Those Damn Sparrows: late October in Central Park

Updated: Nov 8



Vesper Sparrow in Central Park: once a common nesting species in parts of NYC (see below), now an uncommon to rare migrant. Photo by Deborah Allen in October 2008.

27 October 2021


Bird Notes: NOTE BENE OUR SCHEDULE: Starting the first weekend in November there will only be 9:30am walks on Saturdays/Sundays until early December. On SUNDAY 7 NOVEMBER, Marathon Race Day, we will meet at 9:30am at CONSERVATORY GARDEN which is 105th street and 5th Avenue, to avoid the craziness of the lower park during the race. You can always find our current SCHEDULE here (click on that link!), that we update regularly.


In this week's Historical Notes, we include articles on late October through November birding in our area: (a) a 1905 note about the Vesper Sparrow that today is an uncommon to rare sighting in NYC Parks. However in 1905, these birds bred in parts of NYC: "About New York the Vesper Sparrow is much more abundant than the Song Sparrow, and occurs in goodly numbers within the city limits. Among the fields of the Borough of Queens it is particularly abundant." So what happened? How did a formerly common resident become a rare migrant? ....in the intervening 100+ years we here in NYC lost all our open grassland nesting Vesper Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, Meadowlarks, Bobolinks and Bob-white Quail...but gained nesting forest birds such as Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks...and in shrubs near small patches of open areas: Song Sparrows. In (b) we send the November 1982 chapter on Birding Central Park from the fine book, The Falconer of Central Park by Donald Knowler - about $5 at Amazon. Note his mention of numerous Lesser Scaup (140!) in early November on the Reservoir; as well as a Tufted Duck; and Greater Scaup - birds we no longer see on the Reservoir - why (not)? In late 1982, the ducks that seem to have received the most attention were four Northern Shovelers, a common winter duck these days on both the lake and the Reservoir...so what changed? And no mention of Ruddy Ducks either; (c) during 1982 D. Knowler spent much time in Central Park doing research for his book: at least ten people were murdered or found dead, AND there were 25 rapes. ("The ten killings of 1982 were more than double those in the previous year [1981] and five times those in the year before that.") SO, we send a NY Times article for one of the Central Park victims that year: 17-year-old Luis Andres Christian of 72 West 88th Street...who died in quite unusual circumstances in early November 1982.


Deborah and I are off to Cape Town South Africa for a bit. We hope to publish the next Newsletter on 10 November or so with photos of seabirds, particularly south Atlantic Albatrosses, Petrels and others...and on land some of the Arctic nesting sandpipers that winter in southern Africa such as Greater Yellowlegs, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling and White-rumped Sandpiper among others. We also look forward to doing the usual touristy excursions such as the very popular "Swimming with Killer Whales" (only one ticket was available - obviously for the Mrs.); and the notorious, "Great White Sharks: Feed them by Hand." Back on land we are booked on the nocturnal, "Dancing with Hyenas" and on our last day, "Riding Hippos into the Sunset." Sandra Critelli will lead the bird walks in our absence - she is greaaaaat! We might never return.


Clay-colored Sparrow Central Park (the Pinetum) on 24 October 2021 Edmund Berry

Below: White-crowned Sparrow near Bellingham WA 27 January 2019 Deborah Allen

Bird Walks for Late October to mid-November 2021

All Walks @ $10/person

Directions to All Meeting Locations can be found here


1. Saturday, 6 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10.


2. Sunday, 7 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Conservatory Garden (105th street and 5th Ave) $10. N.B. this walk meets uptown - at the north end of the park...but easy to reach. We moved the walk uptown for this day only because the lower park gets crazy with security during the running of the NYC Marathon.

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1. Saturday, 13 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10. Sandra Critelli is away on a business trip on this Saturday.


2. Sunday, 14 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10.

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1. Saturday, 20 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10.


2. Sunday, 21 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10.

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1. Saturday, 27 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10.


2. Sunday, 28 November at 9:30am. Bird Walk. [ONLY 9:30am! No 7:30am walk]. Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/East Drive $10.

Call (718-828-8262) or Email us with questions: rdcny@earthlink.net

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The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 7:30/9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive). 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 meet at Conservatory Garden; Mondays at Strawberry Fields - check the "Meeting Points" page of this web site for exact meeting location.


Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is (rdcny@earthlink.net). 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) near 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 aim to please.


Swamp Sparrow in Michigan on 2 October 2015 Doug Leffler

Below: Swamp Sparrow at Brigantine, New Jersey on 6 October 2015 Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights):


We returned from Minnesota happy to be home...it was warmer in northern Minnesota on some days in mid/late October than here in NYC! So that is our excuse for having no Northern Goshawk photos to present. Instead we did well with lingering Sandhill Cranes (in nearby Wisconsin), and a Great Grey Owl at dusk at Sax-Zim Bog, a few miles north of Duluth. Deborah's photo of this individual is below.


As for our own bird walks in our much beloved NYC and Central Park, we had help! Sandra Critelli, pride of the Italians, covered the walks in our absence. But on Friday, 22 October (with Deborah leading all Friday bird walks), Paul Curtis MD found the group a Blue-headed Vireo; Dan Stevenson PhD found a Black-and-white Warbler (one of four warbler species for the day), and Peter Haskel PhD found an Eastern Towhee. But these are criminal pedantic birds found by persons of the same evil ilk...The best birds were found instead by the honest, good and ethical people on our bird walk: 50+ White-throated Sparrows, Brown Creepers...Eastern Phoebes, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers...and and two Green-winged Teal by (unfortunately) the criminal cat-woman herself (= the one going to swim w/ Killer Whales in South Africa). By Saturday, Eastern Towhees were on the paths in the semi-darkness - or was Bob sleepwalking and lying again? None could be found on the actual bird walk. I think we enjoyed most the three Blue-headed Vireos and the many Yellow-rumped Warblers. And of course Bob used his tape/sounds to bring in many many Hermit Thrushes - if we had to put a reasonable number, it was easily 50 if not 100. And if I kept playing the tape in one location for an hour, I could probably have had 200+...it is revealing how many individuals of this species are in the park in late October - usually high in the canopy and out of sight. These hidden Hermit Thrushes only become obvious and abundant using sound...when we watch them come into a crab-apple (or hawthorn) trees and grab the fruit one by one. I think we had 25 Hermit Thrushes at one time at eye-level at the "Oven" gobbling the hawthorn fruit with photographers clicking away.


Overnight light northwest winds brought a big sparrow fall-out on Sunday. We got a quick look at a Dickcissel before it flew off by the west side of Belvedere Castle. However, at Sparrow Rock we added Field Sparrow and White-crowed Sparrow...and along the way Swamp Sparrow, Song Sparrow...Chipping Sparrow. In the afternoon we ran up to the Pinetum to see the Clay-colored Sparrow first seen/discovered and photographed by Edmund Berry (see his photo above at the beginning of this Newsletter). There were a lot of sparrows today, which gave some people smiles and others fits. BUT everyone was amazed at the Red-breasted Nuthatch that buzzed around our heads (and gobbled up pine seeds) at the Pinetum. Sound...they love the sound of conspecifics and want to be part of a group. As for Monday, 25 October: we had a bird walk but all of the great Sunday birds had moved south. My favorite observation today was watching several flocks (of 15-20 individuals each) of American Robins heading south over the park between 8:30am and 10am.


Deborah's List of Birds for Friday 22 October: Click Here


Deborah's List of Birds for Saturday 23 October: Click Here


Deborah's List of Birds for Sunday/Monday 24/25 October: Click Here


Red-bellied Woodpecker (male) 24 Oct 2019 in Pelham Bay Park (Bronx) Deborah Allen

Below: Red-bellied Woodpecker (female) 6 Nov 2020 in Central Park Deborah Allen

Below: Great Grey Owl at Sax-Zim Bog (Minnesota) 19 October 2021 Deborah Allen

HISTORICAL NOTEs


Vesper Sparrow (NYC Area - 1905)

Poocates gramineus


John Lewis Childs


THIS bird is often mistaken for the Song Sparrow. Its song is similar, but easily distinguished when one becomes familiar with both. In size and coloration there is much similarity between the birds, but their habits are materially different. About New York the bird is much more abundant than the Song Sparrow and occurs in goodly numbers within the city limits. Among the fields of the Borough of Queens it is particularly abundant. Its food habits are similar to those of the Song Sparrow.


The Vesper Sparrow or Grass Finch is essentially a ground bird, living, feeding and nesting in pastures, fields and vacant lots. Its song is slightly less pleasing than that of the Song Sparrow, and may be heard late afternoons, particularly at sunset and dusk. Its habit of singing freely at this time gives the bird its common name. The principal distinguishing marks are its two white outer tail feathers. When the bird is flushed these two white feathers show plainly, as is the case with the Slate-colored Junco (Junco hyemalis).


The Vesper Sparrow builds its nest on the ground, and in location, construction, coloration and size of the eggs, which are four or five in number, closely resembles that of the Song Sparrow.

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Nesting Sparrows: The 1955 Breeding Season in the Pelham-Baychester Area, Bronx County (Pelham Bay Park)


Charles F. Young


1. Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum). A single pair bred on Rodman’s Neck and two pairs were present on Glover’s Rock Meadows.


2. Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta). A total of 121 pairs (probably an under-estimate) were found distributed throughout the area.


3. Seaside Sparrow (Ammospiza maritima). Four pairs bred on the east shore of the Hutchinson River at a point about 1000 yards north of the Parkway Bridge. The rarity of this species in the area seems paradoxical.


4. Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). A single pair was present on the Glover’s Rock Meadows. Conclusive evidence of breeding was not secured. Should the birds have bred, however, it would constitute the first county breeding record since the ’thirties (date of last breeding most indefinite).


Lesser Scaup on the Central Park (Reservoir) 22 March 2013 D. Allen

Falconer of Central Park [November 1982].

by Donald Knowler: https://tinyurl.com/y4h96jxe


An unseasonable heat wave enveloped the park on November 1, and the body of a seventeen-year-old youth lay still and cold in the Ramble. The corpse had been found by a jogger in the early morning and as police recovered two knives and three spent .45-caliber shells near the scene of the crime temperatures rose to the upper seventies. It was like summer again-the last of the warblers, the yellow­-rumped, chased insects through the willows at the Upper Lobe, which was still in green leaf in contrast to the rest of the park.


The clues to the killing of the teenager were being pieced together the next day when a decision was made to assign two more detectives to the Central Park precinct, bringing its strength to six detectives and a sergeant. The ten killings of 1982 were more than double those in the previous year and five times those in the year before that.


The heatwave, fueled by southerly winds, persisted for the first week of November. Numbers of lesser scaups [see photo above] were still building up on the reservoir, reaching about one hundred and forty birds by week's end when temperatures would begin to drop again.


On November 4 detectives had charged three youths with the murder of the teenager. A routine check at hospitals had revealed the name of a sixteen-year-old boy who received treatment for a knife wound on the night the youth had been killed. The boy admitted being in the park that evening and, along with the two other accused youths, to having committed several robberies. But the three teenagers said they knew nothing of a murder.


The willows at the Upper Lobe, which had been the first trees to sprout leaves in the spring, started to turn yellow on November 8, the last time I would see the yellow-rumped warblers. By this time police had identified the dead youth as Luis Christian from a missing persons report; then a check of his friends led to a man being charged with manslaughter and to the charges against the other three youths being dropped. Christian and all the others had been part of the same gang, robbing in Central Park. On the night Christian died two intended victims had pulled guns and fired at the youths. In the melee, Christian was stabbed in the throat by his friend, staggered a few feet and collapsed dead. [Below, at the very end of this excerpt, is the original New York Times article on the death of Luis Christian and related information.]


Below: Eastern Meadowlark Central Park on 1 October 2021 Deborah Allen

The smell of rotting leaves-the leaves forming a carpet a foot deep in places-filled the woods; a heavy, gassy, un­pleasant odor. Perhaps the pungent smell drove the hermit thrushes south because I was not to see another of the species before the second half of November.


All the summer migrants had gone now except the laughing gulls on the reservoir, and these would remain until the first week of December, meeting briefly with the incoming Iceland gulls from northern Canada.


The pattern was now set for the winter and the focus of the birders switched to the reservoir. The steady build-up of waterfowl brought its surprises. A female ring-necked duck arrived on November 7 and next day four shovelers, two of them fine males, were seen preening themselves amid the raft of lesser scaups, which spread along the entire length of the west side of the reservoir.


The ducks were oblivious to the human drama and agony that haunts that top end of the park, where lights do not work and police patrols are less frequent than in the busier southern areas. Early in November a woman jogger was attacked as she ran around the reservoir footpath. It was the latest of twenty-five rapes in the park during the year, and on November 13 flyers were handed out to thousands of women taking part in a four-mile race, advising the runners to take precautions.


The titmice and chickadees were also taking precautions when a red-tailed hawk flew in low circles across the Great Lawn and then took in the Ramble in a second sweep. The small birds headed for cover and remained hidden until the hawk passed. But there was another kind of danger which tens of thousands of years of evolution had not prepared the titmice for-a human trap. Bird feeders had appeared in a hawthorn bush in the Ramble, which had retained its leaf late into the fall, and then a birder had seen a man hiding in the bush. The man had a bird cage with him, full of confused titmice and chickadees, which were flying in panic against the bars. The bird feeder contained a sticky sub­ stance buried under the seed and this proved an effective method of catching the birds. The birders, however, ordered the man hiding in the bush to release the titmice and chickadees. Protesting in Spanish, the man finally opened the cage's door and the birds flew to freedom. But then he reached into a bag he had at his side, and the two birders thought he might have a gun. They scrambled to safety.


Blackpoll Warbler Central Park on 1 Oct 2021 Deborah Allen

Skandy, the polar bear with a record, was not alone in adversity. Soon a post-menopausal gorilla called Caroline and a mean-tempered and distrustful elephant named Tina would share something in common with him: they would all be without a home. Work had started in November on moving two hundred animals from the Central Park Zoo to other locations, in preparation for a renovation program. But homes had not been found for the trio of imprisoned souls, who had brought so much pleasure over the years to the people on the other side of the fence. Tina, who was twenty­ five, had been dominated for fourteen years by her late mate, and the death of a trainer she loved had added to her paranoia and anger. She was considered dangerous and zoos were reluctant to take her. With Skandy it was a simple case of reputation, his label as a man-killer; and the saddest case of all was that of Caroline-her only fault being her age, her inability to bear a recipient zoo valuable offspring.


• • •


I had stepped up my visits to Billy [a feral cat in Central Park in 1982] to every second day from the beginning of November because I knew there would be fewer birds to catch when winter arrived. His coat had been growing thick throughout November and the mini-heat wave in the first few days of November made him testy and irritable. At first he had wanted to play, to bite my hand and to be chased across the rocks, but he soon tired of this. He panted with his mouth wide open, dribbling at the tongue, and then looked at me aggressively if I tried to continue the game. Once he struck out with his front paws but stopped short of unsheathing his claws. When the temperature re­ turned to normal he looked happier and encouraged me to stroke his back by arching his spine and rubbing his body against my legs. But Billy never purred, he was not a purring cat.


The temperature touched freezing point on November 16 and Billy was nowhere to be seen. I walked around the outcrop which was his home, calling, but he did not arrive. The bed of grass and leaves in his lair was cold and damp; he had not slept there all night. Maybe he was still out hunting, but it was late morning.He should have been back. I strolled to the rear of the police station house, to the place where I had first seen Billy, the location of his first lair. He was not there, either, and I began to feel a sickness in my stomach, an ache which was rising to block my throat and impair my ability to talk or think of anything but Billy's immediate fate. I strolled around the reservoir and passed a policewoman, whose curly red hair was trying to fight its way out of her Hat-top cap. I wanted to ask her if she had seen a black and white cat, like the one in the Tom Cat advertisements of yesteryear, but I thought she might think me silly, or put me under surveillance as some kind of park maniac. The policewoman was on a newly instituted patrol of the reservoir footpath to deter rapists and muggers,and she walked with a confident stride that did not hide her femininity under the heavy police-issue coat. But her friendly, all's-well smile, was not enough to persuade me to ask her if she had seen Billy.


Every day I went looking for Billy. I left fish at his lair and it went uneaten,and the ache in my stomach intensified. By the fourth day I had difficulty concentrating on my job. On the sixth day of Billy's absence a male ring-necked duck was reported on the reservoir,and I thought the excitement of seeing this uncommon species in the park might take my mind off Billy. On my way to the reservoir I checked the two locations where I had been leaving scrod and was encouraged to find the fish missing from the Ramble lair. But I was guarded in my optimism. Rats could have finally found the fish, I reasoned, but I left a fresh supply at both locations, all the same.


The duck was magnificent, similar to a tufted duck, only with a ring of white behind his neck. But after watching him my thoughts wandered to Billy. I hurried back to the Ramble. From a hundred yards away, through branches now bare of leaves, I saw Billy on the top of the largest rock in the area. He was watching for me. The rock, a favorite sunbathing spot in summer for gays, is situated behind the Azalea Pond. Billy became excited as I approached. I scram­ bled up the schist, finding a foothold in grooves worn by glaciers forty thousand years ago, and when I reached the top Billy scaled down the far side of the rock. He was leading me back to his lair, jumping from rock to rock, looking back at me and opening his mouth in a silent mee-ow.


He had already found the fish above his lair and had eaten it. He demanded more. Luckily I had some left in my pack and he fed hurriedly, swallowing large chunks of fish at a time. I stroked his warm back, digging furrows in his fur with my fingers.


I had to do something about Billy, but I did not know what. From the time he first came to my hand I had thought about taking him to my apartment, and turning him into a fifth-floor cat, with a litter box in the bathroom and meals that came in sealed tinfoil packets, the cat equivalent of the television dinner. That scheme, I decided after much agonizing, would not work out. The land beyond the park, of declawed cats, debarked dogs and de-squeezed pet snakes was not for Billy. He would not fit in, and I knew he would make a run for it down the fire escape the moment I opened a window. There had to be another answer; for the time being I hoped he would dodge the cat-catchers and the cars on the circular drive, and if he ate any rat poison, I hoped he would die quickly and not bite at his stomach where the poison bit.


Clay-colored Sparrow Central Park (the Pinetum) on 24 October 2021 Deborah Allen

Greater scaups, with bottle-green rounded heads, could now be seen among their smaller cousins on the reservoir, and by Thanksgiving Day numbers of lesser scaups had increased to about three hundred. Ten canvasbacks were with them but the day belonged to a male buffehead with three females. The white sides of the drake's body stood out brilliantly in the sun and against the sparkling blue water, as though he were a painted, glazed piece of fragile porcelain