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Owls at Night / Migrants by Day: Birding Central Park and Manhattan

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

Yellow-billed Cuckoo by Jeremy Nadel (originally from the Bronx) in Shakespeare Garden and seen on our bird walk on 7 October 2019

Bird Notes: There is an owl walk this Sunday evening (13 Oct) at 6pm at Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan for Eastern Screech-owls that are resident there. Details below and on the web site.


This past Saturday (5 October) in the Bronx at Pelham Bay Park, Richard Aracil found one of the rarest birds that passes through New York City on its way south to as far as Mexico. The bird is the Sedge Wren, formerly known as the Short-billed Marsh Wren. It once bred in fresh water marshes primarily composed of sedges (and not cat-tails) in New York City, such as the west Bronx at the Kingsbridge Meadows as well as another marsh in the Bronx not so far from where Mr. Aracil discovered this bird. Both those freshwater marshes are long, long gone.

Fortunately, someone was able to get a photo of the October 2019 Sedge Wren in the Bronx: Patrick Horan captured a wonderful image - see his photo below. Both Richard Aracil and Patrick Horan are Bronx residents - this is important.

The Sedge Wren has always been rare as a migrant in our area. One was seen and photographed by Deborah Allen and others in the last 15 years in Central Park - but that was an exceptional find. Historically (until the 1930s), migrant Sedge Wrens could be rarely be found in our area as early as the end of August, and as late as the last week of October, with a peak in mid- to late September. Some birds may have overwintered in our area in mild years, such as the bird collected on Long Island in December 1913.

To honor Richard Aracil's great find and Patrick Horan's wonderful photo, our Historical Notes present what we know of the Sedge Wren (aka Short-billed Marsh Wren) in NYC/LI/NJ 1870-1935: (a) E.P. Bicknell's brief notes of this wren at Riverdale, Bronx 1870-1895; (b/c/d) are three notes written 1980-1923 on the Sedge Wren on Long Island and New Jersey; (e) a note by John Kuerzi (member of the Bronx County Bird Club) in 1932 summarizing the status of this wren in the Bronx/lower Westchester County; (f) a 1923 summary by Ludlow Griscom about the Sedge Wren in the NYC region - Griscom includes a wonderful description of the habitat and calls of the Sedge Wren. Finally (g/h) we present two articles on former freshwater marshes that spanned upper Manhattan and the Bronx - written in 1887 and 1909. Note well the breeding birds of these marshes: Meadowlarks, Bobwhite Quail, Sora and Virginia Rails to name a few...These last two articles give a sense of the diversity of habitats here in NYC - and are pretty amazing if you have the time to scan each.

Sedge Wren by Patrick Horan in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx (Southern Zone) on 5 October 2019. This mega-rare migrant was found by Richard Aracil, another Bronx native

Sedge Wren by Patrick Horan in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx (Southern Zone) on 5 October 2019. This mega-rare migrant was found by Richard Aracil, another Bronx native.


Good! The Bird Walks for mid-October 2019

All Walks @ $10/person

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here:

1. Friday, 11 October at 9:00am Conservatory Garden; 105th st. and 5th Avenue (Central Pk)

2.***Saturday, 12 Oct. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Pk)

3.***Sunday, 13 Oct. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Dr. (Central Pk)

3b. Sunday, 13 Oct. at 6pm (Inwood Hill Park) - OWLS! = The night before Columbus Day.

Target Species: We are after Eastern Screech-owls that are year-round residents here at Inwood. I will bring a high intensity flashlight that allows for good light for photography.

Start at 6pm. We will be done by 8:30pm. Bring a camera and a very small flashlight (the light from your I-phone/Android is 100% fine). Note Well (PLEASE!): Parking is Difficult here! Give yourself ample time (30 min) to find a space as there are no public garages in the area. You have been warned!

Meet at 6pm outside the Indian Road Cafe (600 West 218th Street):

This small restaurant has nice bathrooms (free to use for everyone). You can get a very nice dinner here OR just a cup of coffee or a soda (about $3). See their menu on-line...but bathrooms (free - no need to purchase anything) are the important thing here.

Directions to Indian Road Cafe:

4.***Monday, 14 Oct. 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: or call: 718-828-8262 (home)

American Robin by Dr. Barry Pinchefsky feeding on crab-apples in Central Park on Sunday, 6 October 2019ember 2019 in California

American Robin by Dr. Barry Pinchefsky feeding on crab-apples in Central Park on Sunday, 6 October 2019


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 ( 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.

Carolina Wrens by Deborah Allen on 6 October 2019 at Shakespeare Garden, Central Park

Carolina Wrens by Deborah Allen on 6 October 2019 at Shakespeare Garden, Central Park


Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Friday, 4 October (9am at Conservatory Garden/105th st and 5th Ave): The winds had been from the northwest overnight and into the morning: this benefited us greatly. We had 14 warbler species including three Nashville Warblers at the Pool, Cape May on the Great Hill and a Wilson's Warbler on the Island in the Harlem Meer (thank You Enrico Leonardi). I was lucky to find an immature (first fall) White-crowned Sparrow on the North Meadow ball fields; while overhead we had a small raptor flight including 10+ Turkey Vultures in one flock as well as Cooper's Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk. Folks were happy - me too.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Friday, 4 Oct:


Saturday, 5 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - yesterday's northwest winds had become southerly and there were noticeably fewer birds in the park. However, there was a major uptick in the number of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, sometimes as many as seven in the upper limbs of one tree. Other highlights included four Cape May warblers at the Pinetum, all foraging in a leafy shrub just above eye-level: people had really good looks. (We had nine warbler species overall.) Other highlights were: Yellow-billed Cuckoo (in a crab-apple tree on the west side of Belvedere Castle); a Sharp-shinned Hawk carrying a dead bird over the Belvedere Observation Deck; and at least five Winter Wrens in the Ramble.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 5 October:

Common Buckeye by Deborah Allen, Orchard Beach Lagoon in Pelham Bay Park (Bronx), Saturday 19 September 2019

Common Buckeye by Deborah Allen, Orchard Beach Lagoon in Pelham Bay Park (Bronx), Saturday 19 September 2019


Sunday, 6 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - wow: 7 total Scarlet Tanagers including one on the ground near the Dock on Turtle Pond, and at least five at Shakespeare Garden. However for warblers it was slow: only seven species today, the best being a Black-throated Green and a Pine Warbler...and far looks at three Cape May Warblers at the Pinetum. We did our usual summoning of cuckoos at the Tupelo Field and were rewarded with two...but overall much walking and we hoped to see more birds.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 6 October:


Monday, 7 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - Quite frankly we were amazed at what we saw today - and how close it came to us. We had four total Yellow-billed Cuckoos (see Jeremy Nadel's photo at the top of this Newsletter of the one in Shakespeare Garden found at the end of the walk); a brief glimpse at a late Ruby-throated Hummingbird; many Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers; and eight warbler species, the best being Black-throated Green and four Ovenbirds. There were Winter Wrens, Carolina Wrens and of course, House Wrens. We have yet to see a big flight of Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, Palm Warblers, Golden-crowned Kinglets...and Blue-headed Vireos - so there are many more migrants on the way.

Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Monday, 7 October:

Eastern Phoebe by Deborah Allen on 5 October 2019 at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx in the Southern Zone

Eastern Phoebe by Deborah Allen on 5 October 2019 in the southern zone of Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx



Cistothorus stellaris. Short-billed Marsh Wren [in Riverdale the Bronx, and nearby, pre-1900]. A rare fall transient, chiefly in the Kingsbridge Meadows; found only in 1876, 1880, 1881, and 1895; the extreme dates are August 12, 1881 to October 23, 1880. E.P. Bicknell [writing circa 1880]


Capture of the Short-billed Marsh Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) on Long Island, N.Y. On Sept. 12, 1908, I secured an immature female of this species, at Freeport, Long Island. The bird associated with a few Long-billed Marsh Wrens in the reeds bordering a small pool of water, where the salt marshes join the mainland. J. A. WEBER, Palisades Park, N.J.


The Short-billed Marsh Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) on Long Island in Winter. On December 28, 1913, Messrs. George W. Hubbell, Jr., Nicholas F. Lenssen and I were at Jones Beach, Long Island, for the purpose of studying waterfowl. During the afternoon, while searching for Myrtle Warblers and sparrows in a large tract of bay-berry bushes Mr. Lenssen found a bird unknown to him, which proved to be a Short-billed Marsh Wren. It was perched on a bush about a foot from the ground eyeing us with great curiosity. The bird by its actions was half-dead with the cold, as it permitted the three of us to approach within four feet, and finally flew away passing between two of us who were not more than two feet apart. It was finally stunned with a bay-berry stick and caught alive. This is the fourth record of the occurrence of this species on Long Island, and so far as I know, the first winter record for New York state. The specimen is now in the American Museum of Natural History. Ludlow Griscom, New York City.


Short-billed Marsh Wren at New Brunswick, N.J. On September 12, 1923, I heard a Marsh Wren 'scold' issuing from a small clump of tall grasses at the very edge of the Raritan River. I immediately recognized the notes as different from those of the familiar Long-billed species. On investigating more carefully I was able to obtain fine views of three Short-billed Marsh Wrens (Cistothorus stellaris). On September 15 there were four in the region, three in clumps of tall grass at the river edge, and one in a grassy part of the marshes farther inland. One was seen again on September 18, and one on September 22. I had not been in New Brunswick during the summer, so have not been able to ascertain whether they bred there or not. Stuart Danforth, Mayaguez, P. R.


Cistothorus stellaris. Short-billed Marsh Wren. 1932. Formerly bred [in the Bronx Region] in several different localities; now a rare transient, and summer resident. April 22, 1919, and May 3, 1926 (Coles) to September 25, 1924 (Coles), and September 25, 1925 (Cruickshank), and October 23, 1880 (Bicknell). John Kuerzi in A Detailed Report on the Bird Life of the Greater Bronx Region - 1932.


Short-billed Marsh Wren (Cistothorus stellaris). [1923 in: Birds of the New York City Region by Ludlow Griscom]. This Marsh Wren is an exceedingly local summer resident, and is so rare as a transient, that it is unknown to those students who do not live near a breeding colony or make a special trip to such a locality. It does not occur in cat-tail marshes, but prefers open sedgy meadows with a dense tangle of vegetation through which meanders some sluggish stream. Here it can best be detected by its song which is a staccato chap, chap, chapper, chapper, chapper, rapidly running down the scale and increasing in tempo at the same time. But little is known about its migrations.

Long Island. Very rare or casual transient; autumn of 1901 (A. H. Helme); September 12, 1908 at Freeport (Weber); October 18, 1910 at Floral Park (H. Thurston); December 28, 1913 at Jones Beach (Griscom); specimen collected in every case.

LONG BEACH. October 3, 1917 (Bicknell).

New York State. Recorded as a rare summer resident near Ossining, remaining to October 16 (Fisher).

BRONX REGION. Six adults and four young discovered in the Baychester marshes [now Co-Op City adjacent to Pelham Bay Park] on June 15, 1917 (L. N. Nichols).

New Jersey. A very local summer resident; colonies are known in the Great Swamp and the Passaic Meadows near Chatham; in Sussex County this Wren nests commonly in the Walkill Valley (S. N. Rhoads, Griscom) and along the Paulin Kill near Newton (Hix and Rogers); also in the extensive meadows of the Pequest River in Warren County (Griscom). The only spring arrival date before me is May 8, 1921 in the Passaic Valley near Stirling (Miller).

ENGLEWOOD REGION. One record, August 16, 1898 (Dwight).

Song Sparrow by Deborah Allen at Pelham Bay Park, southern zone (the Bronx) on 5 October 2019

Song Sparrow by Deborah Allen at Pelham Bay Park, southern zone (the Bronx) on 5 October 2019




The marshes inhabited by the rails are situated at the northern portion of Manhattan Island and extend northward and eastward from the foot of the hill at Fort George (190th Street and Amsterdam Avenue). These marshes formerly lined the shore of the Harlem River, but through street improvements have been separated from the river and cut up into small areas. The water in these marshes no longer rises and falls with the tide and the only connection with the river is through drain pipes under the streets; consequently the water is more or less fresh.

The rails first attracted my attention during the early part of June 1902, when my brother who had climbed into an oak tree overlooking the marshes, shouted to me that he saw one

Water Chicken running about in the swamp. I made a thorough search of the marshes on the 24th of the same month and secured a specimen which proved to be the Virginia Rail (Rallus virginianus). It was the 4th of June, 1905, however, before I discovered any nest and eggs. This nest was found in the cattail marsh situated on Ninth Avenue between 205th and 206th Streets. The eggs were scattered in and around the nest and had been emptied of their contents by some animal, probably by a muskrat. I found a dead rail in the vicinity but was unable to determine the cause of her death.

On June 1, 1907, I found a Virginia Rail on her nest, incubating ten eggs, in the patch of rushes about half a block south of the Dyckman Street subway station. The bird allowed me to approach within three feet of her, when I flushed her from the nest by a sudden movement on my part to gain a solid footing. She remained in the immediate vicinity of her nest while I adjusted my camera, strutting about with her feathers puffed up and wings spread like a turkey cock, giving her a rather formidable appearance: at the same time she uttered a low grunting sound which I had never heard from a rail before and quite unlike their characteristic notes. The male showed his interest by his sharp “kckk-ck-k-ck-k-cck.” all evidently trying to lead me away from the nest.

The nest was placed in the usual position near one of the streamlets which intersect all of these marshes forming an irregular network, in the center of a circular of growing cat-tails. It consisted of a mass of cattail blades and stems, placed layer upon layer, the foundation resting on the mud, so that the rim of the nest was 7 inches above the surface of the water. The inside of the nest was rather shallow, 4 X 4 inches in diameter, and lined with cat-tail blade chips to 2 inches in length.

I discovered another nest of the Virginia Rail on June 6, 1908, in the small marsh bordering on Dyckman Street, with two baseball fields adjoining it on the east and south. The nest was placed within twenty feet of the street where hundreds of people as well as vehicles pass daily and large crowds often assemble to witness the Speedway trotting races or the baseball games. Yet the little mother rail quietly sat on her ten eggs, apparently unconcerned about the civilization around her. She was fully as tame as the former bird and acted in a similar manner. I tried to photograph her on the nest but she refused to return to the nest while the camera was near it; I had no difficulty however in taking snapshots of her as she crossed and re-crossed the narrow lanes through the cattails made by the ditches of water.

Great Blue Heron (Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx) by Deborah Allen, 5 September 2019

Great Blue Heron (Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx) by Deborah Allen, 5 September 2019


Within an hour after finding the above nest, I discovered a nest of the Sora (Porzana carolina), containing 14 eggs. This bird, unlike the Virginia Rail, was very shy, necessitating several visits to the swamp to accurately identify her. Approaching the nest ever so stealthily should she dart from the nest, and go off splashing through the water, before you were within fifteen feet of her, the only indication of her and her mate's presence being a call note at a distance from the nest.

The marsh in which this nest was built is situated on the south side of 207th Street between the foot of the new bridge across the Harlem River at this point and the 207th Street subway station. The marsh is so close to the subway station that some of the passengers noticed and watched me from the station platform while I was floundering about among the rushes. Yet strangely enough the noise of the numerous passing trains did not deter these shy birds from nesting in such close proximity.

Virginia Rail in Manhattan in early October 2019 - Deborah Allen

Virginia Rail in Manhattan in early October 2019 - Deborah Allen


The nest of this bird differed in many ways from the Virginia Rails' nests. It was suspended in a clump of cattails; the material composing the nest extended about 5 inches above and below the surface of the water, leaving the bottom of the nest about 11 inches dear of the mud below it. The foundation of the nest looked like a miniature hammock and the bird probably formed it by simply trampling down the dead lower blades still adhering to the growing cat-tails. The composition of the nest, like that of the Virginia Rail's, consisted of cat-tail blades, but the lining of the nest presented a distinct departure being made of fine marsh grasses in place of the chips of flat cat-tail blades. The inside of the nest was 3 X 4 inches in diameter and 2 inches in depth, and deeply cup-shaped in contrast to the rather flat form of the other bird. It was loosely arched over by the growing rushes surrounding it and concealing the bird so that it was difficult to identify her. A narrow runway of fallen dead cat-tails led to the nest; this appears to be a characteristic feature of all the nests of this family of birds I have found. The water in this swamp was 16 inches or more in depth throughout, due to a clogging of the drain pipe. I was unable to find any Virginia Rails in this swamp; evidently this depth of water is preferred by the Sora but not by the former bird.

The breast of the Sora is about 1 inches in diameter and it seemed wonderful to me how the little bird managed to keep her four men comparatively large eggs warm. She succeeded however, for they were found to be in various stages of advanced incubation. So deeply cup-shaped was the nest that the eggs around the edge were in an almost vertical position thereby considerably reducing the horizontal area to be covered. Upon a subsequent visit to the nest, two of the eggs were found in the center of the nest lying on top of the others; a habit also shared by the domestic hen of placing one egg in this position. The bird probably shifted the eggs occasionally so as to get the others in this position to give them an extra amount of heat and render their hatching more certain.

During the past few years building operations and street improvements have encroached so much on the breeding grounds of the Rails, Red-winged Blackbirds and Meadowlarks, that I fear the breeding of these birds in this locality will soon terminate.


Comment 2019: The report of nesting rails specifies locations in upper Manhattan that no longer exist! There is no marsh at 207th street. It isn't clear which 207th street station he is referring to, but only the #1, the elevated IRT, was up and running in 1908, so this would presumably have been the remnant west side, and the bridge he refers to would therefore be the Fordham Road/207th street bridge. The marsh must have been right next to and under the bridge, where the parking lots now are. It sounds as though there has been significant fill-in and expansion of the shoreline itself, too. By comparison, in the area of the A train 207th street station not only is there no marshland, but there is the great ridge lying between the road and the Hudson River, so even then there would have been no continuity with the shore at that location.


NEW YORK MEADOWS ALIVE WITH GAME [1887]. A few days ago, while proceeding with a survey over the Dykeman Meadows, at Kings Bridge, at the extreme upper end of Manhattan Island, where the new ship canal is to pass, we had the pleasure of coming in range and raising three woodcock, five meadowlarks and two snipe. On Sept. 17 [1887], when engaged on the line of the old aqueduct, passing through the grounds of Mr. Lewis G. Morris, at Fordham, we marked down fifteen fine, fat, plump meadowlarks within a line of 200 yds. of the old aqueduct, which is there quite secluded by a cedar wall environment. Again in various meadows on the river line the like pleasant things occur, with a continuous call note from morn till nightfall, and erewhile the night moon sheds its modest silver rays upon the gloaming, we hear the most welcome call of King Bob White. CANONICUS (Westchester, Sept. 17).


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC

Thread-wasted Wasp by Deborah Allen at Pelham Bay Park on 18 September 2019

Thread-wasted Wasp (Ammophila sp.) by Deborah Allen at Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx) on 18 September 2019


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