A Great Week of Winter Birding

I am not doing another public big year, but I am birding. This week produced some of the best finds of the winter.

On February 14 I had two Snow Buntings on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island, and at least one of them posed for a close photo.

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Snow Bunting

That same day I also had a Red-throated Loon, my first of the season and the first one I have had in nearly two years, seen from the same location swimming in the East River.

The day before I had Common Loon on the Reservoir, a species I had only once in 2016. Generally, Common Loon is the easier of the two to observe in Manhattan, not only on the rivers but also in the sky. But last fall the loon flights were nearly all very high, out of the range of my binoculars (I do not use a scope). I recall seeing at least a handful of loon flyovers in previous years at more accessible heights. And the loons were not touching down in the rivers as far as I could tell, which seemed odd. In the winters of 2012 and 2013, seeing loons on the rivers was easy — they were visible in decent numbers (1-4) on nearly every trip to the Hudson or the East River.

The best bird of the week was the immature Glaucous Gull I had on the 16th at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, which is part of Manhattan. There have been a few reports of such a Glaucous Gull in the area recently, including briefly on the Central Park Reservoir. I was delighted to get a closeup photo of the bird.

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Glaucous Gull

On the 17th I chased a Manhattan Bird Alert (Twitter) report of Canvasbacks at West Harlem Piers Park, a flock that had been appearing occasionally at this location in recent weeks. That is also where I had a flock of Canvasbacks in February 2016. When I did not see them at the tweeted location, I climbed the bridge to Riverbank State Park and found the flock just north of 135th Street by a water treatment plant. This time my photo had to be from afar.

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Canvasbacks

Today, the 19th, I had Greater Scaup off Randall’s Island. I believe that the relatively mild winter — after what was briefly a very cold mid-December start — has caused fewer scaup to pass through the area, and probably also fewer of other species, such as Long-tailed Duck, which has been absent from Manhattan reports so far in 2017.

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Winter 2015 highlights

From mid-January to late February I had to focus on a couple of issues that prevented me from devoting as much time as I usually do to birding. One of these was closing on my purchase of an Upper East Side co-op and then preparing for the two-block move out of the apartment where I had lived for over twenty years to the new one.

The winter was fairly forgiving in the sense that sought-after species generally appeared much more than once and did so at the locations where they were noted. A single Common Redpoll, for example, lingered at the Evodia feeders from January 23 until at least March 9. I observed this bird on several occasions. A drake Long-tailed Duck (a species that took me over three years of birding to see) continued underneath Broadway Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan. I did not venture there to see this bird. Again, I am not doing another big year in 2015, though I may very well end up observing a lot of birds.

It was not a great winter for new life birds, however. The only bird anyone observed in New York County this winter that I did not already have is the Glaucous Gull that lingered from late January to early March in New York Harbor. I thought that this winter might have provided a Rough-legged Hawk — there certainly were many reports of the species in Brooklyn and the Meadowlands area of New Jersey — but no.

Aside from the birds I mentioned in previous blog posts (the Couch’s Kingbird and the Black-headed Gull) or above, these are my favorite birds of the winter — ones that I did observe:

  • American Tree Sparrow (both at the Central Park feeders and on Randall’s Island). In many years this can be a very tough sparrow to find.
  • Canvasback, nine of them, swimming in the Bronx Kill off Randall’s Island on February 22. An American Wigeon also showed up there that day;
  • Long-eared Owl in Shakespeare Garden on March 5. This or possibly another Long-eared Owl also roosted on the pines of Cherry Hill for at least several following days;
  • Common Goldeneye off Randall’s Island on March 6. This species did not show up as often as in previous years;
  • Common Merganser off Randall’s Island on March 8. This species also appeared under Broadway Bridge and, very briefly, on the Reservoir;
  • American Woodcock on the north shore of Randall’s Island on March 8. In my book I describe woodcock as very hard to find (which they were, in 2012), but in recent years they have been showing up in large numbers in Central Park. Some stay in place, visible but at least somewhat hidden, for the entire day;
  • Horned Grebe, a single bird swimming just south of the RFK bridge in the Harlem River on March 8;
  • Green-winged Teal on the Reservoir, March 16;
  • Red-necked Grebe, which I found swimming just offshore on the Hudson River near 65th Street on March 16, one of only two eBird reports of this species in Manhattan this winter;
  • Northern Pintail, three hens swimming off the northeast shore of Randall’s Island on March 17.

White-winged Scoter, Inwood Hill Park

White-winged Scoter (male, from Wikipedia)

White-winged Scoter (male, from Wikipedia)

I am back to trading the markets every day, which is one reason my blog posts are fewer — I am doing a lot less birding. When an opportunity for a life Manhattan bird arises, though, I am always ready to spring into action.

This morning at 9:27 ornithologist Joe DiCostanzo posted to eBirdsNYC that he had observed a drake White-winged Scoter flying west over the Spuyten Duyvil, just north of Inwood Hill Park. At 10:42 he posted that he had observed the scoter again, swimming on the Duyvil just east of the Henry Hudson bridge.

I was 35 minutes late in reading his second message, but I had trades in progress and would not have been able to leave earlier anyway. Ducks tend to linger for the day, particularly in calm locations, so I was not too worried — particularly now that open (unfrozen) water remains relatively scarce.

You may recall DiCostanzo from my book. He holds the lifetime record on eBird for most species in New York State: an amazing 404 from a New York birding career that began in the early 1970s. He gives birding walks in the Central Park Ramble every spring and fall through the American Museum of Natural History, and they are always in great demand. Sign up for them here. You will see (and hear) a huge variety of birds, learn something new, and have a fun time. You should also check out his blog, which he began today.

I arrived at the east end of Inwood Hill Park at 1:15 p.m. I did not initially see any ducks on the water near the bridge, so I walked over to the newly-created Muscota Marsh where DiCostanzo had seen some Canvasbacks this morning, including a leucistic one. I was not seeing them, but I did see three Greater Scaup swimming together on the north side of the creek, which got me year bird number 69.

I thought I would have a better view of the Spuyten Duyvil to the northwest, where the scoter was last seen, if I walked on a promontory that juts out toward it. So I did, and the drake White-winged Scoter, with its characteristic white comma behind each eye, came clearly into view.

I later walked the trail that goes around the northern edge of the park and got a closeup look at the scoter from just east of the Henry Hudson bridge. I did not mind spending the extra time. I figured it probably would be years before I saw another.

While walking back along the Dyckman ball fields after following the trail west and off of Inwood Hill, I saw a drake Canvasback land on the Hudson, only the second time I have observed this species in Manhattan.

The White-winged Scoter was species number 237 on my lifetime Manhattan list.

Canvasback, Swindler Cove Park

The Canvasback had long been one of my “white whale” birds. It used to show up on the Hudson fairly often, and it was one of the birds I expected to get during my big year of 2012. I did not, however, despite two next-day chases of Canvasback observations in January 2012. My unsuccessful search for a Canvasback on the Hudson in Chelsea on December 31, 2012 brought my big year to a close.

So it was with great excitement that I saw two messages on my return from the gym at 1 p.m. on January 12, 2014 (the day after I found the Snowy Owl). The first message was a report of three Canvasbacks still being seen at noon at Swindler Cove Park. The second was an eBird report of a Canvasback observed sometime during the morning on the Bronx Kill on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island.

Naturally, I planned to chase these birds right away — but which? The Swindler Cove sighting was the more recent, by perhaps as much as three hours, but getting there would take nearly an hour. The Randall’s Island bird was much closer — I could reach it in a half hour by running across the RFK Bridge — and there was an additional attraction: a Common Raven had been seen lingering on Randall’s Island both that day and the day before. If I got the Canvasback, I planned to search for the raven. If I missed the duck, then I would have to put off looking for the raven and go to Swindler Cove. Ravens are becoming regular in Manhattan, but I could not afford to miss the Canvasback.

After a fast subway ride and a run across the bridge, I was on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island, searching the canal for the Canvasback. I really wanted it to turn up, so I double-checked the Kill and then looked further out in the bay. I had already done an intense morning workout and did not feel like doing more; it was also starting to get cold. But twenty minutes of searching could not produce the Canvasback, so I ran back across the bridge and then across Harlem to catch the A-train.

Just after 3 p.m. I arrived at Swindler Cove Park. It took some scanning, but I found the three drake Canvasbacks exactly where they had been reported previously, on the opposite shore near some wooden moorings. I had waited a long time and searched many miles to add this bird to my life Manhattan list (#235).

I went further inside the park, away from the Sherman Creek mud flats to look for other birds (Swindler Cove can offer surprises) and twenty minutes later the Canvasbacks were no longer in view.

At least one Canvasback reappeared over several following days at Swindler Cove, and on January 15 two drakes showed up on the Central Park Reservoir but were not publicly reported until after dark.