Learn Bird ID with the Merlin App



1) Download the free Merlin Bird ID app from Google Play or the App Store.

2) The app will ask to further download packs of birding photos and sounds. For New York City birding, you will need the US: Northeast pack, so choose this one. If you want other packs, too, that’s fine.

3) Go to the menu at the top, right-hand side and choose “likely birds.” Further select for current location (New York, NY presumably), Today, and sort by “Most likely.”


4) You’re done! The app should now be displaying something like this:



The app displays birds roughly in the order of how abundant they are now at the location you have selected, which for us is New York City. This ordering is useful, as you want to learn the most common birds first, as they are the ones you will see most often and you do not want to be confused about them.

Clicking on any element of the list takes you to an entry containing more photos of the bird, a brief description of the bird’s behavior and appearance, recordings of its sounds, and a map of the species’ range:



Remember that males and females of any given species might look different, as is the case with Mallards, and also with Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers, and many others. Likewise, many birds differ in plumage based on age, like Bald Eagles and Ring-billed Gulls. Furthermore, some species look different depending on whether it is breeding or nonbreeding season for them. Spring is breeding season for nearly every species, so for now you can focus on the photos that depict breeding plumage.

Identifying birds based on their songs and calls is a more advanced birding skill, but a most rewarding one. The Merlin app has the basic sounds you need to get started.

The first 30 to 40 birds on the Merlin list should be fairly common anywhere in New York City. After that, differing habitats come into play. Because they have large coastal and saltmarsh areas, Brooklyn and Queens commonly get waterfowl and shorebirds that are quite rare for Manhattan. Current examples, for early March, are Horned Grebe and Long-tailed Duck.

Nevertheless, Manhattan does exceptionally well at getting songbirds during spring migration, and birders come from all over the world to visit Central Park and observe these birds in April and May. At least one hundred new bird species for the year will pass through Manhattan between now and the end of May.

By starting now, you can be ready to recognize the colorful birds of spring as they arrive. Different species have different arrival patterns, but in general, each has a two-week period of highest likelihood, some longer, some shorter. Any individual bird might spend only a day or two in Central Park before moving on, though some, like Cedar Waxwing and Gray Catbird, will stay for the summer and breed in the park. You continue to see many of the same migrant species day after day (until the species as a whole has passed through), however, because as some individual birds depart, others arrive.

Spring migration begins slowly, so time prior to mid-April is good for learning. You might even want to skip ahead in the Merlin settings and look, not at today, but at some future date to see what will be arriving. By late April, the new arrivals can come at a furious pace, perhaps even ten new species on a single day. It’s an exciting and beautiful time! With the Merlin app, you can be ready for it.

For instruction on how you can best assimilate all this knowledge and use it in the field, see the four Inside Birding videos from the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy.




Bobolink, Central Park Oven

The Bobolink in general is a common bird, but it is a very difficult one to observe in Manhattan. Venture a few miles west, to the New Jersey Meadowlands, or to the coastal marshes of Brooklyn and Queens, and you can find plenty of them during spring and fall migration. You also can observe their migratory flights very early in the morning over Manhattan. Sometimes you can hear their flight calls. Rarely they alight on trees in Central Park in passage, never lingering long before continuing on.

Around 10 a.m. today I encountered AMNH Ornithologist Joseph DiCostanzo and Lenore Swenson in Tupelo Meadow. They told me that they had learned of a male Bobolink in the Oven forty minutes prior, and that they had observed it themselves before it flew off and was not re-found. Joe had attempted to issue an alert on the bird but the email apparently did not go through.

I had come across Bob “Birding Bob” DeCandido and his group earlier and I was birding with them when I got the news. We eventually made our way to the Oven but did not observe the Bobolink. Along the way we had a mystery flycatcher, seen only briefly, and my first-of-season Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Maintenance Meadow.

As a small digression, I should mention that I had a great time birding with Bob. Many know that Bob uses recorded calls and songs to draw in birds, as do many top birding guides. Birds that are perching still sometimes move and reveal themselves; some birds that are out of sight will fly in to check out the commotion; and some that are in sight but high up will descend to levels where they are more easily viewed. The result is that members of Bob’s group see a lot of birds and often get excellent views of them. I certainly had better views than I usually do on my own.

Yesterday, Bob found a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Tupelo Meadow. I had remained in the Maintenance Meadow, along with many others who were part of a different birding group. Bob ran back to Maintenance to let everyone — not just his group — know of the cuckoo. We enjoyed extended views of the bird flying and foraging high over Tupelo.

Today, after initially striking out at the Oven in search of the Bobolink we moved on to Swampy Pin Oak. Warbler Rock, and the Rustic Shelter, where we saw Indigo Bunting, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and Blackburnian Warbler, among others..

Bob suggested we finish with one more pass over the Oven and then onto the Point. As we we turned onto the dirt path leading to the Point, I began to hear Bobolink song. So did Bob, and he already had the bird in sight, atop a bare tree over the Oven. The Bobolink continued singing loudly, moving around to various high perches both at the Oven and later toward the north to the Captain’s Bench area.

This was my first visual Bobolink in Central Park — I had heard one singing two years ago in the North Woods. What a way to end the morning! With the temperature rising and warblers becoming more scarce, I headed home.



Swainson’s Warbler, Strawberry Fields

Last night’s winds looked unfavorable for birding this morning. For the first few hours after sundown they were light and southwesterly, encouraging Central Park migrants to fly out. Later they switched to northwesterly, discouraging flight into the park. So I did not intend to do any early birding, and temperatures in the low 50s only strengthened the case for waiting.

After seeing #birdcp Twitter reports before 7 a.m., I knew that some good birds probably had remained in the park — Nashville and Worm-eating Warbler, for example. But I had already observed these in recent days and had no interest in chasing them.

As I was having breakfast a 7:22 a.m.a Twitter alert arrived, issued by Alice Deutsch, one of the park’s most expert and well-traveled birders: “Swainson’s Warbler, Imagine mosaic.” My first thought was that she meant Swainson’s Thrush, a common bird but one that would be early and first-of-season for Central Park, so worth reporting. But a few minutes later she tweeted, “Confirming, and it’s singing.” It had to be a Swainson’s Warbler, just as she had written — she would not bother confirming a common thrush, nor would anyone care that one was singing.

This meant I had to get to Strawberry Fields — fast! No time to finish eating. I put on running clothes, packed my bag, and I was out the door.

At 7:46 I arrived at the mosaic to see 25+ birders looking into the shrubs to the south. Almost immediately the Swainson’s Warbler sang and then popped up to perch on some foliage several feet off the ground. Then it flew another 5o feet south, landing in a tree, where it continued singing but was not being seen. Soon it was found on the ground, inside and underneath the dense shrubs. This is where it stayed during the time I viewed it (as late as 9:35 a.m.) and, I am told, the remainder of the day.

Within 90 minutes over 150 people had stopped by to see this rarity. It has been recorded only four times in Central Park with multiple observers (each time in May, in 1973, 1979, 1990, and 2000). A very reliable single observer had it at the Upper Lobe, briefly, in May 2012.

Winds change — birds return!

It was looking as if we were not going to have a real spring migration in the New York area. The first three days of the week were awful! On Wednesday, May 7, I spent two early-morning hours in the Ramble and had just a single warbler.

Then on Wednesday evening the winds switched to southerly, and Thursday turned out to be very good, though marred by intermittent rain in the morning that soon became heavy and chased birders out of the park. By afternoon the sun was out, and the songs of warblers could be heard all over the Ramble again. I had 14 total warbler species, and added six new birds for the year: Yellow-throated VireoVeery, Blue-winged WarblerMagnolia Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager.

Today, Friday the 10th, was even better. Species variety and individual numbers were by far the highest for the year and on par with the best spring days of 2012. A single oak at Summit Rock produced over a dozen migrants over twenty minutes of watching. I added Swainson’s Thrush, Bay-breasted Warbler, Canada Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow, and Summer Tanager.

My total for the year now is 149 species, not far behind the 158 I had at this time last year. You can tell I am not going for another big year because I did not run to the Blockhouse area in the North End to get the ultra-rare American Bittern that was reported there. Nor did I chase the nearby Black-billed Cuckoo.

Worst May 2 Ever

The last five birding days have gone from sub-par to awful. None of these days had large numbers of individual birds, though Sunday at least had a decent species count wherein you could observe singles of a variety of warblers, like Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Blue.

This morning was eerily bad. I had only two warblers, Northern Parula and Prairie Warbler (which I have had every day now for a week) and well under 30 total species. Last year on the same date I had 20 warblers and 70 species.

The strange thing is that temperatures have been only a bit cool, in the low 50s at dawn, and winds have been light, though usually with an easterly or northerly component.

Some say that all it takes is light easterly winds to deflect migrants to the west of New York City (and the East Coast in general), so that migration may be happening and it may be passing us by. I don’t know. eBird maps do not show many warbler observations to the west and north, but these areas tend to be less well-reported.

I will look forward to reading the next weekly BirdCast projections, which should be coming out on Friday the 3rd. According to Weather.com, the winds should have an easterly component for the next ten (!!) days, with only a small southerly component beginning on Sunday. This cannot be good.

Delayed migration

Greetings, everyone! It has been several months since I have blogged about birding. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I have been busy writing my book, A Big Manhattan Year, which is now complete and available for purchase. Second, with Starr’s passing in early February I made her site, StarrTrips (where I blogged last year), entirely a memorial to her and decided that it was no longer appropriate to continue writing about my own birding experiences there.

Near the end of my book I stated that I had no intention to do another big year anytime soon, and that is still the case. But, despite birding much less than I did last winter, I actually ended up well ahead of last year’s pace. As of this April 3, I had 92 species; last year on the same date I had 85. By tomorrow (April 6), this advantage will be gone.

For nearly a month now, New York has had cold weather and predominant northerly winds. The effect on birds is that many early migrants are appearing later than usual — much later than they did last year, when warm conditions brought unusually early arrivals. For example, in 2012 Eastern Phoebe was being observed frequently by March 14 and Pine Warblers arrived on March 10. This year it took until April 1 for the Phoebes to be seen in decent numbers, and Pine Warblers have yet to arrive as of April 5!

Last year, the first Palm Warblers appeared on March 29th, and we still have not seen any this year, nor have any warblers at all been reliably reported from Central Park.

Golden-crowned Kinglets have been appearing, in good numbers, since March 31, and Northern Flickers are starting to be heard and seen. The park’s water bodies have also been graced by some Great Egrets, which will remain common throughout the spring but are always a delight to see.

Two weeks ago I added another bird to my Manhattan list when a very cooperative American Woodcock took up temporary residence in the plant beds of Bryant Park.

Warmer weather and southerly winds are on the way. Let’s see what they bring!