Results of Starr Saphir Memorial Bird Walk

Lenore Swenson, who expertly led the walk in the Ramble, writes in with this report:

The Starr Saphir Memorial Bird Walk in Central Park on May 2, 2014, surely had Starr smiling down on us. The weather was perfect – mostly sunny, warming up into the 60’s; cherry trees and flowers were in bloom, and the birds were plentiful. About 40 people showed up for the walk, and, although it was a large group, people managed to stay together and get good looks at most birds. With so many eyes and good spotters among us, we amassed a list of 63 species, including 14 warblers.

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Mallard
  3. Double-crested Cormorant
  4. Green Heron
  5. Black-crowned Night Heron
  6. Red-tailed Hawk
  7. Herring Gull
  8. Rock Pigeon
  9. Mourning Dove
  10. Chimney Swift
  11. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  12. Red-bellied Woodpecker
  13. Downy Woodpecker
  14. Northern Flicker
  15. Peregrine Falcon
  16. Great Crested Flycatcher
  17. Eastern Kingbird
  18. White-eyed Vireo
  19. Blue-headed Vireo
  20. Warbling Vireo
  21. Red-eyed Vireo
  22. Blue Jay
  23. American Crow
  24. Black-capped Chickadee
  25. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  26. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  27. Veery
  28. Hermit Thrush
  29. Wood Thrush
  30. American Robin
  31. Gray Catbird
  32. European Starling
  33. Cedar Waxwing
  34. Ovenbird
  35. Worm-eating Warbler
  36. Northern Waterthrush
  37. Blue-winged Warbler
  38. Black-and-white Warbler
  39. Common Yellowthroat
  40. American Redstart
  41. Northern Parula
  42. Yellow Warbler
  43. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  44. Palm Warbler
  45. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  46. Prairie Warbler
  47. Black-throated Green Warbler
  48. Eastern Towhee
  49. Chipping Sparrow
  50. Song Sparrow
  51. Swamp Sparrow
  52. White-throated Sparrow
  53. White-crowned Sparrow
  54. Scarlet Tanager
  55. Northern Cardinal
  56. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  57. Red-winged Blackbird
  58. Common Grackle
  59. Orchard Oriole
  60. Baltimore Oriole
  61. House Finch
  62. American Goldfinch
  63. House Sparrow

Starr Saphir Memorial Bird Walk, 2 May 2014

Lenore Swenson will once again lead a walk through the Central Park Ramble in memory of Starr Saphir. This walk is scheduled for Friday, May 2, 2014 at 7:30 a.m. at the usual meeting place, the SE corner of Central Park West and 81st Street by the benches. The walk is free and no pre-registration is required — just show up and be ready to see some great birds.

Lenore’s Memorial Walk for Starr — Results

Lenore at Summit Rock. Photo credit: Sandra Paci

Lenore Swenson at Summit Rock. Photo credit: Sandra Paci

Postponing the walk turned out to be a very good thing. Today, May 10, was by far the best birding day of the year. It rivaled the best May days of 2012. Winds turned to the southwest overnight for the first time in weeks, and the day began warm and sunny.

A large gathering of birders, at least eighty, honored Starr at Summit Rock. Lenore Swenson and others spoke about what Starr meant to them. Observers were treated to surrounding oak trees filled with migrant birds.

Lenore’s group tallied well over 50 species in the Ramble and adjacent areas. Some birds worth noting:

  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Veery
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Wood Thrush
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Blue-winged Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • Northern Parula
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Canada Warbler
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Baltimore Oriole

Common Mergansers, Central Park Reservoir

Common Merganser

Common Merganser female (Photo credit: K Schneider)

After receiving a 9:44 AM text alert from an expert birder of a male Common Merganser on the Central Park Reservoir, I wasted little time in going out to look for it. I put on my running clothes and ran the Reservoir, binoculars in hand. I expected to find the bird close to shore in the NW cove, which is where many ducks have been spending time this winter, including rarities like an American Wigeon, seen in late December, and a pair of male Ring-necked Ducks, seen on January 5th. (These ducks are rare for Central Park, though not for the New York City area in general.)

Instead, I did not find any ducks close to shore, where ice had developed. Many appeared to be near the dike on the east side, but a few minutes of scanning did not turn up anything unusual. I was dressed for running, not standing, and so continued on and back home.

Clad in much warmer clothes, I returned to the Reservoir around noon and planned to examine things more closely from the area around the east side pump house. Immediately two large, red-headed ducks appeared in the distance and then were lost amid a contingent of Canada Geese.

I walked west along the southern track and after about 200 yards the red-headed ducks popped back into view, and this time I could see them clearly. Their white chins and necks (along with bills thicker than those of the Red-breasted Merganser), left no doubt that this was a pair of female Common Mergansers!

I followed them for a half hour, thinking they might meet up with the previously-reported male, but they did not and I never saw the male myself.

Common Mergansers are exceedingly rare on Central Park waters. The last eBird records of them were a single observation in 2006 and several sightings in February 2003.

Several weeks ago Common Merganser had been seen off of the NE shore of Randall’s Island. They did not turn up again on any of my visits. I did not expect to eventually see them on the Reservoir.

Common Mergansers prefer fresh water, and I suspect that the unusually cold weather of the last week has frozen the surface of many lakes to the north and put these ducks on the move.

Birders should also be on the watch for Canvasback, both on the Reservoir and also, more commonly, on the Hudson River.

–David Barrett

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

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

Three Owl Day in Central Park

On Friday, 23 November 2012, and on days immediately following, it was possible to see three owl species in the Park, an extremely rare occurrence.

1) Barred Owl continues west of the Great Lawn.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl (Photo credit: Bob from Caledon)

If you want some great video footage and photos of the Barred Owl, see Bruce Yolton’s last post and his previous post on UrbanHawks.

2) Great Horned Owl appears SW of Azalea Pond, S of the Gill. It has moved around since then.

English: Great horned owl

Great Horned Owl

3) Northern Saw-whet Owl continues in the Shakespeare Garden area. On 25 November a possibly different Saw-whet was reported at Conservatory Garden after being loudly harassed by a variety of other birds.

Northern Saw-whet Owl Aegolius acadicus

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Remember if you go to see any of these owls, but in particular the Northern Saw-whet, which tends to roost much lower in trees than the other two, keep a respectful distance. The Saw-whet tends to stay still when approached, a defense against predators that look for motion. Do not be fooled into thinking the owl likes having a human being near it.

–David Barrett

Central Park Owls

Barred owl

Barred Owl

2012 has been an excellent year for seeing owls in Central Park. Four owls have appeared so far: Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl, and Northern Saw-whet Owl. All of these owls were non-resident visitors.

This post will discuss the occurrence of owls in Central Park in recent years.

Central Park used to have resident owls. Eastern Screech-Owls, for example, nested and bred in the Park throughout the first half of the 20th century. The last documented sighting was in the Christmas bird count of 1955 — that is, until six young owls were reintroduced to the Park in August 1998. In 2001 and 2002 a total of 32 more were released.

Though many of these owls survived and even fledged owlets, the species did not thrive in Central Park. By late 2010 only one Eastern Screech-Owl remained, living in tree holes in the North Woods. The last confirmed sighting of this owl occurred in late March 2011.

On 19 December 2004, during the Christmas Bird Count, a Boreal Owl was seen in Central Park. This was the first recorded occurrence of the species in all of New York City. It remained in the Park through mid-January 2005. Phil Jeffrey provides photos and an account of its discovery here. The winter of 2004-5 was an irruptive season for the Boreal Owl, which, as its name implies, generally lives far to the north in Canada (and also in some Western states of the US). The Boreal Owl has not been observed in Central Park since then.

There was speculation that 2012 might bring another Boreal Owl irruption along with the ongoing irruption of finches. As of late November, no Boreal Owls have yet been observed in the northeast US.

The winter of 2011-12 brought a historic Snowy Owl irruption. Though many Snowy Owls were seen in New York City, they did not appear in Central Park, nor have they ever been recorded there. They prefer open spaces such as beaches and airport fields.

The Barred Owl had been considered an extremely rare visitor to Central Park. A long-time birder recently told me that prior to 2011 the last sighting known to him was in 1996. Aside from a single report on 5 November 2007, eBird agrees with this claim.

Just over a year ago, on 30 September 2011, a Barred Owl was found in the Ramble and seen by many. Again on 10 October 2011 a Barred Owl — most likely the same one — was seen between Tupelo Meadow and the Gill. This owl continued to be sighted in the Park, in other locations, off and on through January 2012. After 15 years of not seeing any Barred Owls it suddenly was possible to see one, with some searching effort, on most days.

Great Horned Owls are rare in Central Park, visiting once every two or three years according to eBird records. I knew that one had been residing in Inwood Hill Park since late 2011, so I went there for a sighting in February 2012 thinking it would be my only chance to see one in New York County.

I had no idea that on 19 April 2012 a Great Horned Owl would show up just south of Evodia Field. This owl was reported widely, on NYNYBIRD and elsewere. At one point over a hundred people, including a large contingent of primary-school students, gathered at the southeast end of Evodia to peer over 60 feet up a tree at this large, powerful bird. The owl remained nearby for the rest of the day and caused quite a stir. While looking for other birds later in the day I was often approached by birders asking if I knew that there was an owl in the Park.

[Update: on 23 November 2012 a visiting Great Horned Owl was again seen in the Ramble.]

Long-eared Owls are an infrequent winter visitor to Central Park, seen at least once in most years. They appear most often in January and February in search of prey, usually after areas to the north have been covered with deep snow. They often come in groups of two or more and they tend to stick around — a two-week stay is not unusual.

A group of Long-eared Owls, as many as three at one point, began roosting in the pine trees atop Cherry Hill in early February 2011. They were still being seen in the Park a month later.

This year a single Long-eared Owl was found on a fall date, 17 October 2012, when you would not expect to see one. It was in a pine tree in Strawberry Fields. Because of the secluded nature of the eastern trail on Strawberry Fields — trees hide the birders looking up that usually tip-off others to an owl — and because no one reported the owl publicly, it was seen by very few.

Another owl sighting occurred less than two weeks later on 28 October 2012. At 4:58 pm someone on NYNYBIRD anonymously reported a Northern Saw-whet Owl at the Point, a location in the Central Park Ramble. Why do I mention the exact time? Because in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy, Central Park was being closed early that day — at 5 pm!

I did not see the alert until 5:15, and my first reaction was that it must be a prank: report an owl just minutes before it becomes impossible for birders to actually get to it! Nevertheless, I ran out the door to the nearest Park entrance at 79th and Fifth and already barricades were in place. At 72nd and Fifth a cadre of New York’s Finest were making it clear to all that, no, you cannot go in the Park. That was good enough for me. I turned around and ran home, figuring that there probably had not been an owl and even if there had been, no one else was going to get to see it.

Several hours later my assumption was proved wrong: I received an eBird report of a Northern Saw-whet Owl sighting at the Point that had been made by a reputable birder. Apparently the west side of the Park had been guarded much less rigorously and this birder managed to gain entry well after 5 pm.

I knew that the Park was likely to be closed for many days and this only added to the frustration! Northern Saw-whet Owls are rare visitors to Central Park, appearing only a couple times per decade, and generally not staying long. I figured the storm would probably discourage the owl from leaving the Park, but the Park would likely stay closed for many days after the storm subsided (which it did) giving the owl time to exit unseen.

The Park re-opened on Saturday, 3 November 2012. After several days of chasing Northern Gannets and other hurricane-driven birds I was no longer thinking about owls. I wanted an Eastern Bluebird, which I found on the Great Hill.

Since the Park had been closed for so long, and the storm had brought many unusual birds to the city, I figured I should bird as much of it as I could. So I walked back to the Castle and then into the Ramble. I saw a handful of birders at the southeast corner of Evodia Field looking almost straight up. I went over to them and looked up the same tree that had held the Great Horned earlier in the spring and saw a Barred Owl! I was thrilled to have my first of the year, and soon things would get even better.

On the following morning a Northern Saw-whet Owl was observed in the Oven, and by midday it moved to a pine tree on the Shakespeare Garden viewing platform. I heard about this owl on my way back from seeing the Evening Grosbeaks on the Great Hill. What a break! But was I too late? I went directly to Shakespeare Garden and looked around. It took some time, but when I finally saw the owl I could not believe how low in the tree it was and how close to the walkway it had chosen to roost. A tall person could reach up and touch it, and some people actually were reaching into the tree. I read that a Park ranger came by soon after to block off the area adjacent to the tree and keep viewers at a distance more comfortable to the owl. This owl was not seen again in days following. [Update: on 19 and 20 November a Northern Saw-whet was again observed in the Shakespeare Garden area.]

Barred Owls are back and continuing. Beginning on Sunday, 11 November 2012, as many as three Barred Owls have been seen together in Central Park. These have been widely reported and seen by many in the area just west of the Great Lawn. Since midweek only one owl has been apparent — perhaps the others have found better hiding spots. [Update: on 21 November two owls were again seen.] The tall trees, still with some leaf coverage, give the owl plenty of altitude and make it a challenge to find even if you know where to look. This is good, as the owl can pay no attention to admiring ground-dwellers and get some rest.

Always remember to view owls only from a respectful distance. Many times the owl will make this easy for you by roosting so high that you cannot possibly bother it. Other times, as in the case of the Northern Saw-whet Owl at Shakespeare Garden, you need to use good judgment and the power of your binoculars to make sure the owl is not stressed.

–David Barrett