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.

 

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Boat-tailed Grackle, Governors Island

Boat-tailed Grackle breeds within a mile of Manhattan, at Liberty State Park in New Jersey, and also in southern Queens in New York City. It is a common bird within its habitat — freshwater and saltwater marshes near the coast — but this habitat does not include Central Park, nor does the bird appear with any regularity elsewhere on the island of Manhattan proper. The marshes in Manhattan, at Inwood Hill, Sherman Creek, and Randall’s Island, probably are not extensive enough to attract the species.

Though most Boat-tailed Grackles do not migrate, New York is near the northern end of their range, and eBird records indicate that these birds leave during colder months and return in late winter or spring. This movement offers a slim chance for a Boat-tailed Grackle to appear anywhere in Manhattan.

In April 2011 a male Boat-tailed Grackle showed up near the Central Park Meer. It was photographed and heard vocalizing, allowing it to be identified with certainty. At the time I was enjoying my first spring as a birder and I recall reading about the bird on a blog. I wish I had chosen to chase it, but that is simply not a thing I was doing at the time. Though I was keeping a dated list of the species I had observed, I had not yet been exposed to the notion of a “big year.” I had not yet even joined eBird, so it made little sense to go to the North End just to find one grackle with a tail longer than the other grackles.  I read that there still was dispute then as to whether the bird at the Meer really was something other than just a large Common Grackle. So I stayed away.

Within five months I was regretting that decision. I joined eBird in September 2011, and entered my list for the year, wanting to see how it ranked against others. As I relate in my book, this is when I started to think competitively about birding.

Since 2011 there has been no reliable observation in Central Park of Boat-tailed Grackle. There are only a few known records prior to 2011. Outside of Central Park but still in Manhattan, Ben Cacace had a female bird perching on Pier 11 in July 2015. The female can be identified to species on sight with much greater reliability than the male because of its coloring.

Even before the Pier 11 sighting, I had been thinking that with the species breeding on Staten Island and in Jersey City, New Jersey, it made sense to check nearby. Birds wander in search of better foraging areas.

Governors Island was on my mind as a place to look for Boat-tailed Grackle. This is the first year that the island would open early to visitors, on May 1, after opening in previous years in late May — an opportunity to try for birds that were still moving around, trying to find the best habitat.  On April 23 I learned that an NYC Audubon birding group had been given special permission to visit Governors Island before the general opening and that it had found at least one Boat-tailed Grackle on a lawn at the extreme south end of the island. I knew then that a May 1 visit would be essential.

I made such a visit, accompanied by ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth. We got some good birds, including Bobolink, Greater Yellowlegs, and many Least Sandpipers, but we did not find a Boat-tailed Grackle.

I returned to Governors Island today on the 10 a.m. ferry. I went directly to the south end lawns and scanned them for grackles. Few people were in the area and the open lawns proved attractive foraging grounds for blackbirds. I had no trouble finding grackles, but all revealed themselves to be Common. One bird drew my attention by perching alone in a tree and displaying a long tail. I had only a distant view, the intervening lawn off limits due to pesticide application. It did not vocalize, and soon it flew off. I had to move on.

Later I saw a pair of grackles on the Play Lawn area. The one on the left was clearly larger than the other, had a longer, sharper bill, a very long tail held in a V-shape, blue iridescence on the body and — the clincher — a rounded crown, not the flat crown of a Common Grackle. This was a male Boat-tailed Grackle, the object of my search.