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.

Striking out on shorebirds

Many birders have noted greatly decreased shorebird numbers and species variety this year at Jamaica Bay in Queens, one of the nation’s premier fall shorebirding locations.

The best spot in Manhattan for fall shorebirding has long been Sherman Creek in Swindler Cove Park, which the Parks Department now appears to be calling Sherman Creek Park. Sherman Creek offers a 10+ acre saltmarsh on the Harlem River, and is located on the east end of Inwood.

In the two previous years early August has brought flocks of up to 200 Semipalmated Sandpipers to Sherman Creek along with single-digit numbers of Least Sandpipers. Many of these birds would also appear on the Inwood Hill Park saltmarsh at Spuyten Duyvil Creek.

I chased the first report of a Semipalmated Plover on August 1. I got it, but found nothing else of interest. (Solitary Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers were around, but these birds are seen regularly during spring migration in Central Park and I had already counted them there.)

I made two more trips to Inwood in the following week and was not able to add any new species. There were single-bird reports of Least Sandpiper at Inwood Hill and Semipalmated Sandpiper at Sherman Creek; I chased the former without success and was not able to chase the latter. It can take me an hour to reach Sherman Creek when there is a wait for the A train, so I cannot justify going there too often.

The northeast shore of Randall’s Island also has a saltmarsh, but a very small one relative to those in Inwood, and one that has not been productive for fall shorebirds. I visited there a couple times in prior weeks, with Killdeer being the only interesting shorebird present (as it is for much of the year there, even into winter).

I had very successful winter and spring seasons, and I finished July with 186 birds for the year. This is ten birds better than my best previous total for that date (2013), and seventeen better than my big year of 2012. Part of it was getting some birds in the spring that I would expect to get in the fall, such as Eastern Bluebird, Clay-colored Sparrow, and American Tree Sparrow.

I am happy to get whatever I can this year, but I will not go to extraordinary lengths to do it. By monitoring New York Harbor in the early morning I probably could have had Black Skimmer. By staking out Governor’s Island or taking a trip to Liberty Island, I might have had Forster’s Tern.

Had social plans not interfered, I also certainly *would* have had the American Avocet that appeared late on July 15 near the Dyckman Street pier on the Hudson River. That certainly is my most regrettable miss of the year so far, as it would have been a life bird.


Summer update

It’s been two months since my last report, and fall migrants are already passing through. Let’s look back at some interesting birds that have appeared in the interim in Manhattan.

A Red-headed Woodpecker appeared over Evodia on May 27 and lingered just southeast of there in the Ramble for roughly a week.

A couple Purple Martins were observed over Turtle Pond in Central Park beginning June 14 through June 19, reported only by one observer. I watched for them and might have seen one flying high at midday but cannot say so conclusively.

A Black Skimmer was reported feeding over the model boat pond in Central Park at 10 p.m. on July 10. I arrived at 11 p.m. that night, and visited again on some successive nights, but did not see it, nor have I seen them on the Reservoir at night, an even more likely spot to check. Black Skimmers had been photographed last in July 2008 on the model boat pond.

Yesterday afternoon, August 5, I visited Swindler Cove Park in Inwood just after low tide and was treated to a flock of fifty Semipalmated Sandpipers ranging over the Sherman Creek mudflats. These birds appeared in 2012 on these mudflats in large numbers, as many as 200 at peak. along with other more unusual shorebirds.

The last couple days have also brought reports of a variety of expected warblers and flycatchers in Central Park.

I am pleased to see that my recent book, “A Big Manhattan Year,” continues to sell well on Amazon. If you want to learn more about birding Manhattan, or just want to read a good big-year story, you should check it out.