Winter on the Upper West Side

This January, I officially finalized my departure from Astoria and moved the last of my things into the Upper West Side apartment. Though this is a temporary arrangement, lasting only until the end of the lease in June, I am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to experience Manhattan life for a few months. I’ve managed to pack plenty of chases and expeditions into the first quarter of the year, but the bulk of my birding during winter’s back half has taken place within the borders of New York County. Fortunately, there has been plenty of excitement on offer to keep me busy!

The first noteworthy NYC bird of 2022 came just days after I returned home from Arizona. In mid-December, Manhattan had experienced a mini-invasion of Western Tanagers, with three distinct individuals appearing in different city parks over the course of a few days. A bird discovered in Central Park did not linger long, but the other two stuck it out and wound up overwintering successfully. The Carl Schurz Park tanager was a returning vagrant that I had seen the previous winter, so I decided to kick off my New York birding year by visiting the individual found by Adrian at his Hell’s Kitchen patch. Adrian met me at Clinton Community Gardens after work one evening, and after some searching we managed to track down this special guest on the nearby sidestreets. As the sun set behind the buildings, we were able to watch the bird as it settled down for the night: picking a few berries and calling several times before tucking into a night roost amidst a dense bundle of dead leaves. Behavioral observations like this are always a treat, made all the more unique by the setting of a busy urban street corner!

I was able to make a few midweek passes through Central Park over the course of January, where I picked up a number of the expected winter residents for my year list. Most of the weekends were spent away from the City, either skiing or birding farther afield, but I did make an exception for a trip to Randall’s Island with a few of my Manhattan friends. Efua, Adam, and Ben met me at the northeastern ballfields bright and early, and we spent the morning searching for outer island specialties that are rare elsewhere in the county. I spotted my first Glaucous Gull in several years, a hulking immature bird scrounging through the dumpsters on the far shore of the Bronx Kill. This sighting marked the first addition to my rapidly growing New York County list in 2022. We also noted a young Iceland Gull, a pair of Snow Geese hanging out with the Brant flocks, and a noisy Belted Kingfisher. Over at the Little Hell Gate Marsh on the other side of the island, we connected with a well-documented Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that had made the questionable decision to winter on Randall’s again after losing several of its toes to the cold last year. There’s no doubt that survival in the often harsh conditions of this season can be a struggle.

The last days of January brought a number of exciting visitors to Central Park. The most celebrated of these avian guests was an adult Bald Eagle that started making daily hunting forays to the Reservoir. This species has made a dramatic comeback in New York State, and many non-birders are surprised to learn that eagles are now seen in NYC with regularity. That said, the sight of one of these mighty raptors actively pursuing gulls in the heart of Manhattan was undoubtedly a spectacle to behold! During my first encounter with this bird, I was surprised and delighted to see that it was banded. A bit of detective work revealed the fascinating story of this individual, who was banded as a chick in Connecticut back in 2018 and has been roaming around the 5 boroughs ever since. Local waterfowl also had to contend with regular attacks from the resident pair of Peregrine Falcons, but the Reservoir still proved to be an attractive enough spot that a female Long-tailed Duck dropped in to hang out with the Ruddy Ducks for a few days. A Great Horned Owl spent much of the season prowling the wooded areas of the Park, often drawing crowds of admirers whenever it was roosting in a conspicuous location.

Skywatching can be surprisingly productive even in the dead of winter. The new apartment has a fantastic view of the western sky, which allows me to survey the airspace above the Hudson River from the comfort of my own home. The tall buildings of the Upper West Side provide nest sites for a number of species, and I frequently observe ravens, hawks, and falcons commuting or hunting right outside my window. After cold snaps or snowstorms, it wasn’t uncommon to see vultures and geese moving south along the river to escape the wintry conditions further north. Overall, the “yard list” for the new digs has been slow to grow compared to Astoria, which is to be expected now that I’m working in person rather than sitting around at home all day every day. Sightings of birds like Black Vulture and Great Cormorant have thus far been limited to other parts of the county, but I hold out hope that I’ll pick up some more apartment surprises before it’s time to move out.

When February finally arrived, it kicked off with a bang that sent birders throughout the tri-state area into a frenzy. Prolonged subfreezing temperatures left many of the region’s lakes and ponds locked away in ice, which made freshwater a hot commodity for gulls and other waterbirds. The fountain near the southern end of the Reservoir kept it from freezing over completely, but the development of thick ice sheets on much of the surface provided a convenient spot for birds to rest after they finished bathing and drinking. As a result, huge congregations of gulls started making daily visits to Central Park, and with the rise in numbers came a corresponding increase in diversity. One raggedy, dark-mantled individual, initially reported as a Lesser Black-backed Gull, was subsequently identified as a Slaty-backed Gull. This species hails from the Pacific Coast of Asia, and though it is an increasingly regular vagrant to North America it had never before been recorded in coastal regions of New York. It may not have received the same level of mainstream media acclaim as the celebrity Bald Eagle, but there’s no denying that this record was the birding highlight of the season for NYC.

Once the correct identification had been determined, everyone in the community scrambled to see the bird. The next morning, scores of birders were able to successfully chase this remarkable rarity, along with a mind-boggling 7 other species of gulls that had gathered at the freshwater oasis of the Reservoir. I, on the other hand, was stuck at work in Queens. Thanks to remote meetings and a holiday, I’d unknowingly spent the preceding 2 days mere blocks away from a would-be lifer, and now I was missing out on the gull extravaganza! I dashed to the Reservoir as soon as work was over, only to find that the Slaty-back had disappeared. This marked the beginning of the most grueling, prolonged effort for a single individual bird of my entire career thus far. It took me more than 17 hours over the course of 7 separate attempts to finally pin down this unpredictable drifter, which typically only visited the Reservoir for short periods of time in the middle of the day. As temperatures warmed and the ice began to thaw, I feared that the gull may cease visiting the Park altogether. Ryan, Dmitriy, and the rest of my friends offered some incredible moral support, encouraging me to keep at it even when all hope seemed lost. I greatly appreciated the company of multiple other birders during each of my strikeouts, most notably fellow teacher Tripper, who was equally dogged in his quest despite not sharing my advantage of living nearby. The curse finally broke on a Saturday afternoon, when the bird dropped in for a brief dip and spent about half an hour preening on the last remaining patch of ice. There was much rejoicing, and the crew assembled that day turned out to be the last group of people to see the Slaty-back at the Reservoir. Talk about last minute luck!

The first hints of spring slowly became apparent as February wore on. Birdsong gradually increased in intensity, with my morning commutes featuring ever more cardinals, robins, and sparrows proclaiming the approach of the breeding season. One of the most consistent fixtures of my late winter outings to Central Park was a Wood Duck drake who had evidently paired with a Mallard hen. This unlikely couple was frequently seen paddling around the Reservoir together, and the male protested noisily whenever any other ducks tried to approach his mate. As of this writing, the duo remains inseparable, and I’m intrigued to see if any hybrid offspring result from the interspecies romance.

American Woodcocks arrived in NYC just in time for March. These bizarre forest-dwelling shorebirds are classic early migrants, one of the precious few species who start heading north during the doldrum period before spring migration fully hits its stride. Although scattered individuals often attempt to winter in our region, they become considerably more visible in late winter when new arrivals turn up in the various greenspaces around the City. Bryant Park is a well-known location for watching these weirdos at close range, but this year I was lucky enough to stumble upon some Timberdoodles out at Randall’s Island as well. I was thrilled when I first spotted a crouching, camouflaged woodcock hidden in the leaf litter during one of my walks, and I discovered several additional individuals hiding in the same general area. These lovable oddballs have charmed many a birder with their strange looks and even stranger displays. They are welcome harbingers of spring’s approach, and I’m grateful for the quality time that I’ve already gotten to spend in their company this year.

As the weather warms and birds continue to move around, birders start getting restless. The anticipation of migration is amplified by the increasingly obvious signs of spring activity, but we all know that we still have a long way to go until the peak of the excitement in May. March is often a challenging transitional month, not quite winter and not quite spring, when there are more species of birds departing than there are arriving. From a teacher’s perspective, it’s also the only month of the year where we usually don’t have any extra days off: what horror! Taking this into consideration, I must confess that March 2022 has been uncharacteristically pleasant. The weather hasn’t been that bad overall, and many of my birding outings have been unexpectedly successful. It helps that I have friends to bird with and some new territory to survey. I’ve recently taken to joining my Manhattan buddies on what Dmitriy calls the Randall’s Roulette, exploring the ballfields, marshes, and coastlines of New York County’s wildest island in search of avian surprises. Randall’s Island is the kind of place that feels like it always has the potential for something weird, and it delivers frequently and dramatically enough to make the long trek out there worthwhile. I’ve felt a strong attachment to this stretch of the East River ever since I first visited Astoria Park, and I’ve recently merged my lists for the two sites into a combined Hell Gate Sector patch list. The newest additions to this total include American Wigeon, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Wilson’s Snipe, and I also saw my first-for-NYC Virginia Opossum trundling through the undergrowth this weekend!

Living in Manhattan this winter made for an eventful and unforgettable experience, but I am nevertheless excited for the arrival of spring. After weeks of buildup, we’ve finally reached the official beginning of the new season. The solstice and the start of daylight savings time are already behind us, and warm temperatures are swiftly becoming the norm rather than the exception. If there was any lingering doubt, the birds have made it abundantly clear that winter is done for. Early migrants like Ospreys and Eastern Phoebes have arrived in force, and I’ve even observed Common Grackles gathering debris to construct their nests. Soon enough trees will start leafing out and the songs of Neotropical songbirds will once again ring out through the City’s parks. We aren’t quite there yet, but it won’t be long now…