More Tales of Migrant Virginia Rails on NYC Streets - October Birding!
Updated: Feb 28
Bird Notes: Make sure to watch the weather for this coming Sunday, 27 October: heavy rain is forecast all day - so the Sunday bird walk will most likely be cancelled. And as a reminder, on cold mornings, birds are just as active 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).
We have had wonderful support from many people through the years - we could not do what we do without people. This week we call attention to the many photographers who have sent amazing images for this Newsletter (published since 2004). For example, on her way home from this past Sunday's bird walk, Lucy McLeod of Australia (and one of NYC's premier orthopedists who specializes in hands) found an odd bird on 53rd street and Madison Avenue - and she took the photo posted below. It is a Virginia Rail, a bird that can turn up anywhere in NYC on migration. Indeed, a couple of years ago, Ryan Bass photographed one standing on a Lexus in a mid-town traffic jam - his photo is also below. Our Opera singer star Emilie Storrs wrote us in autumn 2005 about a Virginia Rail she found casually walking on the sidewalk on Broadway near Columbia University. Meanwhile Jeremy Nadel, originally from the Bronx and just retired from teaching for 30+ years, took two wonderful photos of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in Central Park during last Friday's (18 Oct) bird walk. Further afield, Doug Leffler continues to send great close-up bird photos from Michigan - see his Swamp Sparrow below. And this Newsletter would not be possible without the note-taking and bird photography of Deborah Allen. Thank You everyone.
In this week's Historical Notes we present more tails of Virginia Rails on NYC streets: (a) from Emilie's Storrs account of one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to another spending the day on an air-conditioner on the 26th floor of a building in lower Manhattan (Oct 1999) = Virginia Rails regularly turn up in odd places in NYC. Historically (b) Virginia Rails bred in freshwater marshes of this city including Brooklyn (Dyker Heights) and Queens (Astoria), and as we have shown in other Newsletters, in Manhattan (Inwood Hill Park) and the Bronx (Kingsbridge Meadows and Van Cortlandt Park). Today, the Virginia Rail may still nest in the Bronx (Pelham Bay Park) and possibly Staten Island. We also include information (c), that the Virginia Rail was a popular bird to hunt, with accounts from Queens (February 1885), New Jersey (September 1877) and Connecticut (September 1949). Finally (d) we present a summary of the weather here in NYC for September 2019 - one of the driest Septembers on record. Thank You to Rob Frydlewicz and his NYC Weather blog, a wonderful source of information: https://tinyurl.com/y4oq7w9f
Virginia Rail found/photographed by Lucy McLeod on 53rd street and Madison Ave (Manhattan), Sunday 20 October
Good! The Bird Walks for Late October 2019
All Walks @ $10/person
Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/ya65n5a8
1. Friday, 25 October at 9:00am Conservatory Garden; 105th st. and 5th Avenue (Central Pk)
2.***Saturday, 26 Oct. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive (Central Pk)
3.***Sunday, 27 Oct. at 7:30am/9:30am Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Dr. (Central Pk) -
4.***Monday, 28 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 male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by Jeremy Nadel on 18 Oct 2019 in the North Woods of Central Park
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.
male Spotted x Eastern Towhee by Deborah Allen, Tupelo Field (Central Park Ramble), Sunday 20 October 2019
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Friday, 18 October (9am at Conservatory Garden/105th st and 5th Ave): Wind, wind, wind and more wind. Birds are getting fewer, but they are still coming into the calls from my speaker. Best were the three Cape May Warblers feeding on sapsucker holes in a Siberian Elm atop the Great Hill. (Overall we had 7 warbler species today.) The Blue-headed Vireo at the west end of the Pool at eye-level was a winner (we had two BHVi this morning plus one Red-eyed Vireo); the Winter Wren along the Loch - came right in to perch in front of us, thank you tape - a life bird for Enrico Leonardi (off to northern Somalia next week). We had three wren species today, but missed the Marsh Wren along the Harlem Meer, probably because we were watching a rare bird for Central Park: Green-winged Teal (female) on the west side of Duck Island. Finally, there were raptor flyovers including a Turkey Vulture, Cooper's Hawk and many soaring Red-tailed Hawks..plus a male American Kestrel hunting small birds at Conservatory Garden.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Friday, 18 Oct: https://tinyurl.com/y392lr9u
Saturday, 19 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - easily the best birds were the close-up Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets that came in close to the sound of my tape ("flock calls") that both the first and second walk people had close and extended looks at these small birds with one Ruby showing its red crest. Carolina Wrens were active and calling today (three pairs) - and we heard Ravens over the park, the first ones for a while. Only six warbler species today - we are definitely are on a downward trend with these neotropical migrants as November approaches.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Saturday, 19 October: https://tinyurl.com/y5d7h2k5
Swamp Sparrow by Doug Leffler in October 2018 in Michigan
Sunday, 20 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - Ruby-crowned Kinglets were again everywhere: several times we had groups of at least ten right over our heads, perhaps five feet away. Six warbler species again today with Black-throated Blues being the favorite. And then Val Landwehr, visiting from Minnesota (and who found the White Pelican at Jamaica Bay) spotted a male Scarlet Tanager at the Gill Overlook...feeding on Crab Apples.
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Sunday, 20 October: https://tinyurl.com/y5htbod2
Monday, 21 October (Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe at 74th st and the East Drive at 7:30am/9:30am) - Strawberry Fields was wonderful this morning with Field Sparrow, Carolina Wren (that followed us around), and many Yellow-rumped Warblers following Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers as the latter drilled holes into non-native Siberian Elms. We found two adult Cooper's Hawks at the Oven - both appeared to be males. Most of the Cooper's we get in NYC in winter are first-year birds...so seeing two adults was a surprise. Only two warbler species today...
Deborah Allen's List of Birds for Monday, 21 October: https://tinyurl.com/yy5dq5cn
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Maintenance Field (Ramble, Central Park), Saturday October 19, 2019 by Deborah Allen
From: Emilie Storrs (2005), our favorite professional opera singer. Emilie gets the award for best bird sighting of Autumn 2005, and just as importantly, the best note taking to confirm her observation. Here is what she emailed us late last week: "About five thirty on Friday afternoon (30 September 2005) I was walking south on 108th street and Broadway on the east side. I had just crossed 108th St. Along the stores I saw a little bird running. My logical brain said starling but then the rest of my brain said wait that's not a starling!! It ran through the people and stood on the curb for a very long time while I wrote down all the characteristics. Several people asked me what it was and I said "It is some sort of marsh bird but the body's not right for a sandpiper or a plover so I don't know what it is." I went so far as to run to the Rite Aid and ran back with a five dollar instant camera to take pictures of it. It was slightly smaller than a robin, orange legs, orange beak with a tiny curve at the end of it (although a little bit of black on the end of the beak). It had a big black stripe running from the beak down the back of its head. It's face was gray. It had no eye rings but a whitish stripe running from the beak to the top of its eye. Its back had a pretty speckly pattern and its chest was a pretty, rusty red. Honestly, this bird looks exactly like the picture on page 130 of my Sibley's guide of the Virginia Rail, although what it had to be doing on Broadway I have no idea. Twice the bird ruffled up its "shoulder" feathers and puffed its chest way out. It was perfectly mobile on its legs. Another woman suggested perhaps putting it in a box and taking it to the park but the bird would have none of that and hid under a parked car. Has anyone else reported seeing this bird??"
Virginia Rail in Central Park by Deborah Allen on 24 November 2017
Subject: Virginia Rail up high
DATE: Thursday, 7 October 1999 LOCATION: 26th Fl. - 120 Broadway OBSERVERS: Andrew Gershon REPORTED BY: Richard Gershon Virginia Rail on 26th Floor window sill Here's a really weird one-- A Virginia Rail spent the day (10/7) huddled on a window sill on the 26th! floor of 120 Broadway on 7 October 1999. The rail had the good sense to pick one of the windows of the Environmental Protection Bureau of New York State for his rest stop even though there aren't too many cattails growing 26 floors up in lower Manhattan. Stay tuned; we hope he's off and flying by tomorrow. Richard Gershon, reporting for Andrew Gershon (Observer)
Subject: Virginia Rail
From: Chad Seewagen PhD To: Robert DeCandido PhD <email@example.com> Date: Oct 27, 2010 8:38 PM Hey Bob, I thought you might find this a little noteworthy. The other day I went to get in my car which was parked on 109th St and Riverside Drive. Something scurried out from under my car onto the curb and it was a freakin' Virginia rail. Cars were whizzing down Riverside and I thought for sure it was going to get hit. When I tried to get close to it, it jumped on top of my front tire and sat in the wheel well. It eventually went under the car parked in front of mine and then up on to that cars roof. I decided to just try to reach out and grab it, and surprisingly I got it. Then I had to figure out what to do with the damn thing. It didn't seem noticeably injured, so instead of giving it to a re-habber, I drove it up to the Bronx River to let it go in my study site at the zoo. I stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts to get some sugar packets and I gave it some sugar water before releasing it. Its amazing how that can snap a dazed bird out of its funk. It pepped up a lot and scurried off into the riparian vegetation along the river in my study site. And then I went on with my day. Just another typical day in NYC. With any luck the bird is somewhere a lot nice than the Bronx by now (no offense).
Virginia Rail by Ryan Bass in mid-town Manhattan on 8 November 2017
Virginia Rail on 8 November 2017 in Manhattan (photo above)
Ryan J Bass
This morning at 7:45 am, when exiting Grand Central North at 48th St and Park Ave, I noted a Virginia Rail perched atop a Black Lexus btwn Park/Lex (N. side of street, closer to Park). Although the bird appeared uninjured, it is clearly not in suitable habitat.
Bird seems unfazed by morning commuters and does not appear injured. It ain’t a Corn Crake, but hey!
Update: En route to Wild Bird Fund, the bird escaped and flew off. Annie is a real hero here. She borrowed a ladder from a hotel and climbed on top of a box truck to get it! Wow! It then headed west, but appeared to be uninjured and flying well. Let's hope it finds suitable habitat. Cheers to Annie!
“Ah yes, the little-known yuppie subspecies of Virginia Rail, which shuns marsh habitat most associated in favor of luxury sedans, Park avenue townhouses, and well-appointed mansions in eastern Suffolk County.”
A Virginia Rail in New York City. New York, Oct. 12 . – The foundations are now being laid for a new building on the corner of Broad and Beaver streets [Manhattan], piles having been driven, the place being partly covered by water. Last Saturday morning the workmen there caught a Virginia rail, which had evidently stopped during its flight South. Spencer Aldrich.
Virginia Rail Wintering on [Queens] Long Island . The very remarkable fact of five Virginia rails being shot on Long Island during February appears to be well established by the following notes which Mr. Robert B. Lawrence has kindly placed at our disposal. At least two of the birds were sent to Wallace's shop to be mounted, and are reported by the assistant who did the work to have been fresh killed. The birds were taken by Adam Geipel of this city, and in a reply to a request for particulars by Mr. Lawrence, his son gives the following details: "He [Adam Geipel] went out gunning on Friday, Feb. 6, 1885, in the swamp called Traine's Meadows, in Astoria. On that day he shot three of the birds, but he did not know what they were. When he got home our family doctor was there, and he asked my father what he had there. He replied that he did not know what kind of birds they were, and the doctor, on seeing them, said those are what are called Virginian rails. On the 13th of February, he [the father] went out gunning again, and shot two more of the Virginian rails near the same place where he shot the others. Paul Geipel, Jr. (919 Second Avenue, New York).
Virginia Rail by Deborah Allen in June 2019 in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx
WINTER RAIL ON LONG ISLAND . The Cedars, Oakdale, L. I.
About Jan. 20, after our meadows had been covered with 6in. of snow, while I was looking for black ducks I passed a very pleasant five or six minutes in the company of a very fine specimen of the Virginia rail. His actions would lead one to think that he felt very lonely. As he ran out from the cover of some tall sedge grass on to a large mud flat made by muskrats while building their winter homes, came to within 8ft. of where I was standing, seeming to wish to have an interview with me. He was a cunning little fellow. First he would cock his head to one side, then to the other, and his actions were comical to behold. He really seemed very inquisitive. He was very pretty with his deep red breast and long curved bill, and while standing up so proud he looked not unlike a small woodcock. After admiring the little fellow's antics all my curiosity was satisfied, I made a move closer to him. He was gone in the twinkling of an eye into the cover which gives them such a safe retreat, I think I can put up a Virginia rail any day with the aid of my setter dog, but if I had an old dog I owned one year ago I am certain I could put up one or more. He surpassed anything I ever saw on rail, annoying me very much when beating the meadow for English snipe. If he came upon the scent of a rail he would not leave it until he put the bird up or brought him to me alive and with the greatest care in his mouth. I have brought to bag over him the coot, clapper, king, sora, Virginia and yellow rails. The little black rail he flushed several times, but the bird was such a tiny little fellow I let him go on his way rejoicing. The game laws for Suffolk county as framed by the three Commissioners is as perfect as any sportsman could wish. I thank these gentlemen who have labored so hard in our interest, and hope the law will get through the Albany mill and not be tinkered with again.
ALFRED A. FRASER.
Summer 1924 [Brooklyn]: Mr. Nathan, in the marsh at Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, the past summer had found a large number of water birds: breeders were Virginia Rail (Rallus virginianus), Sora (Porzana carolina), Florida Gallinule (Gailinula galeata), American Coot (Fulica americana), American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), Green Heron (Butorides v. virescens) and Black Duck (Anas rubrifies). He also reported a King Rail (Rallus elegans) but no nest found; the Least Bittern as late as September 29, 1924. At Prospect Park, Brooklyn, October 13th, he had seen a Carolina Wren (Thryothornis I. ludovicanus).
Virginia Rail (Rallis limicola) - Six nests found at Oak Beach [L.I.] salt marshes, summer of 1968 (Enders and W. Post).
Hunting Sora and Virginia Rails in Connecticut
By RAYMOND R. CAMP
9 September 1949
A number of interesting reports have come in on the opening of the rail season, both from Connecticut and New Jersey, and the birds seem more plentiful than they have been in several years.
A few of the rail enthusiasts, while-reporting increases, feel that the daily bag limit should have remained at 20 birds rather than 25. They argue that 20 birds should satisfy any shooter, and point out that most rail shooters take a self-imposed limit of 15 birds.
The opening day tide was not sufficiently high to permit the pushers to penetrate some of the wild rice covers, either on the Housatonic or the Maurice rivers, but shooters found all the birds they wanted. Thomas Marshall, of Fairfield, Conn., who is a rail enthusiast, reported that the east wind the night before the opening helped the shooting on the lower Housatonic. The good tide is about two weeks off, and should make less work for the pushers.
"The rice is heavier than we have seen it for four years," Marshall reports, "and once again it is growing on Great Flats above Meeting House Bat. We only pushed one small area, and used less than half a tide, but we moved sixty sora. The only other boat I saw on the river found conditions about the same. The two men in this boat took turns pushing, and killed 15 sora each. I spoke to one of the shooters and he said they pushed the rest of the tide just to see how many rail they could flush, and in an hour they moved several hundred.
"It is wonderful to hear we have so many rail in this small section of marsh, and it makes it easy to understand how our grandparents could kill several hundred rail on a tide, even though shooting a muzzle loader. Even today four men, dividing up the pushing, could take a hundred rail legally. However, I hope most shooters will be happy with 15 birds each.”
The rice is reported to be heavy and the rail plentiful on the Connecticut River, although the "cats" have not been broken down enough to make for easy pushing. The rail boat, which can move on little more than a heavy dew, is designed to penetrate the wild rice flats on a few inches of water.
During the past generation, rail shooting has died out in many areas, and few of the old time rail pushers are still alive. The Maurice River in New Jersey still attracts quite a few shooters, and there are quite a few pushers available at Mauricetown. The pusher generally charges $10 a tide, and after you have been pushed around for an hour or so you will agree that he earns his money.
The Virginia rail arrive on the rice flats later than the sora, and normally are not here in real numbers until after mid-October. The Connecticut season was cut short two weeks this year, so shooters there do not anticipate any shooting on these birds.
New Jersey, Delance, Sept. 1 . Rail birds were never more plenty, but the season opened with poor tides, best boat to-day had 31 birds. Reed birds [Bobolinks] are shot here by dozens for city market and are now in fair order. Pushers can be had here for $2.50 per tide, and boats at 75 cents to $1.50 per day. Rail.
RAIL IN CAPTIVITY . Trenton, N.J. July 28. Editor Forest and Stream: I saw this morning in Ribsam & Son's (florists) window a female Virginia rail bird and four young about as large as one-day old chickens. The young were caught in the marshes of the Delaware opposite this city, where they were drowned out almost by the heavy rains and consequent high water. The young were then put into a trap and the mother sought them out and was captured. they are all very fine, lively and healthy, and the young follow the mother as chickens do a hen. I think it very rare to see rail and young. C. J. RUTGERS.
September 2019 was the first month since October 2013 to have less than an inch of rain; it was the eighth driest September on record (0.95" was measured). Thru 9/20 the month had average temperatures; then the last ten days were eight degrees warmer than average, resulting in the month being 2.4 degrees above average (24th warmest since 1869). Although it was warmer than average, the month had just one low of 70f+, the fewest in September in ten years (there were none in 2009). It was also the first September since 2011 not to have any highs of 90f or hotter.
This September added to the record set last year when last September was the fourth in a row with an average temperature of 70.0 degrees or warmer. September 2019, however, was the "coolest" of the five. However, a record that was tied last September, the sixth September in a row with a high in the 90s, wasn't broken this year as the hottest temperature this September was 89f. (It occurred on 9/23 - the same date as the month's only low in the 70s).
Two-thirds of September's paltry amount of rain fell in the first six days of the month, split mostly between Labor Day (when 0.30" fell mid-day, the most to fall on the holiday in sixteen years) and 9/6, when the most northernmost band of Hurricane Dorian dropped 0.27" in less than an hour during mid-afternoon.
Finally, humidity of 15% or lower occurs very infrequently in New York, and when it has happened it's been confined to March and April (in the years since 2000) - until 9/19, when it dropped to 15% for a few hours that afternoon. The last time the humidity was this low in September was on Sept. 11, 2001, when it bottomed out at 16%.
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by Jeremy Nadel on 18 Oct 2019
in the North Woods of Central Park