• Robert DeCandido PhD

Russian Spies or Drones? The Virginia Rails of NYC Streets

Updated: Mar 1

10 October 2018 - Virginia Rail Issue Notes: keep an eye on the weather for this Friday (12 Oct): rain is forecast for the morning as part of the storm that will start here on Thursday. For now the Friday bird walk is scheduled as always...but if raining (or a 90-100% forecast of rain) please check the web site if the walk has been canceled. Our bird photos come from Deborah Allen and Doug Leffler and feature Virginia Rail images and a few others. In this week's historical notes we present Virginia Rail info. In the last few days these small birds have turned up on migration on 34th street in Manhattan and nearby. This is not unusual for this species though it prefers freshwater marshes to city streets: (a) a 12 October 1891 note on a Virginia Rail at a construction site in lower Manhattan; (b) an early September 1958 article on a Virginia Rail near Times Square; (c) a 7 Oct. 1999 note on a Virginia Rail spending the day on the 26th floor windowsill of 120 Broadway (lower Manhattan near Trinity Church); (d/e/f) - several 2000-2018 notes and photos of Virginia Rails on NYC streets. And finally, the status of the Virginia Rail in the NYC area in 1923; its status in Central and Prospect Parks 1935-1970; and its status in the NYC area in 1964-1970.

September 2018 Characterized By Unusually Mild Nights

Rob Frydlewicz September 2018 was 2.7f degrees warmer than average. Like August, its average low was considerably more above average (+4.4f degrees) than its average high (+1.0f). This resulted in a vast difference in their historical rankings, with the average high ranking 60th warmest while the average low was ensconced among the ten warmest, at #4 (overall, the month was the 21st warmest). The month's other significant story was its rainfall, which amounted to 6.19" - the most in September in seven years. Furthermore, this was the sixth month this year with more than five inches of precipitation, joining ten other years with this many or more. And if that wasn't impressive enough, 2018 became just the second year to have these six months concentrated in the first nine months of the year (1998 was the other year). Additional points of interest: a. The remnants of two hurricanes brought 1.38" of rain on 9/9-10 (Gordon) and 1.19" on 9/18 (Florence). However, the month's biggest rainstorm was on 9/25 when 1.95" fell. Nearly half of that day's rain poured down in about an hour early in the afternoon. b. The first full week of the month (week of 9/3) had four days in a row with highs that ranged from 89f to 93f. The average high/low of 91/76 during these days was twelve degrees above average. The first day of this hot spell fell on Labor Day, which had a high in the 90s for just the fourth time since 1980. c. This was the fourth September in a row with an average temperature warmer than 70.0f degrees, the longest such streak on record. What's more, the month set a September record for the most days with lows of 67f or warmer (seventeen; the average number is six). Despite this surfeit of warm nights, the number of days with highs of 80f or warmer was a bit below average (nine). d. The month's average diurnal variation (the gap between the average high and low) was the smallest for September in more than 100 years (since 1908). In 2018 it was 11 degrees, well below the average of 16 degrees (based on the past 100 years). e. This was the record-tying seventh year in a row in which September experienced highs in the 90s, equaling in length the streak of 1940-1946. f. Like September, August's average low also ranked fourth (its average high ranked 32nd). g. Typically September is 2.5 degrees cooler than June, but this year it was one degree warmer. This is the fifth time it's happened since 1980 (most recently in 2015).

Good! Here are the bird walks for mid-October - each $10*** All Bird Walks in Central Park

1. Friday, 12 October - 9:00am (ONLY!) - Conservatory Garden at 105th st. and 5th Ave. 2. Saturday, 13 October - 7:30am/9:30am - Boathouse Cafe/Restaurant in Central Park 3. Sunday, 14 October - 7:30am/9:30am - Boathouse Cafe/Restaurant in Central Park. 4. Monday, 15 October - 8:00am/9:00am - Strawberry Fields (Imagine Mosaic) at 72 st/CPW. Any questions/concerns send them our way: rdcny@earthlink.net or call: 718-828-8262 (home) ***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 above (= 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 the morning of the walk: info will be posted on the main landing page of this web site 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.

Virginia Rail close-up in Loch of Central Park - photographer unknown

Here is what we saw last week (selected highlights).

Not all species we saw are reported here - we list the best: Friday, 5 October (Conservatory Garden at 105th St. and 5th Avenue at 9am) - at 6:48am in the just brightening east sky, I watched a Red-tailed Hawk, who was flying low over the Harlem Meer, catch the wind and circle up and drift south. Soon after two Double Crested Cormorants came in the from the east heading southwest...Migration was on the moderate north-northeast winds. I headed into the Loch area - Belted Kingfisher, many Common Yellowthroats and White-throated Sparrows - these were absent or greatly reduced by 9am. However, the tape was working its magic in many places: the Great Hill was good for Blue-headed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatches and warblers: 10 species today. Even at the Rock of Human Sacrifices adjacent to the Blockhouse we had cooperative birds - thank goodness Red-breasted Nuthatches seem to enjoy getting close to humans...one day the will escort me to the next world. Today's list of birds for Friday, 5 October: https://tinyurl.com/y976p9hz

Saturday, 6 October (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and again at 9:30am) - earlier in the week the forecast was for fine weather out past the horizon. Today we were greeted with overcast and very light mist...luckily it did not impede either birding or the number of birds seen. Highlights today were the five Blue-headed Vireos that came in to the crabapple tree in the Maintenance Field; nearby the adult White Crowned Sparrow (Ryan Serio); 10 Purple Finches at Sparrow Rock - a really good flock size for Central Park; the Yellow-billed Cuckoo that came out to be seen well via the calls from my speaker; and the Tennessee Warbler in the Pin Oak above us at the Upper Lobe...though the Dickcissel seen by some of us at the north end of the Great Lawn (thank You David Barrett) was quite nice as well. Overall, wherever we went we had birds: sometimes good concentrations and other times just one such as the male Black-throated Blue Warbler at Humming Tombstone at eye-level in the open and then in the shadows - but it was there for all to see. Deborah Allen's list of birds for Saturday, 6 October: https://tinyurl.com/ycqcyyy6

Sunday, 7 October (Boathouse Restaurant at 7:30am and again at 9:30am) - the weather was about the same today as Saturday: mist and very light drizzle. On the other hand, birds were fewer and far between. We could only manage three total Blue-headed Vireos (one at eye-level and seen for 2+ minutes) in the Maintenance Field compared to yesterday's five in one tree there. We added the usual other birds: Red-breasted Nuthatch; 10 Warbler species (but scant numbers of each); White Crowned Sparrow (Karen Evans); a Sharp-shinned Hawk chasing birds at the Pinetum; and wing-flicking Ruby-crowned Kinglets here and there. Mostly we were disappointed we could not show the many many people a close bird or two on the second (9:30am) walk - too many high, silhouetted birds against a dark misty sky. At night, at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, we had Eastern Screech-owls at two locations (a total of at least three) - with the one we watched for 10 minutes or so being a Red Morph bird...this is the first time we have seen a red screech-owl at Van Cortlandt Park...a very good sign there is a healthy population here. Deborah Allen's list of birds for Sunday, 7 October: https://tinyurl.com/ycxftu7u

Monday, 8 October (Strawberry Fields at 8:00am and again at 9:00am) - This past weekend (and today) was forecast to be nice, clear and mild. Instead this was the third consecutive day of mist, very light rain and generally yucky weather...Surprisingly birds were migrating through it including diurnal migrants such as a Northern Harrier seen over Strawberry Fields at about 9:10am. Highlights today were two Yellow-billed Cuckoos at the Upper Lobe, the second coming in the cuckoo call from my tape (thanks Will Papp). Continuing the twos, were dos White-crowned Sparrows (adult and a first year bird) at Sparrow Rock; mucho Red-breasted Nuthatches (at the Pinetum they were caching pine nuts in the grooves of the Siberian Elms); 13 warbler species including one particularly bright Cape May at the Pinetum; female Purple Finch at Shakespeare; and just generally a lot (lot) more birds today than Sunday. Deborah Allen's list of birds for Monday, 8 October: https://tinyurl.com/y7f62dzu

Black-throated Green Warbler by Doug Leffler


A Virginia Rail in New York City. New York, Oct. 12 [1891]. The foundations are now being laid for a new building on the corner of Broad and Beaver streets [Manhattan], piles having been driven, the place being partly covered by water. Last Saturday morning the workmen there caught a Virginia rail, which had evidently stopped during its flight South. Spencer Aldrich. ----------------- Bird Has Its Day in 7th Ave Lobby 9 September 1958

Creature With Drooping Bill Sets Fashion Building Astir Before It is Caught

A rare visitor to the city stirred a flurry of excitement on Seventh Avenue yesterday.

The newcomer, a small brown bird with a long, downward-curving bill and almost no tail at all, was first seen early in the morning on the sidewalk between Thirty-eighth and Thirty-ninth Streets.

When the doors of the Fashion Center Building at 525 Seventh Avenue were opened at 7:30 A.M., the bird promptly flew into the lobby and set up headquarters on a ledge over the elevator doors.

A placid creature, it caused no trouble. In the late afternoon it was still on the ledge, calmly eyeing passersby, who included models rushing to and from assignments. The bird allowed bearers of food and water to approach within touching distance, but it eluded capture and refused to eat or drink.

Bird Eludes Net

Finally, Miss Julie Nardi of the fabric development department of Bloomsburg Mills., Inc., on the second floor, notified the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The society sent a man with a net [photo below], but the bird would have no part of it.

It flew to the lobby floor seeking to escape. Several dozen spectators scampered in all directions. Some were trying to catch the bird, others were trying to avoid stepping on it. The A.S.P.C.A. man was finally successful and left with his catch for the shelter at 441 East Ninety-second Street.

One building tenant, Millard Lindauer of Valley Stream, L.I., an amateur bird watcher, identified the creature as a Virginia rail. John K. Terres, editor of Audubon Magazine, tentatively confirmed that identification on the basis of a telephoned description. Mr. Terres said Virginia rails live in fresh water marshes as far north as southern Canada. He said yesterday's visitor apparently got into difficulty while flying over the City Sunday night with a flock that was migrating south.

DATE: Thursday, 7 October 1999 LOCATION: 26th Fl. - 120 Broadway [Lower Manhattan near Trinity Church] OBSERVERS: Andrew Gershon REPORTED BY: Richard Gershon

Virginia Rail on 26th Floor window sill

Here's a really weird one-- A Virginia Rail spent the day (7 October 1999) huddled on a window sill on the 26th! floor of 120 Broadway. The rail had the good sense to pick one of the windows of the Environmental Protection Bureau of New York State for his rest stop even though there aren't too many cattails growing 26 floors up in lower Manhattan. Stay tuned; we hope he's off and flying by tomorrow.

Richard Gershon, reporting for Andrew Gershon (Observer)

From: Emilie Storrs (30 September 2005), our favorite professional opera singer. Emilie gets the award for best bird sighting of Autumn 2005, and just as importantly, the best note taking to confirm her observation. Here is what she emailed us late last week:

"About five thirty on Friday afternoon (30 September 2005) I was walking south on Broadway on the east side and had just crossed 108th St. Along the stores I saw a little bird running. My logical brain said starling but then the rest of my brain said wait that's not a starling!! It ran through the people and stood on the curb for a very long time while I wrote down all the characteristics. Several people asked me what it was and I said "It is some sort of marsh bird but the body's not right for a sandpiper or a plover so I don't know what it is." I went so far as to run to the Rite Aid and ran back with a five dollar instant camera to take pictures of it. It was slightly smaller than a robin, orange legs, orange beak with a tiny curve at the end of it (although a little bit of black on the end of the beak). It had a big black stripe running from the beak down the back of its head. It's face was gray. It had no eye rings but a whitish stripe running from the beak to the top of its eye. Its back had a pretty speckly pattern and its chest was a pretty, rusty red. Honestly, this bird looks exactly like the picture on page 130 of my Sibley's guide of the Virginia Rail, although what it had to be doing on Broadway I have no idea. Twice the bird ruffled up its "shoulder" feathers and puffed its chest way out. It was perfectly mobile on its legs. Another woman suggested perhaps putting it in a box and taking it to the park but the bird would have none of that and hid under a parked car. Has anyone else reported seeing this bird??"

From: Chad Seewagen PhD To: Robert DeCandido PhD <rdcny@earthlink.net> Subject: Virginia Rail Date: Oct 27, 2010

Hey Bob,

I thought you might find this a little noteworthy. The other day I went to get in my car which was parked on 109th St and Riverside Drive. Something scurried out from under my car onto the curb and it was a freakin Virginia rail. Cars were whizzing down Riverside and I thought for sure it was going to get hit. When I tried to get close to it, it jumped on top of my front tire and sat in the wheel well. It eventually went under the car parked in front of mine and then up on to that cars roof. I decided to just try to reach out and grab it, and surprisingly I got it. Then I had to figure out what to do with the damn thing. It didn't seem noticeably injured, so instead of giving it to a rehabber, I drove it up to the Bronx River to let it go in my study site at the zoo. I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts to get some sugar packets and I gave it some sugar water before releasing it. Its amazing how that can snap a dazed bird out of its funk. It pepped up a lot and scurried off into the riparian vegetation along the river in my study site. And then I went on with my day. Just another typical day in NYC. With any luck the bird is somewhere a lot nicer than the Bronx by now (no offense).

From Facebook: David Barrett New York Birders 19 October 2015 It appears that the prior two days were active for Virginia Rails passing through Manhattan. You know about the one found wandering Robert Magaw Place in Hamilton Heights [Brooklyn] last evening, which was reported on Twitter using the #birdcp hashtag. At least several people went out to observe it and report it on eBird.

I also received an email yesterday from an upper east side man who wrote that a bird flew into his apartment on the 17th [of October 2015]. He was able to extricate it without harm to the bird, and he wanted to ask me what species it was. He sent along this photo:

Monica Berger emailed a photo of one Virginia Rail this morning on the corner of Jay and Tech Place in downtown Brooklyn. I will look for it at 5 pm when I leave work.

From: Richard Kaplan Subject: Re: Bird (see photo) Date: 6 October 2016 8:25 AM

Hi Bob,

She (the Virginia Rail) was happily running around in 5' X 5' flower bed which surrounds a tree directly in front of the downtown #1 train entrance to the subway at Broadway and 87th. The plants are dense and she would hop around and pop up in various spots, thus I could not asses her condition, but in retrospect, I think healthy.


Virginia Rail [87th at Broadway, Manhattan - flower bed] by Richard Kaplan

8 November 2017 - see cover (top) photo! Ryan J Bass This morning at 7:45 am, when exiting Grand Central North at 48th St and Park Ave, I noted a Virginia Rail perched atop a Black Lexus btwn Park/Lex (N. side of street, closer to Park). Although the bird appeared uninjured, it is clearly not in suitable habitat. Bird seems unfazed by morning commuters and does not appear injured. It ain’t a Corn Crake, but hey! Update: En route to Wild Bird Fund, the bird escaped and flew off. Annie is a real hero here. She borrowed a ladder from a hotel and climbed on top of a box truck to get it! Wow! It then headed west, but appeared to be uninjured and flying well. Let's hope it finds suitable habitat. Cheers to Annie! “Ah yes, the little-known yuppie subspecies of Virginia Rail, which shuns marsh habitat most associated in favor of luxury sedans, Park avenue townhouses, and well-appointed mansions in eastern Suffolk County.” ======================== VIRGINIA RAIL (Rallus virginianus) – 1923 (NYC Region) This is easily our commonest Rail and is found throughout the region in suitable habitats. While its presence is most readily detected by its notes, a pig-like grunting in a descending scale, and a curious cut, cutta-cutta-cutta, it is more easily observed and flushed than any other species. It arrives from the south about the third week in April and is rarely seen after October. Long Island. Fairly common summer resident, rare in winter. April 10 to October 30. ORIENT. Not common summer resident; March 27, 1920 to November 28, 1908. Frequently observed in winter. MASTIC. Fairly common summer resident. LONG BEACH. Rare transient; April 28, 1921; May 6, 1921; August 11, 1921 to September 22, 1921 (all by E.P. Bicknell). BRONX REGION. Now a rare and local summer resident. Formerly nested in the marshes around Dyckman Street in Manhattan (Weber) and at West Farms [Bronx] up to 1910 (Griscom). These localities now totally destroyed. Still breeds in the swamp at Van Cortlandt Park, arrival 26 April 1921 (R. Friedmann). --------------------------------- Central and Prospect Parks 1958 and 1970 Virginia Rail Rallus limicola Central Park. 18 May to 25 May 1935 (Rich); 9 May to 18 May 1967 (Carleton, Plunkett, Post and many others); 29 September 1961 (Parkes); 3 October 1965 (Dick Sichel). Prospect Park. 23 September 1939 (Nathan, Tengwall); 22 October 1918 (Allen).

Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola) - 1964 - NYC Region Status: Uncommon to fairly common fall migrant. Rare but regular in winter, chiefly along the coast. Locally common breeder. Migration and winter: The Virginia Rail is regular in spring and fall, but occurs in summer and winter, it is difficult to give arrival and departure dates, though it is generally scarce before mid-April. Fall maxima: 7, Mecox and Shinnecock bays, Sept. 7, 1929 (Helmuth); 3 picked up dead at foot of Westhampton Air Force Base tower, Oct. 5, (Wilcox). The Virginia Rail occurs regularly in winter as far north as Massachusetts. In our area Latham has taken it at least nine times at this season in the Orient region, four of which were picked up dead between Dec. 21 and 28, 1919, and two more collected on Feb. 1, 1920. Inland, Nolan observed four feeding together in a marsh on Constitution Island, in the Hudson River, Jan. 2, 1956. Thirteen were reported on all combined Christmas counts, 1953-54. Breeding: Nests in fresh-water marshes, occasionally in coastal brackish marshes. Decreasing as suitable habitat is drained or filled. The maximum numbers are found in the largest marshes in New Jersey. On June 1, 1947, the Urner Club estimated at least 25 breeding pairs in Troy Meadows; at least 10 pairs were present in the Hackensack Meadows during the summer of 1962 (Black and Jehl). Six nests found at Oak Beach [Suffolk Co., Long Island] salt marshes, summer of 1968 (Enders and W. Post). Egg dates: May 4 to July 11.

Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD Follow us on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Lots of strange birds show up in cities...stay tuned for more in the coming weeks/years