Starr is featured in my new birding book

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I recently published A Big Manhattan Year: Tales of Competitive Birding. You can read more about the book here on my website.

I devote a chapter to a profile of Starr, who appears often throughout the book. I also discuss both the basics and the finer points of birding in Manhattan, introducing the reader to Manhattan’s most sought-after rare birds and explaining in detail my strategies for observing them. My battle with Andrew Farnsworth for the big year lead maintains narrative tension and continues to the climactic last day of the year.

The book is available both as a paperback and as an eBook for the Kindle. My site has links for buying, browsing, and searching inside it. Have a look!

I also have begun blogging about my own birding again, so, if this is something you enjoyed, see my blog.

–David Barrett

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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

A Message from Starr

Happy new year everyone!

I just got back from Inwood Hill Park where I had eight species. Last year I ended up with 396 birds across the United States, the first time I have had less than 400 species in a year in about 35 years. Oh, well! I have high hopes for this year.

The contest of 2012 that I have been watching with great interest all year is a big year in Manhattan. Our webmaster, David Barrett, led the eBird New York County rankings for much of the year. Yesterday, as David reported here, he was able to add two rare birds, Horned Lark and Snow Bunting. David finished with a whopping 208 species. Congratulations!

I have done several big years and they take many hours. Strategy, stamina, the right winds at the right time, and just plain good luck. Modern communications are invaluable.

To all birders out there, the best of everything in 2013!

Cheers,

Starr

 

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

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

Barnacle Goose, Inwood Hill Park

(Photo credit: Andrew Farnsworth; Inwood Hill Park, 12 Nov 2012)

Yesterday evening an observation of a Barnacle Goose in the Inwood area came across on eBird. Though the person who submitted the observation on her list of birds did not provide more precise detail as to location, the physical description of the bird was entirely consistent with Barnacle Goose. A large flock of Canada Geese was also listed, so I assumed that the Barnacle was associating with it.

Barnacle Goose is a very, very rare visitor from the far north Atlantic Ocean.

I decided I had to try to find this bird!

I knew that there were two places in Inwood Hill Park where geese tend to congregate. One is the baseball fields off of Dyckman Street on the west end of the Park by the Hudson. This is where I went first this morning. A dense fog made for very low visibility. At the northernmost end of the fields, around the picnic area, I found a flock of a dozen Canada Geese but no Barnacle.

The other place for geese is on the eastern end of the Park by the large inlet. I went there next and on the second baseball field north of the entrance by the tennis courts I found a large flock of Canada Geese. I scanned the flock and quickly saw the white-faced bird that stuck out: it was the Barnacle Goose!

I wrote back to Andrew Farnsworth — a Cornell researcher who helps manage eBird and who had been looking into this sighting — that I had found the bird. He put out an announcement on NYNYBIRD and then sped off to Inwood Hill. Despite a flat tire on the way he was first to arrive about an hour later at 11:35.

We got close views of the Barnacle Goose, which appeared healthy and had no band that might indicate origin from a farm or zoo. It was not bothered much by the baseball practice going on nearby.

I phoned Starr, who lives nearby in Inwood, shortly after finding the bird. She was on the scene quickly and mentioned that she knew of no other previous sighting of Barnacle Goose in Manhattan. A memorable morning for all involved!

–David Barrett

Central Park Delivers Uncommon Birds

The 2012 fall season in Central Park has been excellent for seeing some unusual species.

Here is a list of some of my favorites in chronological order:

Red Crossbill — small flock seen in hemlock trees of Shakespeare Garden on August 31st and September 1st. Determined by call to be Type 3.

American Bittern — first reported September 10th; seen by many and for nearly a week beginning September 12th at Turtle Pond.

Clay-colored Sparrow — first seen September 12th in the North End Loch and later at other nearby points such as the Compost Heap, the Great Hill, and the Grassy Knoll. Two were observed on the 14th, and at least one remained through September 21st.

Eastern Whip-poor-will — seen first September 15th roosting on a branch above the source of the Gill in the Ramble, it amazed birders by remaining in the Ramble for at least four days and often resting on the very same branch on which it was initially found.

Dickcissel — reported September 21st in the North End’s Wildflower Meadow; later seen around the Compost Heap.

Connecticut Warbler — reported September 23rd and seen by many in the Tupelo Meadow area of the Ramble. There have been a couple other reliable reports in Central Park, each seen by just one observer.

Golden-winged Warbler — reported September 19th in the early morning at Strawberry Fields; seen much later in the day by about a dozen birders. Another was seen and photographed on September 30th appearing briefly in the Maintenance Meadow.

Marsh Wren — reported by one very reliable observer first on September 21st in the Wildflower Meadow and the next day at the Pool. Another (or possibly the same one) was seen by many at Tupelo Meadow in the Ramble on September 24th. Yet another appeared at the Meer the following morning, and in Maintenance Meadow on the 29th.

Blue Grosbeak — reported in the late afternoon of September 25th in the Wildflower Meadow. Another, this one a juvenile, was was seen on the 29th further south in the Park, along the edge of the Lake south of Bow Bridge.

Grasshopper Sparrow — reported early on September 25th in the Compost Heap area and seen by many throughout the day. Another had spent a few days in May around Falconer’s Hill, south of the 72nd Street Park Drive.

Pine Siskin — seen in the Wildflower Meadow on October 2nd but not reported until after sundown; I was unable to re-find them the following day. But a flock was seen in Prospect Park, so the birds are around and it is likely that we will have more passing through Central Park. In fact more were reported flying over, with some briefly touching down, on October 4th. They are known to like thistle feeders, so Evodia Field in the Ramble is one place to watch as the season progresses. Right now they are more likely to be seen high up in conifers.

In fact, this fall and winter could offer the opportunity to see a variety of finches that rarely make their way to our area, including Red and White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, and Evening Grosbeak. See Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast on eBird for more details. In particular, you may want to click on the links to updated eBird maps of recent sightings.

The eBird team also points out that “Boreal Owls are expected to move south this year.” Unlike Snowy Owls, which irrupted last year, Boreal Owls might find Central Park an acceptable stopping-off point. They last appeared here from December 2004 to January 2005.

Good birding,

David Barrett