Farewell, Astoria Park: Ode to a Patch

Endings are often emotional experiences. My time in Astoria, which began 2 years ago in December 2019, is rapidly coming to a close. Although I am looking forward to the beginning of a new chapter in my life, it is still difficult to close the book on all of the wonderful memories I’ve experienced in this little corner of Queens. The past few years featured some painful lows as well as plenty of pleasant highs, and there is much that I’ll miss when I leave this neighborhood behind. I’ll miss my awesome roommate, Matt, I’ll miss the fantastic bars and restaurants, and, of course, I’ll miss Astoria Park.

My very first visit to Astoria Park was on January 5th, 2020. My initial impressions of this well-manicured, anthropocentric greenspace were not particularly optimistic. The lack of vegetated ground cover combined with the bustling crowds and abundant off-leash dogs did not appear especially attractive for passing birds. Nevertheless, I suspected that it had some potential. Even the tiniest urban parks can pull serious surprises, and Astoria Park’s position right across the East River from established rarity magnet Randall’s Island meant it was in a good location for unexpected migrants to drop in. I decided to adopt the park as my personal patch, reasoning that it was close enough to home to make occasional post-work strolls and weekend morning sweeps reasonably convenient.

My patch list grew quite slowly at first, but the charms of my new neighborhood gradually began to reveal themselves. I learned that Great Cormorants are consistent winter visitors to this stretch of the East River, and large flocks of foraging or loafing gulls were a regular sight. In February, I discovered that the Hell Gate Bridge was a hotly contested piece of real estate, with a pair of Common Ravens constructing their nest in the upper arches while a family of Peregrine Falcons maintained a scrape among the supports below. Watching the progress of these begrudging neighbors, as well as the Red-tailed Hawks on the nearby RFK Bridge, was a clear highlight of the late winter period. It also provided some fantastic data for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas, which is still ongoing.

When March 2020 rolled around, the world turned upside down. Work went fully remote right before Saint Patrick’s Day, just as the first signs of spring were beginning to appear at Astoria Park. I picked up some early migrants like Eastern Phoebe, Wood Duck, and Osprey in the back half of March, but my visits to the park ceased altogether as the masses of parkgoers swelled and uncertainty about the virus rose. Photos of the throngs of New Yorkers seeking outdoor entertainment were shared as examples of “what not to do” in social distancing press conferences. My concerns were further enhanced when I lost my sense of smell shortly after exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case at my school. Hoping to avoid infection and infecting others, I ended up spending most of April birding exclusively from my fire escape. None of us fully comprehended what we were in for with the pandemic, and though I didn’t know it at the time I wouldn’t leave Astoria at all for nearly 2 months. 

In the last days of April, I finally worked up the courage to return to the park and restake my claim on my patch. Our understanding of the virus was starting to come into focus, and I felt comfortable making early morning visits while maintaining masked distance from other pedestrians. As increasingly warm southerly winds brought Neotropical migrants winging their way back towards their breeding grounds, I was there to meet them. The nature of remote instruction meant that I was able to devote several hours to birding Astoria Park basically every morning. My patch list soared.

With the arrival of May came the long-awaited peak of spring migration. I was afraid that my lack of access to famed hotspots like Jones Beach or Central Park would cause me to miss the bulk of the excitement. I needn’t have worried. On the mornings following nights of favorable winds, the trees at the park were alive with birdsong and fluttering activity. New species added to the park checklist included Black-billed Cuckoo, Orchard Oriole, and Gray-cheeked Thrush. I once stumbled upon a singing Alder Flycatcher, and another morning brought a flyover flock of Bobolinks. I was even fortunate enough to experience back-to-back mornings with 20 warbler species observed. The first of these unforgettable days, May 15th, also delivered the 100th species for my patch list: Wilson’s Warbler. The same weekend saw the fledging of the Hell Gate raven chicks as well, which provided plenty of additional entertainment. Astoria Park proved to me that it could hold its own admirably, and I started to fall in love with my little patch. 

I reached a major milestone before the end of spring: claiming the top spot for total species observed at the park on eBird. When I first moved to Astoria, I’d been challenged by Corey Finger to surpass the record of 101 set by Brian McGurgan, a former local resident who had long since moved away. As I began to close in on the finish line, a new goal was established by fellow Queens birder John Keane, who also started checking the park more regularly due to pandemic travel restrictions. The observation of a passing Turkey Vulture on May 20th took me over the top with 115 birds, and I have kept and expanded my lead ever since. There’s more to birding than the competition, of course, but it’s still fun to set and achieve objectives such as this one!

The increased freedom and reduced avian activity of the summer months kept me away from Astoria Park for most of the season. By late August, however, I was back on the grind to search for southbound migrants. Fall was when my patch list truly started to pop off, especially when it came to vismig flyovers. A Caspian Tern winging its way downriver, a Connecticut Warbler in morning flight, and a buffet of irruptive finches all made for an especially memorable autumn. Other noteworthy sightings of the season included Philadelphia Vireo, Nelson’s Sparrow, and Eastern Bluebird. School ended up going remote again by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, and I dutifully resumed my regular pre-work surveys. 

In the early days of December, I tallied a few final species to close out my Astoria Park year list. American Tree Sparrow, Long-tailed Duck, and Red-shouldered Hawk were among the surprise birds that I picked up as the tail end of fall migration finally tapered off. My last new patch bird of the year was Northern Shoveler, Number 151, observed on December 16th. Considering that there had only been 120 species ever reported at the park prior to my arrival, I was quite pleased by the numbers I managed to put up. Being a captive audience for most of the year certainly helped, but there’s no denying that my first full year birding Astoria Park was a success.

The start of 2021 resulted in a number of changes for my patch birding experience. I spent more and more time away from Astoria, and my limited free days usually saw me birding further afield. Even so, keeping tabs on my patch remained an important priority. Exciting sightings of the early months included a long-distance snipe of an Iceland Gull hanging around Randall’s Island and my first NYC Harbor Seal feeding in the waters of the East River, only the 4th non-human mammal I documented for the park. Returning to in-person instruction in March once again imposed limitations on the regularity of my outings, but I did manage to spot a flyover Bank Swallow during one of my after-work walks. Though I spent the bulk of May exploring Central Park, I still made a point to check out Astoria Park a few times before the season was through.

One big difference from the previous year is the increased coverage by other birders. There is now a dedicated and capable crew of locals monitoring Astoria Park, and more eyes watching for rarities is always a good thing. New birder Evan Slocum has been refining his craft at the park over the past few months, and Jeana Fucello has taken to leading weekly birdwalks during the peak of migration. These are just a few of the talented folks who have started incorporating Astoria Park into their regular birding circuits, and while I’m sad to leave my patch behind I’m happy in the knowledge that I’m leaving it in good hands. I’d love to see someone take a stab at beating my total for the hotspot, but I feel pretty confident that the numbers I put up will stand for quite a while.

The reduced frequency of my park visits, combined with the diminishing returns of intensely birding a small urban greenspace, meant that I added far fewer new species to my patch list in 2021 than I did in 2020. Even so, the handful of birds I did find included several high quality pulls. After a busy summer with no birds of note for my Astoria Park total, a single Friday in early September coinciding with the season’s first real cold front provided multiple patch ticks: Hooded Warbler, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Red-headed Woodpecker. This last species resulted in Astoria Park being directly shouted out by name in the weekly NYC Area Rare Bird Alert for the first time ever! Another great migration day later in the month included my first Summer Tanager for Queens and a pair of Yellow-billed Cuckoos that I observed dropping into the park at daybreak.

The crown jewel of my Astoria Park patch list arrived on September 4th, 2021. It was a fairly quiet Saturday morning, following light northwest winds overnight that seemed to have resulted in more departures than new arrivals. As I was walking around the main lawn and scanning the skies, I spotted a small, elegant seabird passing southwards over the neighborhood at cruising altitude. I fired off a rapid series of identification shots before it disappeared from view, and I was stunned to discover that it was a young Black-legged Kittiwake! This pelagic species is infrequently observed from shore even at New York’s prime seawatching hotspots. Witnessing one in active, visible migration over my patch in the heart of the City was an extraordinary surprise. It instantly took top honors as the most shocking and impressive bird in the park’s history, no contest!

All in all, I documented 162 species over the course of my 2 years at Astoria Park, culminating with a long overdue Fox Sparrow on November 20th. 21 of those birds were all new additions to my personal Queens County list, and 44 of them were new for the cumulative hotspot total. This unassuming scrap of public land turned out to be a delightful primary patch, exceeding even my wildest expectations. While I hope that I will return some day for old time’s sake, I also know that I’ll be busy with new patches in New York County and beyond. Every ending is a new beginning! I look forward to seeing what birding surprises my time in Manhattan will bring, to say nothing of where Jacqi and I will end up when the lease ends next year. Here’s hoping for more discoveries and surprises to come in 2022! 

Thanks for everything, Astoria Park. It’s been an honor. The Land Between The Bridges will always hold a special place in my heart.