Virginia Rail, Central Park Ravine

Coming into today, November 23, my chances to get Virginia Rail for the year were looking slim. The species had already made more than a few appearances in Manhattan in the fall migration season. We know this because the Wild Bird Fund (WBF) on the Upper West Side had treated at least six Virginia Rails. Most of these birds apparently had collided with buildings and clearly were injured.

On September 21 a Virginia Rail was found by Bryant Park maintenance staff in the typical place where rails or woodcocks appear: the southeast maintenance shed, which is surrounded by vegetation and offers birds privacy and shelter. It was said to look “stunned.” Staff immediately called NYC Audubon, and the rail was taken away to the WBF before any public reports were issued. The bird recovered and was released sometime later.

The morning of November 8 offered the first chaseable report, at 8:10: a birder on his way to work noticed a Virginia Rail perching on a Lexus near 48th Street and Park Avenue in midtown, and suggested that the bird might be in need of rescue, though it did not appear to be injured. (Kudos to the bird for having chosen a notably safe and well-engineered vehicle.) Having stepped away from my computer, I was five minutes late in reading the post. I then took a few minutes to relay the report to followers of Manhattan Bird Alert, some of whom surely would be nearby and might be able to step out for a look. Then I got dressed and headed for the subway to begin the chase.

Because of the time — right when or just before most people begin their workday — I did not expect anyone to attempt a rescue, which would minimally require an hour of commitment, between catching the bird, transporting it to the WBF, and then returning to work. My response was not going to be my fastest — I would normally aim for 25 minutes from alert to arrival in midtown — but I did not see how it was going to matter.

I caught the Lexington Line 6 train with only a short wait and was headed to midtown. At 8:42 I was approaching 59th Street and feeling confident that I would get the bird, which might be only five minutes away.

Then I saw a new message on my phone: someone had already captured the bird and set off for the WBF!

This was a first for me. I have done many chases over the years, surely at least a hundred involving some cross-town travel, but before then my attempts had been foiled purely by natural forces — mostly by birds simply choosing to go somewhere else. This was the first time a  human had seized a bird and spirited it away before I could see it.

Proof that the capture likely was unnecessary came within minutes: the Virginia Rail squirmed free of its captor, who had snared it in a cloth bag, and flew off west on 47th Street. Had the captor thought to post this news then, I would have been nearby and ready to continue the interrupted chase. But birders were not apprised of the escape until over an hour later. The bird was not reported again.

Today, in contrast, everything went right. One of Manhattan’s top birders, Stefan Passlick, found a Virginia Rail on the west side of the Ravine in Central Park’s north end. He posted clear directions to it along with a Google Maps screenshot at 2:02 p.m. on Manhattan Bird Alert. I ran to the scene and immediately saw the rail foraging nearby in front of a log in the moist, leaf-covered area — exactly where the Google Maps pin indicated it should be. This was easy!

Soon others showed up, and all were treated to close, extended views of a Manhattan rarity that was largely oblivious to the observers and their cameras. It was a delightful way to end a fine day of Thanksgiving birding.

This bird went onto linger at the location for many days.

The Wild Bird Fund later announced that it had released a rehabbed Virginia Rail in the North Woods on November 21. Whether or not this was the bird seen by many cannot definitively be determined and does not affect the ABA-countability of the bird.





Review of Manhattan birding in 2013

Even though I devoted only about half the time to birding that I did in 2012, I still had a very active and productive year in 2013.

In 2014 I expect to bird a lot less often, and I am not at all going to pursue a year list. I want to get back to my work, which has been managing hedge funds and trading securities. This work requires a daily commitment to preparing and trading during the early morning hours. The other issue is that I have done Manhattan birding about as well as I think I can, and it’s time to move on to new challenges. I will still bird for enjoyment and exercise when I want to, and I definitely will take advantage of opportunities to expand my Manhattan life list.

Here are what I consider my top seven birds of the year:

7) Blue-winged Teal — Though not in general a hard bird to find in the New York area in recent years, it has been very rare for Central Park. The last prior observation before I found a pair on the Lake in April was from 2009.

6) Northern Pintail — This duck has been even rarer, with the last Central Park record in 2007. The one that appeared on the Lake in late October lingered on various park water bodies through early December.

5) Lark Sparrow — A rare vagrant anywhere in the New York City area, one showed up on the Great Hill in October and stayed for at least a couple days. One also was found in the same area in 2011.

4) Black-headed Gull — The first eBird record of this species in Central Park was on 30 January 2013. It was only the third such record for Manhattan.

3) Virginia Rail — A very cooperative one appeared on the banks of the Loch on 10 September and was seen again the following day. The Virginia Rail is rarer than the Sora, one of which remained at Bryant Park in mid-October for roughly a week.

2) Red-necked Phalarope — There was only one prior Manhattan eBird record of this species (during Hurricane Irene) before one was found swimming near the Hudson shore just south of Pier 40 on 18 August. Because of an afternoon commitment, I was unable to chase it earlier in the day when other birders were on it and had to race out for it alone with dusk approaching. A very satisfying twitch.

1) Chuck-will’s-widow — Easily the rarest bird on my list, there had been only one record of it on eBird in all of New York City during the past 17 years. It gave good views to many high up in a tree just north of Tupelo Meadow on 16 May.

Virginia Rail in the Central Park Loch

At the very early hour of 5:50 a.m. on 9 September, a downtown birder observed a juvenile Virginia Rail in the Wall Street area near Maiden and William streets and later reported it on eBird. The observer was unable to re-find the bird after it flew off, so I did not expect to have any better luck trying at least several hours later, and so, did not pursue it.

The incident did, however, start me thinking about Virginia Rails and about the Rallidae family of birds in general. One member of this family, the American Coot, appears regularly in Manhattan. American Coots can be seen every day on the Reservoir in Central Park during the cold months of the year. Most of the others are never noted in Manhattan except  for the Sora and the Common Gallinule, which are reported at most a few times per decade. The last verified sighting of a Sora in Central Park was during 17-19 September 2011; and of a Common Gallinule, May 2010.

So I was surprised when I received an email from Andrew Farnsworth late on the evening of 10 September asking if I had chased the Virginia Rail. I initially figured he meant the one from the previous day seen downtown, but when I checked the rest of my inbox I saw an 11:28 p.m. eBirdsNYC report of a Virginia Rail in the Central Park Loch.

I had missed the finder’s alert because my cell often does not receive texts in a timely manner when I am at home. But when I put together the timeline, I realized that I probably would not have been able to get the bird even if I had received the alert immediately.

The lone observer noted seeing the Virginia Rail along the shore of the Loch in the Central Park North End between 5:15 and 5:30 p.m. and no more after that. The observer finished birding at 6:10, and did not send the alert until 6:30. I have no idea why the lengthy delay.

At any rate, some birders tried to re-find the bird the following morning without success. The Sora had remained for three days, so I knew there was some chance that the Virginia Rail would stick around, particularly since the winds were not favorable for migration and the bird had chosen a hospitable section of the park.

At 5:23 p.m. that evening two North End birders alerted that they were seeing the Virginia Rail. I was just on my way back from the gym, so I ran home, got my binoculars, and ran to the Loch, arriving at 5:40. After five minutes of waiting, the Rail popped out of cover and began walking along the shore and drinking from the stream.

The bird appeared at least several more times on the evening of 11 September, giving close views (it did not seem to mind the presence of people) to all who went.