Winter 2015 highlights

From mid-January to late February I had to focus on a couple of issues that prevented me from devoting as much time as I usually do to birding. One of these was closing on my purchase of an Upper East Side co-op and then preparing for the two-block move out of the apartment where I had lived for over twenty years to the new one.

The winter was fairly forgiving in the sense that sought-after species generally appeared much more than once and did so at the locations where they were noted. A single Common Redpoll, for example, lingered at the Evodia feeders from January 23 until at least March 9. I observed this bird on several occasions. A drake Long-tailed Duck (a species that took me over three years of birding to see) continued underneath Broadway Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan. I did not venture there to see this bird. Again, I am not doing another big year in 2015, though I may very well end up observing a lot of birds.

It was not a great winter for new life birds, however. The only bird anyone observed in New York County this winter that I did not already have is the Glaucous Gull that lingered from late January to early March in New York Harbor. I thought that this winter might have provided a Rough-legged Hawk — there certainly were many reports of the species in Brooklyn and the Meadowlands area of New Jersey —¬†but no.

Aside from the birds I mentioned in previous blog posts (the Couch’s Kingbird and the Black-headed Gull) or above, these are my favorite birds of the winter — ones that I did observe:

  • American Tree Sparrow (both at the Central Park feeders and on Randall’s Island). In many years this can be a very tough sparrow to find.
  • Canvasback, nine of them, swimming in the Bronx Kill off Randall’s Island on February 22. An American Wigeon also showed up there that day;
  • Long-eared Owl in Shakespeare Garden on March 5. This or possibly another Long-eared Owl also roosted on the pines of Cherry Hill for at least several following days;
  • Common Goldeneye off Randall’s Island on March 6. This species did not show up as often as in previous years;
  • Common Merganser off Randall’s Island on March 8. This species also appeared under Broadway Bridge and, very briefly, on the Reservoir;
  • American Woodcock on the north shore of Randall’s Island on March 8. In my book I describe woodcock as very hard to find (which they were, in 2012), but in recent years they have been showing up in large numbers in Central Park. Some stay in place, visible but at least somewhat hidden, for the entire day;
  • Horned Grebe, a single bird swimming just south of the RFK bridge in the Harlem River on March 8;
  • Green-winged Teal on the Reservoir, March 16;
  • Red-necked Grebe, which I found swimming just offshore on the Hudson River near 65th Street on March 16, one of only two eBird reports of this species in Manhattan this winter;
  • Northern Pintail, three hens swimming off the northeast shore of Randall’s Island on March 17.
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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.

Long-tailed Duck became my 245th lifetime species for Manhattan and my 205th for the year. It certainly was the most common duck I did not yet have, a title that must now go to Surf Scoter — which is a great deal less common¬†everywhere in New York City, though regular on the city’s southern shore.