Winter Birds of the NYC Area - Jan. 2020

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

First-winter Painted Bunting by Deborah Allen, at Jones Beach State Park (Long Island), Thursday January 2, 2020

Bird Notes: Our bird walks remain in "slow-mo" mode for another week, allowing us to catch up on solar power installation on our house. Look for us on Sunday mornings - and the next owl walk will be on the Sunday night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day - that would be Sunday evening, 19 January at Inwood Hill Park in upper Manhattan (probably starting about 5:30pm).

January 2020 is proving to be one of the mildest ones we have experienced in recent years, and the birds in our area (or the lack thereof) shows it: try and find an American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse or Black-capped Chickadee in Central Park. In most years at least American Goldfinches should be common...Each of these three species is abundant just north of NYC, and if we get a several day cold snap in the next few weeks, we could yet get these winter seed eaters to come south into the park. On the other hand, some southern species are common this year including several Painted Buntings - see Deborah's photo above of a young one from Long Island in early January 2020.

In this week's Historical Notes we present just one excerpt from the 1984 book, The Falconer of Central Park by Donald Knowler. Here he writes about the birds seen in January 1982 in Central Park. I'll just name a few birds that come up: Tufted Duck, Lesser Scaup, Canvasback...and he gets mugged. It is difficult to explain the difference in birding Central Park in the last 40 years or so - but Knowler presents a park most people would not recognize today. If you want to purchase Donald Knowler's book, you can find it used for less than $10 (check Amazon).

Harlequin Duck (male) at Barnegat Lighthouse Jetty in New Jersey in March 2014

Harlequin Duck (male) at Barnegat Lighthouse Jetty in New Jersey in March 2014

(below) Dunlin by Deborah Allen, at Nickerson Beach (Long Island), Saturday December 28, 2020

Dunlin by Deborah Allen, at Nickerson Beach (Long Island), Saturday December 28, 2020

Good! The Bird Walks for mid-January:

All Walks @ $10/person

All walks in Central Park except the Owl Walk on the night of 19 January.

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here

  1. Sunday, 12 January 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive

  2. Sunday, 19 January 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive

  3. Sunday evening, 19 January - 5:30pm (Eastern Screech-owls) INWOOD HILL PARK in Upper Manhattan - Meet at Indian Road Cafe at 600 West 218th street @ Indian Road New York, NY 10034. For Directions:

The Indian Road Cafe is a wonderful small restaurant with nice, clean bathrooms for all to use. The Cafe/park is easy to reach via subway / #1 Train to 215th street / or car: if driving allow 30 min. to find a parking spot.

Dress Warm; bring binoculars; we will have plenty of light...$10 for owls and fun

Any questions? Call us (718-828-8262/home) or email us

Adult Male Red-tailed Hawk "Pale Male" by Deborah Allen near Alice in Wonderland statue (Central Park), Sunday January 5, 2020

Adult Male Red-tailed Hawk "Pale Male" by Deborah Allen near Alice in Wonderland statue (Central Park) Sunday, January 5, 2020

The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through early January 2020. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!

Please note that on SATURDAYS we may meet at other locations than Central Park. For example, on 21 December (Saturday) we will be at NYBG in the keep an eye on the Saturday schedule: we might also have no Saturday walks on some weekends in December-January.

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 Wren by Deborah Allen, Shakespeare Garden (Central Park), Sunday January 5, 2020

Carolina Wren by Deborah Allen, Shakespeare Garden (Central Park), Sunday January 5, 2020

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

Sunday, 5 January 2020 (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am)

I remember wind, and cold. I don't remember many birds...I remember other people finding the good ones though: Brown Thrasher at Shakespeare Garden; one pair of Carolina Wrens there as well; Fox Sparrows near the "Riviera" (just west of the "Oven"). Cooper's Hawk in the Ramble...and swooping Red-bellied Woodpecker in the Maintenance Field....a White-breasted Nuthatch Eastern Towhee there. It is winter folks - I wish I could waive a magic wand and summon birds from somewhere...

Deborah's list of birds from Sunday, 5 January 2020

Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey in March 2014

Harlequin Ducks at Barnegat Lighthouse in New Jersey in March 2014


The Falconer of Central Park

January 1982

by Donald Knowler

A kestrel stood guard over the Loch. From his perch in an elm he could see along the untidy streets of Harlem to the north. The reservoir in Central Park lay to the south with the skyscrapers of Fifty-ninth Street and beyond half lost in mist. A gentle rain and low pewter cloud blurred the gauntness of the trees. But the kestrel's vision was on the mark. About two hundred yards away he saw a chickadee working its way up the Loch, surprising sleeping bugs from the bark of oaks. The kestrel, the drizzle giving a spiked appearance to its rufous plumage, chose his prey carefully as the chickadee fluttered closer. The kestrel tilted forward on his twig high in the tree, arched his wings and quietly, without a flap, started to swoop. Within seconds the wings were thrown back to act as a brake. The raptor hit the tiny chickadee with a smack. The blow carried the kestrel and the chickadee down into the dip before the kestrel gained control again, with the screaming chickadee in its talons. Slow, powerful flaps were employed now as the kestrel and chickadee rose through a gap in the branches. The other chickadees in the Loch had fallen silent and the bird of prey, out in the clear sky, slowly lowered his head. With precise, hooked beak, he bit into the neck of the chickadee, severing its cervical vertebrae.

Ring-billed Gull eating crab-apples on 17 December 2017 at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx

Ring-billed Gull eating crab-apples on 17 December 2017 at Pelham Bay Park (Bronx)

It was January 1 in the Loch and a clear stream tumbled over two waterfalls between oak, elm and red maple. Only the rising wail of a police car siren and the rumble of subway trains under Central Park West fixed a time in history. And where once the black bear, the indigenous American and then the European trapper tiptoed in pursuit of deer, the mugger and the wildlife enthusiast tiptoed now.

The presence of the kestrel, and the rain, had washed all signs of life from the Loch. I tramped the stream where blue jays bathe in winter and cottontail rabbits come to drink in spring, climbing above a waterfall near the west section of the park's circular drive. A bedraggled gray squirrel shook rain from its back and scampered over the roots of an oak on the far side of the road.

Someone was following me, but I did not see who.

I headed for the reservoir to the south in the hope of seeing something unusual or unexpected on the sheet of water, some rare species of gull or duck, knowing that at least the familiar wintering ducks would be there. Sure enough, a flotilla of about three hundred lesser scaups was spread out alongside the west wall of the reservoir, with a smattering of canvasbacks and ruddy ducks among them. The three species of duck, traveling thousands of miles to the very center of New York City, had two things in common. They had escaped the biting winter that gripped their breeding grounds to the north and, grouped together, they also felt safety in numbers just in case a predator-like a man with a gun, or the gyrfalcon -- should happen by.

I had an uneasy feeling I was not alone. I glanced behind me. No one there. Central Park, the most popular and democratic space in New York City, had become my best friend in the few lonely months I had lived in Manhattan, and I shrugged off warnings of its dangers. It held no menace, but then neither did the streets of the city. I had yet to develop an urban instinct for survival, which New Yorkers call "the smarts," or being "street wise."

As rain spotted the water the ducks were not to know a cold front from the Arctic would reach over them in the coming weeks, freezing the surface of the reservoir and forcing them farther south. The blue, glossy heads of the male scaups were tucked into the fluffy gray feathers of their backs. The canvasbacks also slept, but some of the ruddy ducks chose to dive, scraping algae and other plant life from the bed of the reservoir.

My eyes pressed into binoculars and my body pressed against the wire mesh of the reservoir fence, I did not notice my own predators. I felt something sharp between my shoulder blades, and I turned wildly, like the chickadee when it realized the kestrel was upon it. A man stood with a knife. "Give," he said nervously, a sodden felt hat hiding his face. He was joined by another man, who showed me the central spine of an umbrella, sharp and jagged where it had been snapped in two. I looked about me without moving my head, fearing the slightest movement, the slightest twitch, would signal resistance and get me stabbed. There was no one else in sight, no rescuer, and no point in delaying the surrender of my wallet. So I held it out, and the mugger wearing the felt hat snatched it and ran.

It was pouring with rain now. A storm, which had not stopped a New Year fireworks display in the park, or halted a midnight marathon around the six-mile circular drive, had emptied the park of all but the birds and squirrels by mid­-afternoon.

The heavy cumulus clouds lifted on the second day of the year, and the sun drew purple-blue iridescence from the blue jay' s plumage. But the temperature was dropping rap­ idly from the forties of the previous wet twenty-four hours, and ice formed in glassy, uneven layers on wet rocks and footpaths. Despite the cold, the sun produced song from the winter residents of the park. A starling, looking for hibernating grubs, croaked as he turned dead leaves on the Great Lawn. He was chased off by a blue jay. With skeletal trees bare of summer leaves, it was easy to observe the other birds that inhabit the park at this time of the year. A male downy woodpecker darted from bough to bough, finally homing in on an oak and sticking tight to its bark as if drawn there by a magnet. A white-breasted nuthatch walked upside down under a thick limb, probing under the peeling bark with its long beak.

Black-headed Gulls in Mumbai, India in December 2016

Black-headed Gulls in Mumbai, India in December 2016

Central Park is a backyard for three million New Yorkers, and I was wandering in its 843 acres during those first days in January to pull my thoughts together. I had come to New York in search of something I could not define, to take stock, to find not a new beginning, but an adjustment of course, another avenue. If there had been a constant in my life it had been a casual interest in wildlife and now, for reasons I did not know, I was paying more attention to birds than anything else, drawing irresistible parallels between them and the people usin