• Robert DeCandido PhD

Warblers Calling: Final Days of August - ROLLING THUNDER BIRD WALKS

Updated: Mar 1

Ovenbird on 19 August 2018 in Central Park by Deborah Allen

22 August 2018 We began these bird walks in the early 1990s trying to be original; nudging people to see the bird world in a novel way...including publishing a weekly Newsletter for the past fifteen years. This week we present first hand observations about nocturnal bird migration as told by late 19th century birders and others at Long Island/NJ Lighthouses, and one NYC landmark. What happened to the night sky when electricity was first switched on in NYC at the Statue of Liberty in November 1886? Besides being an "ornithological necrology" much illuminating info about bird migration in NYC can be gleaned, particularly from Jonathan Dwight Jr. MD and his work on Liberty Island ca. 1888-1891. Have a look at his comments on the importance of "cold fronts" and the pattern of bird migration in August-October; the great degree of variation in the number of birds killed each year on Liberty Island 1888-1891...and the types of birds found dead. Note also what weather conditions are correlated with bird kills - and just as importantly, what conditions are not. Much of what Dr. Dwight found then is still true today...and you may begin to understand why NYC is different for birds migrating at night than Chicago or Toronto...In the coming weeks there will be additional historical nocturnal bird migration info from the Empire State Building, the Washington Monument and elsewhere - it is a complex story when one is at ground level watching what is happening at night - or perched at 1,080 feet seeing many (though not all) migrants pass by at eye-level as we did in spring-autumn 2004-05 at the Empire State Building. For now do have a look at the few (of many+) articles we present about night bird migration from NYC, Long Island, New Jersey and Milwaukee 1880-1891.

Our bird photos come from Deborah Allen (see her links below), and show birds from Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx such as American Goldfinch and Osprey - more of Ms. Allen's photos can be found throughout this Newsletter.

In this week's historical notes we feature several articles on nocturnal bird migration in the NYC area and beyond. These articles primarily date from the 1886-1892 time frame when electricity first came into general use in the USA. Before this time cities were illuminated by gaslight at night, and the only significant light that affected nocturnal bird migration were those at Lighthouses up and down the east coast of North America and in Europe. We present two articles about bird migration at night as reported from these Lighthouses: Long Island (1889) and New Jersey (1880).

Blackburnian Warbler by Doug Leffler

Deborah Allen Photos

Pelham Bay Park, Bronx

Male American Goldfinch in Knapweed, Orchard Beach, Tuesday August 14, 2018:


Osprey in flight with Menhaden, Orchard Beach, Tuesday August 14, 2018:


Hatch-year Forster’s Tern in Flight, Bartow-Pell, Tuesday August 21, 2018:


Common Sootywing, Bronx, Sunday August 12, 2018:



Chestnut-sided Warbler in Central Park on 19 August 2018 by Deborah Allen

Good! Here are the bird walks for mid August - each $10*** 1. Friday, 24 August - 9:00am (ONLY!) - Meet at Conservatory Garden at 105th st./5th Ave. 2. Saturday, 25 August - 7:30am/9:30am - Meet at the Boathouse Restaurant Central Park. 3. Sunday, 26 August - 7:30am/9:30am - Meet at the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park. 4. Monday, 27 August - 8:00am/9:00am - Meet at Strawberry Fields (Imagine Mosaic)

***NOTE: on MORNINGS when two walks are scheduled (e.g., 7:30/9:30am), you can do both walks for $10/person...you get two for the price of one. Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8

The fine print: On Saturdays and Sundays, our walks meet at 7:30am and again at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). Please note: the Boathouse 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 rdcny@earthlink.net . On Mondays we meet at 8am and again at 9am at Strawberry Fields (the benches near the "Imagine" Mosaic. Enter the park at 72nd street and Central Park West and walk about 1 minute due east on the main, paved path and find the Mosaic - we are sitting nearby. On Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden located at 105th street and 5th Avenue. Enter through the main gates and walk down the steps - head straight ahead along the long, grassy area - we meet by the giant water spout between the men's room and the women's room. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not, check the 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 and Monday 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. Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.

Osprey 0n 21 August 2018 in Pelham Bay Park - these raptors will migrate at night


Blue-winged Warbler. Vermivora pinus - July 27, 1912 (off Long Beach, Long Island), an individual was seen to fly on board a transatlantic liner from the north. An interesting record to prove how early this species leaves its breeding grounds.


Bird Notes from Little Gull Island, Suffolk Co., N.Y. (September 1889) Dendroica aestiva. YELLOW WARBLER. Standing on the concrete at the foot of the tower on foggy nights and looking upward, we could see around the lantern a broad halo of light, probably one hundred feet in diameter. Outside of this halo was total darkness. This phenomenon, I presume, was caused by the reflection and refraction of the light by the minute particles of water in the vicinity of the lantern; and the darkness beyond was due to the fact that very little, if any, of the small portion of light that penetrated beyond the fifty-foot limit reached the eye. The migration, which had just begun when I arrived, could be splendidly observed by means of this patch of light. The birds could be seen flying to and fro in all directions, generally keeping within the ring, as if reluctant to leave the region of light and go into the darkness beyond. Although it would be an easy thing to distinguish the different families from each other in the strong light of the lantern, it would take a good deal of practice to tell the species apart. One species, however, was easily distinguishable as the birds flew back and forth, the Yellow Warbler. It was, indeed, a pretty sight to see these birds flitting around, their yellow breasts and bellies illumined by the rays from the lantern. I identified but one other species in the halo, the Redstart. Charles B. Field said, however, that he could sometimes in the migrations distinguish Robins and Catbirds. He also remarked that in the fall migration all the birds struck on the W. S. W. side of the lantern, instead of on the E.N.E., as it might be supposed they would. All the birds that were picked up from the concrete were also on the W.S.W. side of the tower, showing that they very probably struck on that side. In fact the Yellow Warblers were seen on both Great Gull and Little Gull Islands. But few birds of any kind struck during my stay, probably because, although a number of the nights were foggy, none were stormy. Basil Hicks Dutcher


Flew Against the Light [October 1880]. Stopping at our mutual friend, John Krider's, this morning, I was shown a large quantity of warblers and other birds that had been sent him by the lighthouse keeper at Atlantic City, N.J. They were found at the base of the tower, having flown against the light in a nightly migration during a late storm. They comprised the following varieties: blue-winged yellowback [Blue-winged Warbler]; indigo birds or blue linnets [Indigo Bunting]; black-throated blues [Warbler]; red-eyed vireos; red starts; black poll warblers; Connecticut warblers; black and white creepers [Black-and-white Warbler]; olive-back thrushes [Swainson’s Thrush], Maryland yellow-throats [Common Yellowthroat]; yellow-throats [?], yellow-rumps and magnolia warblers. This was doubtless the great southern migration which takes place every autumn. During the fall, about four years since, the wife of the keeper of the same lighthouse caught alive several brant which, during the prevalence of a fog, had entangled themselves in the grating protecting the light. These birds are now alive, one of them, I think, having been presented to the Zoological Garden at Philadelphia. Homo.




The congress of the American Ornithologists' Union resumed its session in the rooms of the American Museum of Natural History yesterday forenoon. The attendance was larger than the previous day and included several ladies. Jonathan Dwight, Jr., read an Interesting paper on "Birds that have Struck the Statue of Liberty, Bedlow's Island, New-York Harbor.'' He said that on account of its lighter color more birds strike the pedestal to the statue than the statue itself. The statue was erected too late in 1886 for the migratory birds, and none struck it that year. The first to strike it was May 19, 1887, and the next late in August, when the lights were said to be put out by birds. Mr. Dwight read a highly colored newspaper account of the killing of nearly 1,500 birds on the night of August 22-23 [1887 - see b/w illustration below]. Its statements exciting much merriment. He said it was utterly untrue that birds were burned or roasted, except in the case of one or two birds which had fallen near the heat. The slaughter of birds on this occasion was due to the first cold wave of the year, which started the migration. Mr. Dwight also read newspaper accounts or the slaughter in 1888, one account stating that in a single night 500 birds were killed. The first date at which birds struck the Statue in 1888 was August 5, when 14 were killed. A few others were killed during the month, and a considerable number in September and October. October 24 was the last date at which birds were killed. The whole number killed this year (1889) was 690, which was considerably less than in 1888 or 1887. Mr. Dwight began visiting Bedlow's Island Sept. 19 this year and had studied the birds and recorded the species. He found that every cold wave in the early fall was followed by migratory birds flying against the Statue. Of the dead birds picked up this year 60 per cent belonged to one species, the Maryland [Common] Yellow throats. The remaining 40 per cent included a great variety. Discussion followed as to the effect of darkness in causing the destruction of birds and as to whether sparrows and humming birds were ever among the migrants killed.


November 1891. Jonathan Dwight, Jr., read a paper on "Birds attracted by the rays of Liberty's torch." Mr. Dwight stated that his paper might properly be called an ornithological necrology. Only on a few nights every Autumn, however, is there a marked destruction of birds, while in the Spring the loss of a feathered life is very rare. The principal sufferers against the hard sides of the statue have been the little Maryland yellowthroats [Common Yellowthroats], which have furnished about 75 per cent, of the dead fliers, except in the present year, when the Slate-colored Junco [Dark-eyed Junco] outnumbers them on the record. A total of 345 dead birds was recorded in 1890. So far this year [autumn 1891] the record is 386.Mr. Dwight described a night spent on Bedlow's Island in September last by a party of naturalists for the purpose of observing the birds. The sessions of the Congress will be concluded to-day.

Below: Drawing from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper - 15 October 1887

"Liberty's Light a Lure to Death - Thousands of Birds Blinded and Killed

Observations on Bird Migration at Milwaukee [September 1887]. The Milwaukee Exposition Building occupies one square, between 5th and 6th Streets east and west, and State and Cedar Streets north and south. The building is located about one mile west from the Lake shore, and nearly in the center of the city north and south. The main tower of the building is nearly in the center of the structure, and rises over 200 feet above the street. During the Exposition this tower is illuminated by four electric lights of 2000 candle power each. They are lighted from 6 to 6.30 P.M. and turned out at 11 to 11:30 p.m., according to the condition of the atmosphere.

The weather previous to September 20-21 was exceptionally mild and pleasant, and but few birds were noticed migrating, i.e., during the day time. I had not yet discovered that the electric lights on the tower attracted the birds to any extent. September 21-22 it grew suddenly cooler with raw cold north wind. On the morning of the 22nd some of the employees of the Exposition climbed to the tower and found "lots of birds" dead. I procured a few of them, the rest becoming scattered before I had found it out. Of this lot there were no species of those I saw, not represented in my list of the next day except Colaptes auratus [Northern Flicker] which I identified from some feathers a young lady had saved from the specimen.

The night of September 22-23 was raw and cold, with fresh north wind, and was very dark. The next morning I found the following species around the lights and on the accessible roofs: Setophaga ruticilla [American Redstart], Geothlypis trichas [Common Yellowthroat], Geothlypis agilis [Connecticut Warbler], Mniotilta varia [Black-and-white Warbler], Compsothlypis americana [Northern Parula], Helminthophila peregrina [Tennessee Warbler], Helminthophila ruficapilla [Nashville Warbler], Dendroica castanea [Bay-breasted Warbler], Dendroica blackburniae [Blackburnian Warbler], Dendroica coronata [Yellow-rumped Warbler], Dendroica vigorsii [Pine Warbler], Dendroica palmarum [Palm Warbler], Dendroica maculosa [Magnolia Warbler], D. Dendroica caerulescens [Black-throated Blue Warbler], Dendroica virens [Black-throated Green Warbler], Seiurus aurocapillus [Ovenbird], Seiurus noveboracensis [Northern Waterthrush], Troglodytes aedon [House Wren], Regulus satrapa [Golden-crowned Kinglet], Melospiza fasciata [Song Sparrow], Ammodramus sandwichensis savanna [Savannah Sparrow].

This list comprises only such species as were procured and examined. I estimate that fully double this number of birds was scattered about on the different roofs in sight from the dome but not accessible without considerable risk and much trouble in procuring ladders, etc. They were too far away to identify with certainty, and most of them rolled down the roof into the troughs, or to the ground, and were lost.

The night of September 23-24 was much like the preceding, but somewhat colder and less windy. On the morning of the 24th I procured the following species. These were not all killed on the night of September 23-24, however, as some of them that were found in the eave troughs had probably been killed one or two days previous: Geothlypis agilis [Connecticut Warbler], Geothlypis trichas [Common Yellowthroat], Setophaga ruticilla [American Redstart], Dendroica palmarum [Palm Warbler], Dendroica castanea [Bay-breasted Warbler], Dendroica maculosa [Magnolia Warbler], Dendroica pennsylvanica [Chestnut-sided Warbler], Dendroica vigorsii [Pine Warbler], Dendroica caerulescens [Black-throated Blue Warbler], Dendroica striata [Blackpoll Warbler], Helminthophila peregrina [Tennessee Warbler], Vireo olivaceus [Red-eyed Vireo], Vireo gilvus [Warbling Vireo], Seiurus auricapillus [Ovenbird], Seiurus noveboracensis [Northern Waterthrush], Melospiza georgiana [Swamp Sparrow], Habia ludoviciana [Rose-breasted Grosbeak], Piranga erythromelas [Scarlet Tanager], Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii [Hermit Thrush].

September 24 was a very pleasant day with light northwest wind. The wind freshened in the evening, and many birds were noticed about the dome from 7 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. I did not go up during the evening but some of the small boys employed about the building did, and as I was afterwards informed secured a "market-basket full of birds." I did not see any of these. I climbed the tower early the next morning and was surprised not to find any birds until I found out the boys had preceded me.

The 26th being Sunday, no lights were lighted, Weather mild and fair with light southerly winds. On the evening of the 27th I went up on the tower, but the weather was too boisterous. There was a cold rain with high wind. Very few birds were seen, mostly Thrushes and one small flock of Yellowlegs. The birds merely circled around the tower once or twice, and passed on. I heard Gallinules, Rails and Night Herons, but they did not approach the lights. The 28th it rained very hard, and as I could see no birds from below I did not go up. None were found dead next morning.

The 29th was rainy with high north wind. I went up on the tower about 8 p.m. The weather was unfavorable; I saw a few Thrushes, one Robin, and some small Sparrows, but they merely flew near the lights, veered off, and passed on. None were found dead next morning.

On account of the exposure to wind and rain for two nights on the tower I got an attack of rheumatism and was unable to make any further observations until the birds had passed south.

Besides the species enumerated in the above lists I saw and heard the following, some from the street and some on the tower: Totanus either melanoleucus [Greater Yellowlegs] or flavipes [Lesser Yellowlegs], straggling flocks, quite noisy. Noticed several evenings, but did not approach very close to the lights. Two or three loose flocks of small Tringae [Yellowlegs] circled rapidly around the lights a few times, and disappeared in the darkness. A flock of small Plovers, probably [Semi-palmated] Plovers Ae semipalmata, acted much the same way, but appeared to be lost and would wander away out of sight, soon return, pass close by the lights and after a few minutes return and go through the same maneuver.

Thrushes were noticed frequently, especially on the 27th and 28th. At times there were eight or ten flying aimlessly around the lights, but never going very close nor flying directly at the lights as most of the Warblers did. I could not identify the species, but think most of them were pallasii [Hermit Thrush] I saw one young Robin, but he soon bent his course downwards to some shade tree where I have no doubt he found a roosting place.

Carolina Rails [= Sora Rail] were frequently heard, especially on the 21st, 22d, and 23rd; they seemed to be flying on a lower level than the dome, barely above the housetops. None were seen around the tower. The same remarks apply to the Florida Gallinule. [Black-crowned] Night Herons (N. nycticorax naevius) and some other Herons that I think were Botaurus lentiginosus [American Bittern] passed frequently from the 22d to the 26th. They did not seem to be attracted by the lights and appeared to be flying considerably higher than the dome, I should think at least 100 feet or more. English Snipe were noticed a few times, but only flew rapidly by. This was one of the few species I observed that were flying in the normal manner.

Small Sparrows that looked like Melospiza georgiana [Swamp Sparrow], were frequently noticed, but the species could not be determined with certainty. They arrived singly, and came from a lower level than the lights on the tower, and in passing by always directed their course downwards, as far as I was able to see them in the darkness.

One feature that especially interested me was that nearly all the birds I observed had a peculiar dragging flight like a bird wounded through the intestines; it reminded me forcibly of the peculiar flight of the male Icteria virens [Yellow-breasted Chat] during nesting time. Any ornithologist who has observed this will recall the unnatural flight, the wings are raised high, tail dropped low and head raised, so that the body instead of being carried nearly horizontally is at a considerable slope. The first impression suggested was of extreme fatigue, but it is probable the birds are better able to sustain continued flight by flying in this manner with the wind.

Another interesting fact is that among the forty odd species and many times that number of specimens I only detected four adult birds. Apparently most of the birds were killed by coming into contact with the electric wires, as there was not a bruise nor hardly a ruffled feather on them. Some had flown against the lights and broken or bruised their bills, others had torn the skin or feathers from the side of the head or throat, and in two instances the wings were gone. Two or three had their necks broken.

I estimate the number procured at about fifty per cent of those killed. A large number fell on inaccessible roofs, or were blown into the eave troughs during the high winds and lost.

Lugwig Kumlien, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. ================================= Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD Follow us on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

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