April Showcase: Pre-Peak Migration Highlights

The month of April often feels more like an appetizer than a main course in the world of birding. While we’re well past the late winter doldrums here in New York, the maximum excitement of the May peak has not yet arrived. Though migration activity increases steadily but slowly throughout the month, the anticipation of the coming high can make the gradual build-up feel like a bit of a tease. Mindblowing days with rich diversity and high counts of individuals are relatively rare during April in the Northeast. Even so, the slow boil escalation of northward movement can produce plenty of surprises, including early arrivals and wayward wanderers. The first act of Spring 2022 was no different, featuring a number of fantastic finds that set the stage for another brilliant migration season.

In the last days of March, several nights of southwesterly winds provided ideal conditions to jumpstart spring migration. I continued to follow the gameplan from late winter, spinning the Randall’s Roulette whenever I had a free weekend morning. Manhattan’s outlying islands can be quite productive during this early movement period, especially when it comes to waterbirds. Our last outing before the start of April turned out to be a doozy. While Dmitriy, Adam, and I were scanning the water off the northeastern shoreline at daybreak, I spotted a large shorebird flying directly towards us. I’d never had the pleasure of shouting “OYSTERCATCHER!” out of pure excitement before, but it was a wonderful moment that highlighted the special appeal of patch birding. Although this species is an abundant breeder on the ocean beaches of Long Island, there are only a handful of documented records for New York County. The bird didn’t stick around, making a low pass near the mouth of the Bronx Kill before turning back and gaining altitude to resume its migratory flight. Sightings like this make us feel justified in our efforts to reach Randall’s before sunrise whenever we visit. Our morning also featured observations of multiple Wilson’s Snipes and American Woodcocks, making for a rather impressive wader hat trick.

The final gift of this uncharacteristically pleasant March was an American Bittern that appeared at the Pool in Central Park on the eve of April Fools’ Day. I stopped by for a visit after work, enjoying a prolonged photo shoot with the bizarre, burly heron as it stalked through the sparse vegetation lining the shoreline. Living only a few blocks from this lovely water feature certainly has its perks! The bittern proved to be an incredibly cooperative subject, sitting still and relying on its impeccable camouflage even when it was completely exposed. These were certainly some of the best views I’ve ever had of the species.

With the onset of April came a fresh influx of migrant landbirds. I spent the first Saturday of the month exploring Central Park, teaming up with Efua for part of the morning. We were able to connect with a handsome Yellow-throated Warbler that had been discovered the previous day, and we also found our first Pine Warblers of the season. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Cedar Waxwings, and American Goldfinches were considerably more conspicuous than they had been throughout the winter, and Eastern Phoebe numbers were through the roof. A Randall’s Island visit the following day produced newly arrived Savannah and Field Sparrows, and well as Barn, Tree, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows.

In 2021, April kicked off with the incredible first state record of a Gray-breasted Martin at Prospect Park. Not to be outdone, 2022 followed suit with a report of a Zone-tailed Hawk over Green-Wood Cemetery. In contrast with the remarkably accommodating swallow, this rare raptor was seen by only a handful of observers as it made its way north. Though it was an exciting and long-anticipated addition to the New York State checklist, the flyby hawk undoubtedly left a number of disappointed birders in its wake. I suspect that all eyes will be on Brooklyn to see what turns up when April 2023 rolls around. Fortunately, the community was offered an unexpected shot at redemption with another state first less than a week later! I was enjoying a Friday morning free period when word broke that a Mottled Duck had been discovered by Ernst Mutchnick at Ketcham’s Creek in Suffolk County. I made haste to chase, taking the Long Island Rail Road out to Amityville as soon as I got off work. The bird and its Mallard mate reappeared the instant I arrived on the scene, resulting in much rejoicing from those who’d been searching in vain for several hours. I was treated to fantastic views of the surprising southern vagrant as it paddled around the wetlands, allowing me to snap a few documentation shots with my phone through my binoculars. I was grateful for my good luck with this duck, especially since the wandering waterfowl proved to be tricky quarry that necessitated multiple attempts for many subsequent twitchers. 

Yet another night of southwest winds brought yet another dawn patrol at Randall’s Island, this time with a full crew of Dmitriy, Ryan, Efua, and Adam. We found a number of the now expected early spring specialties for this site, including several snipes, a sample platter of lingering waterfowl, and plenty of Fish Crows and egrets commuting from their communal roosts. The overwintering Orange-crowned Warbler was still hanging around as well, singing more frequently and chasing other songbirds aggressively. The bird of the day, however, was a young male Blue Grosbeak that I picked out at the native grassland knoll. This was an extremely early arrival date for our region, suggesting that the favorable winds and light rains may have resulted in a “slingshot” effect that propelled southern species northward further and faster than usual. I’m always fascinated by the complex interactions between weather conditions and migratory movement, and every season plays out differently from the last!

I made a midweek detour to Brooklyn to search for a migrant Least Bittern that had been reported hanging around Prospect Park Lake. The bird was readily found clambering through the reeds across from the Well House, providing me with a unique opportunity to observe its hunting behavior at close range. I watched it stalk and successfully spear a Bluegill, a hearty meal for this incomprehensibly tiny heron, before it retreated to dense cover to digest its prey. As a bonus, I crossed paths with a pair of European Goldfinches, representatives of a currently non-countable but growing breeding population that is resident in this corner of the city. I don’t get to bird Kings County as often as I would like, but my efforts here are consistently enjoyable.

While I was busy admiring the bittern, the Manhattan crew was buzzing over rumors of a Wild Turkey sighting at Inwood Hill Park. This species has an odd history in New York County. It is generally rare despite its abundance just outside the city limits, though the occasional dispersers that turn up in parks and greenspaces sometimes linger for months or even years. Nowadays the turkey has basically achieved cryptid status, with infrequent reports of brief encounters with birds haunting the wild northern fringes of Manhattan. This most recent individual was reported by two separate birders in the same evening, so we were cautiously optimistic about our odds of connecting with it. I joined Dmitriy for his 9th expedition to search for this wily quarry, thoroughly surveying all of Inwood and focusing our efforts on areas where previous observations occurred. We were just about to give up when I heard the faintest movement in the undergrowth. To our shock and amazement, a turkey casually emerged from a small bush, glanced back over its shoulder at us, and effortlessly disappeared into the forest. I’ve never felt more like a Sasquatch chaser than I did in that moment! Unexpectedly, photo review revealed that the female we found was a different bird from the male reported a few days prior. Who knows how many turkeys are roaming the outskirts of NYC?

Spring break filled up with vacation plans pretty quickly, but I still found time to explore the city parks in between my outings up and down the East Coast. The latest Randall’s Island visit produced a number of noteworthy sightings, featuring good movement of Common Loons overhead and a pair of Ospreys constructing a nest on a channel marker off the northeast shore. Snowy Egrets were especially numerous on this overcast morning, with a maximum count of 16 individuals foraging in the waters of the Bronx Kill at low tide. Many of these birds were sporting their courtship finery, with wispy aigrette plumes and vivid red facial skin. It was quite a spectacle to watch these striking white birds actively dashing around in pursuit of small fish in the shallow, muddy creek.

A walk through Central Park on the way home turned up a few additional prizes, including a long-staying Great Horned Owl and a newly arrived Prothonotary Warbler. I didn’t have too much time to spare, however, because Jacqi and I had a long drive ahead of us. In the early afternoon, we departed NYC for North Carolina. My family had rented a beach house in the Outer Banks for a few days, a formerly annual tradition that has fallen by the wayside in the past decade or so. This year they selected a property in Carova Beach, which is only accessible by a 4×4 access road. The relatively secluded site proved to be the perfect location for a relaxing coastal getaway with my loved ones. There was plenty of food, drink, and revelry to be had over the course of the week, and the wildlife watching opportunities were pretty fantastic, too. Brown Pelicans patrolled the coastline alongside Royal and Sandwich Terns, while White-eyed Vireos and Carolina Chickadees sang from the dune scrub. Whimbrel, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and Green Heron were among the early migrants observed, and we were treated to the serenades of Chuck-will’s-widows each night. I documented a number of southern specialties like Brown-headed Nuthatch and White Ibis, and I also stumbled upon a local rarity in the form of a Loggerhead Shrike. Even when stormy conditions kept us confined to the house, I was able to watch seabirds right off the back deck, documenting several Parasitic Jaegers moving with the flocks of gulls and gannets that had been blown closer to shore. The famous feral Banker Horses were a daily presence, and we also spotted Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins and Virginia Opossums on several occasions. All in all, the trip was a delightful success, and I returned to New York feeling refreshed and recharged.

I made a visit to Jamaica Bay on my first day back in the city, exploring the trails to see what migrants had rolled into town during the week I’d spent away. Signs of spring abounded everywhere I looked. Pairs of Tree Swallows were seen tending to their nests while Boat-tailed Grackles performed boisterous displays and chased one another around. Even the lingering ducks seemed to be pairing off. I was lucky enough to catch shadowy glimpses of the resident Barn Owls tucked away in their boxes: hopefully they too are busy with the start of a new breeding season. Greater Yellowlegs, Common Yellowthroat, and Brown Thrasher were among the species that I hadn’t yet recorded in New York for 2022, and I also picked up a handful of completely new year birds like Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-and-white Warbler, and Yellow Warbler.

After stopping by the apartment for lunch, I made my way over to Central Park. The North Woods were full of birdsong and fluttering activity, and there were plenty of other birders on the prowl. Dmitriy joined me for part of the afternoon, and Jacqi came out to get in on the fun once she’d finished with her work for the day. A handsome male Hooded Warbler was among the obvious new arrivals, a friendly little Winter Wren brought a smile to my face, and I was happy to hear the sweet whistles of a Blue-headed Vireo in the trees overhead. The crown jewel of this outing, however, was in fact a repeat performance with a bird I had briefly encountered the previous week.

There’s no denying that the Prothonotary Warbler is one of the most visually stunning members of its entire family. These gorgeous, golden birds are rare but regular migrants in New York, with most years producing a few sightings throughout the spring season. Of those infrequent visitors, however, few are as cooperative as this individual. This flashy male had been putting in daily appearances since it first arrived in the Park, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to enjoy some quality time in its company. I spent the better part of the afternoon with this staggeringly confiding bird, capturing a fantastic series of photos as it foraged around the Pool. It bounced back and forth between the waterside vegetation and the rocks lining the shore, occasionally popping up into branches at eye level to deliver its distinctive, ringing song. It even paused in a puddle beneath a willow tree to take a bath before resuming its showboating circuit. Passersby couldn’t help but notice such an eye-catching critter, and it attracted quite a crowd of observers. Birders and bystanders alike shared in the delight of watching this beautiful bird go about its business in the heart of a bustling city park. Little moments like this are among the best that spring migration has to offer.

I closed out my spring break with a visit to Connecticut to catch up with Jacqi’s family. As with my trip to the Outer Banks, the meals and merriment made for an especially entertaining vacation. Birding was limited to the immediate vicinity of their neighborhood, but I finally added Pileated Woodpecker to the year list and checked off my first Connecticut sightings of Wood Duck and Eastern Towhee. The final days of April have produced a few additional surprises in New York, including Greater Yellowlegs for my Hell Gate Sector patch list and the first Chimney Swifts of 2022. A particularly unexpected discovery that squeaked in before the end of the month was a Black-throated Gray Warbler found by Ryan Mandelbaum in Prospect Park. I was one of the lucky folks who was able to catch up to the elusive bird with a post-work subway chase, securing my 387th species for my New York State list.

Overall, it proved to be an exceptional month for birding, with a number of surprises that will likely stand out as highlights of the season. With that being said, the fun of migration is far from over, and the main event is about to begin. The month that birders look forward to all year, May, is now mere days away. I eagerly await the thrills that the rest of the spring has in store!