Another year has come and gone, and 2024 is now just a few days away. In keeping with annual tradition, the imminent end of 2023 calls for a retrospective review celebrating the best birds of the past 12 months. This year has provided an incredible suite of remarkable contenders to choose from, including dramatic lifer encounters, unexpected state list additions, and memorable experiences with local specialties. Even with my travel opportunities limited exclusively to the Northeastern States, I managed to rack up a total of 320 species for the 2023 year list, with some genuine all-star birds among them. Whittling that tally down to create a compact highlight reel is no small feat, but I am always grateful for the exercise in reflection and reminiscence. Without further ado, here is my countdown of the most noteworthy birds of 2023!
Honorable Mention: Harlequin Duck
There are some birds that have a strong argument to be included in the running for the Top 10 every single year! This spectacularly charismatic species has ranked highly on my list of favorites ever since I was a child. Plumage painted with unparalleled artistic elegance and a strong preference for inhabiting dramatically turbulent waterways combine to make the Harlequin Duck one of world’s very best birds. These magnificent waterfowl are an iconic seasonal fixture in appropriate habitat along the shores of Long Island, and no winter feels complete without a pilgrimage to the wave-tossed, rocky jetties they favor. This past February, a flotilla of cooperative Harlequins at Jones Beach Inlet treated me to the best photo ops of my career thus far. I had the good fortune to spend much of the morning in their company, marveling at their stunningly ornate patterns as they bobbed and dove in the pounding surf. This delightful encounter provided a much needed touch of warmth in the chilly conditions out on the coast. Several months later, I was honored to receive a wonderful hand-painted ornament depicting this species as a Christmas gift, courtesy of my dear friends Paige and Ryan on behalf of my goddaughter, Riley. These dashing little ducks never fail to impress, and I am already eagerly looking forward to my next observation in 2024.
#10: Bank Swallow
When one spends essentially all of their waking hours looking at birds, it is not unusual for commonplace species to take on new significance due to association with especially fond memories. Such was the case with the Bank Swallow in 2023. In any given year, I typically encounter these adorable aerialists a handful of times during their migration through New York City and at their localized breeding colonies scattered along the coast. Although our meetings are occasional enough to still feel somewhat special, this is not a species that has ever come particularly close to being featured in the esteemed New Year’s wrap-up post before. This past June, however, the swirling flocks of nesting swallows at the sandy bluffs of Camp Hero State Park served as set dressing for one of the most important moments of my life: when I finally asked Jacqi to marry me. Now, I will never be able to think of these birds without being instantly transported back to that unforgettable scene. Bank Swallows feel every bit as emblematic of our engagement as the picturesque Montauk Point Light, and indeed my lovely fiancée still fondly refers to them as “proposal birds.” As far as background characters for major romantic events go, I could not have asked for a more charming creature to accompany us on that magical day!
#9: Bay-breasted Warbler
“What are your Top 5 favorite wood-warblers?” has long been a popular question among North American birders. Given the generally high quality of this diverse family of migratory songbirds, this is not a prompt to be taken lightly, and responses are predictably varied and ardently defended. Though my own personal take on this query has shifted somewhat over the years, there is little doubt in my mind that the Bay-breasted Warbler is a shoo-in for inclusion on the list. The unique chestnut, cream, and charcoal color palette of the male’s courtship plumage makes him a standout in a sea of yellows, greens, and browns, and even the more subdued garb of young individuals and females has its own understated appeal. This species also manages to hit the perfect sweet spot of abundance: regular enough to be counted on with some reliability, but still uncommon enough to feature among the highlights of the day whenever they turn up. 2023 proved to be a particularly productive year for these handsome boreal breeders, and I logged numerous sightings during both spring and fall migration. The most noteworthy of these observations came from mid-May, when a bird singing from the street trees below my rooftop perch officially ushered my Astoria apartment list into the triple digits, just under a year after I first moved in. Talk about making a major milestone in style!
#8: Common Ringed Plover
Part of the challenge of birding is that there is always an inherent risk of failure when setting out to search for a particular bird. For some rarity chases, the odds are stacked heavily against the chaser’s favor, which makes it all the more rewarding when victory is finally achieved. This summer’s Common Ringed Plover experience served as a suitably worthwhile prize for a demanding effort. When Brendan and Taylor first discovered this Eurasian shorebird out at Old Inlet on the far eastern end of Fire Island, it was unclear whether anyone else would be able to find it again. Success would require a prolonged trek along the shore, followed by a careful scan to sift through the thousands of waders present at the site, including several hundred lookalike Semipalmated Plovers. In the first few days following the report, many made the attempt and few came away satisfied. Taking full advantage of the freedom afforded by summer vacation, I loaded up a cooler backpack and set out for an especially grueling day at the beach. With a bit of fortuitous assistance from fellow plover-seeker Ari, the bird finally revealed itself to me at close range for fantastic views and diagnostic photos. This individual represented only the 4th confirmed record of the species for New York State, and it served as a dramatic improvement over my distant, dissatisfying lifer views in Spain some 5 years prior. Standing triumphantly on the sandy flats with a breeze coming in off the Great South Bay, that celebratory beer tasted exceptionally refreshing!
#7: Atlantic Puffin
While my list of favorite birds is famously rather extensive, the list of birds that I count as former coworkers is considerably shorter! During the summer of 2014, fresh out of undergrad at Cornell University, I worked as an interpretive naturalist and visitor center educator for Project Puffin in Midcoast Maine. In all honesty, the nesting Atlantic Puffins of Eastern Egg Rock felt like every bit as much a part of the team as the island field researchers and the crew of the tour boats. These endearing seabirds are beloved the world over for their comical looks and entertaining antics, and my personal soft spot for the little charmers only grew over the course of the season I spent living alongside them. My last encounter with puffins was also my first sighting of the species in New York, when I observed several bird far out at sea on a winter pelagic way back in 2017. When Jacqi expressed her interest in taking a trip to Maine to celebrate her 30th birthday, I was keen to reconnect with my Puffineer roots and show her around the old stomping grounds. For the grand finale of a lovely week split between Portland and Acadia National Park, my good buddy Tabor at Cap’n Fish Cruises hooked us up with a puffin boat trip for old times’ sake. It was a delight to see these familiar feathered faces once again, and Jacqi’s first introduction to these lovable living bath toys left her positively enamored with them. I am hopeful that I will get the chance to cross paths with these winsome oceangoing wanderers again in the near future.
#6: Harris’s Sparrow
As frustrating as it can be to repeatedly miss out on seeing a bird, the successful conquest of a vexing avian adversary is always well worth the wait. The Harris’s Sparrow is one of those species that gave me the runaround for a surprisingly long time. Although their typical migratory route runs between northern Canada and the Central Plains states, these striking birds have a strong track record for vagrancy and frequently turn up far from home. Even so, I continually struggled connect with my quarry despite my best efforts. Discouraging near misses while searching for them in their core range, sticky staked-out individuals that I never found time to chase, and even a tantalizingly suspicious series of overheard call notes all haunted me over the course of multiple years, landing this bird among my personal frontrunners for Number One Nemesis status. In late October, fortune smiled on me at last when a wayward Harris’s Sparrow was reported just a few miles away from where I happened to be birding that day. Less than an hour after I first heard news of the discovery, I finally clasped eyes on this hefty, handsome songbird for the first time. The impromptu birder party that convened at the Hot Dog Beach parking lot was a marvelously convivial setting for celebrating this overdue lifer. Meeting a new bird is exciting enough on its own, but to share this unexpected victory with the company of good friends makes the memories all the more sweet.
#5: Swainson’s Hawk
My lifelong total of birds observed in New York finally crested 400 species after an incredible run of 17 new additions over the course of 2022, leaving 2023 with a pretty tough act to follow in the state listing department. Not to be outdone, the New Year started to deliver within the first few days of January, when a young Swainson’s Hawk turned up along the industrial waterfront in northern Staten Island. Jacqi and I dropped what we were doing and made haste to chase as soon as we could, arriving to find a outstandingly confiding raptor prowling for prey in some dramatically unusual surroundings. The hawk made multiple close, low passes as it patrolled the shoreline, pausing regularly on prominent perches with the Manhattan skyline looming in the background across the bay. I would not have expected a bird of the open prairies to make a temporary home for itself in such a heavily urbanized environment, but the Swainson’s Hawk wound up overwintering in the City, eventually relocating to the bustling ports of Brooklyn later in the season. This impressive individual proved to be simply the initial entrant in a docket of 10 splendid new state birds documented throughout the year, featuring some long-awaited inclusions like Western Meadowlark, Curlew Sandpiper, and Sandwich Tern. Even when compared to such steep competition, this wanderer from the west still held its own as one of the most memorable avian encounters of 2023.
#4: Smith’s Longspur
Patch birding is an endlessly fulfilling exercise unto itself, but every once in a while the fates deliver an extra special treat as a reward for one’s dedicated effort. This April, just before peak migration kicked into top gear, a highly anticipated New York City first arrived at my beloved Randall’s Island in the form of an astonishing Smith’s Longspur that touched down on the northwest ballfields. Many of the Randall’s Regulars had semi-seriously predicted this species as a plausible vagrant for our fair isle given the state of its available habitat, but with only a handful of documented records for the entire state it always felt like an rather unlikely long shot. I’ll never forget the sense of utter shock that hit me like a freight train when Mary Beth first sent me the preliminary photo for ID confirmation. The madcap scramble up nearly the full length of the Island was pure chaos, but in the end I was able to successfully enjoy this exhilarating find alongside Dmitriy, Adam, Efua, and a number of other birders from throughout the City and beyond. In all my travels across North America, I had never been within the nonbreeding range of this Arctic-nesting songbird during the appropriate season to cross paths with the species. Encountering such a high caliber global lifer on patch was an amazing experience, and a glowing testament to the potential of unsung, underrated hotspots. Little did I know that this would not be the final surprise that Randall’s Island had in store for me in 2023.
#3: Red-flanked Bluetail
Of all the mindblowing megararities that I have been fortunate enough to chase over the years, there is something singularly spectacular about the tale of the East Coast’s first Red-flanked Bluetail. It is incredible enough that the species hails from the opposite side of the planet, but on top of that it must be emphasized that this little globetrotter weighs a whopping half an ounce! The discrepancy between overall body size and distance from home, a minimum of some 4,000 miles regardless of whether it came from Siberia or Scandinavia, is the most extreme ratio for any vagrant I have ever met. I truly have a difficult time wrapping my head around the wildly improbable odds that this tiny creature would survive such an arduous journey, happen to land in a backyard where the homeowners recognized it as unusual, and subsequently stick around for hundreds of birders to successfully twitch it. Although the bluetail’s skulky habits made it an unpredictable target for many chasers, Jacqi and I were lucky enough to spot the adorable little songbird multiple times as it flitted energetically through the wood lots of a sleepy New Jersey neighborhood. Perhaps the most remarkable component of the narrative is the patience and enthusiasm of the residents of the community. No one could have prepared for the chaos that their far-flung guest brought upon them, yet they still welcomed the influx of unexpected visitors with open arms. Seemingly impossible events like this represent the very best of what birding has to offer, and I am beyond grateful that I got the chance to join the fun!
2: Black-chinned Hummingbird
November 2023 marked the first time in the history of birding that an all-new species for New York State was confirmed at Randall’s Island. That I was able to contribute to bringing this remarkable record to light for the greater community is a genuine honor and a privilege. The hard work of the Randall’s Island Park Alliance paid off in a big way when horticulturist Barbara Davaros discovered a late-lingering hummingbird visiting the carefully curated sage blooms at the Cottage Garden. She managed to capture a brief cell phone video, which rocked my world when it popped up at the top of my Instagram feed, and I called in the troops to follow up on my suspicions about its potential identity. The rush of excitement when I received those initial diagnostic photographs from Adam, Efua, and Brendan was a thrill that was only exceeded when I actually made it out there to see the bird myself. In stark contrast with other additions to the official Empire State list from this year, like the one-observer wonder Glaucous-winged Gull or the flyby lakewatch Short-tailed Shearwater, our Black-chinned Hummingbird proved to be staggeringly accommodating visitor. Birders traveled from all corners of the state to visit this enchanting little gem, and the bird stuck around long enough to be tallied for the Christmas Bird Count. Many of my patch birder buddies like to invoke the optimistic maxim that “the best Randall’s bird is yet to happen,” but there is no denying that this particular rarity is going to be tough to top. Next up, an ABA Area first? Whatever may await us in the future, I am confident that we will continue reveling in the enjoyment of this unforgettable experience for years to come.
#1: American Flamingo
I have followed along with the journeys of impressive individual vagrants and met with globally rare endangered species on multiple occasions over the course of my birding career, but little can compare to the sheer scope and spectacle of this year’s extraordinary American Flamingo invasion. News from the bird world rarely garners national attention from the mainstream media, but it should come as no surprise that a story centered on one of Planet Earth’s most universally familiar and admired birds would capture the hearts and attention of the public at large. Hurricane Idalia’s track across the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2023 was evidently perfectly positioned to displace hundreds of flamingos from their home range in the Yucatán, pushing the birds northwards and scattering them across the eastern portion of the North American continent. Over the course of the fall season, wayward flamingos were documented in no less than 18 different states, with flocks of the sinuous, rosy-plumed birds ranging as far north as the shores of the Great Lakes in Wisconsin and Michigan. Like so many naturalists, I have always been fascinated by the surreal blend of elegant and peculiar features that make flamingos so unique. When a pair of these Caribbean storm waifs finally turned up within striking distance, at a glorified puddle in Pennsylvania farm country, I stood no chance of resisting the call to adventure. The prospect of being part of this high-profile saga and getting to meet such a wonderfully weird species in a ridiculously incongruous setting over a thousand miles from its typical haunts was too marvelous to pass up. Ryan and I set out from New York City in the wee hours of the morning, and by dawn we found ourselves standing on a rural roadside, partaking in one of the most brilliantly bizarre birding experiences of my entire life to date. There is absolutely no question that my lifer American Flamingo encounter takes the grand prize as the best bird sighting of 2023.
Every new year brings its own set of challenges and celebrations, and as I look back on what 2023 had to offer I am proud to say that I am contentedly pleased with the final results. Through all of the ups and downs, I was fortunate enough to have the support and company of my friends, family, and loved ones, and no shortage of delightful birds along the way. There were missed opportunities, as well as some difficult losses, but there were also happy memories that will last a lifetime and moments that set the stage for wonders yet to come. On the whole, it was a year well lived. I welcome 2024 with open arms, and I have a high hopes for the surprises and successes that await in the imminent future.