Mandarin Duck Mania, Central Park

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Mandarin Duck by Gus Keri

Last week a certain duck became a media sensation, and I was taken along for the ride. Gus Keri’s video of the male Mandarin Duck at the Central Park Pond, posted on my Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter account,  had already gone viral over two weeks prior, when the duck first appeared there on October 10.

Jen Carlson of Gothamist interviewed me and wrote the story that introduced the broader New York world to the mysterious Mandarin Duck. Then the duck frustrated everyone by disappearing two weeks. I thought he had been eaten by a raptor.

But on October 25 we learned that the Mandarin Duck lived on, seen at the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Hudson. By Sunday, October 28, the Mandarin Duck had returned to the Central Park Pond.

Julia Jacobs of the New York Times met with me to view the duck on October 30, and her brilliant story was published early the next morning. It quickly became the most popular story on the New York Times website and was liked tens of thousands of times on Twitter.

Since then, I have been doing a great many interviews with reporters from news organizations all over the world about the Mandarin Duck, which continued to draw hundreds of admirers to the Central Park Pond this last weekend hoping to see and, better yet, take a photo or video of the vibrantly-colored bird.

Many are finding joy in observing the Mandarin Duck, and I am delighted that my alerts account has been able to help them locate him and display their footage.

Let’s be clear: this Mandarin Duck is of domestic origin. He is not a wild bird, and he certainly is not ABA-countable or eligible for the eBird database.

Right now, though, he is New York City’s most famous duck, and we are glad to have him.

 

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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.

 

Bicknell’s Thrush, Central Park Ramble

Bicknell’s Thrush (from allaboutbirds.org)

This morning Roger Pasquier heard the song of a Bicknell’s Thrush at Evodia (the Ramble bird feeder area). He later told Anthony Collerton about it and pointed out the bird, a warm-toned thrush associating closely with a grayer Gray-cheeked Thrush. Collerton issued a Manhattan Bird Alert (follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter) to let everyone know. He himself had not heard the bird sing.

I arrived at Evodia some minutes later, after Collerton had left, and quickly found a pair of thrushes on the east side of Evodia that matched the stated description. I announced my find to other birders nearby just as the bird was flying to the west side of Evodia.

As I have written before, visual identification is not sufficient to claim a Bicknell’s Thrush, as Gray-cheeked can look much the same. One needs to hear the Bicknell’s song, which ends with a thin, rising pitch.

Both thrushes were staying silent and had wandered out of view. When we started playing the Bicknell’s song on a mobile phone, one of the thrushes came back into view and perched overhead, calling “whee-er”. Soon it flew down and sang. We had our Bicknell’s!

Shortly thereafter I called it in again for Anders Peltomaa and Al “Big Year” Levantin and elicited singing in response. Same later for Joseph DiCostanzo and his American Museum of Natural History walk.

I also heard the Bicknell’s Thrush sing on its own, unprompted, just east of the Gill Source at 10:18 a.m.

A half-hour later Robert DeCandido came by Evodia and helped members of his birding walk see and hear a singing Bicknell’s Thrush.

American Bird Conservancy President Mike Parr and his group were nearby at the time and might have heard the Bicknell’s song. To be sure, I used my phone to call it back again and everyone got close views of the calling and singing  bird.

Bicknell’s Thrush remains a rarity not just in Central Park but throughout its tight migration range along the East Coast. Since identification requires hearing its song, it is possible to get it only during spring migration. Even then, the time window seems to be narrow — I have never had Bicknell’s on more than one day in any May, and there are usually at most only a few days in any May when I hear much thrush song in Central Park. The possible date range for it here seems to be May 12 to May 25, judging by historical Central Park records and my own experience.

 

 

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.

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.

 

Hammond’s Flycatcher, Central Park Ramble

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Photo credit: Deborah Allen

Yesterday, November 26, a Western-type empidonax flycatcher later determined to be a Hammond’s Flycatcher was announced in the Central Park Ramble by Robert DeCandido through the Manhattan Bird Alert service (@BirdCentralPark) on Twitter at 10:15 a.m. It first was seen on the southern border of the Ramble by the Lake, which is known to birders as the Riviera. Thirty minutes later I re-found it north of there at Swampy Pin Oak, just south of Azalea Pond.

This is the first record ever of Hammond’s Flycatcher for Manhattan (in fact, for all of New York City) and only the third record ever for New York State.

Many dozens of birders from all over the northeast are coming to Central Park today to see the the bird, which continues in the Ramble — first seen at 7:30 a.m. at Swamp Pin Oak and later reported at 9:48 a.m. east of there, toward the Oven.

To get real-time updates on this and all other Manhattan rarities, follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter.

 

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.

 

 

 

Snow Buntings, Randall’s Island

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Snow Buntings are a rarity for Manhattan. I am delighted to have had them for a second time this year (the first was on February 14, at the same location). Yesterday, November 11, I saw and photographed two Snow Buntings on the rocky northeast shoreline of Randall’s Island, opposite ball fields 39 and 40. They have been reported continuing at the this spot again today.

In other birding news, the cold front that passed through on the morning of November 10 brought strong northwesterly winds all day, which led to decent raptor and waterfowl flight. It was the first productive day for observing diurnal flight in Manhattan for over a month. We have been stuck in a cycle of either southerly winds (driven by strong low pressure systems) or northeasterly winds.

The latter are generally unproductive for seeing raptor flight over Central Park, as birds, which want to move west away from the coast anyway, are deflected even further west, over the Hudson and into New Jersey. For example, on November 8 the Quaker Ridge (CT) hawk watch had a record-high one-day total of 277 Red-shouldered Hawks. Manhattan birders reported none that day.

At Inwood Hill Park on November 10 I tallied some new birds for the year: Northern Harrier, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Snow Goose, bringing my 2017 New York County total to 209.  I had only a single Red-shouldered Hawk there. I had Northern Harrier in Central Park again upon my return just before 2 p.m.

Great Horned Owl, Central Park

Yesterday, October 30, a Great Horned Owl was found roosting at nearly tree-top level in an oak at the southwest corner of Evodia Field (where the bird feeders are) in the the Central Park Ramble.

I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert (follow @BirdCentralPark on Twitter) as soon as I saw the owl, but clearly many before me had seen it and not done so. That’s a shame. Nevertheless, a lot of people who would have otherwise missed seeing this infrequent Central Park visitor were able to hurry to the Ramble in the roughly 50 minutes of daylight remaining and see it.

Based on the questions I received on Twitter, some simply did not know that it was OK to issue a bird alert involving an owl. It is — at least on my service, which has over the years helped birders observe many owls, including Barred Owl in April of this year, Long-eared Owl in December 2016, and Eastern Screech-Owl in October 2016. Some other listservs and discussion groups still try to restrict such information, a quaint policy in 2017 given the popularity of sites (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) on which information can be disseminated freely.

Others wondered if it was ethical to report owls publicly. I would argue that it is almost always fine to do so at public locations in Manhattan. Of course “ethics” is a social construct, one that varies widely among people and times. Decide for yourself. But if you adopt a point of view simply because you see it written somewhere or hear it told to you, you are not doing your own thinking.

We report hundreds of other bird species, and sometimes they draw large crowds. Think back to last spring’s Cattle Egret or Least Bittern. Surely these birds were aware of increased human presence. Yet no one would fault the people who issued alerts on them. The birds lived on just fine, with the former remaining four weeks in a urban area dense with people and machinery.

You cannot reasonably argue that yesterday’s Great Horned Owl, resting nearly hidden over 60 feet above the ground, was bothered by a group of people quietly standing still and looking up at it. People would have been passing by the area all day anyway. The owl was partially obstructed from any vantage point, and it appeared to be looking away from the viewers.

Owls deal with more proximate annoyances nearly every day as they roost — other birds (Blue Jays, crows, even hawks) getting right in their faces, screeching loudly and mobbing them. That is usually how we humans find roosting owls, and how yesterday’s Great Horned Owl was found.

Some worry that non-birders or bird photographers will behave badly in the presence of an owl, but I have never seen this happen in Central Park. A large group of viewers, with mobile cameras ready to record any malicious deeds, is actually a source of safety for both people and owls. Park Rangers often are deployed to monitor owls and keep viewers in line, too.

But aren’t owls rare and endangered? No, not the ones we get in Central Park. They may be rare locally (in the park), but broadly — even just in New York State — they are doing fine, and are rated by the IUCN as populations of “least worry.”

But they rest during the day — doesn’t this make them special? Yes, it is an uncommon trait, but nighthawks and nightjars also are nocturnal, and no one seems to mind that these roosting birds (e.g., Common Nighthawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Chuck-will’s-widow) are reported and viewed by large groups.

And why should they mind? Again, these are not endangered species, and a gathering of humans observing them is the least of their problems. They get pushed around by both mammals and other birds during the day, and sometimes they fly off and rest somewhere else. Same with owls. That’s life for a nocturnal bird.

The issue of nesting owls is more complicated and sensitive, but Central Park does not have any.

If you accept that even “ethical” birders might occasionally flush a flock of Chipping Sparrows feeding on a lawn, then why all the fuss over respectful birders who sometimes merely draw the attention of roosting owls?

Yet many birders carry a double standard — one for owls and another for all other birds.

On top of this they add hypocrisy. They don’t believe in publicly reporting owls because they say the number of viewers should be minimized, but they themselves will race out to see any owl that they learn of publicly or privately. And once they see it, they call or text their friends to pass along the news.

This process has a number of problems, among them: it’s slow, and it’s not fair — many people get left out of the loop.

Everyone wants to see owls, even people who otherwise do not go birding. Owls are fascinating and mysterious, and seeing them in Manhattan is a rare treat, one that should not be just for the select few. Think about how glad you were the last time you got to see one. With little or no detriment to the owls, the benefits and costs are much the same as for birding in general.

Manhattan Bird Alert wants to help you see your next owl. For this to happen, owl finders need to report promptly. Many will thank you for your tweet, even if a few curmudgeons sniff at it. If you would rather report anonymously, just send @BirdCentralPark a DM (direct message) on Twitter or email me privately. If you prefer to post on eBird directly from the field, that works, too — alerts are issued almost instantly and I monitor them and will relay them.

November is the best month for Manhattan owling. Let’s have a good one!