My 2018 Manhattan Big-Year record: 230

The biggest New York bird story of 2018 was, of course, the Central Park Mandarin Duck. For weeks, in November and early December, it attracted worldwide media attention. I spent much of my time doing interviews and creating the content on Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark on Twitter) that kept thousands of new followers apprised of the comings and goings of Central Park’s avian celebrity.

At the same time, my own birding in 2018 had gone exceptionally well — which was not  initially the plan.  After incrementally increasing my own ABA-rules Manhattan big-year record in 2017 (from 213 to 214) I had no intention of doing yet another big year in 2018. Competitive big-years require huge time and effort, even when the geographic focus is just at the county level. I wanted to spend much more time on my work in Deep Learning, a branch of Computer Science, which I did.

I still enjoyed getting in an hour or two of birding most days, in January and February 2018. Thanks to unusually cold weather, rarities showed up frequently during these months, and it did not take much time to get them. Without really trying to run up a big total, by late February I had nevertheless assembled a strong list and was well ahead of everyone else in the eBird Top 100. So, I decided to post my results and enter the fray.

I figured that taking six weeks off to bird intensely again (mid-April through May) would be fine. I could do nearly all of it in Central Park, just minutes from where I live, and see how it went. Why waste the good winter results?

Big-year birding results come quickly. In a good Manhattan January one might get 60 birds in the first week or even in the first couple days, as some did in 2019. Then things slow until April. But by the end of May I expect to have roughly 85% of my total for the entire year — if I have given full effort and done things right.

The 2018 spring migration season for Manhattan was unusually rewarding, as I mentioned in a previous blog post. I had 194 species, 5 better than I or anyone had done before, giving me a reasonable expectation of breaking my big-year record of 214.

Early July brought more encouraging news: Red-breasted Nuthatches were having an early irruptive move, suggesting the possibility of a finch irruption, and with it an extra three to six species one would not normally get. Most noteworthy of the 2018 finch irruption was Evening Grosbeak, a once-per-decade bird for Manhattan at best, which I would have much later in the year on November 19.

Summer shorebird season went very well, too, including such rarities as Sanderling, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Lesser Yellowlegs.

By August 10, with help from the sharp eyes of Robert DeCandido, I had added Yellow-breasted Chat and Orange-crowned Warbler, my 200th and 201st birds of the year. By then I was fairly certain that my 214 record would fall.

Along the way I ended up having only my second-ever perfect warbler year, in which I observed every regularly-occurring warbler. My first one was in 2012. Though Connecticut Warbler on September 23 was the last to fall, the toughest of them all came on August 15: Golden-winged Warbler, a species I had not had at all since 2012.

Virginia Rail (214) on October 8 tied the record, and new life bird Sandhill Crane (215) on October 16 broke it.

The next target was the all-time eBird big-year record of 221 set by Andrew Farnsworth in 2011, the year of Hurricane Sandy. This was not an ABA-rules record because Farnsworth, one of the world’s best long-distance birders, lists whatever he can observe from Manhattan locations, even birds that clearly are outside the boundaries of Manhattan — as eBird both allows and recommends.

The good fortune of a finch irruption was quickly followed, in November, by the even better fortune of a massive owl irruption. First, Long-eared Owl on November 1, then Barred Owl the next day, then Northern Saw-whet Owl on November 10. Barred Owl tied the record at 221. Two days later, Harris’s Sparrow broke it, my 222nd ABA species of the year.

Of my remaining birds, the best one was Short-eared Owl on November 22, which I myself found on Randall’s Island, another new life bird and my 227th of the year.

My last bird of the year was Great Horned Owl on December 8, my 230th.

I tried hard to add another. Red-necked Grebe had started showing up around the city, and it even appeared off Randall’s Island on December 31, well outside of Manhattan waters near Rikers Island in the Bronx. I thought Cackling Goose and Glaucous Gull were possibilities, too, but they never showed.

2018 was a remarkable birding year. I am glad I got to take full advantage of it. I will not be doing this sort of thing again soon!

Best Birds of 2017

Despite initially having no intention of doing another year of competitive birding, I ended up doing one anyway, and I put up my best numbers ever: 214 Manhattan birds for 2017, extending my own ABA-countable big-year record from 2014 by another bird.

Usually I write about my “best” (rarest) birds of the year, but I have already written about some of them on my blog, and will touch on all of them in the highlights below. Just for the record, here is how I would rank them:

  1. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  2. Red Phalarope
  3. Tundra Swan
  4. Clapper Rail
  5. Least Bittern
  6. Cattle Egret
  7. Lesser Yellowlegs
  8. Boat-tailed Grackle

Coincidentally these also were the eight life Manhattan birds I added in 2017.

Here are some chronological highlights of the year:

  • January 10: Found my first good bird of the year, an Orange-crowned Warbler at Little Hell Gate marsh on Randall’s Island. This species would turn out to be unusually common during both spring and fall migration.
  • January 12: Mute Swans used to be seen many times throughout the year on Manhattan waters but lately they have become rare. A juvenile swimming at Little Hell Gate marsh was the only one I had in 2017.
  • February 14: Found and photographed Snow Buntings on Randall’s Island’s northeast shore. I would end up finding another pair of Snow Buntings at the same location in November.
  • February 16: Found and photographed an adult Glaucous Gull on the rocks off FDR Park on Roosevelt Island. It offered close views and lingered at the location for at least a couple weeks. It may also have gone on to appear at the Reservoir, where I had an adult Glaucous Gull—twice.
  • February 17: Canvasbacks on the Hudson at Riverbank State Park. These continuing birds were north of the usual West Harlem Piers location and I might have missed them on my first visit there on a cold, blustery day. I nearly gave up on my second try before deciding to check from Riverbank State Park, where they came clearly into view.
  • March 4: Long-eared Owl at Shakespeare Garden.
  • March 15-17: The unprecedented American Woodcock event. Some saw as many as 40 on the 16th. They were everywhere, in numbers never seen before in Central Park. At least one Wilson’s Snipe, too. My and Central Park’s first woodcock of the spring migration came on the cold evening of the 12th, a single bird flying up in Tupelo Meadow. I was delighted just to have one—in some years they can be very hard to find in Manhattan. I had no idea what was to come only days later.
  • April 3: Purple Sandpiper on the rocks south of FDR Park on Roosevelt Island. Yes, the species has become annual at this location and more people had it this year than ever before. But it is still a treat to see what was for a long time a true mega-rarity for the county.
  • April 11: My life Cattle Egret at Penn South. I raced to reach it, worried that the bird would not stay long in such a heavily-trafficked area, and was first on the scene. Then the bird stayed for nearly a month.
  • April 17: Immediately I suggested to Robert DeCandido and group that Purple Finches were likely today and Strawberry Fields would be a good place to find them, the birds appeared high in the trees.
  • April 21: Wild Turkey at Maintenance in the Central Park Ramble. At first I thought the prior evening’s eBird report from the Loch might be a hoax. Failing to find this large, conspicuous bird in the North Woods with Robert DeCandido the next morning increased my concerns. Then an afternoon Turtle Pond eBird report from a visiting birder came through at 6:33 p.m., and I was off on the chase and was first to re-find it and issue a Manhattan Bird Alert. It was my life Central Park Wild Turkey.
  • April 24: Greater Yellowlegs at Randall’s Island Little Hell Gate Marsh, a species that appeared more often than usual this year in Manhattan.
  • April 25: I went out in the rain to get the White-eyed Vireo reported near Sparrow Rock and made a second such trip to get the Blue-winged Warbler. The latter species was unusually scarce this year.
  • April 26: Saw and issued an alert on the Barred Owl over the Rustic Shelter in the Ramble in the morning. But my day was not done.
  • April 26: Red Phalarope on Randall’s Island’s northeast shore rocks in the afternoon. Briefly had a naked-eye view of a breeding-plumaged female as it perched just feet from me on the rocks at the east end of the saltmarsh.
  • April 27: Huge day—Worm-eating Warbler with Roger Pasquier; Yellow-throated Warbler near Tanner’s Spring and Yellow-throated Vireo at Shakespeare Garden Overlook, both with Robert DeCandido.
  • April 28: Had two Marsh Wrens near Bow Bridge very early, the only ones of the spring in Central Park. Then went to the North End and had Orchard Oriole with Robert DeCandido. I returned to the Ramble get the Pine Siskin at the feeders just before noon. Robert would go on to find a Clay-colored Sparrow below Nutter’s Battery by Meer. After an alert of the Clapper Rail at the Loch after 5 p.m., I ran there and saw it. Then, with some daylight still remaining, I walked toward the Meer with Tom Fiore and began searching for the Clay-colored. Karen Fung re-found it and issued an alert when Tom and I were nearby. We saw not only that but also our first White-crowned Sparrow of the year near it. An amazing day of birding!
  • April 29: Strong southerly winds brought some warblers much earlier than usual: Hooded, Cape May (singing near Tanner’s Spring), and Tennessee (singing at the Upper Lobe). A giant Snapping Turtle, the largest I have ever seen in Central Park, also appeared at the north end of the Upper Lobe.
  • April 30: Least Bittern over the Gill, the first appearance of this species in Central Park since 1989. After seeing it, I suggested to Ryan Zucker that we chase an alert of a Lincoln’s Sparrow at the Pool, as we could reach it quickly by subway and it was likely to stay in place. This decision proved fortuitous, as we not only got the Lincoln’s, but we also ended up being right on location when a Kentucky Warbler was found by the Loch. Getting Winter Wren and Least Flycatcher was good, too.
  • May 1: Andrew Farnsworth and I went to Governors Island mainly to try for Boat-tailed Grackle, which had been reported recently by a group visiting the island. We missed that, but Bobolinks were a great consolation prize.
  • May 2: I returned to Governors Island and found a male Boat-tailed Grackle.
  • May 3: Robert DeCandido’s calls quickly deliver a rare Black-billed Cuckoo. Later, in the afternoon, while watching for warblers at Summit Rock I hear of an American Bittern said to be at Tupelo Meadow. I go to look for it and do not see it. Then I meet a birder who claimed to have seen the American Bittern himself. I issue an alert at 3:08 p.m. and look for it again, this time along with many others. No one sees it. I wander back to Summit Rock. After 6:00 p.m. I encounter a birder who reported having seen the American Bittern along with a crowd of birders at Tupelo and even had a photo of the bird. How could this be when no new alert has been issued?  I issue the alert myself and run there. Success, finally!
  • May 7: A late-afternoon report of Semipalmated Sandpiper at FDR Park has me going there during light rain at 4:55 p.m. Then an alert of Eastern Whip-poor-will at the Pond arrives. I head to the Pond’s west side, by the waterfall, find the bird, and issue an alert with a photo of the tree where it was roosting.
  • May 9: I bird Central Park early with Robert DeCandido until I get an alert of Blue Grosbeak continuing at Battery Park. I find the grosbeak quickly, well north of the beehive location where it had earlier been noted. Then I start looking for the Summer Tanager, which Gabriel Willow had found at the north end of Battery Park. This takes over an hour, but eventually the tanager reappears and gives a close view to many.
  • May 11: Found my first Yellow-billed Cuckoo of the year south of the Rustic Shelter with Robert DeCandido.
  • May 14: Bank Swallow near the Reservoir North Pump House.
  • May 18: A male Mourning Warbler is found on the rocks beneath Belvedere and offers a close, clear view to many in the early evening.
  • May 19: I find a Bicknell’s Thrush near the Loch with Robert DeCandido and his group. The thrush sings in response to playback, giving the group its first-ever Bicknell’s.
  • May 21: I hear and then see a singing Willow Flycatcher at Turtle Pond.
  • May 23: An hour-long stakeout of Humming Tombstone gets me the reported Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
  • May 27: I bring show Robert DeCandido and group a singing Acadian Flycatcher at Warbler Rock—my last Central Park migrant of the spring.
  • June 2: My best look at Black Vultures, with Robert DeCandido, over the North Woods.
  • June 14: After a week of trying to get a Black Skimmer on the East River (as had been reported) or over the Meer, I went to Pier 45 in the West Village with Ryan Zucker. After seeing at least two Black Skimmers near the west shore of the Hudson, we saw three fly close by the pier. It’s a cool bird that very few birders ever have seen in Manhattan.
  • August 14: I wasted no time in getting to Sherman Creek to chase a report of Semipalmated Plover, a shorebird one does not get every year here.
  • August 25: The Lesser Yellowlegs found late the day before stayed another day, giving me another life bird in the maintenance puddles of Governors Island.
  • September 9: The first Bald Eagle and Broad-winged Hawks moving over Central Park—always a great way to begin the fall birding season.
  • September 10: It took me three attempts over two days to get the Connecticut Warbler at Sparrow Rock, but the hours of watching were worth it, as no other chaseable reports arrived this fall—a sharp decline from the relative abundance of the past few years.
  • September 16: After a Western Kingbird was photographed too late to chase yesterday on Governors Island, I went on the first boat and ran to the location on the south hills on a hot, sunny day. The kingbird never re-appeared.
  • September 29: The Philadelphia Vireo on Robert DeCandido’s walk near Green Bench in the North End gave everyone a great view of a bright bird.
  • September 30: Joe Girgente’s Dickcissel at Renwick Ruins on Roosevelt Island proved a pivotal bird for me. Both he and I got extended, close views, but no other Manhattan birders saw the species this year.
  • October 12: Quick chase to Randall’s Island’s northeast-shore saltmarsh yields both Nelson’s Sparrows and a Saltmarsh Sparrow (rarer) at close range.
  • October 14: Ryan Zucker texted me with a mid-morning report of Vesper Sparrow on the northeast fields of Randall’s Island. I ran over and saw it with him, the first of several Vesper Sparrows I would see in an unusually good fall for them.
  • October 22: First found the previous morning, the Fort Tryon Park Heather Garden Yellow-breasted Chat was not seen again the previous day. That is just as well, as I went to chase a more proximate report from Andrew Farnsworth in Sutton Place and did not re-find it. The next morning another alert from Fort Tryon arrived, and I went to chase it. When I arrived a handful of birders already were on the scene, some of whom had seen it just five minutes ago. I waited another forty minutes before it reappeared and soon gave me a brief look from the Heather Garden Terrace. This would be the last report of the year for the species in Manhattan.
  • October 22: But my day was not over. Shortly after returning home, I received an alert that Stefan Passlick had found an Eastern Meadowlark on a North Meadow ball field. It lingered the rest of the afternoon to the delight of many.
  • October 27: Red-shouldered Hawk would prove scarce this fall. I was happy to get an early one flying low over the Loch with Robert DeCandido and his group.
  • October 30: I have written at length about the evening’s Great Horned Owl over Evodia.
  • November 10: On a cold day with strong northwest winds Andrew Farnsworth and I had some low flyovers of Bonaparte’s Gull on the Dyckman Street fields, a very tough species to ever see in Manhattan. Upon returning to Central Park I was treated to another low flyover, that of Northern Harrier.
  • November 18: With widespread rain approaching, I decided to run to the Native Plant Garden on the southeast side of Randall’s Island, where I had American Tree Sparrows in late November the year before. To my delight one was there again.
  • November 23: I was extremely fortunate to be on the East River Greenway, on my way to Randall’s Island, when a low-flying Tundra Swan passed over the island and overhead on its way south. A private alert from a birder on Randall’s Islands northeast fields help assure this rare swan would not be missed.
  • November 23: Later that afternoon I chased and saw a Virginia Rail in the Central Park Ravine, another great Stefan Passlick find. This bird stayed at the location for many days.
  • November 26: I was one of the first to see the mega-rare Hammond’s Flycatcher that lingered for over two weeks in the Central Park Ramble.
  • December 3: Finally saw (along with Robert DeCandido and his group) the Boat-tailed Grackle (my first for Central Park) that had been associating with a large Common Grackle flock in the park possibly for as much as two weeks.
  • December 10: With the closest subway to the Dyckman Fields closed along with some stations on the 2, I had to go well out of my way to reach the three Horned Lark that were reported there. But even two hours after the initial sighting they remained, foraging around a puddle on the southernmost ball field. All of this came after already walking the length of Randall’s Island and back earlier in the morning with Ryan Zucker.
  • December 13: The late afternoon and evening produced a memorable goose migration event of enormous size. Many large, low-flying flocks of Snow Geese were seen and later heard, even hours after sunset, driven by unusual cold and favorable winds.
  • December 17: After several failed attempts this fall to hear an Eastern Screech-Owl at Inwood Hill Park, I was glad to receive reports of one being seen and heard on the 15th. I ended up hearing it whinny but never saw it.