Spring Bird Migration and Weather Exceptional: Mid-May in Central Park
Updated: Feb 28
15 May 2019
Bird Notes: Thankfully the weather looks fine for the next several days. This coming week (15-22 May) will be the last good chance to see 20+ warbler species in one day. And, by popular demand, Sandra Critelli has agreed to go further into the spring with her 6pm evening walks every Tuesday and Thursday meeting at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe - only $10.
There is another significant bird wave on the way...starting Wednesday but peaking Thu-Fri and into the weekend, we will see very good numbers of birds. Last year at this time we had the Kirtland's Warbler...and we still have not had a good day of Blackburnian Warblers or Mourning Warblers, yet.
With Historical Notes, we present (1) a mid-May 1982 article about birding Central Park by Donald Knowler. In it, Knowler makes mention of the recent tree cutting disaster in the Ramble (in the area just south of Belvedere Castle, at the north end of the Tupelo Field); so we follow-up with (2) an article from the New York Times (3 May 1982) that discusses the work of the newly created Central Park Conservancy, and the philosophy behind their forestry management in the park. The philosophy then is basically the philosophy now: they prefer views of the surrounding city to forest cover. Many of the same complaints directed at the Conservancy in 1982 are relevant today: there is little to no input that is taken seriously from persons that don't work for the Conservancy Bureaucracy...and no one really knows who is making the decisions at the Conservancy. As Lewis Rosenberg (who still birds in the park) said in the 1982 article: ''That [Ramble Management] plan is Mein Kampf.''
adult male Prothonotary Warbler by Doug Leffler 10 May 2019
Good! Here are the bird walks for Mid-Late May 2019
All Bird Walks in Central Park - $10
Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8
1. Thursday, 16 May at 9am - meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond (78th st. Mid-Park)
2. Thursday, 16 May at 6pm - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park (Sandra Critelli)
3. Friday, 17 May at 9am - meet at Conservatory Garden (105th st./5Ave)
4.***Saturday, 18 May at 7:30am/9:30am - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park 5.***Sunday, 19 May at 7:30am/9:30am - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park
6.***Monday, 20 May at 8am/9:00am - Imagine Mosaic at STRAWBERRY FIELDS (72nd st)
7. Tuesday, 21 May at 6pm - the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park (Sandra Critelli)
*** On mornings when two walks are scheduled, you can do both walks for $10/person. So you get two for one. OR you can do either the early walk or the second walk for $10/person.
Any questions send them our way: firstname.lastname@example.org or call: 718-828-8262 (home)
Chestnut-sided Warbler by Deborah Allen in the Ramble on 11 May 2019
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!. On Fridays we meet at Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Avenue - walk down the steps and walk straight ahead for the far side. If worried, ask someone to direct you to the men's restroom - we meet 10 meters from that location. On Mondays we are at Strawberry Fields - meet at the Imagine Mosaic - that is approx. 72nd street about 40 meters inside the park from Central Park West. On Thursdays we meet at the Dock on Turtle Pond - for all of these meeting locations check this web site - there is a full page devoted to meeting locations! Evening walks (Tuesday and Thursday nights from 23 April through and including Thursday, 16 May) meet at 6pm at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe. These evening walks are led by Sandra Critelli.
Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is above (email@example.com). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient! If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there 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 walks (except Fridays) at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). 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.
Black-throated Green Warbler by Doug Leffler on 10 May 2019
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Thursday, 9 May (Dock on Turtle Pond at 9:00am): not an amazing day, but very good nonetheless with Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Indigo Bunting plus 14 warbler species...Chestnut-sided was my favorite. Today began the streak of overcast/cloudy (and sometimes very rainy weather) that would prevail until Wednesday, 15 May...with Saturday 11 May the only nice day of seven during this stretch.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Thursday, 9 May: another one of those days where life took over and we did not quite have the time to draw up an official list before I fell asleep at about 7pm.
Friday, 10 May (Conservatory Garden at 9:00am) - a big day in terms of species diversity, but we are still not getting high numbers of birds. So the list looks good with 5 vireo species, and 20 warbler species, Scarlet tanager and Indigo Bunting...and first-of-season Eastern Wood Pewee. But I don't remember a spot where we had more than 5 warbler species at one time...I should be able to pull in 8-10 at a good location at this time of the year. On the other hand, where we had Cerulean Warblers last week, we had Nashville Warblers (3) today plus the ever interesting Gilian Henry, Tom Ahlf, Vicki Seabrook and the Red Sox Man himself, John of Queens.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Friday, 10 May: https://tinyurl.com/yyq9z6gt
Saturday, 11 May (Boathouse Restaurant Cafe at 7:30am/9:30am) - before the walk began I was playing the tape of cuckoos at Humming Tombstone. Almost immediately a Yellow-billed Cuckoo came in, and then a minute later a Black-billed Cuckoo. The calls from my speaker also brought in a birding group from Dutchess County...they had been birding in the park, so no they could not hear me in Dutchess County. Anyway, at first they were mildly upset that they came running over at 6:15am, only to find a crazy man in a red hat. However, I was able to point up at the cuckoos, and they were happy...With the official bird walk, we were only able to bring in a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (twice): at the Tupelo tree and then at the end of the walk at 1pm for the last bird of the day. (Thank You Ryan Zucker - and by the way, the Yellow-crowned Night Heron was indeed where I said it was that Saturday afternoon.) There were Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fighting with one another; Baltimore Orioles, Great Crested Flycatchers and Scarlet Tanagers perching over us...and Cape May Warblers and many others coming in close to the tape. So busy! We did not have time to go over and find the male Hooded Warbler at the Swampy Pin Oaks.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 11 May: https://tinyurl.com/y2szj8l9
Sunday, 12 May (Boathouse 7:30am/9:30am) - Yikes! Even more rain, rain enough already. Only five people this Sunday in the steady miserable rain...highlights included Prairie Warbler at the Oven, and Wilson's Warbler at the Upper Lobe - about 10 warbler species in all. The 9:30am walk was cancelled because (a) people wanted to sit in the Boathouse and have breakfast; and (b) no new people showed up (thankfully) for the 9:30am walk...
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 12 May: too few birds to list and I am still drying off...
Monday, 13 May (Strawberry Fields at 8am/9am) - sitting home at 8am it was not raining...and then at 8:10am it was raining hard...good to cancel the walk. Then, sitting at home at 9am = not raining...BUT at 9:10am pouring rain - ditto.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Monday, 13 May:
No list! No bird walk...
Red-eyed Vireo in Central Park (Ramble) on 11 May 2019 by Deborah Allen
The Falconer of Central Park (1984; pages 65-72)
Donald Knowler: http://donaldknowler.com/newsite/about/
For a month I had been taking food for Billy, leaving it first near the wall of the police stationhouse and then hiding it under an outcrop of rock in the Ramble, where Billy had taken up residence. Billy was shy and elusive but he grew to know who was leaving the food. Some days I even suspected he was watching out for me, but he gave nothing away. In all probability, Billy had been dumped as a kitten - like the turtles who outlived their usefulness as pets - and I also believed he had been ill-treated, because he was wary of humans and would usually bolt when people approached. Now he resisted the urge to run when he saw me, but he would not let me come too close. The weather had been hot during the first two weeks of May, and Billy would seek out the coolness of the shaded glades in the Ramble which, during the mid-afternoon, were dappled with yellow sunlight.
The blustery winds of early spring had passed and soft, May breezes rustled the young, rich leaves. There was not much water about for the birds; they sought sheltered bathing places in wet areas. The best location to observe warblers and other small birds at close range was a little stream feeding the Point Lobe. A spring emerged from inside a rock crevice and trickled under an overhanging hawthorn, whose roots raised the soil and created pools. The hawthorn also provided cover from surprise attack by a kestrel. One afternoon thirteen species came to drink and bathe in the space of thirty minutes. The smallest birds held back in the hawthorn and a clump of knotweed, patiently waiting for the jays and robins to finish. Everything was orderly until three grackles swept in. One plunged straight into the water and startled the jays into flight, and the others approached the series of pools from different ends, chasing off the warblers waiting in line to take a dip.
The starlings had not been content to oust the flickers from the decaying birch on the west side of the park where I had seen the fight. The tree was also home to a pair of downy woodpeckers, and another pair of starlings had dispossessed them. The downies wanted everyone in the park to know what had happened because they called loudly and, learning from the flickers' battle, employed a different strategy for war. Aware that they could easily be killed by the much larger starlings, the downy woodpeckers avoided direct contact and engaged in hit-and-run attacks. Finally. they were forced into retreat and the downies, North America's smallest woodpeckers, started hunting for another hole this time too small for a starling to squeeze through.
The migration had now peaked and so had the controversy over the cutting of trees. Parks staff doing the lumbering were being booed in the Ramble, the petition against cutting was presented to the Central Park administration, and The New York Times ran a front page article on the conflict. But the trees continued to come down. It was all a question of priorities, said park administrator Elizabeth Barlow in a letter to The New York Times. Either you retain dying and dead trees for the birds or you weed them out and create a neatly manicured park like the one envisaged by Olmsted and Vaux. [See follow-up article below from May 1982 in the New York Times.]
The Parks Department had not forgotten the birds altogether. More than two thousand berry-bearing plants, which attract birds, had been planted, mainly on the Point. I disagreed with the cutting program; yet I had to concede the shrubs had attracted birds. The Point had proven my best bird watching location in April and May, and it was from there on the afternoon of May 11that I saw two birds of prey, one of them a new species. High in the sky, watching below them with side-to-side motions of the head, the two large hawks circled in thermals. The bigger of the birds was a red-tailed hawk and moving northward with it was a broad-wing. I headed north myself hoping for another look at the raptors, but I only reached a disused children's paddling pool near the Pinetum.
Surrounded by elms, the pool, which forms a dusty bowl in summer, was now flooded by a couple of inches of muddy water, making it an ideal haunt for migrating shore birds. A solitary sandpiper waded amid the thick mud and half bricks and beer cans. The slender bird, on stilt legs, daintily picked its way through the trash, probing for grubs. The solitary sandpiper is a loner as its name suggests and is mainly found on small ponds or on mud flats. Next day the slate-gray bird, with a white eye-ring that resembles a ship's porthole, was still at the paddling pool and had been joined by a rarity for the park, a least sandpiper. The second shore bird was only the size of a sparrow and scurried about the pond in a completely different manner from its bigger cousin-fast and erratic and lacking the latter's poise and elegance. The arrival of the two sandpipers meant a third member of the family, a spotted sandpiper, was probably in the park, and I went in search of it, not wanting to risk missing the bird in the spring. I could not find it at all the regular shore bird locations, like the Fifty-ninth Street Pond or the boating lake. The last place to check was the Pool at West 100th Street, where the Prothonotary Warbler had been discovered earlier in the month.
Frequently I was informed that the top end of the park was unsafe at any time and, failing to find any of the birders keen to walk the couple of miles from the Ramble to 100h Street, I went by myself. It was late morning, there were quite a few people out, and I stuck to the west circular drive. A group of black schoolkids was being given a biology lesson on the grassy banks of the Pool. Some had nets and were hauling out bullfrog's spawn to take back to class, where they would watch the tadpoles hatch. A boy fell in and the teacher screamed, and the boy, crying, scrambled out of the water. The teacher held him up - a bedraggled example of what happens to kids who don't watch what they are doing. I anticipated finding a spotted sandpiper at the Pool, but I did not expect it to be wading among the kids, unafraid of their noise. The bird's plain white chest and belly was now gaining its spotted breeding plumage. The sandpiper was like a wind-up toy, bobbing and teetering. When it finally grew nervous of the schoolkids, it refused to fly, preferring instead to run into the undergrowth surrounding the pond in its hunt for insects.
A printed line on a poster that said "Adults must be accompanied by a child" had been crossed out by someone having second thoughts about banning the grown-ups. But not many adults were in the Delacorte Theater for what was termed a protest concert to draw attention to the horrors of nuclear war. A movement of eight to eighteen-year-olds calling itself, "Future generations for nuclear disarmament" had arranged a program of poetry and music, but the adults missing this protest would have their day during the next month when what was believed to be the largest anti-nuclear rally ever recorded, anywhere, would cover the Great Lawn.
Least Sandpiper September 2018 in New Jersey
A solitary sandpiper came to the Belvedere Lake, which nudges the back of the theater's stage, while the children were applauding a poem called "Survival." The sandpiper had survival in mind, too, but the word had a connotation that predated the brief history of nuclear weapons, or that occupation, peculiar to Homo sapiens, called war.
My checklist of birds had gone better than I had expected. I had now seen all the common or regular warblers, except one, the Blackburnian, which most birders regard as the prettiest of the family. So sorties for the Blackburnian - the twenty-eighth warbler I would see that year - started, with my first call being the Turkey oaks by the reservoir. It was on one of these hunts that I first saw a vagrant, whom birders call "the sweeper." For reasons trapped in a tangled, confused mind, the vagrant had an obsession with keeping Central Park clean, and when I came across him he was holding a giant broom of the type city-employed sweepers use. He was sitting on a bench, gazing up at the Turkey oaks through sunglasses and matted, long hair that fell over his face. He was about thirty, but had the appearance of a man in his sixties. Every few minutes "the sweeper" jumped to his feet to start sweeping furiously, pushing the litter and leaves into neat piles. He merely left the piles where they were before moving on to another bench. And on days when I did not see the sweeper, I would find evidence of his sweeping over large areas of the park.
The Blackburnian warbler is named after an English biologist, Anna Blackburne, who studied specimens of American birds sent to Britain by her brother from New York State, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the late 1700's. I saw my first Blackburnian in a flowering black cherry in the Ramble on May 16. It was a male in superb summer plumage, bright orange head and chest, coloring he would lose before heading south again in three months' time.
Research into the winter habits of warblers has revealed that many of them assume completely different feeding and territorial characteristics in the months they spend in Central and South America. Some fiercely independent species join mixed flocks of other warblers, possibly explaining why brightly colored birds moult into dull coloration, which makes them less conspicuous in the flock and more acceptable to the other species. The Blackburnian in May plumage stood out a mile; his orange breast had a luminous quality, and a female would not fail to notice him in the thickest of foliage.
Into the third week of May the temperature rose to the eighties, and a female robin gathered a beakful of worms from the bridle path at the reservoir. I followed her to her nest in the fork of a maple and saw my first young birds of the spring. The ugly, bald chicks still had a pink membrane over their eyes, and when the mother arrived four wide open yellow beaks thrust skyward in unison. Near the Point, a female Northern oriole had nearly completed a pendulous nest of dried grass after six days of hard work. The nest was strung between two thin branches of a London plane, and it swung crazily as a thunderstorm gathered.
A cluster of solemn and disappointed birders gathered in a drizzle, under the umbrella of a tulip tree, on May 22. They nodded in agreement. It looked like the migration was just about over. They had failed to find a warbler that morning-not even the yellow-rumped warbler, which had been common for more than a month-but there was some consolation later in the day when a summer tanager settled in a sourgum. The oriole's nest near the Point now held the female incubating her clutch of three or four eggs and every few minutes the male, resplendent with black head and orange body, arrived to cling to the nest's side and feed his mate through its oval opening. It was one of three oriole nests I had found.
The frenzy of migration had now given way to the rush to feed young. Beaks sprouted from most open nests and adult birds divided the long daylight hours between feeding their young, feeding themselves and defending their nests against predators. Raiding squirrels looked for eggs to smash so they could eat the yolks, and one of the most ferocious battles I saw during the summer involved a pair of blue jays and two nest-raiding squirrels. While a jay sat incubating eggs in her nest atop a maple, the squirrels slowly edged along the branch, flat on their bellies, trying to hide among the leaves. The jay flicked her tail nervously, aware of impending attack. Then she let out a scream, rose from the nest and flew into one of the rodents, pecking it. The dismayed squirrel slipped from the branch but managed to cling with sharp claws to its underside. The male jay, responding to the female's alarm call, swooped in and gave the second squirrel a sharp nip as he passed at great speed. The male repeated his swoops, smacking the large, palmate leaves in which the squirrels were trying to bury themselves. The battle in the treetop brought in other birds as spectators. A curious grackle arrived on the same branch and was unfortunate enough to receive a smack from the male jay. The fight lasted fifteen minutes, the female never straying too far from the nest and both birds pausing for breath, with beaks open, before lunging at the squirrels again. At one point a third blue jay arrived; he planted himself in a branch directly above the nest, to provide extra cover in case a squirrel tried to advance from that direction. A mockingbird I had seen with three fledglings out of the nest during the previous week now had only two, when I found her again during the Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer. I assumed the third chick was killed by a predator, and I hoped it was not a human. The kestrel, or even Billy, would have been preferable. The remaining chicks were now well past their early days of vulnerability when they first leave the nest, and they could fly up to ten yards, allowing them to make a rapid, if erratic, escape. From the size of the young I determined the parents had started incubating eggs in mid-April, early for mockingbirds, and already the birds had completed a second nest, to raise another brood. The overworked male soon found himself feeding the young, feeding his female on the nest and, when he had time, finding food for himself. He had a ragged look about him as he hunted insects, grubs and fresh shoots near the south end of the Mall, where the second nest was located in a low bush. Mockingbirds defending territory and young show a belligerence that is fiercer than in any other bird their size, and the male mockingbird, which I had in my sights, policed an area of about twenty square yards, swooping at unsuspecting squirrels, dogs, cyclists, joggers, and vagrants who invaded his patch."
male Yellow-rumped Warbler in April 2019 by Tom Lee MD PHD
CUTTING OF CENTRAL PARK TREES ANGERS BIRDERS
New York Times
3 May 1982 (page 1 of the National Edition) The Parks Department has cut down dozens of trees in Central Park, including a persimmon and a northern magnolia that was home to a family of cardinals, and bird watchers are up in arms about it.
The department's action has sparked a controversy that becomes a bit less genteel with each passing day. With the spring migration just under way and bird watchers out in force in the park, a thousand signatures have been collected on a petition to the Parks Commissioner. The petition states: ''We are outraged by the mass destruction of mature and irreplaceable trees in Central Park, particularly the Ramble and adjacent areas. We urge that these cutting practices be halted immediately and that comparable trees be planted at once.''
Elizabeth Barlow, the Central Park administrator, said last week that the trees had been cut down as part of the historic restoration of the park, which was designed originally by Frederick L. Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1858.
''What you really have,'' Mrs. Barlow said, ''is a big philosophical difference between the birders, who become apoplectic if you cut down a dead tree because termites breed in dead locust trees and are good for the birds, and the principles of landscape architecture, which hold that a park is a garden - something to be managed and protected and planted.''
''It is a violent opposition of attitudes,'' she said. Mrs. Barlow said, however, that it had been a mistake to allow many trees to be cut down recently in the meadow south of the 79th Street transverse near the Belvedere Castle. While she said she was not certain how many trees had been cut down, members of the New York City Audubon Society said there had been about 20, including the persimmon and the northern magnolia.
''I don't think I've handled this brilliantly,'' Mrs. Barlow said. ''Bruce Kelly, the landscape architect who did the master plan and who will do the planting around Belvedere, asked me for permission to bring in a tree contractor and do 'a little tree clearing.' He said he would be careful and not take down anything large. I mistakenly said O.K.''
The controversy actually began with the restoration of the Ramble, an area in the middle of the park between 73d and 76th Streets that is of particular concern to the bird watchers because of its weedy undergrowth and density. They point with pride to the fact that one birders' bible, ''Finding Birds Around the World,'' makes special mention of the Ramble and its lure during the migration to flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, finches and about 30 species of wood warblers.
''Tens of thousands of birds fly along the East Coast of North America,'' according to a report prepared for the Central Park Birdwatchers in 1979. ''Thousands that will nest north of here fly over New York City, see a patch of green and decide to land. Great numbers leave the flyway and enter Central Park, cramming themselves into the Ramble to rest, feed, drink and bathe before continuing their migratory journey.''
Yellow-billed Cuckoo on 11 May 2019 by Deborah Allen (Central Park)
A Grant Was Awarded
In 1978, the Division of Historic Preservation of the State Office of Parks and Recreation awarded the city's Parks Department a grant matched by the New York State Council on the Arts and private donors to prepare a landscape report and preliminary master plan for restoration of the Ramble. Another grant enabled the Parks Department to begin implementing the plan.
''The Ramble plan is a very interesting plan, showing how Olmsted and Vaux originally designed the area with lovely little open glades,'' Mrs. Barlow said. ''What was also important was to preserve views.''
''That plan is Mein Kampf,'' said Lewis Rosenberg, a lawyer and director of the New York City Audubon Society. ''It has not been approved by the landmarks commission, but the Parks Department has gone ahead and done it all anyway without approval.''
The New York City Audubon Society said that 71 trees were removed from the Ramble last fall, including locusts, hawthornes, black cherries and - particularly distressing to them - a 71-year-old, seven-foot chestnut oak and a cherry tree that flowered in two different colors. Mrs. Barlow pointed out, however, that at least 1,500 berry-producing trees and low-growing shrubs had been planted in their place.
''A lot of what they are doing is quite incomprehensible,'' said Albert F. Appleton, president of the New York City Audubon Society. ''They tell us that they are trying to balance the needs of the preservationists with the needs of wildlife and bird sensitivity, but the opening up of this area is totally non-Olmstedian. He liked woody areas.''
The bird watchers contend that there is no real public process of review for Mrs. Barlow's office. They say that trees are cut down before anyone knows that they have been scheduled for removal and that when there are what they see as particularly egregious examples, such as the chopping down of the persimmon tree, it is impossible to find out whether this was done by design or mistake.
''Who is making what decisions?'' Mr. Appleton asked. ''What kind of public review is there?'' Central Park is a landmark, which means that no major changes or alterations can be made without the consent of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The chopping down of individual trees falls in a gray area, however.
''Where is the line between what is routine maintenance and what is a project?'' Mrs. Barlow said. ''If we have to consult them on every tree that is pruned in Central Park, we'll never get our job done.''
Public Hearing Will Be Sought
She said that she would ask the landmarks commission for a public hearing this spring on the landscaping and renovation of Bethesda Terrace, in the middle of the park north of 72d Street, and the removal of park trees in general. The restoration of Bethesda Terrace is part of the controversy because it entails the opening up of a vista between Bethesda and Belvedere Castle.
''There was once a major view from Bethesda Terrace to the castle in the distance,'' Mrs. Barlow said. ''The castle was like a little beacon in the landscape. As you took your promenade, you could always see the beckoning tower of Belvedere.''
Last October, some of the bird watchers and Mrs. Barlow met. Letters pledging future cooperation were exchanged afterward. The bird watchers said they were particularly angered, therefore, when tree cutting took place in recent weeks without word from Mrs. Barlow's office.
''It hasn't been a balanced process,'' Mr. Appleton said. ''We're adults. We know you don't get everything you want all the time. What troubles us is that we have no way of getting at the planning process. We just hear about it afterward. The hearing process is a mystery.''
''We are not irresponsible,'' Mr. Rosenberg of the Audubon Society said. ''We are not spoiling for a fight. We want to work with these people and applaud their efforts.''
Red-winged Blackbird in Central Park (Turtle Pond) on Monday, 11 May 2019 by Deborah Allen