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Who Discovered the Slaty-backed Gull in Central Park? The Spanish Inquisition.

Updated: Feb 18, 2022

Bird Notes: Yes a bird walk at 9:30am on Saturday (12 February): the forecast is for a mild day getting into the 50s. Sunday yes as always, but some snow is predicted - that will make Sunday's walk fun. See the Schedule page of our web site for more details, or below in this Newsletter. The Wire-crested Thorntail Hummingbird (above) was photographed in Ecuador in January 2017 by Deborah Allen. Since this is still winter we've included lots of Ms. Allen's tropical hummingbirds below.

10 February 2022

Because Nobody Expects a Slaty-backed Gull in Central Park

Way back in the early 1970s, a comedy troupe made its debut on Public TV on Sunday evenings at 10:30pm: Monty Python. Birders might remember their Dead Parrot routine. For our NYC birding purposes, we are interested in their sketch, "Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition"...because we employ similar weapons on our bird walks too: "fear, surprise, and a fanatical devotion to the truth." Or as my mom would say, tell me the "honest truth."

We have been following the saga of the Slaty-backed Gull since it was first reported on 1 February (2022) at the Reservoir in Central Park to the NYS Bird List. The finder/photographer of the bird (Evan Schumann) listed it as a Lesser Black-backed Gull on his original eBird checklist. Why? Because in Central Park, nobody expects a Slaty-backed Gull that is a resident of the western Pacific. And who in their right mind would? For several days prior, very similar Lesser Black-backed Gulls had been reported and photographed at the same location. Fortunately, Mr. Schumann included some photos of this mis-identified gull as part of his checklist.

Here is where the plot thickens: The person who deserves the credit for the discovery of this bird was not at Central Park that day. He is a British birder who has lived in the NYC area for many years (and currently holds the record for most bird species seen in one year in New York State). That would be Anthony Collerton perusing eBird from his desk at work. Collerton called the gull photos to the attention of another NYC birder (Andrew Baksh). They both agreed that the gull was indeed a Slaty-backed Gull, and this set the NYC birding community ablaze. We submit for your scrutiny these somewhat blazing posts to the NYS Bird List (click): here and here, and even here.

Again, nobody expects an "extra-limital" bird in Central Park. It is perfectly reasonable that Mr. Schumann erred in his original identification, and so what? Bob has made more mistakes than he cares to remember in stumbling towards accuracy. And this is not the first time a "discovery" of a rare bird occurred in Central Park through error. For those who remember the Boreal Owl of December-January 2004-05, its discovery was made by experienced birders, stumbling from what they expected to see, to what owl was actually in front of them. The Boreal Owl was first found the morning of the Christmas Count by a team who identified it as a Northern Saw-whet Owl. It was only later in the day that others realized that it was a Boreal Owl. Again, nobody expects to find a Boreal Owl, perhaps the rarest owl of the east, in Central Park. Discovery has strange twists of fate including mistakes, and the participation of several individuals working together. What we expect to see often overrules what we are actually looking at.

On the other hand, what we were less happy to see/read was some on social media attributing the discovery of the Slaty-backed Gull to other birders (who had also originally identified it as a Lesser-blacked Back Gull on their eBird check-lists). Again, nobody expects an extra-limital rare bird a priori in Central Park. But false attribution, when the social media writers know better, is not in the best interest of science, the historical record for Central Park, or to the individuals involved. The "truth" is so much more interesting than glorious fake media ("alternate facts") accounts.

This is not the first time Anthony Collerton (AC) has had others "steal" a bird discovery from him. In 2012, Mr. Collerton was on a pelagic bird trip off the coast of Long Island. He called out a Fea's Petrel (a European species) which would have been the first occurrence of this bird in NY State waters. AC wrote up his description for the NYS rare bird committee - but it was not accepted. A couple of years later (August 2014), people on a different pelagic trip off of Long Island, made the first "discovery" of a Fea's Petrel.

Our apologies for such a long intro. We wanted to set the record straight and give credit where credit is due! Here's a summary of the take home points of this essay: (a) scientific discovery via error/chance/accident, and by people working together is not uncommon; (b) the role of independents is critical in discovery and getting projects done. Those people not on the inside (not working in museums; not in bird societies/organizations etc) - their efforts are vastly underappreciated and overlooked - and not infrequently "stolen," and finally, (c), the Reservoir in Central Park becomes a great habitat in winter when ice covers at least 20% of its surface. Gulls (rare and common species) have a place to stand on rather than float in the water; and some of these (Ring-billed Gulls) become vulnerable to predators such as Bald Eagles. Why? The gulls try to take flight to escape, rather than jump into open water to gain safety as they might otherwise do in warmer times. ICE RULES!

[below] King Eider male on Staten Island at Great Kills Park on 8 Feb 2022 Deborah Allen

[below] Belted Kingfisher (male) in Manhattan at Randall's Island (Little Hell Gate

Salt Marsh) on 6 February 2022 Deborah Allen.

Muttonbird (Sooty Shearwater) for dinner on Stewart Island. This bird is one of the most common seabirds in the world.

In this week's Historical Notes we present only one excerpt (a) a 1909 article on the Barn Owls of Staten Island. At the time, these were the only nesting Barn Owls in NYC known to birders. But Barn Owls were probably also nesting in the Bronx (Pelham Bay Park) at the time as Irving Kassoy of the Bronx County Bird Club would watch nesting owls in the 1920s; and at one Manhattan High School (Regis on East 85th street between Park and Madison Avenues) founded in 1914, Barn Owls were found at the site when construction began. Anyway, the Staten Island article is amazing for the number of fine NYC naturalists including the author of the article (Howard Cleaves), + Mr. James Chapin and Alanson Skinner and Mr. William T. Davis (1846-1945; see also here) that are present to watch/photograph the Barn Owls that night.

adult Turkey Vulture on Staten Island on 8 February 2022 Deborah Allen. Just 25 years ago seeing a Turkey Vulture anywhere in NYC in winter was a big deal. Now "TVs" are year-round residents of Staten Island - and so are innumerable deer.

Lots of White-capped Albatrosses (Stewart Island, NZ) on 29 November 2019
Good! Bird Walks for mid-February 2022

All Walks @ $10/person - all in Central Park (except where noted)

1. Saturday, 12 February at 9:30am (Only!) Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive $10

2. Sunday, 13 February at 9:30am (Only!) Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive $10

3. Saturday, 19 February: TBA/TB Determined

4. Sunday, 20 February at 9:30am (Only!) Boathouse Cafe; 74th st/East Drive $10

Any questions send them our way: or call: 718-828-8262 (home)

young male Little Woodstar from Ecuador on 26 January 2017 Deborah Allen

[Gibson's] Wandering Albatross on 22 November 2019 at Kaikoura Bay (South Island, New Zealand)

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!

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 on 10 November at Shakespeare Garden (Central Park)

[above] female Spangled Coquette from Ecuador on 23 January 2017 Deborah Allen

Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)

6 February (Sunday) meeting at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe. Our best bet was the Reservoir - the Ramble was almost devoid of birds except for Fox Sparrows (3); many White-throated Sparrows (seems as though more this week than last); some Red-bellied Woodpeckers responding to calls (did not last couple of weeks); Brown Creepers (2) both by Armando: they seem to like the peanut butter he puts on trees for them...and Downy Woodpeckers, Cardinals + a surprise: Goldfinches (2). The first we've seen in a while. Most goldfinches have stayed up north this winter, but in the last few days post snowstorm in New England, some have made their way south to NYC.

So we headed north to the Reservoir to find the remaining frozen stretches to look for less common visitors such as Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, Bald Eagle, and if we were really lucky, one more visit from the Slaty-backed Gull. Because the central berm has been under water for most of this winter, the gulls have no where to stand...and these birds see/use the Reservoir quite differently once the ice forms over at least 20% of the surface, especially away from the edge. Ice to stand on attracts the rarer gulls in winter; and when lots of gulls are standing on the ice (vs sitting in the water), they are appealing to predators such as Bald we were hopeful. As it turned out we found a first year Bald Eagle heading south down the west side of the park - we were alerted to its presence because the gulls flew up en masse. No sign of "Rover" the 4th year Bald that has been eating here. And no Peregrine Falcons in the trees near the north end pump house...It is a 1 and 5/8ths of a mile around the Reservoir - we walked it just about. It was fun - and New York 1 (TV) interviewed some of us along the way.

Deborah's List of Birds in Central Park for Sunday 6 February 2022: Click Here

White-capped Albatross near Stewart Island, New Zealand on 29 November 2019

Barn Owl Washington State Jan 2016 Deborah Allen


Barn Owls Nesting in New York City (1909-1910)

HOWARD H. CLEAVES, Staten Island. N. Y.

A reader from the western United States, who does not know exactly what territory New York City embraces, might think it impossible, or at least improbable, that a pair of Barn Owls could be found nesting within the limits of the great metropolis. He might be equally surprised to learn that a Wood Duck reared a brood there not more than four seasons ago, and that Woodcock still nest there in considerable numbers. His amazement might be almost as great if he were told that Barred Owls, Red-shouldered Hawks, Killdeers, Blue-winged Warblers and Hummingbirds also find it congenial to build their nests there. But this delightful state of affairs could easily be made clear by explaining that semi-rural Staten Island is a part of the City of New York.

Had it not been for Mr. William T. Davis (1846-1945; see also here), our only pair of Barn Owls on Staten Island might have passed unnoticed, officially. He had known a farmer on the southern shore of the island for many years, and used to have the man report to him when the Barn Swallows had arrived each spring. One year, Mr. Davis was told by his friend of strange sounds that had been heard near the barn at night, and, from the description, it was concluded that the noise must have been made by an Owl. Investigation proved that not only was it an Owl, but that it was a Barn Owl, and that the bird and its mate occupied an old pigeon-cote at one corner of the main barn.

At a meeting of the Staten Island Association of Arts and Sciences, held November 17, 1906, Mr. Davis read a paper on these Owls, in which he said: "On the fifteenth of last September, I climbed as silently as I could to the pigeon-loft, but the Owls heard me coming and flew to the neighboring trees. On a lower shelf from the one they occupied I found four dead mice laid in a pile, and I was told that on another occasion they had eight others arranged in the same manner. One of the four mice found on the shelf was very large for a Meadow Vole Microtus pennsylvanicus, and while it may be that species, the authorities to whom it has been shown are not sure of its identity. It is now in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

"On account of their mouse-eating habits these Owls are very useful about a barn or farm; for, while the farmer is asleep, they serve him greatly in the preservation of his crops, and it has been truly said that during all of their wanderings they are aiding mankind, their only enemy.

"On the occasion of my visit, I collected a number of pellets or rejects of these Owls, and there were remains of a great many others nearby. From these pellets I have raised the Tineid moth (Trichophaga tapetzella), but I found no Trox beetles, as discovered in pellets found under trees on several previous occasions. . . . Dr. Dyar and other authorities regard this moth as rare in the United States.

"On the eleventh of November [1909], with Mr. James Chapin and Mr. Alanson Skinner, I visited the Owls for the third time, and, while I climbed to the loft my companions stood outside and watched the hole whence the Owls would fly. As before, the Owls heard me coming, and one walked out on the perch and stood in the light, where my companions could see it well before it flew off to a neighboring tree. It was then discovered that another Owl was hiding behind one of the rafters, and on two occasions it came from its retreat and walked about so that we could examine it closely, but it seemed anxious to hide behind a beam rather than to fly out into the daylight. Its gait was nervous and jerky, and it would stand for a moment and regard us, and then hasten to get behind the beam again. It is certainly a queer-visaged bird, is the 'Monkey-faced' Owl. It is also sometimes called 'Golden Owl', for its plumage is very beautiful."

It was through the kindness and influence of Mr. Davis that the writer was enabled to secure the photographs accompanying this article. My several experiences with this pair of Monkey-faced Owls were, with perhaps one exception, most enjoyable; and that exception was the fault, not of the Owls, but of an ignorant farm hand. I had taken Mr. Clinton G. Abbott to the barn, and both of us, equipped with Graflex cameras, hoped to photograph the old Owl as she flew from the pigeon-loft. But I had learned from previous experiences that someone was obliged to climb the ladder inside the cote in order to start the bird from her nest or from her roosting place. We looked about for a suitable third party to perform this necessary duty, but, contrary to the general rule, no inquisitive small boy was to be seen, and it was with reluctance that we approached one of the farmer's employees. We explained, with as little detail as possible, that, when we had scaled the outside wall of the main barn and reached the upper eaves with our cameras, he, at a signal from us was to slowly ascend the wooden ladder which leads to the top of the pigeon-cote.

We removed our shoes, strapped our cameras to our backs, and soon were perched in our lofty station, ready for action. The signal was given, our man disappeared through one of the doors which opens into the barn from the cow-yard, and presently we could hear him making his way up the ladder. It was a monument of great expectation and intense inward excitement. The hoods of our cameras were pressed hard against our faces, and the focus was kept sharp on the uppermost hole of the loft, for it was through this opening I had learned that the bird usually came. Suddenly there was a shuffling sound at the top of the cote, a white form pulled its way through the pigeon-hole, and a magnificent creature sprang out into space and winged silently away to seek the shelter of some trees on the opposite side of the road. But, with the first wing-stroke of the bird, there had sounded the "reports" of two focal-plane shutters, and, as we relaxed and shifted plates, our words of congratulation were mutual.

At just this moment, however, there began a commotion in the pigeon loft that immediately changed our smiles to scowls of apprehension. First there was a scuffling and scratching, intermingled with some inaudible mutterings from the farm-hand, and then there began a series of pitiful, wailing cries which one could easily have believed were issuing from a human throat, but which we knew to be coming from that of a terrified Barn Owl. The situation was as plain as it was painful. The bird that we had just photographed was the male, who had been perching; somewhere in the loft and had left at the sound of footsteps on the ladder. The female had remained at her post (which happened to be a nest containing eight eggs), where she had been discovered and captured by our "assistant." The bird's screams of distress suggested that the captor might be either choking her to death or wringing her neck.

"What's the trouble?" cried Abbott.

"Oi've got an owooll" shouted the Irishman.

"Let her go!" commanded Abbott.

"She's too valuable" came from the recesses of the loft.

"Don't hurt her, I tell you," we both called in chorus.

"Oi can get $5.00 for her" returned the villain from within.

"You can't get a cent for her" Abbott explained;" it's against the law to kill her. She's worth more alive than dead, and we'll make it worth your while to let her go."

But the only answer was another series of sickening outcries from the poor bird, so Abbott, who was nearest the end of the eaves, left his camera and made a rapid descent, to have, if necessary, a rather forcible interview with the man in the coop. Fortunately, for the Owl, the Irishman, on discovering that we were angry at his holding the bird captive, had not injured her in the least; and, when confronted by Abbott in person, he surrendered the prize.

We then talked to the man as pleasantly as possible under the circumstances, and explained that the Owls caught more rats and mice about the farm than a dozen cats. We did not forget, however, that it is wise occasionally to base one's reasoning on the fact that money, in such cases, speaks louder than words. A substantial "tip" was pressed into our friend's palm, as he was instructed to have an eye to the welfare of the Owls and, as we bade him farewell and hinted that we would return in a week or two, he smiled and said, "Lave it to me. There'll be nobody touchin' 'em if I know about it!"

Much to my relief, the subsequent visit proved that, although a few of the eggs had met with disaster, the rest had hatched and the young were in good condition. On this occasion I was accompanied by Mr. Davis, and, with his assistance, succeeded in again photographing the old Owl as she flew from the cote. Her mate was absent.

The Owlets were, at that stage in their development, about as ill-proportioned and unsightly as anything in the bird world. One of them we photographed. His feathers were still in the sheaths, his feet were large and ungainly, and his head was so big and heavy that it could only be swung slowly from side to side, much after the manner in which an elephant swings his trunk. While he was being handled and photographed, he was heard to give forth two or three different sounds, the one most frequently uttered being a plaintive chi-lc-lc-le, chi-le-ie-le, chi-le-le-le, repeated very rapidly.

It was discovered that, during the winter months, the Owls were not to be found at the barn. They evidently migrated each year in November, and, did not return until sometime in March. But the Owls did not return with the spring of 1910. All that could be found to indicate that the loft had ever been tenanted by them were a few decaying pellets; while it was learned that, for the first time in years, a part of the coop had been reclaimed by Pigeons. We can only entertain the hope that another spring will mark the return to the farm of these birds of mystery.


Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD

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

[above] Fork-tailed Wood Nymph from Ecuador on 21 January 2017 Deborah Allen

[above] Violet-fronted Brilliant from Ecuador on 26 January 2017 Deborah Allen

[above] Sparkling Violet-ear from Ecuador on 27 January 2017 Deborah Allen

[above] Brown Violet-ear from Ecuador on 30 January 2017 Deborah Allen


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