Mid-October Birding: Bring on the Kinglets, Sparrows, Waterfowl and Owls
Updated: Feb 28
Bird Notes: Starting in mid-October, on cold mornings, birds are just as active (and we may even see more of them) on the second (9:30am) walk - so if you cannot get to the early Sat/Sun/Mon walks, the second walk will often be as good, if not better - on cool mornings (less than 65f).
The Eastern Screech-owl above was photographed by Jonathan Slifkin on this past Sunday evening's (13 October) owl walk at Inwood Hill Park. Like the rare Sedge Wren we showed last week (found by Richard Aracil and photographed by Patrick Horan), the screech-owl has become much less common through time in NYC. It was once the most common breeding owl species in NYC, nesting even in Central Park in Manhattan, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn until the late 1950s. Today there are only a handful of parks in NYC where these small owls still nest, and no one seems to be able to explain the decline...All we can do is make people aware that it is possible to still find and see these owls - and get those people interested in the birds of NYC. That is the best conservation work we can do as scientists/photographers.
In this week's Historical Notes (only one lengthy one!) we present: (a) Part II of The Falconer of Central Park by Donald Knowler. This excerpt from his book covers the second half of October 1982 - when Lesser Scaup were common on the Reservoir (up to 100!). Today we are lucky to find five in a group - and that is exceptional. By comparison, Ruddy Ducks were much less common then...and note the number of Bluebirds in the park arriving on 21 October 1982. Though the boundaries of the park have not changed since approx. 1865, the birds and plants have changed, exceedingly so. We ask again and again, one simple question: "Why?"
First-fall male Eastern Towhee by Deborah Allen at the Upper Lobe in Central Park, Sunday October 13, 2019.
Good! The Bird Walks for mid-October 2019
All Walks @ $10/person
Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8
1. Friday, 18 October at 9:00am Conservatory Garden; 105th st. and 5th Avenue (Central Pk)
2.***Saturday, 19 Oct. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Pk)
3.***Sunday, 20 Oct. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Dr. (Central Pk)
4.***Monday, 21 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: email@example.com or call: 718-828-8262 (home)
Adult Red-tailed Hawk by Deborah Allen bathing in the Gill (Ramble, Central Park), Sunday October 13, 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
Hermit Thrush by Deborah Allen on 12 October 2019 at The Point (Ramble), Central Park
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Friday, 11 October (9am at Conservatory Garden/105th st and 5th Ave): It was another windy Friday, and we were rewarded with an adult Red-shouldered Hawk overhead pursued by crows. We also had several Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks as well. In the woods, we managed nine warbler species overall. However, this misses the amazing experience of many (many) Eastern Palm Warblers (and one Western) at the Great Hill all hopping about on the ground. And if we were bored with those, there were Chipping Sparrows in flocks for all to see.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Friday, 11 Oct: https://tinyurl.com/y6r5mvtd
Saturday, 12 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - Of the four days summarized in this Newsletter, today was the best for both diversity and number. Highlights included the first Brown Creeper of the season (Shakespeare Garden), five Blue-headed Vireos as well as numerous Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Golden-crowned Kinglets...and lots of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 12 October: https://tinyurl.com/y3ht8cze
immature (first fall) Cooper's Hawk over Tupelo Field (Ramble, Central Park) by Deborah Allen, Sunday 13 October 2019
Sunday, 13 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) and again at 6:00pm for Eastern Screech-owls at Inwood Hill Park in Upper Manhattan - what a difference a year makes: last year on this same weekend in Central Park we were coming up with 11-14 warbler species on the morning walks. Today we managed 9 and that was a hard sell...Our best birds were the Golden-crowned Kinglets at Shakespeare Garden - but overall not many birds. The day was not lost however, as we headed up to Inwood Hill Park in the evening (6:30pm start) for screech-owls. We heard them immediately calling back and forth - but only caught brief glimpses. At one point one owl flew right over my shoulder - in complete silence...with 3-4 people noticing a small shape fleeting into the shrubs beyond us. At this point the group was worried they would never see an owl - and they had wasted an evening. I felt bad(ly) for the family who traveled from Brighton Beach (two hours one way on the train)...but I cautioned the group: it is still not completely dark - in our experience screech-owls will come close and perch when it is 100% dark. So we continued up the hill. Here we had great success as one owl came in and perched about 15 feet from us. It just sat looking at us calmly - at one point it started to preen. (We had two adult Grey morph owls, and we heard, but did not see, one or two young somewhere in the woods.) As the group watched the owl, I said to them: "Even your parakeet at home shows more distress/nervousness than this owl." Everyone agreed that the owls were relaxed...and as curious to see us as we were them. We were done by 8:30pm, with the folks from Brighton Beach now quite happy they made the trip.
Monday, 14 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - Deborah led the bird walk this morning, so best to check her list. I remember her telling me about four warbler species (the best being a Magnolia Warbler) as well as Blue-headed Vireo. And at Strawberry Fields, there were a few (1-2) Field Sparrows (and another at Falconer's Hill)...as well as a Scarlet Tanager spotted by Jeremy Nadel of Brooklyn.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Monday, 14 October: https://tinyurl.com/y3hygu6s
first fall male Dark-eyed Junco by Deborah Allen on 13 October 2019 perched on a tree on the Great Lawn (Central Park)
Falconer of Central Park [October 1982]
by Donald Knowler: https://tinyurl.com/y4h96jxe
Part Two of Two: October 16-31, 1982
The weather continued misty and humid for the next few days [mid-October 1982] - a massive storm appeared to be building up. A female kestrel crossed the Great Lawn with something large in her talons - maybe a starling - and the birds fell silent as usual, but this time an eeriness was injected into the air, quiet and still. The trees were heavy with dying leaves, sullen, defying the wind to rock them with its full force. With tension between heavy trees and mist-defined air increasing, something had to snap. Crack. Thunder and lightning stabbed across the sky in the small hours of October 8 giving the city the effect of a multi-candled birthday cake with just one ignited candle. Tall, thin skyscrapers standing black and white, stark.
Again and again came the Hash of light and then the crack, which shook windows already vibrating under the impact of pelting rain. By first light the park was fresh and clear and a sweetgum had dumped all its leaves over a bench in the Ramble. The leaves were a foot deep. A swainson's thrush, decorated with yellow cheeks and yellow eye-ring, looked tired and shaken after being forced down by the storm, and a yellow-rumped warbler tripped gingerly through the Evodia tree. That night a cold, blustery northeast wind blew. And next day the mean temperature had switched from an abnormal high to an abnormal low, eight degrees below normal. Ten ruddy ducks were on the reservoir along with a lone Canada goose and as I watched them the cold wind bit my ears. Summer had finally let go, and the ruddy ducks' heads were tucked into warm back feathers, the birds bobbing on the choppy water.
The body of Conrado Mones was laid to rest in a cemetery over the Hudson River in New Jersey. Enough money had been donated to pay for the funeral. Some organizations had even offered to take care of the arrangements, but these were finally handled by the Parks Department. Before burial, Mones had a mass at a Roman Catholic church in the Bronx, close to the funeral home which had finally taken his body from the city morgue on October 8, the day before the burial. In death, Conrado Mones had been cared for.
The ruddy ducks had moved on within a day but five Canada geese replaced them on October 11. The sounds of marching bands drifted across the reservoir from Fifth Avenue, where New York's Italian community was celebrating Columbus Day with an annual parade. The Italians-unlike the Irish and the Puerto Ricans for their big days-had sunshine instead of rain; but the gentle southwesterly breeze had a bitter edge to it. A bullfrog, feeling the cold, moved slowly under the surface of the boating lake and a green heron struck. The big, bloated amphibian would not see another spring.
first fall (immature) male American Redstart by Doug Leffler in Michigan in October 2018
I had seen fall's first hermit thrush on October 5, and seven days later the small thrushes appeared to be the most common birds in the park. There were hundreds of them and, in the Ramble, they outnumbered all the other species by about two to one. I did not know it at the time, but I was walking under a tree where a barn owl was roosting. Lambert telephoned me at work to tell me about the owl: "It's between the rustic bridge over the Gill and the wooden pavilion," he said. "There's a lamppost right under the tree with the number, 7535." I could not get into the park that afternoon and by early next morning the barn owl moved out. Although some of the larger owls pose identification difficulties for a person who is not used to seeing them too often, the barn owl is distinctive because it has a white, heart-shaped face instead of the usual disc pattern around the eyes. The barn owl once nested in hollow trees but when Europeans settled the land and built permanent structures, the owl took to nesting in such buildings as farm barns, church belfries, and even in disused mechanical equipment. Basically, the barn owl stays pretty much in the same location all year, but there is a partial migration in the northern United States; and the owl in the park might have been moving only a few hundred miles to a place where there would be a supply of rodents or small birds to keep him fed through the winter.
After work, I went back to the park in the hope of seeing the barn owl hunting on silent wings, but I only saw two or three suspicious-looking characters in the Ramble and retreated to the reservoir, scared. Reassured by a constant stream of runners, I looked across the blackening water knowing I was safe from attack from behind. I could make out the shape of a cormorant in the distance, and I wondered how long it would remain because most of the cormorants had long since flown south. I did not have to ponder the question long. The cormorant reared like a bear standing on its hind legs, threw out its neck and lifted into the air, the water pulling at the bird's large body and then letting go. Five days later the lesser scaups would arrive from north central Canada to claim the same patch of water for their six-month winter, while the cormorant flew south to claim a piece of ocean off Florida. The laughing gulls, also heading for Florida, remained on the reservoir a little longer and for a time they overlapped with the ring-billed gulls moving to the coast from inland. In the last weeks of October I saw the laughing gulls sitting with the ring-bills in the furrows made by a tractor on the Great Lawn baseball outfields. The laughing gulls had also discovered the fenced-in areas designated for replanting were safe from marauding dogs. The gulls had lost their black-hooded breeding plumage and merely had a dirty patch where the hood had been. They were not as noisy as they had been in the spring, either, and the park would not ring with their laughter.
The lesser scaups had formed flotillas on the reservoir until March when the last ones had left. And now they were back. They returned on October 17, carried by an overnight northwesterly wind. If only they could communicate with me. I wanted to know what adventures they had traveling to the lakes of Canada, as far as the, Arctic Circle, where their neighbors were grizzly bears. The scaups have the feel of winter about them, the males with frosty white sides and ice-blue beaks; the females with a white ring of feathers around their beaks as though they have dipped their faces in snow.
It was a special day, one of the better ones of the fall. As I came across other birders here and there I established that there were two birds which would be new species for me. A bluebird was on the Point and in more or less the same location a red-headed woodpecker was also feeding in a mature black cherry.
The bluebird is a small thrush, the male combining a shimmering blue tail, wings, and back with a soft shade of orange on the chest; the female duller but with the telltale blue in the wings and tail. The bird in question was a juvenile but still had enough blue in its plumage to make it unmistakable. Needless to say, I missed the bird, together with the elegant red-headed woodpecker, and I should have been reconciled to my misfortune, but I wasn't.
Next day the influx of interesting, not so common birds continued and so did my bad luck. A hairy woodpecker was seen in a pin oak near the top of the Point and I missed it by five minutes. This woodpecker is a slightly bigger version than the downy, with a sharper beak. The hairy used to be common in the park but seems to be declining over much of its former range. The decline is attributed to the cutting and clearing of its favorite deciduous woods habitat. The species' decline seems to demonstrate that habitat, even if it is only a fraction of what was there once, has to be preserved over a wide range for a species to survive. Birds do not know boundaries, such as those fencing in a park, and must be free to roam to places where they will be assured of the right feeding and nesting sites. The hairy woodpecker dodged me but two rusty blackbirds did not. They were not new species for the year but it was good to see them back again. The male of this couple had lost his jet-black late-winter plumage for the rusty breeding look which gives the species its name-a dainty bird, carefully walking along dead branches in the Point Lobe to pick at insects.
Rough-legged Hawk in western Washington state on 26 January 2019 / rdc
Dogged by bad luck, I had now given up any hope of seeing 150 of the 259 species recorded in Central Park since its opening. By the second half of October I thought that even 130 birds was an ambitious project. But I reached this total on October 21, with two species in one day. First a hairy woodpecker feeding on the Turkey oaks lining the bridle path. Two hours later came what I would regard as my second best find in the park -- a flock of five Eastern bluebirds. A northeasterly wind had held promise, and I knew it would probably be the last good day of the southward migration. This proved to be the case. Interesting species that day included a red-bellied woodpecker and a very late waterthrush; but it was the sight of the bluebirds that I will remember. I had left Lambert late in the morning to keep an appointment in town. Because I was late, I broke into a trot near the elm circle, and a bird I could not identify flew from under my feet. It took a few minutes for the mystery bird to settle and, once I had binoculars trained on it, I recognized it immediately. I ran back to the place where I had left Lambert and asked, nonchalantly, how rare the bluebird was in the park.
It was the first time I had seen Lambert run.
We found four more bluebirds, two more males, a female and a juvenile. Lambert said he remembered seeing a flock of twenty-seven in the park when he was a child. He had never seen so many since and said sadly he would never see that number again. The bluebirds had not only lost ground to the starlings, but they had also been forced out of the old-style orchards - one of their favorite habitats - by new methods of cultivation and the application of harmful insecticides.
The year's last big Central Park crowd gathered on October 24 for the New York Marathon. In all, two million people were lining the streets of New York City to cheer on four teen thousand runners on a journey from Staten Island to Central Park. A dachshund, tied to a lamppost, barked madly as Alberto Salazar and Rodolfo Gomez raced by neck and-neck at the twenty-four mile stage of the twenty six-mile race. The dog went on to bark at the next thou sand runners before his owner called it a day and took him home.
Darkness was falling and the robins had long since reclaimed feeding areas taken over by spectators when the race's last finisher, Redmond Dadone, crept across the finish line at the Tavern on the Green restaurant. Dadone was officially listed 13,746th, finishing nearly five and a half hours after winner Salazar's time of two hours, nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.
In the final week of October up to one hundred scaups started to use the Reservoir; on one day they were joined by three canvasbacks, the first since mid-March. The wind now piled leaves in drifts against the reservoir fence and on the last weekend of the month the color-change peaked. The best view was from the south rim of the reservoir, looking north. The line of trees at the top end merged from reds to yellows, to bronzes, to browns, and even to greens: oils on a landscape artist's pallet, round blotches of color with no clear, definite shape but a form and texture all the same. Rainfall the previous week had flooded the Gill and the cold water preserved the richness of a multicolored film of leaves which covered the series of ponds. A yellow-rumped warbler looked for a moment like a tumbling leaf as it chased one of the last insects. Yellow-rumps were few and far between now.
The opponents of the Parks Department's tree cutting program suffered another defeat in October when the Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled a grove of pin oaks could be removed from the Bethesda Fountain area. The trees had been planted as a memorial to servicemen who died during World War II, but the Parks Department argued the pin oaks' roots were undermining the foundations of the elaborate Bethesda Fountain terrace, a centerpiece of the park's original plan. The anti-cutting lobby had said the trees were too precious to be destroyed. And color slides of tree stumps were not a strong enough statement to persuade the commission to rule against the cutting.
A thick deciduous forest of hickories and oaks covered the area that is now Central Park, when the Dutch first explored and settled Manhattan in the early 1600's. The basic vegetation remained the same until land for the park started to be acquired in 1856, although taller trees among the forty-two indigenous species had been cut down to make ships' masts, and parts of the future park were used for the grazing of pigs and goats.
The exotic forest would come later with the planting of foreign trees but the Algonquin Indians noticed their woods changing irrevocably soon after the arrival of the first settlers. The aliens brought alien plants - often by accident and the Indians saw unfamiliar weeds sprouting in the undergrowth. On their trails linking fishing and trapping points to villages, the Indians noticed the leaves of the broad-leaf plantain from Europe, which flourishes in open spaces. The weeds' seeds, as with so many plants, came to America in the straw of packing cases or in mud caked on shoes. The spade-shaped leaves of the plantain, which are a common sight on the park's footpaths to this day, were a symbol to the Indians of what was to come and, with an uncanny prescience, the Algonquins called it "white man's footprint."
Barred Owl in northern Minnesota in early January 2019 (-20F) / rdc
A craggy policeman, the first police officer I had seen on a routine patrol in the park, asked me what I was looking at. I had been so engrossed in watching a wheeling osprey that I had not seen him approach. The policeman had a pinched nose, which tried to make an impression on a round, ruddy, flat face. Hitching up his trousers, which were sagging under the weight of his gun belt, he moseyed closer, pushing back his cap so he could look into the sky for the osprey. The bird circled the reservoir and on the second sweep the policeman caught sight of it.
"Can I look?" he said pointing to my binoculars and, reluctantly, I let him have them. I wanted to look at the osprey myself. "You sure dat ain't no bald eagle?" he said. "No it's an osprey..."
"You shur it ain't a bald eagle? I read all about dem when I was a kid."
"No, I can assure you it's an osprey, which is similar," I said, trying to sound like an expert.
The osprey came around a third time, hovered, and did just what I feared it would do. It plunged into the reservoir, scattering the gulls, and rose with a big, silvery fish.
"Goddamn did you see dat?" said the policeman.
"No, you had my binoculars," I replied, digging my toe into the cinder of the reservoir footpath. I could not recall anyone, not even Lambert, seeing an osprey fish in Central Park.
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
Follow our Bird Sightings on Twitter: @DAllenNYC and/or @BirdingBobNYC
Along the Loch in the North Woods of Central Park on 9 November 2008 / rdc