Sandhill Crane, Inwood Hill Park

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.


Long-tailed Duck, Hudson River, Inwood

The Long-tailed Duck was perhaps my top nemesis bird. I should have had it during my 2012 big year on one of the morning watches during Hurricane Sandy, but I was not at the right vantage point. Since then I have made many trips around Manhattan looking for it at likely times and places, but until today, never finding it.

There are a couple days each year, usually in early March, when thousands of Long-tailed Ducks gather in New York Harbor and along the southern shore of Brooklyn and Queens. You would think this is the best time to see the species in Manhattan, but I have taken Staten Island Ferry rides and also watched from the Battery and the west side Greenway then and have not seen any. It seems that nearly all of these Long-tailed Ducks proceed northeast and do not pass over Manhattan or follow the Hudson. That is not to say it is impossible to see one — there were a couple observations of single Long-tailed Ducks this year in March from Battery Park or nearby. But you need to go very early, or else have luck on your side.

I also checked the Battery area this January when the Hudson River was mostly frozen over, thinking that the lack of open water to the north would drive birds into the harbor, which remained unfrozen. As far as I could tell, it did not.

I watched for these ducks, too, at Randall’s Island and on many visits to Inwood Hill Park.

I went to Inwood Hill Park, the Dyckman fields, today (October 30) mostly to sky-watch. It seemed like a good day for Golden Eagle, Snow Goose, and Northern Harrier. I also scanned the fields for sparrows and other land birds, but did not find anything unusual.

Andrew Farnsworth joined me just after 3:15 p.m., and we watched from the pier at the marina. Aside from a low pass by an adult Bald Eagle, I was not seeing much of interest. Turkey Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks were flying very high, and a Peregrine Falcon occasionally visited the area.

But at 3:45 things got interesting. Andrew noted a distant flock of ducks flying south very low over the river. Before they were close enough to identify they reversed direction briefly and then continued south. As they approached I could see dark wings with white on the face, neck, and flanks. They were a dozen Long-tailed Ducks!

They soon reversed direction again (they did this quite a bit) and headed back north, out of view. Perhaps they encountered and joined another flock, because a few minutes later we saw what turned out to be 46 Long-tailed Ducks flying back and forth over the river, this time going past us toward the the George Washington Bridge and then turning around and again proceeding north.

Pectoral Sandpiper, Muscota Marsh

The first Pectoral Sandpiper ever recorded on eBird in Manhattan was seen very early on the morning on September 1 of this year on Randall’s Island by eBird project leader Marshall Iliff, who had no idea at the time that he had set a record.  The species is seen nearly every day at Jamaica Bay, and it also occurs occasionally in the New Jersey Meadowlands marshes. Iliff’s bird, which he reported quickly, stayed in view only a short time on the NE shore before flying off. I saw no compelling reason to chase, but I did run the island later that evening, finding nothing.

The incident started me thinking about Pectoral Sandpiper, though. So it was with some excitement that I read an eBird report yesterday afternoon of a single Pectoral Sandpiper seen at Inwood’s Muscota Marsh among a small flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers and a single Least. The description of the bird and the presence of the more common peeps on the list made me confident that the observer really had seen a Pectoral. I was not thrilled about the timing, however. The bird likely was seen just before noon, a little more than an hour before low tide, but I did not receive the report until after 3 p.m. and did not read it until 3:30. There would be little if any mud left by the time I arrived, and the shorebird flock might have dispersed or even left the area. But I still had a chance, and I had to try the chase.

I was out the door by 3:50 and I ran to the 86th Street stop on the west side to catch the local, which would take me to the A train at 125th. There were no delays, and I entered Inwood Hill Park by 4:25 p.m. The main bay was entirely flooded and I saw no shorebirds nearby, so I continued on to Muscota. The eastern bay had a small patch of mud where I saw the flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers. After a couple minutes the flock was startled and flew back to the the rocks of Muscota, just a few feet off shore. I scanned the group carefully, but all appeared to be Semis.

So I searched nearby shorelines, returning to Inwood Hill’s marsh and all around the area. I did not see any other shorebirds. Then I came back to Muscota and waited. By 5:10 I was getting ready to leave, but I wanted to get another view of the sandpipers from a different angle, thinking that one or more could be hiding between rocks. So I stationed myself across the little bay, west of Muscota. Suddenly a larger shorebird flew at the flock and then landed on the rocks east of it. As it perched, I could see it was the Pectoral Sandpiper: much larger than the Semis, and with the color and patterning of a Least Sandpiper, except for a bill that was lighter-colored at the base.

I issued an NYNYBIRD text alert on it at 5:18, watched it more, then decided to move in closer. On the way over I saw a juvenile Lincoln’s Sparrow. But I did not re-find the Pectoral, which might have flown or might just have been hidden by rocks. I needed to head out, and did not spend any more time looking. Other observers responded to my alert and were able to see the bird in the same spot later in the evening.

Shorebird success — finally!

After Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, and Killdeer, the easiest shorebird to observe in Manhattan has been the Semipalmated Sandpiper. The first two are regularly seen in Central Park, with Solitary much harder to find in many years, such as this one. Killdeer occasionally puts in a spring showing on the Great Lawn or northern ball fields, but it can be had almost year-round at Randall’s Island. Semipalmated Sandpiper usually requires an early-August visit to one of the saltmarshes in Inwood, where flocks of a hundred or more sometimes show up.

As you may have read in my previous blog post, these large flocks did not appear this year, and I had mostly given up on getting the Semipalmated Sandpiper along with another less common shorebird, the Least Sandpiper. A Least was noted once this spring on the Central Park Reservoir. It has also sometimes visited the northeast shore of Randall’s Island, where I had it in June 2013.

After several misses, I decided not to go to Inwood again unless I was reasonably sure of adding a new year bird. On August 19th there was a morning eBird report of Least Sandpiper on Spuyten Duyvil Creek at Inwood Hill Park. I hesitated chasing it, missing low tide, and then ended up going in the afternoon and finding a single Least Sandpiper on the rocky eastern shore of the bay.

Two days ago, on the morning of August 26th, an eBird report of nearly 20 Semipalmated Sandpipers at Muscota Marsh (adjacent to Spuyten Duyvil Creek) called me to action again. This time I could plan to arrive near the 4:15 p.m. low tide.

I immediately saw a small flock of what appeared to be a dozen mostly Least Sandpipers feeding on the eastern side of Spuyten Duyvil Creek. It was hard to tell at distance whether or not any Semipalmated were mixed in — the sun’s glare increased viewing difficulty. But nearly an hour later, after I searched other parts of the area, the flock came almost right up to the eastern shore. I was able to view markings distinctly and picked out two birds with distinctly gray coloring — Semipalmated Sandpipers, at last.

White-winged Scoter, Inwood Hill Park

I am back to trading the markets every day, which is one reason my blog posts are fewer — I am doing a lot less birding. When an opportunity for a life Manhattan bird arises, though, I am always ready to spring into action.

This morning at 9:27 ornithologist Joe DiCostanzo posted to eBirdsNYC that he had observed a drake White-winged Scoter flying west over the Spuyten Duyvil, just north of Inwood Hill Park. At 10:42 he posted that he had observed the scoter again, swimming on the Duyvil just east of the Henry Hudson bridge.

I was 35 minutes late in reading his second message, but I had trades in progress and would not have been able to leave earlier anyway. Ducks tend to linger for the day, particularly in calm locations, so I was not too worried — particularly now that open (unfrozen) water remains relatively scarce.

I arrived at the east end of Inwood Hill Park at 1:15 p.m. I did not initially see any ducks on the water near the bridge, so I walked over to the newly-created Muscota Marsh where DiCostanzo had seen some Canvasbacks this morning, including a leucistic one. I was not seeing them, but I did see three Greater Scaup swimming together on the north side of the creek, which got me year bird number 69.

I thought I would have a better view of the Spuyten Duyvil to the northwest, where the scoter was last seen, if I walked on a promontory that juts out toward it. So I did, and the drake White-winged Scoter, with its characteristic white comma behind each eye, came clearly into view.

I later walked the trail that goes around the northern edge of the park and got a closeup look at the scoter from just east of the Henry Hudson bridge. I did not mind spending the extra time. I figured it probably would be years before I saw another.

While walking back along the Dyckman ball fields after following the trail west and off of Inwood Hill, I saw a drake Canvasback land on the Hudson, only the second time I have observed this species in Manhattan.

Northern Pintail, Central Park

After I finished trading the market this morning, I had a brilliant idea: visit the Hudson by Inwood to watch raptor and waterfowl migration. Winds would be favorable (northwest and strong) for the first time since the cold air arrived yesterday. I emailed Andrew Farnsworth to let him know my plan.

It turns out Farnsworth was, as usual, already a step ahead. He had been birding the Dyckman ball fields area of Inwood Hill Park since 10 a.m. and his lengthy eBird list arrived in my inbox before I was even ready to leave.

He warned me that the birds were flying high and that I would want to bring a scope, but 10 x 42 binoculars were all I had, and besides I was already walking across the park on my way to the C train at 86th Street. He was on his way back home, but he planned to be back in the afternoon again.

I went first to Fort Tryon Park, thinking that the extra 200+ feet of elevation would help me get better views. I arrived at 12:40 p.m. Within ten minutes I saw an adult Bald Eagle fly low and directly overhead — I was off to a great start. But this was nearly all I saw, and after forty minutes I decided to try the Dyckman fields.

I immediately started seeing more birds, mostly geese and Red-tailed Hawks, that were swerving east over the hill and thus not passing over Fort Tryon.

Somewhat later, at 2:35 p.m., a text alert arrived: Sandra Paci (who took part in the birdathon in honor of Starr Saphir) had found a male Northern Pintail on the Lake in Central Park, just west of the Point.

Right away I texted Farnsworth that I had to leave Inwood to chase the pintail.

Northern Pintail observations in Central Park are extremely rare. The last verified one was from February and March of 2007, when a male pintail overwintered on the 59th Street Pond. They can be had in flight over the East River, but that takes a lot of watching and some luck.

The one on the Lake was, as the expression goes, a “sitting duck.” All I had to do was reach it before it flew away. (Not a trivial concern — the Blue-winged Teal I found on the Lake in spring flew off after little more than an hour.)

I went directly toward the the Dyckman 203rd Street station and quickly caught the express train going downtown. By 3:20 I was in Central Park on the south side of the lake, west of Bethesda Fountain and north of Cedar Hill.

I scanned the shoreline of the Point and quickly found the duck sleeping under a tree branch near some Mallards. It was well concealed from most viewing angles and not showing any movement. If this is how it was when Sandra found it, it was certainly was not an easy find.

By 3:30 I was on my way back to join Farnsworth for more migration-watching in Inwood. We got in a half-hour of viewing before he had to leave, with the highlight being another low-flying adult Bald Eagle.

A morning at Inwood Hill Park

I have never gone to Inwood Hill for spring migration before. As I mention in my book, it is one of the best places in Manhattan for fall raptor migration. The east bay can be good for shorebirds in the summer. It has held mating Great Horned Owls. Three weeks ago there were Pileated Woodpecker reports.

It is not, however, a place I generally would recommend for warblers and other spring migrants. It does not have Central Park’s geographical advantage, nor plentiful small ponds and marshes, and its canopy is very high, making for difficult views.

But Central Park right now lacks some species that are appearing at Inwood Hill Park: Orchard Oriole, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and Wood Thrush. (All of these have appeared in previous days in Central Park, but in singles or very low numbers.) Generally, the last three of these species have been common in Central Park at this time of year, birds you could expect to find nearly every day, and even Orchard Oriole appeared frequently last year — it is just by nature somewhat hard to find.

I did not want to miss these birds, so off I went to Inwood Hill. I arrived just before 9 a.m. I could hear at least one Orchard Oriole singing in the trees at the north end of the soccer fields, and soon I saw one. Several Warbling Vireos also could be heard and even seen.

Shortly after taking a trail into the woods I began hearing Wood Thrush songs, which alone made the trip worthwhile.

It took some searching, but near the highest point of the Ridge I began hearing the scratchy vreeeep call of the Great Crested Flycatcher, and soon I had the bird in sight.

I never did observe the Eastern Kingbird, but this species peaks in the third week of May and lingers in Central Park through much of the summer, so there is still plenty of time.