Sunday, March 23, 2014

New York's Fake Spring

Birds from Urban Manhattan at the very start of Spring ....

So March is a trying time for birders.  The temperatures start to warm, precocious Spring flowers poke up through the grass, bold trees start to think about budding, and there's a hint ... just a hint ... of migration.  Birders can feel Spring in the air and pour out of their 'cabins' (well you can go 'cabin-crazy' in an apartment too, and the average New York City apartment isn't all that much bigger than a cabin) and start birding like its mid May.  You can almost taste the warbler song to come, or feel the flood of migrants on their way.   But we do have a (long ... painful ... frustrating ...) month to wait, and the forecast is for more snow next week.  Early signs of Spring are just a tease, and this weekend we got plenty of them ... just enough to make sure that next week's scheduled snow storm will be doubly frustrating.

Spent a few hours in Central Park both days this weekend.  I was trapped in the City by work and a broken Range Rover that had to go to the car doctor (urban cars take a beating - provided in part this time by a homeless guy with a tire-iron).  I did manage to clear two mornings for the Park though and put in a bit of effort to see as much of the 'pre-migration' as I could.

Baltimore Oriole - Central Park, New York County, NY (March 2014)
Photo: Ryan Walker (used with permission)
Saturday was actually quite balmy and I went in early with hopes of seeing an American Woodcock (there had been many reported) and a Rusty Blackbird (at least one had been seen the week before).  I started near the Tupelo Field and almost immediately flushed a woodcock, getting no more than the traditional split-second, corner of an eye view.  Still, it was a year-bird and I was sure I'd see more.  I worked The Ramble for a couple more hours, enjoying the relatively mild (it actually wasn't snowing for once) temperatures and did come up with a few things.  A Swamp Sparrow was a year bird, and I did get a look at one of the two over-wintering Baltimore Orioles, but I never did come up with another woodcock and couldn't turn up a Rusty Blackbird despite checking all the likely spots.  The highlight of the day was an abundance of (Red) Fox Sparrows with several singing birds and a dozen or more hanging out at various spots around The Ramble.  After flogging the area, I decided to give up and go to look for the Red-necked Grebe that had been hanging out on the reservoir.  Red-necked Grebe is a good bird for New York City and this one was the first one seen in Central Park in perhaps thirty years.  I have the vaguest recollection of seeing one on the Hudson River back in the early '90s but my eBird records from back them as patchy and this promised to be a county bird in eBird.  The reservoir unfortunately was now un-frozen so, while folks last week had seen the bird at point-blank range in one of the few ice-free patches on the reservoir, I had to make do with super-distant views across the water.  The bird was described as 'transitional plumage' but it looked like a drab Winter bird to me, still I was glad to see it (and officially add it to the county list).  So I declared victory and headed off to do grown-up things ...

American Woodcock - Central Park, New York County, NY (March 2014)
Photo: Ryan Walker (used with permission)
Sunday was colder ... there was a storm coming and it felt very much like a Winter day with the promise of (the forecast) snow to come.   I got to the Park later than the day before but was almost immediately rewarded with a 'migrant' when I came across an Eastern Phoebe hawking for (microscopic) insects on the fence-line near one of the lawns.  Not long afterwards I did find a 'sitting' woodcock after an hour of scanning likely fenced-in spots (spots without fences are hopeless due to the army of dog-walkers who run their dogs through The Ramble every morning - yes, there's a leash-law, yes it's ignored) and sent a text to Ryan Walker who I knew really wanted to see one.  American Woodcock is perhaps one of my favorite North American birds - charismatic, cryptic, and comedic, especially when walking like a little clockwork toy - simply an awesome critter.  I simply never tire of them but eventually I pulled myself away, mostly worried about drawing too much attention to this bird for fear of others flushing it.  So on to 'the feeders' to see what was around while I waited for Ryan to come in to the park.  Central Park has a huge feeder operation; hardly a surprise for a city so stuffed with birders - there are probably more birders within a mile of Central Park than live in the average US state.  The dedicated volunteers put out quite a smorgasbord, filling tubes, coconut feeders, traditional feeders, and 'schmeering' suet and seeds on trees and on the ground.  Of course this gathers a good selection of birds and today everything cooperated.  In no time I'd seen a Pine Warbler, two Baltimore Orioles, a couple of Brown Creepers, and a Carolina Wren, in addition to the more traditional feeder birds.  Several tourists (they didn't have bins) came over to ask about the 'orange birds' and I have to admit, it is quite a spectacle.  Many thanks to the dedicated volunteers who keep it going.

Pine Warbler - Central Park, New York County, NY (March 2014)
Photo: Ryan Walker (used with permission)
Getting cold, and running out of time, I waited to make sure that Ryan got his American Woodcock and Pine Warbler before leaving for the office.   Luckily though, my 2pm call got moved to 5pm, so after a few hours I was able to come back and add Black-Crowned Night-Heron at the South end of the Park before heading back to the reservoir for another look at the Red-necked Grebe (yep, definitely a second bird) and a rare (for Central Park) American Wigeon.  Not a bad haul of birds for March.  Please let Spring come soon, this Winter has been way, way too long ....

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