Pectoral Sandpiper, Governors Island

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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.

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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.

Lesser Yellowlegs, Governors Island

I had my first Greater Yellowlegs in April 2013 at Sherman Creek. Since then I have had the species at least once every year — three times in 2017. Given that the Eastern population of Lesser Yellowlegs is somewhat larger than that of Greater, and that New York City shorebirding hotspots in other boroughs record relatively similar numbers of these birds, it is a mystery why Lesser Yellowlegs is so rarely observed in New York County (Manhattan).

Prior to yesterday, there had been only two eBird reports of Lesser Yellowlegs in Manhattan since 2010 — an unchaseable flyover in April 2010, and an appearance on the mud flats of Inwood Hill Park in July 2016 that was entered a couple hours too late to chase before the tide rose.

Yesterday, August 24, the fenced-in puddles on the southeast side of Governors Island, which have been hosting a variety of common shorebirds since spring, finally produced a rarity. After 3 p.m. Gabriel Willow of NYC Audubon found a Lesser Yellowlegs feeding among a mixed flock of shorebirds that included Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, a single Solitary Sandpiper, and Killdeer.

With the last ferry to Governors Island leaving on weekdays at 4:15 p.m., I could not do a same-day chase.

Today I took the first ferry of the morning, at 10, hoping that the Lesser Yellowlegs did not join in what was a large overnight flight. To my delight it and all the other species mentioned above were still present.

Boat-tailed Grackle, Governors Island

Boat-tailed Grackle breeds within a mile of Manhattan, at Liberty State Park in New Jersey, and also in southern Queens in New York City. It is a common bird within its habitat — freshwater and saltwater marshes near the coast — but this habitat does not include Central Park, nor does the bird appear with any regularity elsewhere on the island of Manhattan proper. The marshes in Manhattan, at Inwood Hill, Sherman Creek, and Randall’s Island, probably are not extensive enough to attract the species.

Though most Boat-tailed Grackles do not migrate, New York is near the northern end of their range, and eBird records indicate that these birds leave during colder months and return in late winter or spring. This movement offers a slim chance for a Boat-tailed Grackle to appear anywhere in Manhattan.

In April 2011 a male Boat-tailed Grackle showed up near the Central Park Meer. It was photographed and heard vocalizing, allowing it to be identified with certainty. At the time I was enjoying my first spring as a birder and I recall reading about the bird on a blog. I wish I had chosen to chase it, but that is simply not a thing I was doing at the time. Though I was keeping a dated list of the species I had observed, I had not yet been exposed to the notion of a “big year.” I had not yet even joined eBird, so it made little sense to go to the North End just to find one grackle with a tail longer than the other grackles.  I read that there still was dispute then as to whether the bird at the Meer really was something other than just a large Common Grackle. So I stayed away.

Within five months I was regretting that decision. I joined eBird in September 2011, and entered my list for the year, wanting to see how it ranked against others. As I relate in my book, this is when I started to think competitively about birding.

Since 2011 there has been no reliable observation in Central Park of Boat-tailed Grackle. There are only a few known records prior to 2011. Outside of Central Park but still in Manhattan, Ben Cacace had a female bird perching on Pier 11 in July 2015. The female can be identified to species on sight with much greater reliability than the male because of its coloring.

Even before the Pier 11 sighting, I had been thinking that with the species breeding on Staten Island and in Jersey City, New Jersey, it made sense to check nearby. Birds wander in search of better foraging areas.

Governors Island was on my mind as a place to look for Boat-tailed Grackle. This is the first year that the island would open early to visitors, on May 1, after opening in previous years in late May — an opportunity to try for birds that were still moving around, trying to find the best habitat.  On April 23 I learned that an NYC Audubon birding group had been given special permission to visit Governors Island before the general opening and that it had found at least one Boat-tailed Grackle on a lawn at the extreme south end of the island. I knew then that a May 1 visit would be essential.

I made such a visit, accompanied by ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth. We got some good birds, including Bobolink, Greater Yellowlegs, and many Least Sandpipers, but we did not find a Boat-tailed Grackle.

I returned to Governors Island today on the 10 a.m. ferry. I went directly to the south end lawns and scanned them for grackles. Few people were in the area and the open lawns proved attractive foraging grounds for blackbirds. I had no trouble finding grackles, but all revealed themselves to be Common. One bird drew my attention by perching alone in a tree and displaying a long tail. I had only a distant view, the intervening lawn off limits due to pesticide application. It did not vocalize, and soon it flew off. I had to move on.

Later I saw a pair of grackles on the Play Lawn area. The one on the left was clearly larger than the other, had a longer, sharper bill, a very long tail held in a V-shape, blue iridescence on the body and — the clincher — a rounded crown, not the flat crown of a Common Grackle. This was a male Boat-tailed Grackle, the object of my search.