August Rarities in Central Park

After warning Manhattan birders from my @BirdCentralPark Twitter feed that Thursday-night radar was lighting up and that the morning could bring some good birds, I planned on looking for shorebirds in Inwood. I had already observed nearly every bird likely to occur in Central Park in the spring.

Those plans changed quickly, on Friday, 10 August 2018, when Robert DeCandido sent a 7:56 a.m. alert of Orange-crowned Warbler in the Central Park Wildflower Meadow, a species I still needed for the year. (As did nearly everyone else. Unlike 2017, when Orange-crowned Warbler was seen often during spring migration, 2018 brought perhaps only one such bird, seen on only one day.)

As I was getting ready to run to the North End, DeCandido found and reported another rarity: Yellow-breasted Chat southwest of the A. H. Green Bench, near the Wildflower Meadow.

The temperature was rising quickly (it would reach 86 F later) and it was a sunny day, so I knew that bird activity would soon decline. I ran to the Wildflower Meadow and looked around.

I did not see or hear any migrants, so I went to check the Green Bench area, which also had no birds of interest.

I knew that the species I was seeking almost surely were still in the area, whose dense foliage offered excellent habitat. I also knew that DeCandido and his birding group would be coming by soon, so I continued looking.

Half an hour later DeCandido and group arrived. Having Robert DeCandido around is a tremendous advantage, because DeCandido is a master of using sound to attract birds.

I have birded with him extensively, and I can relate dozens of times when no migrant activity was evident, yet after DeCandido played appropriate calls for a minute or two, warblers, vireos, and flycatchers would appear in nearby trees.

Such was the case again. We began seeing expected migrants like Canada Warbler, American Redstart, and Yellow Warbler. We even had an early Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Then DeCandido spotted the Yellow-breasted Chat again, in a fruiting tree on the northwest side of Wildflower Meadow, and everyone had great views of the perching bird.

Then we moved to the southwest corner of Wildflower Meadow, and the sounds DeCandido played drew in warblers to trees that had been empty before our arrival. We had Red-eyed Vireo, another Canada Warbler, an empidonax flycatcher, and a couple American Goldfinches.

After much waiting we noticed some rustling low in the brush, and DeCandido soon had everyone on a handsome Orange-crowned Warbler.

DeCandido’s observations of Yellow-breasted Chat and Orange-crowned Warbler set the earliest-ever records for fall migration for these species, the latter by over a month. A most remarkable morning in Central Park!

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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.

 

Autumn Surge

Since my last post, on September 5, I had what seems to be my best-ever September and October, completely turning my year around. On this table I have bolded the names of species reported by relatively few birders.

Year
bird Date Species Location
183 6-Sep-16 Connecticut Warbler Central Park
184 9-Sep-16 Virginia Rail Central Park–The Ramble
185 11-Sep-16 Red-shouldered Hawk Central Park
186 12-Sep-16 Red-headed Woodpecker Central Park–The Ramble
187 19-Sep-16 Green-winged Teal Central Park–Harlem Meer
188 21-Sep-16 Northern Pintail Central Park–Turtle Pond
189 25-Sep-16 Vesper Sparrow Central Park–North End
190 27-Sep-16 Clay-colored Sparrow Central Park
191 28-Sep-16 Marsh Wren Central Park
192 1-Oct-16 Nelson’s Sparrow Randalls Island
193 3-Oct-16 Saltmarsh Sparrow Randalls Island–NE fields and shoreline
194 3-Oct-16 Eastern Screech-Owl Inwood Hill Park
195 6-Oct-16 American Wigeon Central Park–Harlem Meer
196 8-Oct-16 Eastern Meadowlark Central Park–Great Lawn
197 9-Oct-16 Wilson’s Snipe Randalls Island–NE fields and shoreline
198 12-Oct-16 Blue Grosbeak Central Park–Wildflower Meadow
199 19-Oct-16 Yellow-breasted Chat Central Park–North End
200 20-Oct-16 Northern Harrier Randalls Island
201 23-Oct-16 Cackling Goose Inwood Hill Park–Dyckman Fields

Let’s go through the list quickly. The Connecticut Warbler stayed at its Pilgrim Hill location all day and was seen by 50+ observers. Those few who missed that one had many other chances, as at least six others were reported and chaseable. Similarly, the Virginia Rail stayed in the Ramble all day, wandering sometimes from the outlet of the Gill on the Lake to the fenced-in Swampy Pin Oak area.

Very few birders had Red-shouldered Hawk this fall, even though it is generally a common flyover migrant. East and northeast winds that prevailed for over two weeks during the height of September hawk migration made this species and Broad-winged Hawk difficult to get.

Only a handful of birders got and reported this first Red-headed Woodpecker of the season, but several others of the species showed up in October and lingered.

Green-winged Teal — at least two — lingered for weeks on the Meer.

This female Northern Pintail stayed on Turtle Pond for only a day, but many saw it.

I had the only eBird report of this Vesper Sparrow, and surprisingly, the species did not end up being seen my many. Last year one lingered for days at Locust Grove.

A Clay-colored Sparrow was seen by a handful of birders on the grassy hill east of Lasker Rink and immediately alerted, but I was minutes late in responding and the bird was not seen there again. I ended up getting a different one near Wagner Cove.

A Marsh Wren lingered for at least a few days on the southern shore of the Lake.

Both Nelson’s  and Saltmarsh Sparrow again showed up on the northeast marsh of Randall’s Island, as they usually do.

An Eastern Screech-Owl was seen and reported at Inwood Hill Park. It proved to be a difficult chase, taking hours, as little information was provided as to location. I eventually found the roost and stayed to hear it calling after sundown.

The female American Wigeon on the Meer looked so similar to the many transitional-plumage Northern Shovelers with which it associated that a few birders were unable to find it on their first try even after my Twitter alert indicated that the bird was on the eastern section of the water. It stayed for more than a few days and was seen by many.

Deborah Allen reported the Eastern Meadowlark on the Great Lawn with her birding group. I ran out to see it immediately. It did not linger for more than an hour. Other meadowlarks appeared in the North End and on Randall’s Island, but these were seen by only a few.

I ran out to Randall’s Island’s northeast shore to chase a Caspian Tern seen earlier in the day by Andrew Farnsworth. I did not get the tern, but my hour there was well-rewarded by a Wilson’s Snipe that flew across the East River from Queens and landed nearby on a ball field. There were no snipes reported in Central Park this fall.

I chased an Muscota Marsh Blue Grosbeak that had already been reported to have flown, as birds do sometimes return to good locations. This one did not. Nevertheless, within ten days another Blue Grosbeak was reported at the Central Park Wildflower Meadow, and with a little patience I got that one.

My first Yellow-breasted Chat of the fall was heard only, in the thick brush south of the Children’s Glade. I was delighted to get it, as I had spent many hours on multiple occasions trying to observe the well-reported Chat at Maintenance Meadow in mid-September. I ended up getting another Chat visually on the 24th. This one apparently remained in the area and took up residence in the vicinity of the Sparrow Rocks, just east of the West Park Drive at 82nd Street, allowing many to see it.

The Northern Harrier — bird #200 of my year — was flying low downstream on the East River.

The Cackling Goose was initially reported at the ball fields north of Spuyten Duyvil, after which it flew. I re-found it on the Dyckman Fields at the opposite end of Inwood Hill Park.

This excellent fall helped to made up for a poor winter and a disappointing shorebird season. I am looking forward to what November and December will bring.