Autumn Birds Arrive

September 9 brought at least two Bald Eagles and some Broad-winged Hawks over Central Park. Though the park had Broad-winged Hawk sightings at least several times after this date, there was no day where even a hundred (much less the thousands that are regularly seen from Westchester hawk watches) were reported.

September 10 delivered a Lark Sparrow at Triplets Bridge that was seen just before 10 a.m. and by 10:20 a.m. was not seen again. Toward midday a Connecticut Warbler, possibly the same one seen in the evening two days before, was reported at Sparrow Rock. Some saw it pop out of the brush during the afternoon. I watched for at least an hour and then went home. Observers were crowding around the brushy area, hoping to get a close look at the bird. This crowding discouraged the the Connecticut from doing the very thing they were waiting to see. When I returned after 5 p.m. fewer observers were there, but some still continued to watch close by the brush rather than at a binocular distance. I got lucky in that the bird finally decided to fly out of the brush and land nearby, so I had close views of it for fifteen seconds. Then it flew into the woods adjacent to Tanner’s Spring.

Nearly three weeks went by without my having a new year-bird. Then on September 29 I had the year’s first report of Nelson’s Sparrow at the northeast-shore saltmarsh of Randall’s Island.

On the next day, a Saturday, as I was birding the Pinetum with Robert DeCandido and others, an alert arrived of Dickcissel at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island on the east side of the Renwick Hospital ruins. The bird was in a fenced-in area with a small sparrow flock, so I knew the odds of a successful chase were high. I was also in touch with the finder, Joe Girgente, an excellent birder who spends much time on the island. I was on the scene quickly and enjoyed extended, close looks at the Dickcissel.

On October 12 I ran to Randall’s Island in the late morning, after another birder had reported two Saltmarsh Sparrows on the northeast-shore marsh. I walked into the marsh near low tide and had close views of both Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows walking on an area of exposed mud.

Two days later I would be called out to Randall’s Island again, as Vesper Sparrow was reported on the northeast ball fields. Ryan Zucker, a prodigiously accomplished birder just beginning ninth grade, was already on the scene. We quickly re-found the Vesper Sparrow among a small flock of Savannah Sparrows near the rocky shore.

The morning of October 17 had much migratory flight, and just after sunrise I heard the the call of American Pipits flying over the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. In recent years I have made many trips to Randall’s Island in November and December specifically looking to find this species feeding on one of the many lawns. I was delighted to put it on my year list early.

That brings us to yesterday, October 21. A Yellow-breasted Chat was reported at the Heather Garden of Fort Tryon Park mid-morning. Normally I would be running out the door and across the park to do the chase, but I had already birded much of the length of Central Park earlier that morning and had experienced firsthand the delays and service changes of the NYC subway’s A line that runs to Fort Tryon, which encouraged me to walk home from the North End rather than ride. With the subway’s website still indicating delays, I did not want to duplicate a bad experience. I also had in mind the Yellow-breasted Chats are notoriously shy birds and can remain hidden for hours on end. So I passed on the chase. As it turned out, no one observed the bird in the afternoon despite some watching for nearly four hours.

Today the chat was reported by the same observer in the same location again at 10:47 a.m. This was valuable information: the chat was likely to remain in the general area, having already spent at least a day there. A quick chase would have decent odds.

I still had to deal with the A train not making northbound local stops nearby, so I took the 1 train at 86th and Broadway, which required a bit more running both on the way to it and on the way to Fort Tryon from it. But by 12:15 p.m. I was in Fort Tryon on a sunny and unseasonably-warm day.

After some climbing and walking along paths, I reached the north end of Heather Garden to find several birders looking for the chat. One said that it had been in view three minutes ago, low on some vines bearing the blue berries it sought to eat. Encouraging news, so I began waiting and after 45 minutes the bird still had not re-appeared.

Then someone saw it fairly high up in a nearby tree, and I caught a glimpse of it. I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert to let everyone know that the Yellow-breasted Chat continued. Ten minutes later I saw it again, this time much more clearly, perching on a limb, viewed from the raised terrace immediately north of Heather Garden. It was soon time for me to leave, but others continued to see the chat occasionally throughout the afternoon.

I arrived home and had only a little time to eat and rest before another alert chimed in: Eastern Meadowlark at the Central Park North End ball fields. This is a very hard species to get in Manhattan, generally reported only once per year in the park (usually late October or early November) and perhaps once or twice at Randall’s Island. So I laced up my shoes again and ran! Within ten minutes I was on location with the bird, alone on a fenced-in field, clearly in view.

204 species for the year in Manhattan as of October 22. That’s my best count ever for this date (by two birds), but given the strength of my winter and spring seasons (the latter including some birds more often found in the fall) I do not expect to be break my record (213) this year.

 

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Willow Flycatcher, Turtle Pond

This morning, 21 May 2017, I saw an empidonax flycatcher from the Turtle Pond Dock flycatching low on Turtle Pond Island. It was, by appearance, either a Willow or an Alder Flycatcher. The two species look almost exactly alike and can be differentiated in the field only by vocalization. This bird was quiet, and before I could play a recording that might elicit a vocal response it flew east. With the fence surround the adjacent lawn not yet open, I was unable to chase it and I went on with the morning’s birding walk.

Just after noon I returned to Turtle Pond. From the east-side landing (opposite the King Jagiello statue) I saw a flycatcher working over the marshy south shore. It flew across the pond toward me, and as it did, it began singing the characteristic “ritz-bew” song of the Willow Flycatcher. I heard another Willow Flycatcher respond faintly in song from the south shore as the first one continued singing near me.

This was the first time in six years of intense spring birding that I had ever heard a Willow Flycatcher sing in Central Park. I have heard them calling before, at least once every year since 2013.

I still have yet to hear an Alder Flycatcher sing in Central Park. Perhaps because its breeding range extends much farther north (compared to that of Willow Flycatcher) it is less likely to sing when passing through here. There is only one eBird report of Alder in Central Park that indicates song was heard. Other reports, which involve barely more than a handful of discrete occurrence dates over all time, mention call only.

Least Bittern, Central Park Ramble

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Least Bittern (30 April 2017, David Barrett)

It was already an amazing week for me and for Manhattan birding in general. I added two life birds: Red Phalarope, on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island on April 26, and Clapper Rail, at the Loch on April 28 (almost certainly the bird released by the Wild Bird Fund after rehab on April 24).

A warm air mass with southerly winds pushed migrant birds farther north, bring many species to the area over a week sooner than usual. I finished April with 20 more birds for the year than I had ever had before at this time.

The biggest surprise of all came this morning at 8:14 a.m., when I received a Manhattan Bird Alert text (from @BirdCentralPark on Twitter, see here to follow) of Least Bittern in a tree high above the Gill. I ran from the Reservoir and saw a handful of birders already eyeing it. Shape, size, and coloring all checked.  It was my third life Manhattan bird of the week.

The last recorded appearance of Least Bittern in Central Park was on May 29, 1989 on Starr Saphir’s Ramble walk. Lenore Swenson took note of this bird in her journal. It is much rarer than American Bittern, which is observed in Central Park at least once in most years.

 

Wild Turkey, Central Park

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Wild Turkey at Maintenance area

An hour after sunset on Thursday, April 20 eBird relayed the report, with photos, of a Wild Turkey at the north end of Central Park, by a stream known as the Loch. I immediately tweeted the report to followers of Manhattan Bird Alert. The bird was said to be lingering at the Loch, flying back and forth over it, and allowing close approach from people. None of this is surprising for a Wild Turkey, but it is odd that no regular birders were there, at a recently very popular warbler spot, to observe and report it in real time.

It rained over Thursday night, during which time the turkey presumably would have roosted in a tall, nearby tree.

On Friday morning the search was on, with birders (including me) scouring the Loch and nearby North Woods\. The latter would make excellent turkey habitat and would have few people to disturb it. None of us found it that morning, nor was it reported elsewhere in the park. How could a large, conspicuous bird, one that moves around mostly by walking, suddenly disappear?

Then at 6:33 that evening a new lead emerged: an eBird report by a Brooklyn birder of Wild Turkey earlier that afternoon at Turtle Pond. Was I being pranked? The Ramble had many birders active in the afternoon who would have issued text alerts had they seen it, and Turtle Pond receives a huge amount of foot traffic.

I ran to Turtle Pond to investigate. Since it was getting late, I checked the trees, too, for a possible roosting bird. Still no turkey.

I figured that nearby Tupelo Meadow would be a pleasant spot for a Wild Turkey, so I checked there. Maintenance Meadow would be also make a quiet foraging spot, but again, no bird.

Then I saw it, a large, dark blob walking slowly aside the paved path immediately east of the Maintenance tool shed:

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This Wild Turkey was the first documented appearance of the species in Central Park since January 2009, and the first for me in the park.

It remained in Central Park yesterday (Saturday), ending up in the Cherry Hill and Falconer’s Hill areas after appearing early in the east section of the Ramble.

Today (Sunday, April 23) it was spotted on a lawn at the extreme southwest corner of the park near Columbus Circle.

 

 

 

The Elusive Golden-winged Warbler

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Golden-winged Warbler (Wikipedia)

The last section of my book discussed relative warbler rarity in Manhattan. At the time I wrote it, I did not believe that enough eBird data existed to reliably choose which of the 36 regularly-occurring warblers was the rarest (I settled on a top six). Four years later it is safe to say that this title goes to the Golden-winged Warbler.

[This species has suffered a severe decline in population. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers an excellent explanation here.]

I was fortunate to see one in September 2012 with many other observers at Strawberry Fields. The bird had been reported there at least twice, beginning in late morning, so it definitely was lingering in the area. Even so, observing it again required two hours of watching and waiting.

I vaguely recall a reliable message-board report of a Golden-winged Warbler at Maintenance in the fall of 2013, but it came much too late — perhaps the following day — to chase it. There also was a text-alert issued for one in the fall of 2014 at the Upper Lobe, which many chased — I was on the scene in ten minutes — but no one found.

Just this last May (2016) Andrew Farnsworth had a Golden-winged Warbler in East Midtown, but the bird was moving through trees so quickly that he was unable to keep it in sight and I abandoned the chase within minutes.

Fast-forward now to this past Saturday, 3 September 2016. At 4:16 p.m. Manhattan Bird Alert (on Twitter) was issued for a Golden-winged Warbler at Maintenance by the fenced-off storage area. I was there in ten minutes, but I saw no birders looking for it — a bad sign. Eventually the man who issued the alert returned, and in conversation I found that the alert actually was issued almost at least a half-hour late because of “technical difficulties” — which is to say an unlikely combination of a yet-earlier finder’s phone running out of power and  the eventual alerter initially sending his alert improperly so it was not re-tweeted.

Give a Golden-winged Warbler a half-hour head start late on a windy day and odds are it will not be found. I searched for two hours, and was later joined by upwards of ten other birders. No one got it. Still, a clear photograph of it perching by the chain fence was later posted on eBird, leaving no doubt that a male Golden-winged had been present earlier.

The very next morning Deborah Allen sent a Manhattan Bird Alert of a Golden-winged Warbler at 8:00 a.m. on the south end of Maintenance. I was in bed and did not see the alert until 8:07. Twenty minutes later I was at Maintenance looking for the bird, which turned out, as I learned from Deborah, to be different from yesterday’s — this time a female.

It was a pleasant, clear Sunday, and many birders searched Maintenance and the surrounding area trying to find the Golden-winged. Again, none succeeded. It appears that there was again a delay (11 minutes) from initial sighting to the time of report. I did not have a good reason to be birding early that morning, as the northeast winds, blowing for a second straight night, were likely to drain the park of birds while doing little to refill it, and that is just how things went. My response to the alert was slow, but another birder already was in the Ramble and chased the alert immediately. He did not get it, either.

 

 

 

 

Late summer report

Winter birding season really was poor

I complained in my Winter Birding Review that, although I ended the winter with a fine species total (86), I — and nearly everyone else — missed many essential winter birds. Species totals were padded by late-lingering fall birds that would be easy to get in the spring.

Once spring migration was over the effects of this bad winter were more clear. I went into June with only 175 species as compared to the 180 I had then in 2015 and the 182 in 2014 despite having an above-average spring.

Spring migration season was very good

All of the expected birds appeared, and did so in decent numbers, arriving at anticipated times. Arrivals were spread out well, too — unlike in 2014, when migration was delayed by a couple weeks of bad weather before a massive surge concentrated over several days.

Many of the expected but more difficult species were relatively plentiful and easy to observe, with numerous alerts making the job of finding them still more efficient. A female Cape May Warbler, for example, showed up early at the Oven and lingered there for nearly two weeks. Later, Cape Mays gave great, close views in the trees surrounding Turtle Pond, as did Bay-breasted. Yellow-throated Vireo was observed multiple times on many days. A White-eyed Vireo lingered for over a week at the Maintenance Meadow. Both Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos also made frequent appearances, many of them text-alerted. Mourning Warbler had at least several very chaseable alerts — I ended up seeing it on two occasions.

It was also a fine spring for observing the rarest warblers, which last year did not make much of a showing. Most notably, Kentucky Warbler made a brief but well-followed appearance in the Tupelo Meadow/Maintenance area on the same day (19 May) morning that a Cerulean Warbler lingered near the source of the Gill. Over a month earlier Yellow-throated Warbler showed up in the Maintenance Meadow and re-appeared the following morning. A Prothonotary Warbler was reliably reported on 27 May but was not re-found.

It also was an excellent season for unexpected rarities. I had a close view of Purple Sandpiper on 25 April on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. Now that this species has been observed there in two consecutive years, perhaps it should be considered a regular visitor? 8 May was a notable day: an American Bittern was found at the Oven and seen by many, as was a Chuck-will’s-widow at Muggers Woods — making 2016 the fourth consecutive year in which the latter has been seen by multitudes in Manhattan. On that same day Andrew Farnsworth had Glossy Ibis over the East River and Golden-winged Warbler near Sutton Place. Let’s also remember the best bird of them all, the Swainson’s Warbler of which I wrote, and not far behind it in terms of rarity, the Seaside Sparrows. It was also a treat to get a clear, close (as opposed to high flyover) view of a male Bobolink in Central Park.

That said, empidonax flycatchers were very rare this year. I had Acadian in the Ramble, and it also was heard on a couple other days. But there were only single reports of Yellow-bellied , Willow, and Alder in Central Park, and I did not have them.

I also missed Blue Grosbeak.  I chased a report of it with Tom Fiore and another birder on the afternoon of 12 May. After Tom and I set out on a different trail, the bird almost immediately reappeared for the third birder who had stayed behind. None of us ended up seeing it again despite hours of search.

Summer has been mildly disappointing

Summer is not over yet, but it has been filled with misses.

I ventured out to the Meer and Turtle Pond at least six times around sunset in June and July in search of another Black Skimmer, but did not see any.

I also made eight trips to the Inwood area in July and August in search of shorebirds and others. All I got out of it were the two most common species I expected to add, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper.

A juvenile Little Blue Heron on was seen and photographed at Spuyten Duyvil Creek on July 30. Had it been reported immediately, I almost certainly would have been able to reach it in time to observe it, but the finder apparently was not initially sure of the ID. I raced to the scene within an hour of the alert, but by then the tide had risen, the mud had disappeared, and the bird had moved on.

I was, however, delighted to hear a Willow Flycatcher calling on 18 August in the Ramble and  a Red-breasted Nuthatch, also calling,  near Delacorte Theater the following morning.

 

Bobolink, Central Park Oven

The Bobolink in general is a common bird, but it is a very difficult one to observe in Manhattan. Venture a few miles west, to the New Jersey Meadowlands, or to the coastal marshes of Brooklyn and Queens, and you can find plenty of them during spring and fall migration. You also can observe their migratory flights very early in the morning over Manhattan. Sometimes you can hear their flight calls. Rarely they alight on trees in Central Park in passage, never lingering long before continuing on.

Around 10 a.m. today I encountered AMNH Ornithologist Joseph DiCostanzo and Lenore Swenson in Tupelo Meadow. They told me that they had learned of a male Bobolink in the Oven forty minutes prior, and that they had observed it themselves before it flew off and was not re-found. Joe had attempted to issue an alert on the bird but the email apparently did not go through.

I had come across Bob “Birding Bob” DeCandido and his group earlier and I was birding with them when I got the news. We eventually made our way to the Oven but did not observe the Bobolink. Along the way we had a mystery flycatcher, seen only briefly, and my first-of-season Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Maintenance Meadow.

As a small digression, I should mention that I had a great time birding with Bob. Many know that Bob uses recorded calls and songs to draw in birds, as do many top birding guides. Birds that are perching still sometimes move and reveal themselves; some birds that are out of sight will fly in to check out the commotion; and some that are in sight but high up will descend to levels where they are more easily viewed. The result is that members of Bob’s group see a lot of birds and often get excellent views of them. I certainly had better views than I usually do on my own.

Yesterday, Bob found a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Tupelo Meadow. I had remained in the Maintenance Meadow, along with many others who were part of a different birding group. Bob ran back to Maintenance to let everyone — not just his group — know of the cuckoo. We enjoyed extended views of the bird flying and foraging high over Tupelo.

Today, after initially striking out at the Oven in search of the Bobolink we moved on to Swampy Pin Oak. Warbler Rock, and the Rustic Shelter, where we saw Indigo Bunting, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and Blackburnian Warbler, among others..

Bob suggested we finish with one more pass over the Oven and then onto the Point. As we we turned onto the dirt path leading to the Point, I began to hear Bobolink song. So did Bob, and he already had the bird in sight, atop a bare tree over the Oven. The Bobolink continued singing loudly, moving around to various high perches both at the Oven and later toward the north to the Captain’s Bench area.

This was my first visual Bobolink in Central Park — I had heard one singing two years ago in the North Woods. What a way to end the morning! With the temperature rising and warblers becoming more scarce, I headed home.

 

 

Seaside Sparrow, Hudson Greenway

Thursday, May 5, was cloudy and cold — just like most days this last week. I had taken a walk in the afternoon to the North End as much for exercise as for birding. When I returning home shortly after 4 p.m. I figured I was done for the day.

But at 6:26 p.m. a Manhattan Bird Alert came through from Adrian Burke: he had found three Seaside Sparrows at a small park known as Clinton Cove at 55th and the Hudson Greenway.

My first thought was, “How can I chase these birds?” I live on the Upper East Side, so I would have go entirely across town and then roughly a mile south. I ran across the park to the AMNH subway stop at 81st Street and immediately caught a southbound train to 59th Street. From there I ran to  the location.

Seaside Sparrow is one of the very rarest Ammodramus-type sparrows for Manhattan. There are records on eBird, all in Central Park, from 1923, 1974, and 2011. I had one briefly in October 2014 on Randall’s Island’s northeast saltmarsh, a place you would expect the species, as it gets Nelson’s Sparrows annually.

Where I found Adrian Burke and the sparrows was not at all a place that a Seaside Sparrow should want to be. The three sparrows were moving quickly on foot on a narrow median strip of mostly bare ground and some plants and trees between a paved lane for runners and cyclists and a paved lane for pedestrians.

Walkers, runners, and dogs occasionally scared a sparrow to short flight, but they remained in the area. One ventured onto the eastern edge of a large lawn on the Hudson side.

I was first on the scene, and, along with a couple others who showed up, got great views from less than ten feet. The sparrows appeared not to mind our presence as they went about their foraging.

These sparrows went on to defy expectations by remaining at this location during both the following day and the day after that — today, May 7.

Another Seaside Sparrow was found at 65th and the Hudson Greenway on the morning of May 6. It, too, has remained in place since then. A fourth Seaside Sparrow appeared at the Clinton Cove location, also on May 6. An American Kestrel was observed catching and carrying away one of the Clinton Cove sparrows that same day.

 

Swainson’s Warbler, Strawberry Fields

Last night’s winds looked unfavorable for birding this morning. For the first few hours after sundown they were light and southwesterly, encouraging Central Park migrants to fly out. Later they switched to northwesterly, discouraging flight into the park. So I did not intend to do any early birding, and temperatures in the low 50s only strengthened the case for waiting.

After seeing #birdcp Twitter reports before 7 a.m., I knew that some good birds probably had remained in the park — Nashville and Worm-eating Warbler, for example. But I had already observed these in recent days and had no interest in chasing them.

As I was having breakfast a 7:22 a.m.a Twitter alert arrived, issued by Alice Deutsch, one of the park’s most expert and well-traveled birders: “Swainson’s Warbler, Imagine mosaic.” My first thought was that she meant Swainson’s Thrush, a common bird but one that would be early and first-of-season for Central Park, so worth reporting. But a few minutes later she tweeted, “Confirming, and it’s singing.” It had to be a Swainson’s Warbler, just as she had written — she would not bother confirming a common thrush, nor would anyone care that one was singing.

This meant I had to get to Strawberry Fields — fast! No time to finish eating. I put on running clothes, packed my bag, and I was out the door.

At 7:46 I arrived at the mosaic to see 25+ birders looking into the shrubs to the south. Almost immediately the Swainson’s Warbler sang and then popped up to perch on some foliage several feet off the ground. Then it flew another 5o feet south, landing in a tree, where it continued singing but was not being seen. Soon it was found on the ground, inside and underneath the dense shrubs. This is where it stayed during the time I viewed it (as late as 9:35 a.m.) and, I am told, the remainder of the day.

Within 90 minutes over 150 people had stopped by to see this rarity. It has been recorded only four times in Central Park with multiple observers (each time in May, in 1973, 1979, 1990, and 2000). A very reliable single observer had it at the Upper Lobe, briefly, in May 2012.

The Swainson’s Warbler is my 254th lifetime species in Manhattan.

Yellow-throated Warbler, Maintenance Meadow

Yellow-throated Warbler is one of the six hardest-to-find warblers about which I wrote in the appendix to my book. Prior to today I had had it only twice, in late April 2012 and 2014. I, along with many others, should have had it in 2015 also, but the finders sent the alert much too late.

Today’s original finder, Kathleen Toomey — one of Brooklyn’s top birders — did not make this mistake. She reported it quickly using my #birdcp Twitter alert system, something for which she had signed up just a few days before.

I had just finished a gym workout and was at home when her 3:16 p.m. alert chimed in. I quickly changed clothes and started running. Within ten minutes I arrived at the source of the Gill and saw Kathleen and others. She said that the bird seemed to have flown north and that she was no longer seeing it.

I started searching Tupelo Meadow, an excellent place for a warbler to find food, with many tall trees starting to leaf out and some blooming. Then I circled back around Azalea Pond. No bird.

After nearly an hour of re-checking these areas, I was ready to head home. But first I wanted to try the Maintenance Meadow, which has some large trees filled with white blossoms — always attractive for warblers.

I saw a small bird with a lot of white on it swoop down from high up in the trees and land near me just a foot or two off the ground. I turned, focused, and got a brief but clear view of the bird’s grey back and crown, dark cheek, and bright yellow breast. I had re-found the Yellow-throated Warbler.

It then flew east and landed in a tree with white blooms. I knew that over twenty birders were looking for it, so I took the opportunity to send out my own Twitter alert to draw them over. When I looked up again I was no longer seeing it. This was at 4:36 p.m.

When the group arrived I passed on the information and lingered for another fifteen minutes before heading home.

It was not reported again until 6:09, at the same location, where it stayed for perhaps five minutes before flying further east and out of sight.