A Great Year for Warbler-Watching

2012 continues to be an excellent year for observing warblers in Manhattan. An ardent birder (with flexible hours to leave work and chase rarities!) would have had multiple chances to get 35 of the 36 warblers that regularly pass through Manhattan in either spring or fall migration, and one chance — this last Wednesday the 19th in Strawberry Fields — to get the remaining one, the Golden-winged Warbler. [Note that after this entry was published, another Golden-winged appeared briefly on September 29th in the Maintenance Meadow.] The complete list:

1 Ovenbird
2 Worm-eating Warbler
3 Louisiana Waterthrush
4 Northern Waterthrush
5 Golden-winged Warbler
6 Blue-winged Warbler
7 Black-and-white Warbler
8 Prothonotary Warbler
9 Tennessee Warbler
10 Orange-crowned Warbler
11 Nashville Warbler
12 Connecticut Warbler
13 Mourning Warbler
14 Kentucky Warbler
15 Common Yellowthroat
16 Hooded Warbler
17 American Redstart
18 Cape May Warbler
19 Cerulean Warbler
20 Northern Parula
21 Magnolia Warbler
22 Bay-breasted Warbler
23 Blackburnian Warbler
24 Yellow Warbler
25 Chestnut-sided Warbler
26 Blackpoll Warbler
27 Black-throated Blue Warbler
28 Palm Warbler
29 Pine Warbler
30 Yellow-rumped Warbler
31 Yellow-throated Warbler
32 Prairie Warbler
33 Black-throated Green Warbler
34 Canada Warbler
35 Wilson’s Warbler
36 Yellow-breasted Chat

Starr’s walks have produced 34 warbler species, an stellar total with plenty of chances left to see the other two (Golden-winged Warbler and Connecticut Warbler, both fall migrants that have appeared within the last week in Central Park).

Of course, some warblers are more common than others. The eBird site allows you to graph the “frequency” of bird species in a given area. The “frequency” of a species is defined as the percentage of lists submitted in a given week on which the species appears.

For a common warbler, consider the Yellow-rumped Warbler. It’s peak frequency occurs historically the first week of May, when 69% of birder-submitted lists have at least one Yellow-rumped on them.  Think you’ve seen a lot of American Redstarts lately? This is no surprise, as the Redstart has its peak frequency of 68% during the second week of September.

A warbler of mid-range rarity is the Chestnut-sided Warbler, which peaks at about 30% in the spring and 23% in the fall. Another would be the Black-throated Green Warbler, a bit easier still at 43% in the spring and 24% in the fall. The Nashville Warbler peaks at 31% during the first week of May and 9% during the fall.

Now for the hard warblers. Most of these are rare enough to merit a text alert to NYNYBIRD or a posting on ebirdsNYC. The Cape May Warbler peaks at 17.6% during the second week of May. The Bay-breasted Warbler peaks at 13.4% in the third week of May. Neither gets above 3.4% during the fall season. The Blue-winged Warbler only peaks at 12.9% in the spring, in the last week of April, yet most would consider it a much easier find than the other two. I certainly would not put out an alert on it in season.

Other hard warblers would be the Blackburnian Warbler and the Prairie Warbler — both peak at around 23% in the first week of May and do not get above 6% in the fall.

The Hooded Warbler is very hard to get. It peaks at 7% during late April and early May, and less than 3% in the fall. The Mourning Warbler peaks at 6.7% in the spring and is little-seen in the fall (at least until this year). The Worm-eating Warbler is only a tad easier (using pre-2012 records), peaking at 10% in the first week of May. This year a very cooperative Worm-eating Warbler hung out in the Upper Lobe from early July through early September, making the species appear much more common than it usually is.

The six toughest warblers are rarer still. Some are not recorded every year in Central Park. Here they are, along with their peak frequencies:

1 Prothonotary Warbler 4.5
2 Cerulean Warbler 4.5
3 Yellow-throated Warbler 3.5
4 Golden-winged Warbler 2.9
5 Connecticut Warbler 2.4
6 Kentucky Warbler 2.2

Starr’s walks have had four of these six!

What makes 2012 so unusual is that many of these rarest warblers were reported frequently and seen often. Prothonotary Warbler was reported at least five times in Central Park (the first one occurred on Starr’s walk and our group was treated to great views in the Loch), and there was a Prothonotary that lingered at Bryant Park for over a week. Cerulean Warbler was reported four times in Central Park (one was found by Starr by the Meer) and once in Riverside Park. Yellow-throated Warbler had a widely-seen appearance in Riverside Park and at least two others in Central Park (Starr helped re-find the first one in Central Park and many in her group got to see it). A Kentucky Warbler lingered around the Shakespeare Garden area for over a week beginning in late April; another appeared in May in the North End. In late August, yet another lingered by the Loch. This is amazing, considering how many years that the Kentucky Warbler does not appear in Central Park at all. And yes, our group got to see the Kentucky Warbler at both ends of the Park.

Just a week ago a Connecticut Warbler was sighted on the lawn in Bryant Park, offering great, unobstructed views to those many who responded to the bird alert quickly. Prior to that there were two other Central Park reports in which the bird was seen only briefly by a single reporter. Then this morning, Sunday, September 23rd, another was found in Tupelo Meadow. Over 30 birders assembled and waited 90 minutes for the bird to reappear, after which they saw it walking through the tall vegetation just north of the meadow.

So what’s going on? Why so many more observations of rare warblers? We should not be too quick to extrapolate from one year of experience and a handful of sightings. It is possible that some species are responding to climate changes with different migration paths. I am not qualified to speak to this issue.

I do know that more birders are embracing technology and reporting what they see. They post their lists to eBird, which not only does a super job of organizing what they’ve seen but also allows other birders to immediately learn of rarities as soon as they are reported. They post to local news groups such as eBirdsNYC and state-level boards such as the one run now by the American Birding Association for New York, formerly called Birdingonthe.net. Those with smartphones can post right from the field. So, though there may not be more rare birds, there probably are more reliable rare bird reports than ever before.

Not only do more birds get reported publicly but also reports are timelier, allowing more birders to get to the bird before it flies away. The fastest and simplest system for Manhattan birders is NYNYBIRD, which works with any cell phone that can send and receive text messages. Within seconds of a sighting you can alert all subscribers as to what you saw and where you saw it. This morning’s Connecticut Warbler was reported on NYNYBIRD, and within ten minutes dozens of birders had arrived in Tupelo Meadow to see it. A fuller explanation of NYNYBIRD can be had here.

2012 is giving Central Park birders many rare and memorable sights. Starr and Lenore look forward to helping you enjoy more of them in the coming month.

Good birding,

David Barrett

4 June 2012: Starr’s Visit to Sterling Forest

English: Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippi...

Mississippi Kite

Starr visited Sterling Forest yesterday and provided this report on the trip:

Long Meadow Road has a variety of habitats, from ponds of various sizes to meadows to second-growth forests and more mature woodlands. Having heard about the pair of Mississippi Kites possibly nesting near the Sterling Forest visitors center, we made that our first stop.

About fifty people were already in the parking lot with scopes and cameras trained on one of the birds, which was perched high in a tree. That was a fairly satisfactory experience, but our mid-afternoon views of the pair were far better.

We decided to have our lunch on the porch of the visitors center but spent about an hour watching the Kites’ courtship behavior. After flying around from tree to tree, occasionally perching in the same dead tree, the male flew onto the same branch as the female. She called back, and we got to see them copulating. It’s hard not to anthropomorphize what happened a few minutes later. He had flown away immediately after mating and she commenced preening. He then flew back to her branch, landed about three feet from her, and started sidling towards her. When they were about eight inches apart they leaned forward towards each other and touched bills. Yes, it very much looked like a kiss!

I get to see Mississippi Kites on the nest in Arizona almost every year, but I’ve never been lucky enough to witness courtship.

After we had seen the one Kite in the early morning, we went to the end of Ironwood Road where we normally start our birding day. Many warbler parents were carrying food to young in nests. There was lots of song, making it easier to find birds. We all got great looks at a couple of Golden-winged Warblers as well as many Yellows, some Blue-wingeds, American Redstarts, Black-and-whites, a Worm-eating, Common Yellowthroats, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles – well, we ended up with 71 species for the day.

We went from Ironwood Road to Blue Lake, where we had many dragonfly species including Comet Darner and three species of Spiketail (Tiger, Twin-spotted, and Arrowhead).

Black-Billed Cuckoo / Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Black-billed Cuckoo

We had another exciting breeding-bird experience beyond the lake. We heard from a birder coming down the path that a Black-billed Cuckoo was a little farther along. One of my friends had been looking for this species for many years so she was excited about the possibility. We birded to a little pond with many odonates and after awhile the two younger birders in our group went off to look elsewhere for the Cuckoo. Life being what it is, the rest of us ran into a pair of Black-billed Cuckoos close to the path as we started back. None of us had cellular service, so the father of one of the young birders went to look for them. Lenore Swenson and I stayed with the Cuckoos, getting amazing views and watching them carrying long fuzzy things, presumably to young on the nest. After about half an hour the young birders arrived, breathless and almost in tears. We had seen one of the Cuckoos flying away about two minutes earlier. I suggested being absolutely quiet and waiting. After another three minutes a Cuckoo flew in carrying food and all was well.

A little later we had many close views of male and female Cerulean Warblers at Laurel Pond. I think this was our best bird of the day. It’s my favorite warbler, so I was almost completely happy. Only one thing remained. We drove into the town of Warwick for ice cream. Mine was Cappuccino Crunch. I think I’ll have it with hot fudge next year. Cheers!

Good birding,


5 May 2012: Cerulean Warbler and Many Scarlet Tanagers

Cerulean Warbler from US Forest Service. Minne...

Cerulean Warbler

Piranga olivacea

Scarlet Tanager

We had 71 total species — our highest total of the year — and 19 warblers in a productive North End walk with at least ten great views of male Scarlet Tanagers, a real treat for everyone. The Loch provided excellent displays of warblers. Starr found a rare male Cerulean Warbler near the Meer. We added 7 new birds to our season list.

The morning appeared to get darker until about 9:15 as clouds thickened and a brief light rain began to fall, making viewing conditions far from optimal. Brightly-colored birds are best observed in sunlight, but failing that you want to  see them against a background of leaves or trees rather than clouds. Speaking of leaves, the trees are full of them — fully leafed-out — and this puts a premium on one’s listening skills as many birds, in particular orioles, were heard but not seen. Starr’s skill at birding by ear is astounding and well worth experiencing in person.

Among warblers that pass annually through Central Park in spring migration, eBird records rank the Cerulean Warbler as the rarest. It appears on only 4% of birder reports during its peak week, the first week of May, making it about 2/3 as common as the Prothonotary and only 1/2 as common as the Hooded. It’s a great find for Starr and life bird for most of those who saw it.

Highlights: (* means a new bird for the season)

  • Wood Duck (flyover)
  • Red-throated Loon* (flyover)
  • Broad-winged Hawk* (flyover)
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird (High Meadow)
  • Eastern Kingbird* (flyover)
  • Least Flycatcher (Loch)
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (3)
  • Blue-winged Warbler
  • Tennessee Warbler (Loch, heard)
  • Nashville Warbler (Loch)
  • American Redstart
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler (Loch)
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler (Loch)
  • Blackpoll Warbler (female, Loch)
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Bay-breasted Warbler* (Great Hill)
  • Cerulean Warbler* (SE side of Meer in Redwoods)
  • Lincoln’s Sparrow (Wildflower Meadow)
  • Scarlet Tanager (many)
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Great Hill)
  • Indigo Bunting* (male and female, Great Hill)
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Orchard Oriole* (1st year male, Great Hill)