Special Issue: Spring Migration and the tiny Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher in the NYC area 1850-2015
Updated: Mar 1
11 April 2018
Schedule Notes! Starting this Thursday 12 April, with warm weather making a major push into our area, migrating warblers and others will be traveling in that same air space. Look for lots of species Thu-Fri-Sat-Sun. Do check our schedule page on our web site (https://www.birdingbob.com/birdwalks) - or see below for our schedule. We are now doing walks five days per week (Thu-Mon inclusive), sometimes twice per morning. And yes you can do two walks on the same morning for $10/person...let is know if you want to rent binoculars. Did you hear about the Barn Owl that has been in Central Park for the last few days? Our bird photos come from Deborah Allen (see her links below), and show Central Park birds including Blue-grey Gnatcatcher (see photo above), Louisiana Waterthrush, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Phoebe. In this week's historical notes we present a portrait of the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher in our area. From the mid-19th century to about 1900, this little bird was extremely rare on migration in our area, usually seen in early to mid-May. Starting in the early 20th century, reports begin to come in for individuals being seen in early to mid-April, and at least in Central Park, an observer was more likely to encounter this bird in spring than autumn. By spring 1947, observers are surprised at seeing multiple Blue-grey Gnatcatchers in one day in the same park in the NYC area. In 1958 in Central and Prospect Parks, it was considered an uncommon spring, rare fall transient (Central Park) to an occasionally fairly common, spring transient (Prospect Park). In 1963, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers were found breeding at two locations on Long Island. And by spring 1982, "hundreds" were being seen in spring in Central Park. Sometime from 1980 onwards Blue-grey Gnatcatchers began nesting in NYC Parks. Indeed one pair tried to nest in Central Park in spring 2011 (reported by Chris Cooper on 9 May), and several pairs nest every spring at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx and other NYC Parks. So we ask, what changes happened locally (and regionally) for this little bird to become a fairly common nesting species in the larger parks of NYC? Have a look at the historical notes we place in chronological order below. Finally, you may have heard about singing finches being smuggled into the NYC area from Guyana. They were confiscated at JFK airport once again last week - and it was all over the TV news. There is a long history of this (since the 1970s), with quite a culture of bird fanciers in Queens. See this NY Times article from 2015 for more info: https://tinyurl.com/ycwbmdpg
Apple trees in bloom at Conservatory Garden 29 April 2011
Deborah Allen sends Photos from CENTRAL PARK
Louisiana Waterthrush, the Point, Sunday April 8, 2018: https://www.photo.net/photo/18467447/Louisiana-Waterthrush-Singing Golden-crowned Kinglet, Cedar Hill, Sunday April 8, 2018: https://www.photo.net/photo/18467444/Golden-crowned-Kinglet Eastern Phoebe, Summit Rock, Sunday April 8, 2018: https://www.photo.net/photo/18467443/Eastern-Phoebe Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, mid- to late April: https://www.photo.net/photo/18467441/Blue-gray-Gnatcatcher https://www.photo.net/photo/18467440/Blue-gray-Gnatcatcher https://www.photo.net/photo/18467439/Male-Blue-gray-Gnatcatcher Link to Deborah Allen photos on her Web site: http://www.agpix.com/results.php?agid=DeAl12
Good! Here are the bird walks for Mid April - each $10
All walks in Central Park 1. Thursday, 12 April - 9am (only) - Dock on Turtle Pond (opposite Belvedere Castle) 2. Friday, 13 April - 9am - Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Ave) 3. Saturday, 14 April - 7:30am/9:30am - Boathouse Cafe at 74th and East Drive 4. Sunday, 15 April - 7:30am/9:30am - DOCK ON TURTLE POND 4. Monday, 16 April - 8am/9am - Strawberry Fields at 72nd street and CPW (Imagine Mosaic) 5. Thursday, 19 April - 9am (only) - Dock on Turtle Pond (opposite Belvedere Castle) Any questions/concerns send them our way: email@example.com or call: 718-828-8262 NOTE: on MORNINGS when two walks are scheduled (e.g., 7:30am/9:30am), you can do both walks for $10...you get two for the price of one. Directions to Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8
The fine print: On Sundays, our walks meet at 7:30am and again at 9:30am at the Dock on Turtle Pond adjacent to Delacorte Theater on the south end of the Great Lawn (approx. 79th street). We also meet here on Tuesday/Wed/Thursday in April-May-June but only at 9am. On Saturdays, we meet at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 7:30am and again at 9:30am. (It is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!). Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (= firstname.lastname@example.org). On Fridays, in April/May/June we will meet at Conservatory Garden (105thand 5th Ave) at 9am (only). Finally, Monday walks in April/May/June meet at Strawberry Fields at 72nd street and Central Park West - look for the “Imagine" Mosaic - we meet on the benches nearby at 8am and again at 9am.
NOTE: on MORNINGS (Sat/Sun/Mon) when two walks are scheduled (e.g., 8am/9am or 7:30am/9:30am), you can do both walks for $10/person...you get two for the price of one.
If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not, check this web site the morning of the walk: info will be posted on the main landing page as well as the "Schedule" page by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk!
We end all our weekend Central Park walks at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). For our Friday walks, we usually end up at (or very near) Conservatory Garden, most often at 106th street and 5th Avenue.
Here is what we saw last week (selected highlights).
Not all species we saw are reported here - we list the best: Friday, 6 April (start at Conservatory Garden, Central Park at 9am) - an abbreviated walk today! At 7:30am it was only cloudy and miserable but there were birds: Blue-grey Gnatcatcher foraging along the north side of the Harlem Meer; Palm Warbler on the ground on the south side of the Loch, and nearby two Louisiana Waterthrushes singing and chasing one another. Then the rains started at about 8:15am and it became more than miserable. Fortunately no one showed up for the bird walk, but I was able to find a Yellow-rumped Warbler near the island in the Harlem Meer on the way to the 110th street train station. Saturday, 7 April (Boathouse in Central Park at 9:30am) - overnite winds from the northwest kept the birds on the east side of the Hudson River...and temperatures 10 degrees F lower than normal. For us in Central Park it meant lots of Eastern Phoebes (Turtle Pond was especially good for them), Hermit Thrushes, Flickers, Chipping Sparrows - and other common species that are the bulk of early spring migrants. Highlights for the group were two Pine Warblers (one at the Pinetum); two Louisiana Waterthrushes (one at Azalea Pond); at least four Palm Warblers (thanks to Ryan Serio); two Rough-winged Swallows at Turtle Pond; four Golden-crowned Kinglets at the Pinetum, and two Ruby-crowns in the Ramble - of the latter the early males are apt to flash their red crowns especially when I play their calls. Overall a fine morning with Red-tails carrying sticks to nests on buildings above us, and a young Cooper's Hawk at eye-level in the Oven being mobbed by eight or so Blue-jays. Thanks to Carine Mitchell, Elizabeth, Victor Lloyd, David Barrett, Kathleen and Jim, and many from out of town who made the walk fun.
Deborah Allen's list of birds for Saturday, 7 April: https://tinyurl.com/yd6485he ---- Sunday, 8 April (start at the Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am) - cooler and a bit breezier than yesterday, I'd hazard a guess that many of the birds present on Saturday had moved on. That being said, it was still a very good day for Eastern Phoebes (15+) and Louisiana Waterthrush including three at the "Point" towards the end of the walk. Highlights included (1) Golden-crowned Kinglets following my speaker back and forth on Cedar Hill - these birds are very social and when hearing the "contact" calls of flock mates they come over to investigate; (2) Ruby-crowned Kinglet males coming in to challenge the calls from my speaker showing erect red crests - each year the first male migrants of this species can be highly aggressive while later males (late April-early May) are docile and rarely come to the calls with red crests raised; (3) a cooperative Louisiana Waterthrush flying back and forth in front of us (thanks to the recorded calls); and (4) Eastern Phoebes around every corner; and (5) a delightful group ever curious as to what birds might come in to visit us, and how each bird would respond to the calls from my speaker. Deborah Allen's list of birds for Sunday, 8 April: https://tinyurl.com/yd4e7vyt ----- Monday, 9 April (start at Strawberry Fields at 8am and again at 9am) - by Monday, only a few birds that had been seen on Fri-Sat were still hanging around. We made due with two Louisiana Waterthrushes, a Palm Warbler and several Eastern Phoebes. However, the highlight was a Barn Owl that was found early Monday morning - we looked everywhere for it with no luck...but that owl was still being seen on Wednesday morning (11 April) - so it seems to be hanging around. We will look for it again on Thursday, 12 April.
Deborah Allen's list of birds for Monday, 9 April: https://tinyurl.com/ycvfefzq
male Blue-grey Gnatcatcher Pelham Bay Park on 26 June 2010
1849. Polioptila cerulea. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. -- There is but one specimen in the collection, labelled "Shot by J. Akhurst. at Canarsie, in 1849." It is the only specimen that Mr. Akhurst recollects ever having seen from Long Island. ==================== 1883. Capture of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) in Connecticut. A male of this species was killed here May 11, 1883, by a boy with a sling shot, and is now in the cabinet of Mr. Jos. W. Lord. The only previous record for Connecticut that I find is the one given by Linsley (1843), and since quoted by Allen, Merriam, and other writers. Jno. H. Sage, Portland, Conn. =================== 1901. The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in New York City. -- A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila cerulea) was seen in Central Park, New York City, and positively identified, on May 22, 1901. -- C. B. ISHAM, New York City. ------------------------ 1904. Some Spring Reports from the Vicinity of New York City Central Park March 5th. -- 150 Snowflakes [Snow Buntings] remained about a week. March 7th. -- 3 American Crossbills. March 26th. -- 1 Mourning Dove. May 8th. – 13 Bay-breasted Warblers. May 10th. -- 1 female Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. ================================
1910. A Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher in Prospect Park N.Y. On April 7, 1910, my wife and I saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in Prospect Park. We sent word to other members of the 'Bird Lovers' Club of Brooklyn, and four members noted the bird on the 8th, 9th, and 10th of the month. E. W. Vietor, Brooklyn, N. Y. ===================== 1913. Problems in the Local Distribution of Birds - It would seem that the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a regular migrant, in very small numbers, in Central Park, New York City, though by good observers a few miles westward in New Jersey it has never been noted. The Gnatcatcher is not known to breed north of southern New Jersey, and the yearly recurrence of the species further north is remarkable. The most plausible explanation seems to be that somewhere in southern New York or New England, probably in Connecticut, there exists a small isolated breeding colony of the species.
It has long been known that the Kentucky Warbler is a regular summer resident along the banks of the lower Hudson River, and in southern Connecticut, a small colony of the species absolutely cut off from its main breeding range further south, though there is no dearth of apparently suitable woodland in the intervening country. Certain other species of Warblers, the Hooded and the Parula in particular, have a curiously broken distribution in the Middle States. In other parts of the country there are doubtless the same inconsistencies in distribution and the plotting of the breeding areas and migration routes of such species present an interesting field for the local bird-club or the individual worker. --- W. DeW Miller, Plainfield, N. J. ========================== 1923. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher.
New York State. Frequently observed in Central Park, rarely in the Bronx Region, very rare or accidental elsewhere; on May 6, 1922, Mr. Arthur Janes found a singing male at Scarsdale; he very courteously responded to my request for further information, and wrote so detailed an account of his observation that there can be no doubt of the correctness of his identification, although he had never seen the bird in life before.
Long Island. A rare transient, in spring chiefly at the western end, in fall chiefly at the eastern end; numerous records, especially in fall; April 7 and 10, 1910, Prospect Park, Brooklyn (E. W. Vietor and many others) to April 18; July 1, 13 and 30 to October 11. ORIENT. Late summer and fall visitant; one spring record, April 16, 1908 at Peconic (Mrs. Frank D. Smith); July 30, 1908 to September 10, 1917; numerous records. MASTIC. One record, September 21, 1918. CENTRAL PARK. A rare transient, recorded chiefly in spring; seventeen records in twenty-one years; May 22, 1901 (C. B. Isham); May 10, 1904 (Carleton Schaller); April 24 and May 9, 1905 (Hix); May 5, 1907 (Hix); April 7 and 8, 1910 (Griscom); May 11, 1910 (Griscom); April 18, 1911 (Griscom); April 27, 1913 (Griscom); May 9, 1916 (Janvrin); April 30, 1920 (Dr. Ellsworth Elliott); May 14, 1920 (L. N. Nichols); May 24, 1920 (Griscom); May 3, 1922 (Griscom); also September 10, 1905 (Hix); September, 1910 (Anne A. Crolius); August 28, 1922 (Griscom). BRONX REGION. Specimen taken at New Rochelle, September 12, 1895 (E. I. Haines); one seen May 3, 1912 (Messrs. Burdsall, Comly, Cook and Maples); one seen May 7, 1920 (L. N. Nichols and E. G. Nichols). New Jersey. Apparently of purely casual occurrence in our area; on May 16, 1920 one was seen by the Passaic River near Plainfield (W. DeW. Miller and C. H. Rogers). ========================== 1947. OBSERVATIONS for APRIL in the NYC area. An unprecedented wave of Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers was noted by many observers on April 13th. As many as five were noted Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx. Two were seen at Woodmere, Queens. Singles were reported from Cedarhurst, Rockville Center, Massepequa, Long Island. And there were other reports of this species from Brooklyn and New Jersey. =========================== 1960. We are on the northeastern fringe of the breeding range of the little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). There is always the chance of seeing one or two of these sprightly birds with tiny bodies and comparatively long tails throughout the warmer months of the year. Some years I have seen as many as five in a season and other years I missed them entirely. They might be set down as regular warm-weather visitors in small numbers. Both the Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) are common to abundant transients through our region and a few always spend the winter in the more sheltered nooks within the city limits. The Golden-crowned is the handsomer little bird but my favorite is the Ruby-crowned, not only for the little red flag it raises on its crown when courting or fighting but because, on migration in spring, it pours out a delightful little roulade of bubbling notes that skitter gaily down the scale. The Golden-crowned Kinglet only rarely gives us any more than a string of beady little notes. What we used to call simply "the Pipit" is now, by imperial ornithological decree of 1957, the Water Pipit (Anthus spinoletta). The change in name has made no difference in the bird's habits and travels. With us it is a regular transient, locally abundant at times, and frequently a winter resident in small flocks in the seaward sections of the city such as the ocean beaches and the salt-marsh areas. Like the Northern Horned Lark, with which it is often found during migration, it likes flat ground and short grass and the best places to seek it in season are on airfields and golf courses. I meet it regularly as a migrant - more numerous in the autumn than in the spring - on the Van Cortlandt Parade Ground, where I have seen as many as several hundred at a time walking about calmly and feeding on grass seed. Only a few of our small birds walk about in this leisurely fashion; most of them run or hop. Kieran, J. A Natural History of New York City. 1959. P.373 ============================ Blue-grey Gnatcatcher:
Central Park. 1958. Uncommon spring, rare fall transient. 4 April 1945 (R.C. Murphy) to 31 May 1953 (Peter Post); on southbound migration: 4 August 1939 (Cantor, Norse) to 8 October 1935 (Johnson) and 29 Oct 1955 (Bruce Gordon). Five on 24 August 1953 (Messing); seven on 18 May 1958 (Post). By 1964: 15 November 1960 (Bloom) - a late autumn record.
Prospect Park. 1958. Uncommon, occasionally fairly common, spring transient: 7 April 1946 (Alperin, Jacobson) to 24 May 1950 (Meyerdierks, Whelen). In 1947 the Brooklyn Bird Club compiled the phenomenal total of 55 individuals, with a maximum of 8 on 26 April 1947. On southbound migration: 20 August 1944 (Grant); 22 August 1912 (Vietor); 16 September 1947 (Alperin, Jacobson); 2 October 1955 (Milton Goldman, Audrey Wrede); 9 October 1932 (Russell). By 1964: 6 November to 27 November (Cashman, Raymond, Restivo) - a late autumn record. =========================== 1964. Nesting of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on Long Island, New York. -- The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) is one of several southern species whose breeding ranges in the eastern states have been expanded northward in the last two to three decades. In 1942, southern New Jersey was listed as the northernmost breeding limit, except for one record from Sussex County in northwestern New Jersey (A.D. Cruickshank, Birds around New York City, The American Museum of Natural History Handbook Series, No. 13, 1942; see p. 352). The first discovered breeding in northeastern New Jersey was in 1947 (Fry, News-letter, 1: 3, 1947). In more recent years nestings in northern New Jersey, southern New York, and Connecticut have been reported in Audubon Field Notes as follows: 11: 393; Year: 1957 (Green Village, Morris County, New Jersey); 12: 400, Year:1958 (Millburn, Essex County, New Jersey); 13: 357, Year: 1959 (Summit, Union County, New Jersey, and Bloomfield, Hartford County, Connecticut); 13: 421, Year: 1959 (Westport, Fairfield County, Connecticut); 14: 372, Year: 1960 (Tompkins Cove, Rockland County, New York); 14: 438, Year: 1960 (West Park, Ulster County, New York); 15: 454, Year: 1961 (Cruger's Island, Dutchess County, New York); and 17: 17, Year: 1963 (Litchfield, Litchfield County, Connecticut).
Despite this occupation of range to the west and north of Long Island, and contrary to the inclusion of Long Island in the breeding range of the species by the A.O.U. Check-list of North American birds (Fifth edit., 1957), no evidence of nesting on Long Island has previously been reported. This parallels the case of the Tufted Titmouse (Parus bicolor) which extended its range into southern and central New York and southern New England before gaining a foothold on Long Island. The titmouse is a relatively sedentary species which apparently found it difficult to cross either the waters bounding Long Island on the north and south or the New York City metropolitan area on the west. The gnatcatcher, however, is a migratory species which has occurred as a regular, although uncommon, spring migrant for years and no reason for its failure to nest sooner is obvious.
On 21 May 1963 two gnatcatchers were observed in my yard at Manorville, Suffolk County, New York. The following day they were carrying nesting material to a tall white oak (Quercus alba) about 30 feet (9 meters) in from the edge of a mature oak woods. On 23 and 24 May they were building and shaping a nest about 45 feet up in a triple upright crotch. On 26 May the birds were again at the nest but were not seen thereafter and apparently deserted.
On 24 May 1963 a second nest was found, by Dennis Puleston, Walter Terry, Alvin Smith, and me, at Noyack, also in Suffolk County and about 25 miles east of the first location. This nest was about 20 feet above ground on a small horizontal limb of a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) in an overgrown clearing surrounded by large oak woods. The birds were apparently incubating, since one replaced the other on the nest. On 10 June, Puleston found the nest empty but, since it appeared to have been used by young, a successful breeding probably was accomplished. -- Gilbert S. Raynor, Manorville, Long Island, New York. ==================== Spring 1982. Central Park. “The next birds to arrive came in bulk. Hundreds of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, relatives of the kinglets, flooded into the park in mid-April . They could be seen in virtually every tree, creeping through the treetops like feather-tailed mice in search of insects. On the forest floor there was a similar invasion of Hermit Thrushes. Within a week, this phase of the migration would be over, only the occasional Gnatcatcher or thrush being caught in the surge of the next species to hit the park.” The Falconer of Central Park. 1984. Donald Knowler
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD Follow us on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC
male Blue-grey Gnatcatcher in flight by Deborah Allen on 15 April 2011