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!

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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.

 

Sandhill Crane, Inwood Hill Park

sandhill_crane

Sandhill Cranes have a southern breeding range not too far north of Manhattan, in upstate New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. They frequently stopover in nearby Somerset, New Jersey, during migration. They breed in wetlands, and they will touch down in those or in expansive grasslands. They are not likely ever to land in Manhattan, and they are known to fly very high when migrating, which explains why they are so rarely observed here despite having a nearby presence and being large, unmistakable birds.

It never occurred to me that they even were a possibility until a birder reported one flying over the Bronx Zoo in May 2016. A report of seven Sandhill Cranes flying over Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan followed in December 2016. Then three more were seen over Fort Tryon in January 2017 by the same observer. It’s likely that another two were seen from midtown over the Hudson in December 2017.

These observations stoked my interest, but I saw no practical way to get the birds. Sandhill Crane appearances were not part of a daily movement pattern — they were notably infrequent. Plenty of birders were reporting from the Inwood area most days and not seeing any cranes. A dedicated Sandhill Crane watch of any length would almost certainly produce none. Still, it was a species to keep in mind.

Yesterday, 16 October, I went to Inwood Hill Park to do some sky-watching and river-watching. It was a decent, sunny morning with moderate northwest winds, and I was seeing some Bald Eagles floating overhead. Brant flocks were moving low down the Hudson.

At 11:48 a.m. I saw high-flying bird over Inwood Hill with just my eye and I focused my binoculars on it. It clearly was not a goose or a raptor. It had long, broad wings beating slower than a goose’s would, a long, outstretched neck, and feet trailing outstretched behind it. As it turned into sunlight, I noticed grey wings and body, and briefly a pale cheek patch and darker crown — a Sandhill Crane, flying southwest over the Hudson.

With only three other birders on record as having observed a Sandhill Crane in Manhattan in three other occurrences, the species must be considered among the rarest few I have had here. The North American population appears to be continuing a multi-decade trend of population increase, so perhaps it will appear here more frequently in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview with Kirtlandii Impact

Kirtlandii

I am honored to be featured in Kirtlandii Impact’s first “My Birding Story,” in which I answer some well-chosen questions on my birding experiences. What is my favorite birding find of all time in Manhattan? Read the interview and find out!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pectoral Sandpiper, Governors Island

PectSand

Pectoral Sandpiper (by Cathy Weiner)

 

On Sunday, September 30, a night of heavy migration had me birding Randall’s Island at dawn, where I found the first Nelson’s Sparrow of the year for Manhattan, and then Central Park, where there was not much of note.

I figured I was done with birding for the day, but then late in the afternoon, at 4:17 p.m., Cathy Weiner posted an alert with photos of a large shorebird at the Governors Island maintenance puddles. I quickly DMed her to say that it was a likely Pectoral Sandpiper, and that she should try to get more photos. It did not occur to me to try to chase it, as I recalled that the last ferry was at 4:15 p.m., so I would have no way to get to the island. Or so I thought.

Fifteen minutes later, after hearing that Ms. Weiner was still on the bird, I remembered that on weekends the ferry runs later. A quick check showed that I might still make it on the last ferry of the day, at 5:30 p.m. I gathered my stuff and set off for the subway.

I caught a train right away, but it was just a local. To go all the way to Bowling Green, the stop nearest waterfront on the Lexington Line, I would need the 4 train seven minutes behind it.

I reached the local’s last stop at City Hall, and since all trains were running local on the weekend, the 4 still had not caught up. It was 5:12, and I knew I could run to the Governors Island Ferry building in ten minutes if needed, as I had done this before. So I started running at an easy pace.

The stoplights and crowded streets were not favorable, but I still easily made it to the ferry boarding area by 5:24. Relief! I boarded the ferry, and with Weiner on her way to the puddles, I figured that my plans would work out.

And they did. I ran to the puddles and saw Weiner waiting for me there at 5:46. She had just viewed the Pectoral Sandpiper, and I got on it quickly. It was distant, at the far end of the largest puddle, and I could not approach closer because the area was fenced off. But I got good, diagnostic views, and that was all I needed.

Cathy Weiner’s find was historic — only the third all-time eBird record of Pectoral Sandpiper for Manhattan, and the first since October 2014 (a bird I reported on the first day of its appearance at Muscota Marsh in September 2014).  It was the first time this species had been recorded on Governors Island.

Sanderling, Governors Island

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Yesterday, 7 September 2018, Mary Beth Kooper found a Sanderling on the rocky northwest shore of Governors Island and quickly reported it on Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark on Twitter) at 12:23 p.m.

The Sanderling species had been a focus of mine ever since 23 July 2018, when another birder photographed three such birds on the tiny beach north of Yankee Pier on Governors Island. Sanderlings strongly prefer to forage on beaches, a habitat Manhattan almost completely lacks. With no prior historical eBird reports of Sanderling in Manhattan other than during hurricanes or as flyovers, I had not previously considered it likely as a next life bird. But new evidence requires reconsidering one’s outlook.

First, there are a lot of Sanderlings at nearby beaches in Brooklyn and Queens during the summer, sometimes thousands of them at Breezy Point, for example. The species is abundant throughout its range on appropriate habitats. Not only do birds wander, but they pass over other locations on their way to where they want to go. So Sanderling flyovers should sometimes be visible in Manhattan, and bad weather might sometimes bring birds down.

Second, even though Sanderlings prefer beaches, they are capable of feeding elsewhere. And the Governors Island beach, though small, is still large enough both to be visible to flying birds and accommodate the feeding needs of a flock. At low tide the beach is at least 300 square meters.

23 July 2018 was just such a bad-weather day — strong southeasterly winds were blowing, the result of a low-pressure system in the Atlantic. I was running in Central Park when I received the alert, and I raced home quickly and made it to Governors Island in less than an hour from the time of the alert. But the alert, just after 3 p.m., came as the tide was rising most quickly. So by 4 p.m. the small patch of sand had become submerged, and the Sanderlings had flown.

I tried again the following day at low tide. And I continued trying on many other days, including on 23 August, one day after another Sanderling had been photographed on the southwest shore.

I posted on Manhattan Bird Alert that birders should be checking the rocky shores of Governors and Roosevelt Island for shorebirds, including Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone. I mentioned that Sanderlings, Western Sandpiper, and White-rumped Sandpiper closely resemble more common Semipalmated Sandpipers, and that attention must be paid to subtle differences.

I am delighted that Ms. Kooper kept this advice in mind and found a very cooperative Sanderling.

I took the 2 p.m. ferry, landed on Governors Island by 2:08, and after a few minutes of walking had the Sanderling in sight. I was treated to close, naked-eye views from above the rocks of a bird I had spent many days seeking.

Dickcissel and Pine Siskin, Central Park

Dickcissel, Central Park North End

On migration-season Fridays, Robert DeCandido offers a birding walk in the Central Park North End. He starts early, 7 a.m. or so, well before the scheduled walk time of 9 a.m., to scout the area and also to get in some good birding at the best time.

Two weeks ago he found Orange-crowned Warbler and Yellow-breasted Chat on his scouting walk, the first of which he tweeted while I was still in bed, so the chase took a bit longer than I would have liked.

On this last Friday, August 24, I was up earlier, so that when Robert’s 8:00 a.m. tweet of a Dickcissel opposite the Green Bench arrived, I did not have much left to do to before going on my way.

It’s remarkable how this small area, around the Green Bench, produced two rarities worthy of regional mention in a short time frame.

I ran and reached the location by 8:27, and within a minute I saw the Dickcissel poking its head above the grass. I even got a decent photo.

Dickcissel is not recorded every year in the park; the last known appearance of it there was noted by only one birder in October 2016. Before that, Robert DeCandido and Deborah Allen found one on the Central Park Great Hill on 27 May 2016, and I quickly chased it and saw it along with Deborah.

I am delighted to have had at least one Dickcissel in Manhattan every year from 2011 to 2018.

Today, August 25, Robert DeCandido continued to produce. I joined him for a walk around the Ramble on a pleasant but not-too-birdy morning. The Ramble was alive with the calls of Red-breasted Nuthatches. Altogether I had at least ten of them.

We saw and heard several of them in the trees of Bunting Meadow, immediately north of the Upper Lobe. Robert noticed another, drabber bird associating with the nuthatches, one with brown streaking on the breast and a sharp bill — an unexpected Pine Siskin, the first of the year for Manhattan! This also is the earliest-recorded fall date on eBird of a Manhattan Pine Siskin.

 

 

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.