Snow Bunting, Randall’s Island

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)

Snow Bunting (nonbreeding plumage)

Prior to 2012, very few bird reports came from Randall’s Island, which, like other islands nearby, such as Governor’s Island and Roosevelt Island, is part of New York County (Manhattan).

I started birding Randall’s Island in early spring 2012, and continued with more frequent runs there in July. It has two excellent saltmarsh habitats, which are are otherwise hard to find in Manhattan. I figured that instead of going to Swindler Cove Park in Inwood, which can take an hour to reach from the Upper East Side, I could run to Randall’s and be there in 20 minutes. I was rewarded in July with a Yellow-crowned Night Heron, a species not reported in Central Park this year.

Once Nelson’s Sparrows appeared on the NE shore of Randall’s in October 2012, other birders took note and it quickly became a more frequently-visited birding hotspot.

Since then, other hard-to-find birds have shown up there: Vesper Sparrow, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Iceland Gull, and Common Goldeneye, to name just handful.

I  have been doing a big year for New York County, so I watch reports from Randall’s with great interest. Yesterday, Ben Cacace reported a species that I needed: Horned Lark, which I had previously chased on the island in November without success. The flock he reported was huge (75), so I figured there was a good chance that some of the birds might still be around today.

They were! I saw a flock of 18 Horned Lark on the NW ball fields at 11:20 am.

Just minutes earlier I had found another rare species for Manhattan, American Pipit. A flock of 25+ was noisily foraging near ball field 43. Andrew Farnsworth had reported a flyover of this size the prior day so I was not surprised to see them.

There was also, as Cacace had noted, a Killdeer — rare for this time of year — just off the NW ball fields.

I headed east again for another look at the NE shore. I found a slightly larger flock of Horned Lark just north of ball field 39. I was at close range and had good views, so I decided to look at each bird and get an exact count. I am glad I did, because one of those birds turned out to be a Snow Bunting!

I believe that this is the first Snow Bunting reported in New York City this year. It is the first reported for New York County in the last two years.

Horned Lark and Snow Bunting were expected to be on the move after snows blanketed much of New York State and made their ground-foraging more difficult. You can read about it on BirdCast.

I was thrilled to add these two species to my 2012 Manhattan list, which will close at 208.

A happy new year to all!

–David Barrett

Iceland Gull, Reservoir

Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides hvidvinget måge Måge

Iceland Gull (immature)

Around 1:30 pm on Monday, December 17th, I headed out, binoculars in hand, for a birding run along the Hudson River. My main goal was unusual ducks, in particular the Canvasback — a species that often begins appearing on the Hudson in late December, but I also held out hope for some of the more unusual gulls that had been showing up lately, namely Black-headed and Iceland.

I entered the Hudson Greenway near 93rd Street and stopped to scan the river. I saw a dark figure on the water to the north that appeared to be a lone duck. so I headed toward it. It turned out to be a Red-breasted Merganser, a good find on the Hudson, but by no means a rarity at this time of year.

I turned back south and got all the way to the 70th Street Pier without seeing anything interesting. As I was exploring the area to the south of the pier, a known refuge for ducks, my cell phone beeped. An NYNYBIRD alert: Jacob Drucker had just found a 1st-winter Iceland Gull on the Central Park Reservoir dike at the NW end.

I texted him directly to say that I was on the way and would be there in 15 minutes. I wanted to encourage him to stay on the bird just a little while longer. Then I started running — fast!

As I arrived Jacob assured me that the gull was still there and challenged me to find it, a task made more difficult by the many hundreds of gulls stationed along the dike that runs from the pump house on the west side to that on the east. In fact he had just clicked off an exact count of the gulls, over 300 each of Herring and Ring-billed. He had a scope.

I had 10 x 42 binoculars, and though I found the Iceland Gull, perhaps seventy or more yards out, I was not happy with the view — too far out, and too many gulls in the way. After some gull rearrangement and a look through the scope I saw it well. The almost all-dark bill indicates 1st-winter status.

The Iceland Gull was still seen on the Reservoir on the 22nd.

It is of course a very rare species for Manhattan and Central Park, with no prior eBird records in the latter. That said, Starr has had it before in the Park. In fact, when I told her about my sighting, she mentioned that she had also recently had an Iceland Gull in Manhattan (in November, I believe) as she was leaving a hospital near the East River.

So Iceland Gulls are around. I believe they are not noted often because they pass through at a time of year when birders are few, and they blend in with the flock. Other gulls also are about the same size and have plenty of white feathers.

— David Barrett

The Christmas Bird Count of 1912 in Central Park

Yes, that is right — 1912. But first some comments on the most recent one.

The 2012 Christmas Bird Count (113th in the series) took place this morning in Central Park. It should have at least a couple birds not observed in recent years, namely Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill. I noted the former in the previous post; the latter appeared again on Friday the 14th in the same place that the Redpolls were seen, the sweetgum tree just south of Humming Tombstone. Another possibility is Evening Grosbeak, which had not been observed in Central Park since its initial appearance in early November until yesterday, Saturday the 15th, when two were seen in the hemlocks of Shakespeare Garden.

So I began wondering: what did birders of 100 years ago see in Central Park in December? I was surprised to learn that they did not see very much!

The Audubon Society maintains a site that allows you to search the historical records of Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) from all over the United States. The results from December 25, 1912 in Central Park are as follows:

  1. Northern Bobwhite 12
  2. Great Blue Heron 1
  3. Red-tailed Hawk 1
  4. Merlin 1
  5. American Kestrel 1
  6. Herring Gull 22
  7. Downy Woodpecker 3
  8. Crow, sp. 3
  9. Black-capped Chickadee 2
  10. White-breasted Nuthatch 3
  11. European Starling 339
  12. American Tree Sparrow 12
  13. Field Sparrow 1
  14. Song Sparrow 24
  15. White-throated Sparrow 17
  16. Dark-eyed Junco 39
  17. Northern Cardinal 1
  18. Eastern Meadowlark 1

Why so few birds? In the early years of the Central Park CBC there were very few birders. In fact the first CBC in 1900 was done entirely by a 13-year-old boy, Charles Rogers. No attempt was made to bird the entire park. Records say that only one person took part in the 1912 count. I have no idea how hard he or she tried to get a complete count.

Another difference was the weather: Central Park winters were a lot colder then, and there were fewer trees to provide food. There also were no feeders.

My source for the above explanation is the fine history of the Central Park CBC written by Sarah Elliott, who ran the count for twenty years.

Even though variety of species was low, the single birder of 1912 did see several birds that are very rarely or never seen today.

The Northern Bobwhite population has continued declining for decades with the disappearance of suitable habitat (forest and grasslands). The species is no longer regularly seen in Central Park, or anywhere else in New York City, though it still appears infrequently in parts of Long Island.

American Tree Sparrows still appear annually in Central Park in the fall, but they are very scarce. This year eBird had only three reports for the entire year.

The Eastern Meadowlark is rarer still, with only one record in Central Park in the last two years. Brooklyn parks get this bird in fall migration more frequently, though even there it is still considered a rare find.

— David Barrett

Common Redpoll in the Ramble

English: Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea), f...

Common Redpoll

Have you noticed that the word “Common” in a bird’s name often means just the opposite? This is certainly so in the Manhattan area. The Common Merganser is rarely seen on our waters, but the Red-breasted Merganser can be found on the East River (and less often on the Hudson) on almost any late fall or winter day. The Common Raven and Common Nighthawk are among the most difficult birds to observe in our borough. Then there is the Common Redpoll. (Which, I will grant, occurs more frequently here than the Hoary Redpoll, but only because the frequency of the latter is “never.”)

Common Redpolls have less than ten distinct appearances in Central Park eBird records dating back to their first appearance in January 1994. They showed up again in January and February 2004, though just a single bird was observed on each of four occasions. (It is likely that there were intervening occurrences, as eBird did not exist before 2002.  Entries prior to then were added retroactively.) A single Redpoll appeared next in December 2004. After a four-year absence, there were single sightings February and March 2008. Then on 2 April 2011, two Common Redpolls showed up at the Evodia thistle feeder in the Central Park Ramble and stayed for three days. This appearance was well-reported and led to many getting a life Manhattan bird — including me.

They did not appear again until a few weeks ago, 18 November 2012, when birders observed a single Common Redpoll near the Laupot Bridge area in the Ramble. This bird was not reported online until the 20th, and my attempts to chase it met with failure.

I figured more would be on the way soon — after all, this is a finch irruption year of historic proportions. Reports trickled in from nearby places like Kissena Park in Queens and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, but none from Central Park.

Then this morning a reliable report came in on eBirdsNYC of a Common Redpoll feeding with a mixed flock of American Goldfinches and Black-capped Chickadees in a sweetgum tree in Mugger’s Woods. The tree’s fruit was so high that I missed it on my first pass, but then I saw the tree from a distance and turned back. After I scanned a variety of other birds, including House Finches, the Common Redpoll appeared. Its red cap, conical yellow bill, and dark streaking made it unmistakable.

Common Redpolls are identified by call in flyovers as often as they are seen, so it helps to know their “electric” -sounding calls. They are sure to like the Evodia thistle feeders if they find them.

–David Barrett

An Update from Starr

It’s about time I wrote to guys, isn’t it?

I did very few of my walks this fall due to cancer and chemotherapy. I missed meeting many people from around the country and the world who had seen Birders: The Central Park Effect, and I missed many hours with my friends, the regulars. It was not your loss, however, as Lenore led most of the walks and Alex led a few — it was mine.

I still don’t know about next spring as I had a setback last week. My chemotherapy leaked into my arm a little. That can be dangerous, although I will probably be OK from it. I am investigating having a port (catheter) implanted in my chest next week. Because of prior medical history, I need to have a couple of consultations first. If I can have it, then I could resume chemotherapy the following week. I will try to keep you informed.