Night Migration of Birds in New York City
Updated: Feb 28
4 September 2019
Bird Notes: Who knows what weather (and birds) Hurricane Dorian might bring our way? However, we continue to suggest: Try to make the 7:30am walk on Sat/Sundays or 8am on Monday because birds are more active then. And then stay for a free second walk (pay for one, get the second that morning free). Thursday nights continue with Sandra Critelli: 6pm walk in Central Park (90 minutes). All walks: $10! And the next Owl walk in late September to mid-October - stay tuned for info.
September begins the month of non-stop bird migration, especially at night. New York City, with the installation of lighting beginning in 1886 at the Statue of Liberty, was one of the first places in North America where people began to learn about the night migration of birds. At Bedloe's [Liberty] Island, the custodian shipped boxes of dead birds to the American Museum that formed the basis of their local collection...it also got scientists there wondering what were all the dead birds, that don't breed on the small island, doing there? Was there any rhyme or reason to when they were found, and why were they dying in such number?
More recently a few researchers have come up with statistics to suggest that cities, because of the general glow of light at night above them, attract birds off course from their normal migration route. And correlated with that first idea is the notion that cities are bad for migrant birds. I can only speak for my experience here in NYC: weather at night, particularly wind direction and speed, plays the critical role in the route birds follow at night in/through our area. As to what happens to birds once they land in NYC, yes glass at or near ground level is a hazard for them. And research by my friend and colleague Dr. Chad Seewagen showed that almost all the birds he could capture and band, and then re-trap a few days later in the Bronx, those birds put on weight during their stay in NYC. In other words, for many bird species, New York City is a perfectly fine stopover site.
In this week's Historical Notes, we present: (1) birds killed on migration at the Statue of Liberty in 1889 reported in the New York Times from the research of Jonathan Dwight, Jr. of the American Museum. The lights on the Statue had just been installed in November 1886, so no noticeable bird deaths occurred that autumn; however, starting in May 1887, birds began striking the Statue. Dwight's data are the first information we have for NYC of the effect of light upon migrating birds at night. Note the general number of birds killed, and how the number could vary greatly from year to year; (2) a follow-up 1891 article on bird deaths during migration seasons at the Statue of Liberty also via the research of Jonathan Dwight Jr; (3) a description of night migration seen from the outdoor Observation Deck of the Empire State Building on the night of 16 August 2004, as part of our two year project atop that building to document the effect of light upon migrants at night; and finally, (4) Birding in Central Park, on 11 September 2001, a Tuesday morning that was bright and clear with winds from the northwest.
Variegated Fritillary, Conservatory Garden (Central Park), Friday 30 August 2019 by Deborah Allen
Good! The Bird Walks for Early September 2019
All Walks @ $10/person
Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8
a. Thursday Evening, 5 September at 6pm Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Park) - with Sandra Critelli [SandraCritelli@gmail.com] - 1.5 hours at dusk in the Ramble for birds, bats.
1. Friday, 6 Sept. at 9:00am Conservatory Garden; 105th street and 5th Avenue (Central Park)
2.***Saturday, 7 Sept. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Park)
3.***Sunday, 8 September 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Dr. (Central Park)
4.***Monday, 9 Sept. at 8:00am/9:00am Strawberry Fields at West 72nd Street and Central Park West - meet at the "Imagine" Mosaic (Central Park).
***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)
Magnolia Warbler, King of Poland Statue area (Central Park), Sunday, September 1, 2019 by Deborah Allen
The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30am and again at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through November. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time! Fridays we are uptown at 9am only (Conservatory Garden at 105th street and 5th Avenue; nice bathrooms there); on Mondays at the Imagine Mosaic of Strawberry Fields (west 72nd street about 75 meters inside the park from Central Park West; no bathrooms here but we will pass bathrooms by 10am or so).
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 Central Park 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.
Male Blue Dasher, Turtle Pond (Central Park), Sunday August 25, 2019 by Deborah Allen
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Thursday night, 29 August (6pm in Central Park [Meet at Boathouse] with Sandra Critelli) - the group found three warbler species tonight, as well as a number of Raccoons. Sandra reports that the Park is wonderful as the sun sets: safe, cool and birds/bats to be seen as well.
Friday, 30 August (9am at Conservatory Garden/105th st and 5th Ave at 9am): this is a walk where we found more birds later in the walk, than earlier...only because the best concentration of birds were in the North Woods...and not at the Wildflower Meadow or along the Loch where we began.Of the four holiday weekend days, today was the best in terms of number/diversity of migrants. We had twelve warbler species, the best being Cape May and Black-throated Green, as well as the number of Blue-winged Warblers seen: we had at least six in the North Woods in less than an hour. Other highlights were Yellow-billed Cuckoo before the walk, and mostly the sheer number of birds at or near eye-level coming in for close looks at us.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Friday, 30 Aug: https://tinyurl.com/yyuxt39t
Saturday, 31 August (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - The early walk today was the place to be. We had nine warbler species early, and added three more on the second walk for a total of 12 warbler types seen today. There were American Redstarts everywhere so our count (27) is but a general underestimate. It is amazing how well the recorded calls work for certain species such as Redstarts, Yellow Warblers and Chestnut-sided Warblers - of the latter we had eleven, the first good showing of the fall (southbound) migration season. Great Crested Flycatchers were about in different places, as well as Eastern Wood Pewees...a fun morning for diversity.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 31 Aug: https://tinyurl.com/y6ky443v
Black-and-white Warbler in Michigan in Autumn 2018 by Doug Leffler
Sunday, 1 September (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - once again we had 12 warbler species between the two walks...but outside of the American Redstarts (50+!!) numbers of others were low. Sandra Critelli found us three Black-throated Greens foraging together just east of Belvedere Castle; we had amazing looks at male and female Black-throated Blue Warblers in a shrub just behind the Summer House in the Ramble; Chestnut-sided Warblers were around in good number (10); and Magnolia Warblers put in a good appearance as well (4). Speaking of the good, our aesthetics professor who is on sabbatical from the good this summer (she is auditioning to be a villain in a Russian Spy movie), found the best warblers of the day on her way home: Blackburnian W. and Nashville W...but she may be rehearsing her role as femme fatale in that movie...We will skeptically believe her now: that makes 14 warblers for the day, the best number for any one day this weekend. We will send Karen a bill for the two warblers she found without us...that's just too bad as they say.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 1 September: https://tinyurl.com/y2kbbdcx
Monday, 2 September (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - Labor Day (today!) was the slowest day of the last four - but still very good. We had 10 warbler species, the best being a Blackburnian seen well by Gillian Henry MD and others at the north end of Strawberry Fields. We also had a couple of Northern Waterthrushes at the Upper Lobe; a Blue-winged Warbler (Maintenance Field), and lots and lots of American Redstarts (25 or so), with only one adult male. Oddly we had no Baltimore Orioles today, but there were two Rose-breasted Grosbeak females feeding below eye-level at the Upper Lobe on the seed packets of Jewelweed. The rains that had been forecast to begin at 12:30pm arrived in earnest at 10:45am so we cut the walk short and headed for a cup of coffee at the Boathouse - where soda is $3.75...so I try and stay with coffee ($2.50).
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Monday, 2 September: https://tinyurl.com/y3akk9y6
Juvenile Northern Mockingbird, The Pond (Central Park), Saturday August 17, 2019 by Deborah Allen
Birds and their Habits Discussed by the Ornithologist Union.
Feathered Travelers Killed by Striking the Statue of Liberty
New York Times 1889
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 [see illustration from that article below]. Its statements excited much merriment. 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 the birds on this occasion was due to the first cold wave of the year, which started the migration. Mr. Dwight also read newspaper accounts of the slaughter of 1888, one account stating that in a single night, 500 birds were killed.
The first date which birds struck the Statue in 1889 was Aug. 5. when 14 were killed. A few others were killed during the month, and a considerable number in September and October. Oct. 24. was the last date at which birds were killed. The whole number killed this year 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 early fall was followed by migratory birds flying against the Statue. Of the dead birds picked up this year, 60% belonged to one species, the Maryland [Common] yellow throats. The remaining 40% included a great variety.
Discussion followed as to the effect of darkness in causing the destruction of birds and as to whether sparrows and hummingbirds were ever among the migrants killed.
Photo from Leslie's Illustrated Weekly showing birds being burned alive at the torch of the Statue of Liberty in Autumn 1889
In and About the City 
The Ways of the Birds
New York Times 1891
Papers Read at the American Ornithologists Meeting.
The members of the American Ornithologists Union, and a small number of visitors to the public sessions of its ninth congress, now in session at the American Museum of Natural History...
Jonathan Dwight, Jr., read a paper on "Birds attracted by the Rays of Liberty's Torch." 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 [Common] yellow throats, which have furnished about 75 per cent of the dead fliers, except in the present year, when the slate-colored [Dark-eyed] Junco outnumbers them on the record. A total of 345 dead birds was recorded in 1890. So far this year the record is 386.
Mr. Dwight described a night spent on Bedlow's [Liberty] Island in September last by a party of naturalists for the purpose of observing the birds. [I would love to see a copy of that account.] The sessions of the Congress will be concluded today.
Red-eyed Vireo in Michigan, August 2019, by Doug Leffler
Night Migration at the Empire State Building [16 August 2004]
Last night [16 Aug 2004] at the Empire State Building (ESB) here in midtown Manhattan, there was an extraordinary experience/abundance of birds. At times, I had difficulty hearing someone speak to me since so many birds were making flight calls. I really need a session with Bill Evans in order to distinguish one species from another at night. But if anyone did want to study night flight calls, this would be the place....Anyway, between 10:30pm and 11:45pm, I estimate that there were at least 400 birds circling the tower of the ESB. Most seemed to be warblers (at the ESB, birds at night are difficult to identify to species since the building lights wash out the colors; a few others such as Orioles/Tanagers can be identified). None of the birds collided with the building, and no birds ever came within 15 feet (@5 meters) of the ESB. Also, an adult male Peregrine Falcon flew in at about 11:40pm and made a couple of unsuccessful hunting attempts at individuals in the whirling vortex of birds above my head. This past Saturday evening, a male Peregrine easily caught two birds (one an oriole; the other a warbler-sized bird) in his 8-10 hunting attempts. Peregrine Falcons also were observed making hunting attempts in the spring of 2002 and this past spring (2004) as well. These observations of Peregrines regularly hunting at night are the first such direct observations for this species anywhere in the world. (Other falcons such as the Lesser Kestrel have been observed hunting at night in Spain; Bat Falcons in Asia regularly hunt at dusk/dark; and raptors species such as Marsh Hawks, Peregrines and Levant Sparrowhawks have been observed/tracked migrating at night).
One Nighthawk was chasing and catching moths made easy to see via the lights of the building.
I had gone up to the ESB Observation Deck last night since the weather forecast was for fog, and I wanted to see its effects upon migrating birds. The good news is that even for the brief stretches when fog partially obscured the tower of the ESB, no collisions occurred, etc. (Late Saturday night it was reported to me that approx. 500 birds landed on the railing, deck and other perching spots when it began to rain heavily.) Better news is that the ESB security guards and on-site personnel (Engineer in charge of lighting) are aware of the migrants. Building Lights were turned off at 12 midnight.
Deborah Allen and myself with the help of many volunteers (Scott Wiley, Rikuro Okamoto, Sandra Critelli, Patricia Essler, Audry Weintraub, Carl Howard, Alice Barner and others) have been working with ESB Security Personnel to show them the migrants this past spring (2004) and now this autumn. We believe that watching the migrant birds, moths, bats etc. improves their work experience, and gives them something to enjoy. They really like the birds, and watching them flying in the dark is a wonderful, fun experience...Building Management has been incredibly responsive, nice, and receptive to our research efforts. They have been a model for how scientists and the private sector can work together to achieve shared goals. We have the highest praise and respect for ESB personnel and their efforts on behalf of doing what they can to insure a safe flight.
Deborah and I will have more to say about night migration from the ESB in the coming weeks. In NYC, the study of night migration has a long history (to at least 1887), and we want to bring that to light.
Enough for now.
Tuesday, 11 September 2001
Tuesday morning began as it always did for us, with a bird walk in Central Park. We met at the north end of the park, and for the first half hour or so things were normal. It was then that we began to hear sirens outside the park, then on the park drives. The wailing was relentless.
We finally learned what had happened when Joanne Wassmer spoke via phone to a business associate. At first we first believed that only the Pentagon and perhaps the Stock Exchange on Wall Street had been attacked. Then Joanne turned on a radio. The first words we heard were that both World Trade Center towers had collapsed. Like everyone else we were stunned. Some of us cried.
As a group we became puzzled as to what to do next. We wanted quiet, and we wanted calm, but the sirens kept wailing. A few of us wanted to go home; others wanted to walk south in the park. Some wanted to be alone, and others needed to be close to friends. Emotions ran high, then low. I remember watching a Black-and-white Warbler on a green leaf just a couple of feet from me and thinking that it didn't matter. Other warblers surrounded us chittering. We were immersed in a small bird wave in those north woods, but we still felt desolate. Time seemed to slow down, and the light cutting through the trees onto our path was surreal like the light from an eclipse. It was difficult to decide what to do next. We needed to stay together, but other than that, we needed a purpose. In some ways we wanted to hide, but we needed to move too.
Our thoughts turned to people we knew who worked in that part of lower Manhattan: Barbara Saunders at Chase, and Rebecca Creshkoff too. We tried thinking of others who worked "there". It really hit home when we began running through the names of the birders we knew, trying to remember where exactly they worked and what they did. I thought of Carl Howard, his wife Cindy, and their two little children. They live on Nassau Street just northeast of the WTC. I did not want to believe that I might never see them again.
We decided to head south. We needed to get people back to the west side so that they could get home. Ruth Rosenthal needed to get to her bicycle first. We made sure that no one left the park alone; everyone went home with a friend.
Meanwhile, Ardith Bondi was trying to get through to her boyfriend to find out more information, to make sure he was okay, and to tell him that she was okay too. She handed the phone to others: Jennifer Uscher needed to call her new fiancé Jason. It would take her quite awhile to finally get through. He had been worried that our group somehow had met at the Brooklyn Bridge that day to look for peregrines just as we do in the spring. Worry was still in the air however, since Jennifer's father was working at the Pentagon. I tried calling Debs in the Bronx a number of times but only got busy signals. Emergency vehicles continued rushing south down the West Drive. I will always remember the silence punctuated by sirens in the park that morning.
Our hearts were lifted when we reached the north end of the Reservoir. We could see the New York City skyline: The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building reflecting sunshine in the light blue sky. We felt relieved, but sad too. White smoke drifted toward the southwest just above the buildings. At about this time we began to hear the first of the F16's overhead. First we saw them flying singly east to west over Central Park, then in pairs flying north to south. We began to encounter people in groups of 10-15 dressed in business attire walking north through the park. They had left mid-town and were headed home on foot. More than the words that passed between us, looking directly into their eyes made us all feel somewhat better. I also understood why so many people wanted to walk in the park under the trees providing shade.
We continued south toward Belvedere Castle. We were going to keep to as normal a routine as possible, which meant looking for hawks in migration from Belvedere Castle. Tazmeen Rajwani, walking her bike, carried the conversation. Most of us needed time alone in our minds to think about things. The sound of her voice, and the conversations that ensued kept us going.
Ultimately we would arrive at the Castle only to be turned away. We decided to set up shop on the north side of Turtle Pond with the vast expanse of the Great Lawn in front of us. Above us, a peregrine was circling, and a red-tail too. Migrating raptors joined them: first a kestrel cutting just above the trees from east to west, exiting the park near the El Dorado, then a high Red-tailed Hawk, followed by three sharp-shins at intervals. The cloudless sky made the migrants very difficult to see. A few people wondered what we were doing looking at the sky. We found them an osprey and a kestrel buzzing a Red-tailed Hawk.
At one point we spotted what looked to be a commercial airliner flying almost out of sight. I was very worried at that point. There were rumors that at least four more airliners were in the air at that time and still circling the northeast. Two of the F16's made a beeline toward the larger jet and were joined by two others headed in the same direction flying at a much lower altitude. The planes turned north up the east side. I saw one of the F16's go below the larger jet and a second drop back and above. We were frightened. Finally, it seemed as though the F16 below the larger plane had "docked" in some way and must have been refueling. Other raptors would pass over us, but counting raptors began to lose meaning. I needed to go home too just to reassure myself that everything was okay there.
Each of us will always remember where we were on September 11, 2001. I will forever feel sad about that day, but remember the people I was with and how we tried to deal with the emptiness together. Where we go from here is up to us.
On the night of September 13th, I awoke in the dark. My throat was burning. The smoke from the WTC had finally drifted north on southwest winds to the Bronx, and the heavy night air had pushed it low to the ground. The smell was acrid, like burning plastic or rubber tires. I turned on the news to hear the latest developments. One of the stations had a military man singing "Amazing Grace." I went outside into the cool night air to find out exactly what it was like. I could hear the chips of migrating birds passing overhead, like small shooting stars. I just stood there and kept wondering: What gives life meaning?
Robert DeCandido, PhD
New York City
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
Short-billed Dowitcher (hatch year bird) at small freshwater marsh Orchard Beach oval, Pelham Bay Park (Bronx) on the evening of 2 September 2019