Black-chinned Hummingbird at Randall’s Island: the Community Discovery of a State First

At its core, birding is a collaborative effort. The most basic fundamentals of the pastime, such as strategies for identification and understandings of ecology and distribution, are built on the collective knowledge of observers who came before us. News of noteworthy sightings is shared across a dizzying array of communication channels, and most birders would admit that some of the fondest memories of their careers can be attributed to the discoveries of others. Even when we bird alone, we carry with us the wisdom of multitudes in our field guides, apps, and minds. There are times, however, where this wonderfully wacky extended family comes together in truly remarkable ways, to the benefit of all members involved.

Throughout the birding community of North America, November is widely considered to be The Weird Month. Late autumn is prime time for unusual bird sightings, as wayward wanderers across the continent begin settling into far-flung stopover sites for the winter. Young individuals struggling through their first migration, storm waifs blown off course by fierce weather systems, and spectacularly lost vagrants searching for suitable habitat are all frequent candidates for generating surprise rarity alerts during the penultimate month of the year. A Corn Crake lurking along the shoulder of a Long Island parkway, a Common Cuckoo prowling a farm field just outside Providence, a Limpkin strolling about on the shores of the Niagara River, and countless other improbable occurrences have served as the highlights of my Novembers past. I was eager to see what 2023 had in store, and as expected the month did not pass by without an appropriately unexpected shocker.

The saga began with an Instagram post, which I chanced upon as I scrolled through my feed in the final minutes of a Friday lunch break. The Randall’s Island Park Alliance had shared a short cell phone video featuring a hummingbird flitting about and sipping nectar from some vibrant blooms. In an instant, my birding brain was put on high alert. The late date was the first hint that something was off. Any hummingbird observed in the eastern United States during November deserves special scrutiny, since our expected Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have essentially all cleared out and migrated south to Central America by now. The alarm bells in my mind started ringing even louder when I noticed that the bird was flicking and fanning its tail with frenetic frequency, a habitual behavior commonly seen in the Ruby-throat’s western counterpart, the Black-chinned Hummingbird. Though these few seconds of footage were not diagnostic on their own, they were strongly suggestive of the tantalizing possibility that there was a first New York State record hanging out at my own beloved patch.

Knowing that I had a few more classes to teach before the official start of the weekend, I quickly began organizing an effort to follow up on this sighting and confirm my suspicions. I first reached out the Randall’s Island park staff and verified that the video, which had been recorded by plant ecologist Barbara Davaros, was from the previous day. They also informed me that the hummingbird was still present at the Cottage Garden at that very moment! I sent the clip around to several of my birding friends, imploring them to investigate further at their soonest convenience. Efua, Adam, and Brendan swiftly converged on the scene, and by the time Dmitriy showed up a short while later they had secured a series of exceptional photographs that clinched crucial details like the round-tipped, club-shaped flight feathers, the subtly longer and lightly decurved bill, and of course that constantly, conspicuously pumping tail. The word spread like wildfire through the rare bird alert airwaves: New York’s first Black-chinned Hummingbird had arrived!

At the toll of the final dismissal bell, I dashed out the door with several of my students cheering me on and wishing me luck. I made haste to reach Randall’s Island before nightfall, and I pulled up to the stakeout mere moments after the hummingbird had finished an extended feeding session. There was some speculation among the assembled birders as to whether it was simply enjoying its last meal of the day or if it was fueling up for departure, which certainly added to the stress levels of those of us who had been held up at work earlier in the afternoon. It was a long, agonizing wait in dwindling daylight to see if the bird would reappear, but eventually we spotted a tiny, winged dart whizzing back and forth between the trees, occasionally producing squeaky-voiced twitters. The hummer ducked into the dense foliage of a nearby holly just before sunset, seemingly settling down to roost and marking the official end of the evening’s performance. I was relieved to have experienced at least a brief brush this remarkable rarity in person, but I was still left wishing that I could have enjoyed the encounter more thoroughly. I resolved to return bright and early on the morrow in the hopes of improving on these all-too-brief views.

The next day, I walked across the RFK Bridge in the predawn gloom, reaching the Urban Farm area in the southeastern sector of the Island well ahead of sunrise. Other birders started appearing within seconds of my arrival at the conveniently situated parking lot just outside the Cottage Garden restrooms. The crowd of weekend chasers predictably swelled rapidly, with folks traveling from great distances across the Empire State to try their luck at connecting with this long-anticipated first record. We suspected that the bird would be eager to feed if it had stayed in the area through the night, so all we could do was watch for signs of activity as we waited for the light of dawn to warm the landscape.

At 6:53 AM, just a few minutes after the official break of day, Adam spotted the hummingbird buzzing around the far side of the garden in search of breakfast. It swiftly fluttered from plant to plant, pausing to inspect each of the various flowers in turn. Completely unbothered by the growing throng of admirers, the hummer obligingly approached quite closely as it sampled nectar from its preferred blooms, twitching its flashy tail like an extra wing all the while. In between bouts of foraging, it often settled on a tall, unobstructed sprig rising from a nearby rosebush, offering fantastic photo ops as it swayed gently in the breeze. From this lofty perch, the Black-chin occasionally launched into flycatching flights, deftly snagging passing insects out of the air to supplement its morning meal. These prolonged, close-range views certainly exceeded my fleeting, twilit glimpses from the previous evening, and the experience was further improved by the company of various friends who had journeyed from far afield to partake in the excitement. All successful rare bird stakeouts are marked by an atmosphere of conviviality and mutual enjoyment, and the intensity is amplified dramatically for a state first record! I was flattered to receive some congratulatory compliments and thanks for recognizing this individual as a potential megararity, and I made a point to share the glory and emphasize that none of this would have been possible without RIPA’s hard work and Barbara’s sharp eyes. If that fateful video had never been recorded and posted, this little lost bird could have easily escaped the notice of the wider birding community altogether!

I spent a decent chunk of the morning admiring at the hummingbird and marveling at the spectacle its discovery had produced, and I departed for the day knowing that I would not be able to stay away for long. I had already established plans to visit Randall’s Island on Sunday morning long before I was aware of the Black-chin’s presence, and an update from Ryan that he was coming back to town early in the hopes of meeting the bird only served to reinforce that commitment. Just as I had the day before, I made the trek across the East River under cover of darkness. To my great surprise, the peak activity of the Leonid meteor shower was visible even here in the heart of the City, and I spied two distinct shooting stars streaking across the dusky skies. Once again, I was the first birder on the scene, but it didn’t take long for others to start showing up. There had been some muttered concerns within our group regarding whether or not the hummer would hang around through the dropping temperatures and northwesterly winds associated with the cold front that arrived overnight. Fortunately, the bird showed up promptly with the rising sun at 6:48 AM, just as Ryan and Dmitriy were approaching the garden. The collective sigh of relief was palpable!

The diversity of late-blooming Salvia plants, carefully curated by Barbara and the rest of the RIPA horticultural staff, clearly played a major part in persuading the Black-chin to stick around. Mexican Bush Sage, Black and Blue, and Pineapple Sage, along with some supplementary Common Lavender, have remained in full flower even in these final stages of the fall season, providing a bountiful buffet of nectar for our delightful visiting celebrity. The skies were considerably clearer than they had been the previous day, which resulted in stronger, warmer lighting for the dawn photoshoot. Rare birds are seldom as accommodating and cooperative as this individual, and we were all grateful for the opportunity to spend more quality time in the company of this adorable little vagrant.

When we finally managed to pry ourselves away from the stakeout, we set out explore our usual circuit around the Island to see what else we could find. The rest of the morning featured a lovely sample platter of late autumn Randall’s specialties, including American Pipit, Pine Siskin, and a group of Horned Larks. We picked an American Tree Sparrow out of a mixed flock when we paused to say hello to the continuing Pied-billed Grebe at the Bronx Kill, and we also flushed an American Woodcock from the edge of the trail through Freshwater Wetland. It proved to be a wonderful morning on patch overall, capped off by one last visit to the Cottage Garden to watch the hummingbird frolic about for a bit longer. What a fantastic weekend!

It is truly mind-boggling to consider how easily this record could have slipped through the cracks. A single misstep at any point in the chain of events that led to the public dissemination of the sighting might have prevented the entire narrative from reaching the tidy conclusion we were so fortunate to enjoy. If Barbara had not detected or recorded the hummingbird at the garden, it could have come and gone with none of us being the wiser. If the algorithm had not prominently displayed the video for me to see as soon as it was shared, it might not have been noticed by another birder until weeks or months later, far too late to follow up. If my friends had not been able to successfully track down the bird and obtain clear photographs, the whole business may well have remained a haunting, mysterious missed opportunity. In the spirit of the season, I am beyond thankful that the stars aligned for this charming little visitor to become known to the community at large, and I am honored to have played a part in the series of connections that made this discovery possible! The birding world is at its best when we all combine forces in our shared passion and work as a team. I am confident that the strange tale of New York’s first-ever Black-chinned Hummingbird will stand as an enduring testament to that truth.