Snow Buntings, Randall’s Island


Snow Buntings are a rarity for Manhattan. I am delighted to have had them for a second time this year (the first was on February 14, at the same location). Yesterday, November 11, I saw and photographed two Snow Buntings on the rocky northeast shoreline of Randall’s Island, opposite ball fields 39 and 40. They have been reported continuing at the this spot again today.

In other birding news, the cold front that passed through on the morning of November 10 brought strong northwesterly winds all day, which led to decent raptor and waterfowl flight. It was the first productive day for observing diurnal flight in Manhattan for over a month. We have been stuck in a cycle of either southerly winds (driven by strong low pressure systems) or northeasterly winds.

The latter are generally unproductive for seeing raptor flight over Central Park, as birds, which want to move west away from the coast anyway, are deflected even further west, over the Hudson and into New Jersey. For example, on November 8 the Quaker Ridge (CT) hawk watch had a record-high one-day total of 277 Red-shouldered Hawks. Manhattan birders reported none that day.

At Inwood Hill Park on November 10 I tallied some new birds for the year: Northern Harrier, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Snow Goose, bringing my 2017 New York County total to 209.  I had only a single Red-shouldered Hawk there. I had Northern Harrier in Central Park again upon my return just before 2 p.m.


Autumn Birds Arrive

September 9 brought at least two Bald Eagles and some Broad-winged Hawks over Central Park. Though the park had Broad-winged Hawk sightings at least several times after this date, there was no day where even a hundred (much less the thousands that are regularly seen from Westchester hawk watches) were reported.

September 10 delivered a Lark Sparrow at Triplets Bridge that was seen just before 10 a.m. and by 10:20 a.m. was not seen again. Toward midday a Connecticut Warbler, possibly the same one seen in the evening two days before, was reported at Sparrow Rock. Some saw it pop out of the brush during the afternoon. I watched for at least an hour and then went home. Observers were crowding around the brushy area, hoping to get a close look at the bird. This crowding discouraged the the Connecticut from doing the very thing they were waiting to see. When I returned after 5 p.m. fewer observers were there, but some still continued to watch close by the brush rather than at a binocular distance. I got lucky in that the bird finally decided to fly out of the brush and land nearby, so I had close views of it for fifteen seconds. Then it flew into the woods adjacent to Tanner’s Spring.

Nearly three weeks went by without my having a new year-bird. Then on September 29 I had the year’s first report of Nelson’s Sparrow at the northeast-shore saltmarsh of Randall’s Island.

On the next day, a Saturday, as I was birding the Pinetum with Robert DeCandido and others, an alert arrived of Dickcissel at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island on the east side of the Renwick Hospital ruins. The bird was in a fenced-in area with a small sparrow flock, so I knew the odds of a successful chase were high. I was also in touch with the finder, Joe Girgente, an excellent birder who spends much time on the island. I was on the scene quickly and enjoyed extended, close looks at the Dickcissel.

On October 12 I ran to Randall’s Island in the late morning, after another birder had reported two Saltmarsh Sparrows on the northeast-shore marsh. I walked into the marsh near low tide and had close views of both Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows walking on an area of exposed mud.

Two days later I would be called out to Randall’s Island again, as Vesper Sparrow was reported on the northeast ball fields. Ryan Zucker, a prodigiously accomplished birder just beginning ninth grade, was already on the scene. We quickly re-found the Vesper Sparrow among a small flock of Savannah Sparrows near the rocky shore.

The morning of October 17 had much migratory flight, and just after sunrise I heard the the call of American Pipits flying over the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. In recent years I have made many trips to Randall’s Island in November and December specifically looking to find this species feeding on one of the many lawns. I was delighted to put it on my year list early.

That brings us to yesterday, October 21. A Yellow-breasted Chat was reported at the Heather Garden of Fort Tryon Park mid-morning. Normally I would be running out the door and across the park to do the chase, but I had already birded much of the length of Central Park earlier that morning and had experienced firsthand the delays and service changes of the NYC subway’s A line that runs to Fort Tryon, which encouraged me to walk home from the North End rather than ride. With the subway’s website still indicating delays, I did not want to duplicate a bad experience. I also had in mind the Yellow-breasted Chats are notoriously shy birds and can remain hidden for hours on end. So I passed on the chase. As it turned out, no one observed the bird in the afternoon despite some watching for nearly four hours.

Today the chat was reported by the same observer in the same location again at 10:47 a.m. This was valuable information: the chat was likely to remain in the general area, having already spent at least a day there. A quick chase would have decent odds.

I still had to deal with the A train not making northbound local stops nearby, so I took the 1 train at 86th and Broadway, which required a bit more running both on the way to it and on the way to Fort Tryon from it. But by 12:15 p.m. I was in Fort Tryon on a sunny and unseasonably-warm day.

After some climbing and walking along paths, I reached the north end of Heather Garden to find several birders looking for the chat. One said that it had been in view three minutes ago, low on some vines bearing the blue berries it sought to eat. Encouraging news, so I began waiting and after 45 minutes the bird still had not re-appeared.

Then someone saw it fairly high up in a nearby tree, and I caught a glimpse of it. I issued a Manhattan Bird Alert to let everyone know that the Yellow-breasted Chat continued. Ten minutes later I saw it again, this time much more clearly, perching on a limb, viewed from the raised terrace immediately north of Heather Garden. It was soon time for me to leave, but others continued to see the chat occasionally throughout the afternoon.

I arrived home and had only a little time to eat and rest before another alert chimed in: Eastern Meadowlark at the Central Park North End ball fields. This is a very hard species to get in Manhattan, generally reported only once per year in the park (usually late October or early November) and perhaps once or twice at Randall’s Island. So I laced up my shoes again and ran! Within ten minutes I was on location with the bird, alone on a fenced-in field, clearly in view.

204 species for the year in Manhattan as of October 22. That’s my best count ever for this date (by two birds), but given the strength of my winter and spring seasons (the latter including some birds more often found in the fall) I do not expect to be break my record (213) this year.


A Great Week of Winter Birding

I am not doing another public big year, but I am birding. This week produced some of the best finds of the winter.

On February 14 I had two Snow Buntings on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island, and at least one of them posed for a close photo.


Snow Bunting

That same day I also had a Red-throated Loon, my first of the season and the first one I have had in nearly two years, seen from the same location swimming in the East River.

The day before I had Common Loon on the Reservoir, a species I had only once in 2016. Generally, Common Loon is the easier of the two to observe in Manhattan, not only on the rivers but also in the sky. But last fall the loon flights were nearly all very high, out of the range of my binoculars (I do not use a scope). I recall seeing at least a handful of loon flyovers in previous years at more accessible heights. And the loons were not touching down in the rivers as far as I could tell, which seemed odd. In the winters of 2012 and 2013, seeing loons on the rivers was easy — they were visible in decent numbers (1-4) on nearly every trip to the Hudson or the East River.

The best bird of the week was the immature Glaucous Gull I had on the 16th at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, which is part of Manhattan. There have been a few reports of such a Glaucous Gull in the area recently, including briefly on the Central Park Reservoir. I was delighted to get a closeup photo of the bird.


Glaucous Gull

On the 17th I chased a Manhattan Bird Alert (Twitter) report of Canvasbacks at West Harlem Piers Park, a flock that had been appearing occasionally at this location in recent weeks. That is also where I had a flock of Canvasbacks in February 2016. When I did not see them at the tweeted location, I climbed the bridge to Riverbank State Park and found the flock just north of 135th Street by a water treatment plant. This time my photo had to be from afar.



Today, the 19th, I had Greater Scaup off Randall’s Island. I believe that the relatively mild winter — after what was briefly a very cold mid-December start — has caused fewer scaup to pass through the area, and probably also fewer of other species, such as Long-tailed Duck, which has been absent from Manhattan reports so far in 2017.

Seaside Sparrow, Hudson Greenway

Thursday, May 5, was cloudy and cold — just like most days this last week. I had taken a walk in the afternoon to the North End as much for exercise as for birding. When I returning home shortly after 4 p.m. I figured I was done for the day.

But at 6:26 p.m. a Manhattan Bird Alert came through from Adrian Burke: he had found three Seaside Sparrows at a small park known as Clinton Cove at 55th and the Hudson Greenway.

My first thought was, “How can I chase these birds?” I live on the Upper East Side, so I would have go entirely across town and then roughly a mile south. I ran across the park to the AMNH subway stop at 81st Street and immediately caught a southbound train to 59th Street. From there I ran to  the location.

Seaside Sparrow is one of the very rarest Ammodramus-type sparrows for Manhattan. There are records on eBird, all in Central Park, from 1923, 1974, and 2011. I had one briefly in October 2014 on Randall’s Island’s northeast saltmarsh, a place you would expect the species, as it gets Nelson’s Sparrows annually.

Where I found Adrian Burke and the sparrows was not at all a place that a Seaside Sparrow should want to be. The three sparrows were moving quickly on foot on a narrow median strip of mostly bare ground and some plants and trees between a paved lane for runners and cyclists and a paved lane for pedestrians.

Walkers, runners, and dogs occasionally scared a sparrow to short flight, but they remained in the area. One ventured onto the eastern edge of a large lawn on the Hudson side.

I was first on the scene, and, along with a couple others who showed up, got great views from less than ten feet. The sparrows appeared not to mind our presence as they went about their foraging.

These sparrows went on to defy expectations by remaining at this location during both the following day and the day after that — today, May 7.

Another Seaside Sparrow was found at 65th and the Hudson Greenway on the morning of May 6. It, too, has remained in place since then. A fourth Seaside Sparrow appeared at the Clinton Cove location, also on May 6. An American Kestrel was observed catching and carrying away one of the Clinton Cove sparrows that same day.


Lapland Longspur, Randall’s Island

Just as I was about to head to the gym at 1:58 p.m. I received a text alert of an NYSBirds posting: Tom Fiore had learned of a Lapland Longspur on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island from another birder and had seen it for himself. The gym would have to wait.

The last eBird record of Lapland Longspur in Manhattan on land is from 1956 — a retroactively-entered historical record from Central Park. Andrew Farnsworth observed a pair via overnight flight call recording in 2010. For Manhattan it is thus an extreme rarity. Nevertheless, it has been on my short list of species I expect to get for some time. One reason is that it keeps showing up nearby every year. There was a 2013 observation in Van Cortlandt Park just to the north in the Bronx. There are annual observations of it at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.

Another reason is that Manhattan has suitable habitat for it. Lapland Longspurs like to winter on open grasslands and tilled fields, and they seem to travel near the water when they pass through the New York City area. So Randall’s Island and Governor’s Island are great for it, and the fields of Inwood Hill Park also offer possibilities — a stopover point for those moving along the Hudson.

I printed out the directions to the bird, dressed appropriately (galoshes because Randall’s Island fields tend to flood when snow melts), and ran for the subway, catching the express to 125th Street. From there I ran across the RFK Bridge and onto the island’s northeast fields. I saw no other birders. I also saw no bird. Then it popped up out of the grass right next to the shore, just south of the sign for ball field #31. It was ten yards away, and my presence did not seem to bother it. I observed it for a few minutes and issued a #birdcp Twitter alert at 2:48 p.m. Then I left the area — I did not want to risk spooking the bird and making it harder for others to observe. Andrew Farnsworth found it in the same place 90 minutes later.

Sora, Central Park Loch

A substantial drop in temperature, into the low 50s, and moderate northwest winds the day and night before signaled that today could be a very good day for birding. I was expecting a strong raptor flight, which never developed. But other good things did.

I set out early to first check the Central Park Reservoir for new waterfowl and then head to the North End for sparrows and possibly Eastern Bluebird. But a text alert just before 8 a.m. of Nelson’s Sparrows on Randall’s Island’s northeast-shore saltmarsh made me reconsider. I had looked there for these ammodramus sparrows several times over the past week. And even though they generally linger for many days once they arrive, I did not want to pass up the chance to observe them when they were known to be present. I can reach Randall’s Island in twenty minutes from home, so I would still have plenty of time to chase any sightings in Central Park.

The skilled young birder who reported them on Twitter was still watching them when I arrived at 8:55. Though the Nelson’s Sparrows soon became much less active, I still saw them pop up in the low grass and reeds at least several times. We also heard an American Woodcock calling in the marsh. Further along the northeast shore we found a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

I ran back across the RFK Bridge and took the subway home. The plan was to eat, rest a bit, and then return to Central Park to watch the skies for raptors and waterfowl. Just as I was finishing eating, another text alert came in: a Sora was found in the Loch!

As I have mentioned before, Sora is a mega rarity for Manhattan. It is reported here perhaps only once every two or three years. The last one was in Bryant Park in October 2013.

I ran to the Loch, to an area between the two wooden bridges at the west end, and saw several birders observing the Sora. The bird was slowly moving along the Loch’s shore fifteen feet below in plain view, making for a very easy chase.

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.

Canvasback, Swindler Cove Park

The Canvasback had long been one of my “white whale” birds. It used to show up on the Hudson fairly often, and it was one of the birds I expected to get during my big year of 2012. I did not, however, despite two next-day chases of Canvasback observations in January 2012. My unsuccessful search for a Canvasback on the Hudson in Chelsea on December 31, 2012 brought my big year to a close.

So it was with great excitement that I saw two messages on my return from the gym at 1 p.m. on January 12, 2014 (the day after I found the Snowy Owl). The first message was a report of three Canvasbacks still being seen at noon at Swindler Cove Park. The second was an eBird report of a Canvasback observed sometime during the morning on the Bronx Kill on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island.

Naturally, I planned to chase these birds right away — but which? The Swindler Cove sighting was the more recent, by perhaps as much as three hours, but getting there would take nearly an hour. The Randall’s Island bird was much closer — I could reach it in a half hour by running across the RFK Bridge — and there was an additional attraction: a Common Raven had been seen lingering on Randall’s Island both that day and the day before. If I got the Canvasback, I planned to search for the raven. If I missed the duck, then I would have to put off looking for the raven and go to Swindler Cove. Ravens are becoming regular in Manhattan, but I could not afford to miss the Canvasback.

After a fast subway ride and a run across the bridge, I was on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island, searching the canal for the Canvasback. I really wanted it to turn up, so I double-checked the Kill and then looked further out in the bay. I had already done an intense morning workout and did not feel like doing more; it was also starting to get cold. But twenty minutes of searching could not produce the Canvasback, so I ran back across the bridge and then across Harlem to catch the A-train.

Just after 3 p.m. I arrived at Swindler Cove Park. It took some scanning, but I found the three drake Canvasbacks exactly where they had been reported previously, on the opposite shore near some wooden moorings. I had waited a long time and searched many miles to add this bird to my life Manhattan list.

I went further inside the park, away from the Sherman Creek mud flats to look for other birds (Swindler Cove can offer surprises) and twenty minutes later the Canvasbacks were no longer in view.

At least one Canvasback reappeared over several following days at Swindler Cove, and on January 15 two drakes showed up on the Central Park Reservoir but were not publicly reported until after dark.

Snowy Owl, Randall’s Island

SnowyOwlFinally, a Snowy Owl appears in Manhattan. Since this species first began showing up at LaGuardia airport, less than two miles away, in November 2013, I have been waiting for it to appear on Randall’s Island. The environment is perfect: acres of flat grassy fields where gulls, ducks, and geese come to graze, along with a sheltered bay that also attracts hundreds of waterfowl. I would imagine there are rats and mice to be found, too.

I visit the northeast shore of Randall’s Island nearly once per week. It has the potential to produce rare ducks and gulls, as I have written before. In recent weeks it has had small flocks of Horned Lark and Snow Buntings, the latter having been observed just two days ago.

Today my mind was on the Snow Buntings. I also wanted to do some running, so I ran across the RFK Bridge to Randall’s Island at noon, figuring I would take advantage of what the radar indicated would be a rain-free two hours, along with temperatures in the high fifties.

It certainly was not rain-free. Strong winds blowing in off the water carried plenty of tiny water droplets, and soon my binoculars and I were soaked. After seeing that the bay contained only some of the most common ducks, I was thinking this trip was not such a great idea. I went further east along the shore to look for the snow buntings, which were known to huddle on the rocks.

Then I saw the Snowy Owl 60 yards ahead on the paved road. It was just landing after what appeared to be a short flight from a bit further east and south. I looked closely for a minute, making sure I confirmed the relevant features: yellow eyes, small bill, owl body, and mostly white feathers with just some tiny dark patches. No question it was a snowy.

The next thing I did, at 12:30 p.m., was text Andrew Farnsworth, not just so he could see it, but so that he could get the word out quickly and appropriately. He posted my find to NYSBirds, and then started preparing to drive over.

While this was going on, the owl took off and flew. I was worried that it would leave the island, but it only went to the grass just southeast of ball field #29. Ten minutes later it flew again, this time returning close to its initial location. It was looking right at me, so I backed further away until only part of it was in view. I did not want to take any chance of scaring it away.

It seemed to be resting quietly, and I was getting cold and wet just standing there, so I ran to the McEnroe Tennis Center to wait for Farnsworth to arrive. He showed up at 1:17, and I ran out to meet him. We walked back to the northeast shore area, and the owl came into view exactly where it had been before, very low and close to the rocks just east of ball field #29.

We observed it from seventy yards away, and Farnsworth took some photos (one of which appears above) using his iPhone and binoculars. After ten minutes of watching, we went off to bird the bay and the large waterfowl flock on the other ball fields.

This Snowy Owl was my first life bird in nearly three months, and my 234th in Manhattan. It is also the first confirmed Snowy Owl observation in Manhattan on eBird, and certainly the first one in over a decade — perhaps the first ever. We are going to have to check the records on this one.

Nelson’s Sparrow, Golden Eagle, Eastern Bluebird

On 27 October I made a midday visit to the northern shore of Randall’s Island to look for waterfowl and sparrows. Nelson’s Sparrows were being observed at Pelham Bay Park to the north, and I had expected them to arrive at the northern saltmarsh of Randall’s Island, as they had last year in late October. It took nearly an hour of observing to get them definitively, but both a Nelson’s Sparrow and a Saltmarsh Sparrow appeared.

On the evening of 2 November, a cold front passed through and shifted winds to the northwest. I went to Inwood Hill Park the following morning and was treated to a parade of migrating raptors, including six Bald Eagles, one of which descended to the Hudson to try to grab a fish. I also saw Turkey Vultures, two Black Vultures, and two new species for the year: Snow Goose and a single adult Golden Eagle.

On 4 November I ran into Andrew Farnsworth on the northeast shore of Randall’s Island. I had just reported seeing the Saltmarsh Sparrow again, and he came by to have a look. It took some time and some searching, but he eventually had one of the Nelson’s Sparrows pop up briefly.

On the morning of 5 November I decided I had better try for the Eastern Bluebird before it was too late. Some had been reported in the North End of Central Park on the Third, and I searched after my visit to Inwood Hill but did not find them.

A bit of background: I had had Eastern Bluebird the prior two years so it would not be a life bird, but it was still one that I wanted to get. In 2012 it was the first new species I got when Central Park re-opened following Hurricane Sandy. I missed many of the good hurricane birds and not only temporarily lost the big-year lead but also was in slight danger of allowing another birder a chance at second place. Getting the Eastern Bluebird almost immediately upon arriving at the Great Hill on 3 November 2012 was crucial both to restoring my confidence and to giving me the freedom to pursue other rarities. The Barred Owl that quickly followed (in the Ramble) virtually guaranteed that the big year race would be a two-man battle.

Even though I am not doing a big year in 2013, I think Eastern Bluebird is one of those regular migrants that a good birder ought to get. Also, it would be fun to reach the 200 mark again for my annual species count.

So I set out for the North End on foot at 10:30 a.m. on the Fifth. I had studied carefully the calls that these birds make, which would easily be distinguishable from those of the very few other birds in the park at this time of year. I also knew to watch along fence lines and in trees, where Eastern Bluebirds like to perch before sallying out to feed on ground insects.

I checked all the likely places near the Great Hill, where they had been seen the day before. After roughly 90 minutes of birding I was walking back home in the North Meadow thinking that my quest would be unsuccessful when I suddenly heard a bluebird whistling behind me. I turned to see a male Eastern Bluebird perching on the chain-link fence encircling the baseball fields. It soon flew out to join three other Eastern Bluebirds on a distant length of fence. It was a most colorful sight.

From this point on there are no more “expected” birds, and I already had many of the typical winter rarities earlier this year. Vagrants like Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-throated Gray Warbler, or Cave Swallow would benefit both my year and lifetime lists.