2021 Top 10 Birds

A reflective sunset in New York City

With the end of the year mere days away, I once again find myself reflecting on the events of the past 12 months. 2021 definitely saw its share of extreme highs and lows, fortunately not quite as volatile as 2020, and it has gradually trended towards the better despite some chaos along the way. In keeping with tradition, I’ve compiled a list of the best birds I observed over the course of the year. There were certainly more opportunities for travel compared to last year, including a trip to Seattle where I finally connected with Orcas and an imminent visit to Phoenix with plans to spend New Year’s at the Grand Canyon. Even so, many of the year’s most remarkable avian sightings still took place in my home state. On the whole, I am incredibly pleased with my collective birding experiences in 2021. Here are the memories that I have deemed to be the best of the best!

Honorable Mention: Snowy Owl

Let’s be honest: this species is a contender for my annual Top 10 every single year. It’s almost unfair to allow my favorite animal to stay in the running when attempting to spotlight a unique mix of noteworthy birds. I consider myself immensely fortunate to live in a region where this amazing raptor is an expected visitor. That said, there’s no denying that this year was a special one for Snowy Owls. The New Year began with a trio of cooperative Snowies out on Long Island’s barrier beaches, Jacqi’s first-ever sighting of the species. Less than a month later, one showed up a few blocks from her apartment in the heart of Manhattan. It was a surreal treat to observe this Arctic predator roosting on the ballfields of Central Park, and even more remarkable to watch it hunting around the Reservoir after dark a week later. As the cold settled in during the final months of the year, it brought with it another round of Snowy excitement. We’re currently in the midst of a sizable Snowy Owl irruption, which has already produced several awesome experiences during my rarity roundups and Christmas Bird Counts. Here’s hoping that the rest of the winter is equally productive! 

#10: Yellow-breasted Chat

Yet another of my favorite critters has managed to sneak onto this list, and with good reason. Though I haven’t had to suffer through a year without a chat since I first saw my lifer in 2014, 2021 delivered multiple uniquely surprising encounters with this special species. A sighting of this unusual bird was one of the many highlights on Global Big Day, when my friends and I documented 102 species in Central Park alone. A late spring visit to Maryland allowed me to spend some quality time with multiple displaying males on territory. I was shocked when I spotted a nocturnal migrant passing through the beams at the Tribute in Light this fall. Being witness to this seldom-seen aspect of life for such a secretive species was a genuine honor. The most notable Yellow-breasted Chat of the year, and indeed my entire life thus far, was an individual who spent several days hanging around a Manhattan micropark at the end of October. The bird was stunningly accommodating, providing unparalleled views and photo ops as it bounced around the pavement and battled House Sparrows for discarded snacks. I’ll never forget that delightfully friendly chat, which I was fortunate enough to visit multiple times before it continued on its migratory journey.

#9: Cerulean Warbler

It’s always a pleasure to get reacquainted with a species you haven’t seen in a while. 2021 offered a fair number of reunions with birds I had missed the previous year due to pandemic travel restrictions. Cerulean Warbler, on the other hand, was a species I’d been missing for quite some time, with no personal sightings since May 2018. This year, I finally added this brilliant sky-colored bird to my NYC list, with a lovely spring day producing not one, but two singing males in Central Park. We also secured this species for our total during our quest for 100 species on Global Big Day, a veritable saga which stands out as one of the best birding days I’ve ever experienced in New York. The fun didn’t end there, though. During my search efforts for the Big Atlas Weekend in June, I stumbled upon a mother Cerulean Warbler ferrying juicy caterpillars to a ravenous fledgling up at Sterling Forest. This observation was an exciting confirmation for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas, especially considering that the species breeds in relatively few regions throughout the state. 2021 saw me finally crack into the triple digits with 102 species personally confirmed as breeders, and the warbler was easily among my most prized discoveries.

#8: Pine Grosbeak

One of the biggest bird-related stories of winter 2020-2021 was the finch superflight that took over the eastern portion of the continent. Huge numbers of siskins, crossbills, and other northern species streamed southwards in massive flocks throughout the fall, allowing me to connect with a variety of regional rarities such as Evening Grosbeak and Common Redpoll over the course of the season. Pine Grosbeak is arguably the crown jewel of the irruptive finch family, a spectacular creature that only rarely visits the lands beyond its boreal forest strongholds. During a Vermont ski trip in the early days of January, I was elated to discover a flock of these chunky charmers roving about the frozen woods. Once I located the grove of fruit trees where they were spending most of their time, I was treated to jaw-droppingly close and extended views of the birds as they fed. My new camera gear quickly proved its worth, taking some of the best photographs of my career thus far. Having only seen Pine Grosbeaks a handful of times prior to 2021, these radically improved encounters made for an instant highlight of my year that maintained its place the top rankings even through 12 months of exceptional birding.

#7: Northern Lapwing

I observed 10 different species in 2021 that were new for my New York State list, bringing my lifelong total to 383. As I continue my quest towards 400, it’s clear that I’ve reached the rarified air where every addition is a high quality bird. Slipping in under the wire in the back half of December, Northern Lapwing is a bird I’ve dreamed of seeing in North America for a long time. I recall my first introduction to this singular species, leafing through my Dad’s well-worn Peterson field guide before I was even old enough to read. The illustration immediately caught my eye, and when I learned that it was a rare visitor to this side of the Atlantic my desire to meet it only grew. I didn’t encounter the species in life until I visited Spain in 2018, where I was pleased to cross paths with flocks of lapwings at several sites during my trip. There had been some stirrings about sightings of this species in the Northeast in recent weeks, but I was still unprepared to receive an alert of a lapwing on Long Island while I was seawatching out at Montauk. Even this fantastically bizarre bird couldn’t pry me away from my count responsibilities early, but as soon as I finished my route I raced to track it down. I was lucky enough to refind it after had gone missing for several hours, to the delight of many…not least of all myself!

#6: Roseate Spoonbill

Owls, finches, and lapwings aren’t the only species that made big moves this year. Summer 2021 saw a widespread northward push of countless wading birds that are typically restricted to the southern states. Although a handful of young individuals might wander out of range in a typical season, the numbers and diversity of this year’s vagrants were especially impressive. In New York, this movement event was bookended by my first state Wood Stork in May and a wayward “Great White Heron” that I connected with in October. The undisputed highlight of the invasion was a Roseate Spoonbill that was discovered during a saltmarsh survey that I attended with Brendan and Stephane. This state tick was a particularly sweet victory, since I’d previously seen a spoonbill a literal stone’s throw from the New York border a few years back. Being present for this serendipitous encounter was a major rush, and it also saved me the trouble of running around after any of the other half dozen plus individuals that were reported throughout the state this year. It’s always a delight when such a wonderfully weird and sought-after species unexpectedly drops into your lap.

#5: Florida Scrub-Jay

This year was fairly sparse on completely new birds, but the species I did check off were all delightful additions to my life list. A March visit to Florida with family afforded me the opportunity to seek out several targets that I had missed on previous vacations in the Sunshine State. A day trip to Wekiwa Springs turned up several singing Bachman’s Sparrows, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing their sweet tunes ringing through the open pinewoods. The true stars of the show, however, were the Florida Scrub-Jays that I met at Lyonia Preserve in Deltona. I have heard plenty of stories about how brazen and engaging these Florida endemics are over the years, and they certainly lived up to my high expectations. This species has been the subject of intensive research studying their fascinating social structure and their dependence on the vanishingly scarce scrub habitat of their namesake state. Getting to spend a morning in the company of these handsome corvids was well-worth the special effort and predawn drive. Floridians are fortunate to have such an ecologically fascinating species that exclusively calls their state home. 

#4: Black-legged Kittiwake

2021 saw a number of major changes in my life. Perhaps most notable of these is my in-progress move to Manhattan, where I will be spending the next 6 months. Although I am excited to start this new chapter in my life, there’s no doubt that I will miss the lovely little corner of Queens that I will be leaving behind. I have waxed poetic about my fondness for Astoria Park in countless other posts over the past few years, and I will always be proud of the impressive patch list I managed to build for myself. Although there were a number of incredible surprises to be found at that unassuming greenspace, far and away the greatest shock of them all was the Black-legged Kittiwake that I observed in active migration one fine September morning. I could have never predicted that my first observation of this pelagic gull for Queens County, or indeed all of NYC, would be an overland migrant passing high above the rooftops at my own beloved patch. More than any other sighting from Astoria Park, this record highlighted how important it is to keep an eye out for the unexpected while birding. You truly never know what will turn up, so it always pays to be alert and thorough in your searches. I can’t wait to see what my next patch has to offer, though it will be tough for it to top this bird!

#3: Swallow-tailed Kite

As I mentioned earlier, it was a great year for state birds in New York, for both my personal tally and the historical state checklist. While I was racking up overdue ticks like Yellow-headed Blackbird and Sedge Wren, birders around the state were adding new species like Tundra Bean-Goose and Snowy Plover to the cumulative total. Ferruginous Hawk was one of the official firsts that I was lucky to catch up with myself, but that wasn’t the only wayward raptor that I connected with in 2021. This was the year that I finally added Swallow-tailed Kite to my state list, a highly anticipated rarity that I’ve been searching for ever since I started taking my total seriously. All too often, this elegant sky sailor appears as a brief flyby seen by only a handful of observers, and on the few occasions individuals have lingered I have been unable to find time for a chase. Fortunately, a late summer wanderer that turned up in the Finger Lakes region was kind enough to stick around for several weeks. I had the distinct pleasure of enjoying this most superlative bird on my birthday, which made for a fantastic ending to my summer vacation. I couldn’t have asked for a better gift.

#2: LeConte’s Sparrow

Every birder knows the pain of missing out on a target, and most have experienced the agonizing series of repeated slights that gradually turns a species into a Nemesis Bird. The tale of my quest for a LeConte’s Sparrow stretches back as far as 2014, and I endured the sting of more than half a dozen strikeouts and missed connections over the years. I finally triumphed over this troublesome foe in February, but my lifer observation definitely left something to be desired. While I still celebrated the hard-won victory, I found myself wishing for more than a fleeting in-flight view of a swiftly fleeing bird. They are rather pretty little creatures, and I wanted to spend some quality time with them! Fate provided another shot at redemption when a pair of the secretive sparrows showed up at Croton Point Park in November. As per usual, they made me work for it. An evening detour when I was passing through the area ended in failure, and I logged multiple hours on a subsequent dedicated search in December. When I finally found what I was looking for, I savored close and extended views as the tiny golden nuggets moved through the grass and called to one another. I even managed to secure some identifiable documentation shots, though there’s plenty of room for improvement next time!

#1: Gray-breasted Martin

While birders take great joy in the relief of vanquishing a Nemesis or the celebration of meeting a lifelong dream bird, there is perhaps no greater feeling than the utter surprise that accompanies a truly unexpected megararity. When a totally off-the-wall vagrant that was never on anyone’s radar turns up without warning, the collective bewilderment and euphoria are simply unparalleled. So it was that a mysterious tropical martin discovered at Prospect Park on April Fool’s Day kicked off spring migration 2021 with a bang of epic proportions. Doug Gochfeld’s spectacular find and detailed detective work resulted in a community-wide identification effort the likes of which I’d never seen. It was beautiful chaos, pure and simple. Folks from all over the world offered expertise and insight on the bounty of media recorded by the hordes of observers who made the pilgrimage to partake in the historic event. When all was said and done, the body of gathered evidence was sufficient to rule out the other members of the notoriously tricky Progne genus and put a name on this wayward individual. The first modern record of Gray-breasted Martin for the United States, only the third ever documented after a pair of specimens from Texas in the 1880s, made for a genuinely legendary Bird of the Year. The saga surrounding this sensational swallow made for some unforgettable memories, and watching the New York birding community revel in the sighting was an easy highlight of my birding career. 

2022 would be hard-pressed to outdo the best that 2021 had to offer, but I’m still looking forward to what the New Year has in store. Here’s to better and brighter days ahead, and many more wonderful experiences to enjoy!