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

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