Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Urban Birding: The Falconer and Iceland Gulls in Central Park.

When I first moved to New York City back in April 1991 I started birding in Central Park within days of arriving.  Although I'd been to the US before then (three trips to Maine and one to Florida) there were plenty of new birds for me to see and I think I got Life Birds almost every week during that first Spring migration.  After the initial rush though, I started finding ways to bird further afield, a process that started with birding in New York and New Jersey and ended up ten years later with a crazy World-lisitng phase that almost burned me out.  Still, I think I've managed to do at least a little birding in Central Park in each of the last 23 years and it's always fun to jump on the 3-Train and spend a couple of hours wandering the paths to see what I can turn up.

As a recently arrived Brit many of the local birders recommended that I read Donald Knowler's book 'The Falconer of Central Park' the story of, you guessed it, a British Birder spending a year birding Central Park.  The author spent a whole year visiting the Park regularly and chronicling the birds and the characters he met there, including his year-long search for his own nemesis bird, an Iceland Gull in the Park.  It was of course a great recommendation for me and I read it several times that first year in the US, although I, unlike the author, never did catch up with the Iceland Gull.

(Photo from where there are still many copies available)
Fast forward to today, and I still go to the Park occasionally even though I spend much less time in New York City than I used to.  Over 23 years of birding there I've seen a lot of birds but, when Jacob Drucker found an Iceland Gull on the Central Park Reservoir back in December 2012, it did take me back to reminisce about those early days.  I did drop by the Park once to look for this gull but just had time for a quick visit as I had other priorities in December.  I had no luck that day, and given that I'd seen literally dozens of Iceland Gulls in New York State that year, I didn't really follow up.

This particular gull seemed to be on my mind though and so twice in January I circled the reservoir and scanned all the gulls hoping to re-find it.  I just had bins with me so it would have been a tough pick given the distances but a first-cycle Iceland Gull stands out even among several thousand distant gulls so I had some hope that I might bump into it.  I had no luck on either visit, but then a few days ago Nadir Sourigi reported the gull again and yesterday, as I was heading out to a dental appointment, others reported seeing it too.  So I threw my bins in my coat pocket, ignored the strange looks I got from the staff at the dentist's office (doesn't everyone have binoculars sticking out of their pocket?), and when I was done there took a cab up to 89th Street and 5th Avenue and walked into the Reservoir.

Of course I squelched in on the East Side, where recent snow melt had turned the trails into mud, and all the gulls seemed to be on the West Side.  So as I worked my way round the North end of the reservoir I kept scanning each group while making my way towards the main gull concentration.   Before I'd gone very far though I picked up what looked like a good prospect out on the ice but it was distant and I needed to get closer to be sure.  Hoping the bird would stick I kept pushing around, really wishing I was wearing boots and not street shoes, but at each stop the bird looked better until I got close enough to see the bill and I was quite sure I had a first cycle Iceland Gull.

A very distant view of the Iceland Gull on Central Park Reservoir
 (Photo - Deborah Allen, used with permission).
So, after 23 years I got an Iceland Gull in Central Park, and added it to my New York County list on eBird.  Not a huge triumph, but a nice bird and made better when I saw Deborah Allen looking for the bird later and was able to get her on it too.  Deborah was also able to get some super-distant photos even though the light wasn't at all cooperating, so I felt I should memorialize the moment with a blog post.  I've seen a ton of good birds in Central Park over the years but it's always satisfying to add a new species and so I guess I'll probably keep wandering in there when I get the chance.

Update:  the next day someone found a Black-headed Gull on the Reservoir.  So now I have a new gull to look for and I hope this one doesn't take 23 years to track down.

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