was going on. A few Chimney Swifts chattered overhead.

I was positioned at the extreme western tip of the Meer, midway between the north and south shores. At 9:02 a Black Skimmer appeared over the southwest corner of the Meer and began skimming. The lights by the skating rink along with the natural twilight allowed me an excellent, close view of the skimmer as it slowly fished the water surface. The bird was unmistakable both in appearance and behavior, clearly different from any other that one sees in Central Park. After observing several brief passes over the water, I took out my cell phone and started to enter a #birdcp text alert. By the time I had finished typing the alert I could no longer see the skimmer. I searched the rest of the Meer (mostly algae-filled but worth a look) but I was unable to re-find the bird. After ten minutes I moved on. Perhaps the Meer did not suit the skimmer’s taste; maybe the skimmer was just giving it a quick try while in transit to or from some other more desirable place. At any rate, finally seeing it in Central Park was quite a thrill.

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.