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

Kentucky Warbler, North End

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler (Photo credit: Gulf Coast Greenie)

Today’s walk in the North End of Central Park produced 50 species, including 11 warblers. Starr and Lenore were unable to make it today, so Alex Hale, a dedicated young birder whose life list will soon total 600 species, led the walk.

Highlights: (* = new bird for the season)

  • Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
  • Great Crested Flycatcher (at least 9, an unusually high total)
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Swainson’s Thrush* (first fall report for Central Park)
  • Orange-crowned Warbler*
  • Kentucky Warbler* (male, west end of Loch)
  • Black-throated Green Warbler* (first fall report for Central Park)
  • Scarlet Tanager* (first fall report for Central Park)

The best bird of the day is without question the Kentucky Warbler, which Starr also had on the spring walks, and which has shown up in Central Park much more often than usual this year. Historically, it has been “very rare” for the Park, a bird not seen every migration season or even every year.

The Orange-crowned Warbler is also a great sighting. Last year this bird was easier to get after the migration seasons than during them, as some were noted in Central Park beginning in early November and continuing through December. Swindler Cove Park had one that stayed into early January.


Starr’s Comments on the Spring Season

My first season of having a website has ended. Thanks again, David, for all the work you’ve done. I’ll still be updating all of you on my birding adventures this summer. But first, it’s time to summarize the last two months in Central Park.

This past week was characterized by diminishing numbers of many migrants, of course. But we still had a Kentucky Warbler on Saturday, and I kept hearing about Mourning Warblers on my non-walk days. Empidonax flycatchers have been appearing. We had great looks at an Acadian yesterday and saw one last Wednesday as well. On Tuesday we had a Least at the North End.

While I teach identification of these flycatchers on my walks, some of you don’t know what primary extension is, and that’s important for IDing them. The  two major groups of the flight (wing) feathers are the primaries and the secondaries. The ones toward the outer wing edges shaped like fingers are the primaries. The feathers that start at the body (along the trailing edge of the wing) and go out to meet the primaries are the secondaries. How much these primaries hang down below the secondaries on a perched bird is referred to as the primary projection. Any good modern field guide will show you how the empids differ from each other in this aspect.

Now, for the summary: it was the best of times — it was the worst of times. The month of April was birdier than the last few years. Several species arrived one to two weeks early, and the early-migrant wood warblers were in good numbers day after day. I’m referring mostly to Pine, Palm, and Louisiana Waterthrushes.

By the way, we had 140 species this spring as opposed to 135 for the same time period in 2011. The only new species for the walks (this is my 28th year) was a Common Raven on Saturday, April 22nd at the North End. That day we also had a female Prothonotary, a male Orange-crowned Warbler, and a female Blue Grosbeak.

Things slowed down a lot the following week, but May 2nd and 5th were birders’ dreams. We had 71 and 70 species, respectively, and even more important, good numbers of individuals. The next two weeks were fine on species, but no so many individuals. A wonderful exception was Wednesday, May 23rd. Birds had been hunkered down to the south of us for awhile, but the winds changed direction and birds filtered into the Park’s west side all morning. We spent an hour and twenty minutes on Summit Rock where we had thirteen warbler species including two Blackburnians (a species we saw many days in May) and a Tennessee. We had 64 species including 19 warblers that day. Almost everything left that night.

This report skips around a lot, but so do my memories of spring 2012 in Central Park. Have a wonderful summer, and I hope to see you in the fall!

Good birding,


26 May 2012: Yellow-billed Cuckoo

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo was named Cuculus ame...

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Starr’s group had 44 bird species, of which 8 were warblers, in the Central Park North End this morning.

The two best birds of the day were great finds. At 8:28 AM Starr had the Yellow-billed Cuckoo on the Great Hill. This bird is hard to get even in the fall migration where it tends to occur more frequently than in the spring. At 10:15 AM Starr heard a Kentucky Warbler singing near the north end of the Loch. Several members of the group would later see the bird, which was in heavy vegetation.

Highlights: (* means new bird for the season)

Yellow-billed Cuckoo* (SW and SE corners of the Great Hill)

Kentucky Warbler (north end of Loch)


28 April 2012: Another Great Day in Central Park

Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria), Petrie ...

Solitary Sandpiper

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Despite unseasonably cool weather we had our best walk of the year this morning in the North End and elsewhere. We had 13 warblers and 58 bird species altogether, both of which are our highest totals of the season. We also added 8 new birds to our season list.

Initially the cold kept things quiet. We did hear an Ovenbird (first-of-season for us) as we ascended the path from the Pool up to the Great Hill. For about a half-hour after that we saw only common birds (along with a Brown-headed Cowbird) and were concerned that the day might go down as a historical worst for April 28th.

Then Starr got a call from Alex, who had wandered off, that there was decent activity in the North Woods’ High Meadow (not to be confused with the Wildflower Meadow well south).

When we arrived we were immediately treated to an uncommon sight, a Merlin perched in a tree in full view.

Starr heard a first-of-season Wood Thrush, which sang a few more times so that all could hear it.

The surrounding area was alive with the sounds of warblers high above. Starr heard a Prairie Warbler. We heard and soon saw a Black-throated Green Warbler. We also heard Yellow Warbler, along with Northern Parula (first-of-season), which some saw. Starr heard a first-of-season Magnolia Warbler sing several times. We also heard a Blue-eyed Vireo.

As we descended the Ridge Trail we heard more Yellow Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers.

Waiting for us at the west end of the Loch by the first wooded bridge was our first-of-season Solitary Sandpiper, which gave everyone excellent, close views. It has been hanging around around this area for at least several days.

Just past the bridges going east on the Loch, Starr heard a White-eyed Vireo (also a new bird for the year), which some were able to glimpse very high in a tree.

We got good views of a Northern Waterthrush along the Loch.

The Meer brought us some very cooperative Swallows, both Barn and Northern Rough-winged, along with Mallard ducklings.

Starr heard a Common Yellowthroat chip nearby in the reeds bordering the Meer. The bird chipped more, and then flew south toward the hill. Some were able to see it on the hillside ground, but it did the rest of us a favor by singing (“wichety wichety wichety”), leaving no doubt as to its identity.

In the Wildflower Meadow the group heard the buzz of a  Blue-winged Warbler.

But the fun was not over yet! Starr took the group via subway downtown and walked to the Shakespeare Gardens area where we saw the rare Kentucky Warbler that has remained since yesterday, a life bird for many.