Various Vagrants of the Spring Season

The excitement of peak spring migration is one of the most anticipated holidays in the birding calendar year. In contrast with the prolonged, more casual pace of fall, which provides multiple intense pulses of activity over the course of many months, spring heats up in a hurry and wraps up all too quickly. If one happens to be busy with work or out of town on a handful of key arrival days, one might be left feeling as if they “missed out” on migration altogether. In the hopes of combatting this ever-present risk of FOMO, I make an effort to recognize the suspense that builds ahead of the madcap mania of May as a major component of the fun in its own right. Hastily rushing through the preseason to get to grand finale carries the risk of missing out on some truly spectacular experiences, and it’s not uncommon for the early highlights to wind up ranking among the best birds of the year.

The transition from winter to spring always produces its fair share of surprises. This year, we bid farewell to February with the discovery of a New York City first, when a joint announcement from several of the brilliant minds in the Brooklyn birding community revealed that they’d secured evidence confirming the identity of a flighty Western Meadowlark at Bush Terminal Piers Park. First photographed by Joshua Malbin, this bird may have been lingering in the area since at least December, when Andrew Baksh first reported seeing a meadowlark at the park. Once word got out that Sean, Doug, and other experts had found the initial images compelling, birders quickly descended on the site en masse. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the first day’s documentation efforts, repeatedly catching sight of the meadowlark as it fluttered back and forth between the grassy shoreline and a vacant parking lot. I managed to capture exactly one serviceable photograph, which shows the bird’s light, sandy brown plumage and finely barred flight feathers with limited white in the tail. Challenging ID puzzles like this always make for an entertaining experience, and I was especially pleased to catch up to this species for my state list after enduring several missed connections over the years.

The Kings County hits kept coming when Doug reported a “Sooty” Fox Sparrow at Brooklyn Bridge Park just a few days after the vernal equinox. Continuing the theme of stealthy rarities unearthed well after their arrival, it was subsequently revealed that this distinctive western vagrant had been photographed by an anonymous observer weeks earlier and was only later correctly identified to subspecies. I made a Friday afternoon detour to connect with the lost sparrow, eventually finding it furtively scratching in the undergrowth in loose association with several of its local “Red” cousins.

Of all the sneaky long-lingering vagrants visiting our region this spring, the grand prize for duration of tenure undoubtedly goes to Ernst Mutchnik’s rediscovery of a drake Mottled Duck in Amityville, evidently the same individual as the first state record he found in the same neighborhood a full year prior. Last sighted at Ketcham’s Creek in November of 2022, the bird seemed to have bonded with a different Mallard mate from the previous season and developed a preference for Avon Lake, just half a mile northwest from its original haunt. I couldn’t resist making a return trip to say hello to the wandering waterfowl, and I greatly appreciated the opportunity for an extended photoshoot to improve on last year’s grainy digibin images.

With the weather rapidly warming in the early days of April, I was particularly surprised to see reports of a Long-eared Owl popping up in the eBird review queue for New York County. This species is an increasingly rare winter visitor to the City, formerly roosting communally in suitable groves of evergreens throughout the five boroughs but now typically found only a few times a season. I was a bit concerned that this apparent stopover migrant might be subjected to undue harassment if it was widely publicized. To my great relief, it became clear that the bird had selected a perch that inherently mitigated the risk of disturbance, tucked in among the dense boughs of a spruce on a fenced-in lawn that prevented close approach by curious humans. Though the owl still had to endure a bit of grief from the resident Blue Jays, I was pleased to see that the assembled birders were generally on their best behavior when I stopped by the scene on my way home from work. This was only the second individual Long-eared Owl that I’d ever seen, and my first for NYC, so I appreciated that the bird chose to spend the day in a visible but inaccessible location where people could enjoy its presence responsibly.

The indisputable personal highlight of my spring arrived promptly after I returned from a lovely vacation in the Adirondacks. Taking advantage of the last days of spring break freedom, I spent Friday morning at Randall’s Island with Dmitriy, Adam, and Efua, patrolling our usual well-worn circuit. After enjoying a pleasantly productive but generally unremarkable morning of mid-April migration, we parted ways and began our journeys towards our respective homes. As I was approaching the staircase at the base of the RFK footbridge, preparing to depart for Astoria, I received a fateful text from Mary Beth Kooper, who we had just crossed paths with a few minutes prior. The message contained only a single photograph, with no explanation or query, but the force of the shock when I opened the chat was enough to send me reeling. The image on my phone screen portrayed a beautifully close view of a Smith’s Longspur, a bird I had never before encountered in life.

I immediately fired off a rather indelicate reply, asking for additional details about where the bird was seen as I swiftly reversed course. Mary Beth informed me that she had just found the bird at the northwest ballfields and wanted to confirm her suspicions that it was indeed a longspur. I assured her that this discovery was several orders of magnitude more thrilling than the regionally scarce but expected Lapland Longspur, which has been seen at Randall’s several times in the past. Forget a hotspot first, or even a New York County first, this was a first for the entirety of New York City, and one of only a handful of documented records for the entire state! I hurried to put the word out on as many communication channels as possible, summoning my friends back to the Island and posting alerts on GroupMe, WhatsApp, Facebook, and the state listserv. After a stressful sprint, I arrived on the scene and we quickly refound the bird foraging on the extensive lawns surrounding the myriad baseball diamonds. I was absolutely beside myself: this was the first time I had ever observed a proper world lifer at my beloved local patch! Hordes of birders gradually converged on the stakeout site, trickling in from the surrounding boroughs and beyond, and the longspur cooperated fantastically for several hours before disappearing in the early afternoon. I am beyond grateful that I made it home from my trip in time to be a part of this unforgettable experience! What a bird!

We didn’t have to wait long for our next big spring surprise, with a report of a Painted Bunting found by Brad Balliett coming in from Central Park just a few days later. These birds are essentially annual vagrants in New York State, occasionally turning up in numbers during periodic regional invasions, but most recent records from Manhattan have been fleeting, unchaseable sightings that disappeared quickly after the initial observation. My friends and I were burned by a disobliging individual that was briefly sighted at the Pool last May, but we all hoped that our luck would be better this time around. To our delight, the bird resurfaced moments before I arrived at the Loch to join the search effort. Uncharacteristically, the bunting was found to be spending most of its time high in the canopy, feasting on emergent buds alongside the American Goldfinch flock it was associating with. I had the good fortune to enjoy a second encounter with this southern wanderer on the morning of Earth Day, once again following the lead of the goldfinches as they descended to drink and bathe at the water’s edge. On the bird’s final documented day in the Park, Adam was lucky enough to catch it singing softly, revealing that this particular greenie was evidently an immature male. I’ve long held a soft spot for these colorful songbirds, and it was especially nice to add the species to a new county list after several years without seeing one at all.

The last major rarity of April came from Brooklyn, where the county’s first Anhinga was discovered by Radka Osickova along the shores of Prospect Lake. I was able to find a window of opportunity to stop by after work the next day, enjoying prolonged views of the bizarre, spear-faced creature as it circled high overhead and sunned itself atop elevated perches. The arrival of this wayward waterbird was presaged by a flurry of extralimital reports well north of their preferred southerly strongholds, with multiple individuals sighted in Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Perhaps most shocking of these far-flung flocks was an astounding cohort of 22 birds found by Tim Wing upstate in Oneida County. Prior to 2023, there had only been 6 confirmed occurrences of this species for the entirety of New York State, but it seems inevitable that more will follow if current trends persist. Indeed, only a few days after the Prospect Park bird took off for parts unknown, NYC scored its third Snakebird record with a report from Staten Island by Mike Shanley and Anthony Ferino. I saw my first homestate Anhinga just last year, and I already find myself wondering when and where the next one will appear.

The arrival of May had the entire birding community waiting with bated breath for the first big push of peak season. Despite the variety of rare vagrants documented during the preceding weeks, the overall numbers and diversity of expected migrants had remained fairly low due to unfavorable weather conditions delaying movements for extended periods of time. Many species that typically show up in late April were notably behind schedule, and we were all feeling a bit antsy about the long-anticipated influx of travelers from the Neotropics. The first work week of the month passed without much excitement, but my friends and I had grand designs in mind for the weekend. Fortuitously, our scheduled schemes aligned beautifully with regional wind patterns, and the dam finally burst on Saturday night as we prepared for our annual HundredQuest Central Park Big Day.

At daybreak on Sunday morning, Dmitriy, Adam, Efua, and I stood on the southern slopes of the Great Hill and watched a veritable tidal wave of birds descend upon Manhattan. A steady northward procession of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds paused at the Magic Tulip Tree to refuel on nectar while Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and countless warblers fluttered through canopy. This was exactly the kind of arrival event we had been hoping for, and we were in high spirits regarding our odds of reaching our goal. The North Woods proved to be incredibly productive throughout the morning, and by the time we reached the Reservoir we had achieved the coveted “90 by noon” milestone. The Ramble was fairly quiet at midday, but we still scored a few key pickups before returning to the upper latitudes of the Park to secure our prized objective. We discovered our 100th species, a lingering Tufted Titmouse, just after 6 PM, and there was much rejoicing. We watched the sun go down from the same vantage point where we watched it rise, closing our checklist at 103 birds thanks to a flyover pair of Great Blue Herons at dusk. When all was said and done, we wound up setting a new record for the most species encountered in Central Park in a single day! It was pure, perfect spring migration magnificence: the kind of nonstop action, 20+ warbler species splendor that we look forward to all year long. It’s going to be tough to top that total in years to come, but that certainly isn’t going to stop us from trying!

Our triple digit tally of Big Day birds surprisingly included very few genuine rarities, with the most notable bird being a shockingly cooperative Virginia Rail that had been hanging out at the Loch. I finally connected with one of the many Summer Tanagers visiting Central Park later in the week, and I also added a few dawn flyover Bobolinks to my personal Park list. My fellow Randall’s Regulars also furnished me with a pair of long-overdue county birds, with Efua spotting a female Golden-winged Warbler during a group outing exploring the North Woods and Adam finding an Alder Flycatcher that was kind enough to stick around our ever-favored Island for several days. Though I only had time for a few dedicated birding days during the climax of the season this year, there’s no denying that I certainly made the most of the opportunities available to me. 

The back half of May proved to be especially busy, with two consecutive weekends out of town in the midst of peak migratory activity. As a result, the bulk of my birding activity during this period was limited to stakeouts atop my roof before and after work. My yard list is undeniably a major point of personal pride, so I took this opportunity to diligently focus on filling out some of the missing species from my running total. New additions from this spring included some species that turned out to be fairly regular sights, such as Common Loon and Eastern Kingbird, as well as lucky pulls of trickier birds like Black Vulture and Solitary Sandpiper.  A flyby flock of Glossy Ibis moving along the East River seemed certain to fit into the latter category, but it turned out not to be a one-off when I unexpectedly replicated the observation just a few days later. Even at the smallest possible scale, as ever, birding is full of surprises! My elevated vantage point also provides me with a front row seat for watching the nesting activity of several local breeders, including Common Raven, American Kestrel, and Red-tailed Hawk. I finally reached the long-awaited triple digit mark on the morning of May 16th, when a gorgeous male Bay-breasted Warbler posted up in the street trees down below to sing for me. I had hoped to observe 100 species for the apartment before the anniversary of moving in, and as it happens the actual achievement landed exactly one year after Jacqi and I initially signed the lease! I am thankful for the gifts that my first spring at this location provided, and I look forward to seeing what new surprises await us in the coming months.

As spring migration drew to a close during the last week of May, the talk of the town in the birding community was a dashing visitor from across the sea. An adult male Curlew Sandpiper in stunning breeding plumage had been discovered at the Jones Beach Coast Guard Station by a photographer named Damon Brundage, and the sighting was quickly verified and shared with the general public by Pat and Shai. This species was formerly one of the more reliable transatlantic vagrants to show up in New York, regularly appearing at shorebird hotspots along the South Shore throughout the 20th century. There was a time when sightings of these birds were considered something of a local specialty at Jamaica Bay, but reports have become increasingly scarce in recent years. This individual was the first documented Curlew Sandpiper on Long Island in a full decade, and I was eager to take a trip out to the barrier beaches to search for the would-be state bird myself. 

There were, however, some obstacles that needed to be overcome to make this dream a reality. For starters, the bird’s favored hangout was a small spit of sand where waders typically hang out in between the tidal maxima. At low tide, shorebirds spread out across the bay’s exposed mudflats to forage, and high tide typically leaves this particular sandbar fully submerged. There were sure to be massive crowds and road closures associated with the coastal festivities of Memorial Day weekend in the area, further complicating the matter of timing. I started cooking up schemes to visit the stakeout site on Friday afternoon, which coincided with the falling tide. There proved to be a bit of drama about beach access over the course of the workday due to a miscommunication with park staff, but by the time Adam and I departed from Astoria the situation had been resolved thanks to coordinated effort by multiple indomitable local birders. After two hours of fighting through truly horrendous traffic, we arrived at the boat basin just in time to marvel at the the handsome rarity before it departed from the scene for good. I’m always grateful when the stars align to make wonderful memories with such an awesome bird!

I spent much of the final weekend of birding’s busiest month celebrating with family and friends, but the extra day off afforded me ample opportunity for some spring cleaning with previously missed migrants. Exceptionally productive expeditions to Timber Point, Nickerson Beach, Sterling Forest, and Shawangunk Grasslands allowed me to connect with a variety of seabirds, marsh dwellers, and grassland specialties that I still needed for my year list. Personal favorites like Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Black Skimmer, localized breeders like Cerulean Warbler and Saltmarsh Sparrow, and my first Roseate Tern since 2020 were among the highlights of these outings. With the end of spring fast approaching, and yet another school year soon to be in the books, the more relaxed vibes of summer are already starting to creep in as the days grow longer and hotter. There’s often something of a sigh of relief at the end of this hectic season, but it always comes with the satisfaction of new discoveries and unforgettable experiences. Spring 2023 was no exception, with a treasure trove of remarkable vagrants supplementing the already impressive baseline spectacle of northward migration. I’m certain that the excitement is far from finished for the year, but I must admit that I’m looking forward to taking it easy and catching my breath for a bit! Bring on summer vacation!