Old Hood, New View

At the end last year, I bid a fond farewell to the lovely neighborhood of Astoria, where I had lived since December 2019. I spent the first 6 months of 2022 living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but I knew when I first moved in that this would be a temporary arrangement. Jacqi and I started seriously looking for new apartments when spring rolled around, hoping to find a building that would provide comfortable and affordable amenities while also shortening my daily commute. To my great delight, it didn’t take us long to find exactly what we were looking for, and the new place was only a few blocks south of my old home. I just couldn’t stay away from this cozy corner of Queens for too long!

Our new apartment offers a number of perks, and I was thrilled to learn that we are permitted access to the spacious rooftop. Suddenly, yard listing is a very exciting prospect indeed! From my perch atop the 6-story structure, I have a commanding view of the surrounding cityscape, including the Manhattan skyline and both the Hell Gate and RFK Bridges. The East River itself is completely obscured by nearby buildings, but the airspace above it is readily visible from my home. I quickly realized this meant that incidental checklists for Randall’s Island and Astoria Park would be possible for any interesting flyovers I managed to detect. I never would’ve imagined that I would be able to bird my patch from my house, and I was anxious to see what this spectacular vantage point might provide.

My very first roofwatch, conducted the evening we properly moved in, did not disappoint. As soon as I stepped through the stairwell door into the open air, I heard the begging cries of American Kestrel fledglings perched on an adjacent building. This adorable family turned out to be remarkably faithful to the same immediate vicinity, providing endless entertainment as they tested their wings and chased their parents in search of handouts. Other locals observed during my inaugural survey included Common Raven and Peregrine Falcon from the Hell Gate Bridge nesting pairs, several Monk Parakeets moving around the power line poles far to the east, and commuting Osprey and Great Egret following the river towards the Brother Islands. This initial checklist produced a respectable 21 species, a total that I didn’t reach for several months at my last Astoria apartment. The new yard list was officially underway.

This summer was an especially busy one, with multiple extended trips for weddings and family vacations. My apartment total was slow to grow during the dog days of the season, supplemented by chance sightings of stray early migrants like Barn Swallow and Cedar Waxwing. Migration started to heat up in earnest as August drew to a close, which kicked my at-home skywatching into high gear. The beginning of September coincided with the arrival of a big cold front, and the month started with a bang when I photographed a Blue Grosbeak winging its way south among the waves of warblers. Spotting a minor regional rarity like this in active morning flight from atop my own building set the tone for the rest of the season: it seemed that anything was possible up on the roof!

Jacqi managed to organize a successful surprise party for my 30th birthday, providing many of my family and friends with their first opportunity to check out the roof for themselves. Many of the birders in the crowd spent a good portion of the evening scanning the skies, commenting on the potential of the view, and making bold predictions about possible future observations. Several of their prognostications came true over the course of the following week, with an afternoon sighting of a pair of Northern Harriers lazily circling southward and multiple sunsets featuring squadrons of Common Nighthawks patrolling the twilit skies. I added a number of warbler species to my tally as migration approached its peak, including a window-struck Common Yellowthroat who I discovered on the sidewalk just outside my front door. Although the unfortunate bird was fully unconscious when I first discovered it, Jacqi reported that it perked up noticeably during the trip over to the Wild Bird Fund. I was elated to receive an update a few weeks later that our patient had sustained no major injuries, and after a brief recovery period at the rehab facility it was released back into the wild to continue its southward journey.

On evenings with favorable winds, when the BirdCast maps blazed bright with radar detections of birds in migratory flight, I headed up to the roof to partake in some late night surveying sessions. I have long been fascinated by nocturnal migration, and few things bring me more joy sitting out under the stars and listening to flight calls floating down from the untold masses of winged travelers passing overhead. So far, my auditory apartment list observations have been limited to birds with more distinctive voices like Chestnut-sided and Cape May Warblers, Ovenbird, and Indigo Bunting, but I’ve been trying my hand at recording more regularly in an effort to document some of the less obvious passersby. The addition of a thermal scope to my birding toolkit has pulled back the veil of darkness slightly for a tantalizing peek at the sheer volume of birds moving on these major flight nights. The vast majority of the glowing heat signatures twinkling in the skies above are unidentifiable, but it is nothing short of awe-inspiring to catch a glimpse of this seldom witnessed spectacle with my own eyes.

By the middle of September, I’d tallied 50 species for my apartment list, marking the milestone with a distant Bald Eagle soaring beyond the East River. Living closer to my workplace affords me more opportunities to skywatch both before and after my daily obligations, and the increased frequency of stakeouts has done wonders for my total. The most dramatic testament to the benefits of pre-commute birding arrived on a breezy morning towards the end of the month, when I spied an unusual silhouette moving downriver in loose association with a flock of pigeons. When I realized that it was a shorebird, my heart rate spiked dramatically and I scrambled to fire off a series of long-range documentation shots. Fortuitously, the bird banked and headed back north, illuminated beautifully in the light of the rising sun. Even with such grainy, distant photos, there was no mistaking the golden-gray plumage and slender build of an American Golden-Plover! I never would have dreamed that I’d be able to add one of these incredible marathon migrants to a yard list for a New York City apartment, let alone as a visual observation rather than a heard-only nighttime flyby. This record is truly a Roofbird Supreme. I’d be hard-pressed to outdo such a gobsmacking sighting for shock factor and species caliber, but that certainly isn’t going to stop me from trying to top it in the months to come!

Another birding benefit of my return to Astoria is my restored proximity to my primary patch: the Hell Gate Sector of the East River. I spent the bulk of the pandemic’s early years diligently monitoring Astoria Park along the eastern shore, but once I moved to Manhattan I came to appreciate the appeal of surveying the other side of the strait at Randall’s Island. As far as the birds are concerned, it’s all one greenspace, but the limited crossing options for pedestrians mean that birding outings are typically limited to one site or the other. I essentially ended up circumscribing both parks and combining my tallies into a single, unified patch list, though these days I’m more likely to spend my free time at Randall’s when given the choice. Whichever side of the water you’re on, there’s no denying that this corner of the City pulls some incredible birds. The unique blend of open fields, marshes, and wooded areas set in a prime location along the flyway makes the Hell Gate an incredibly attractive stopover site for birds traveling through NYC.

Fall migration is a drawn-out affair with multiple distinct peaks of activity for different cohorts of birds, and this season has already produced a bounty of exciting surprises. One fruitful morning in early September gifted Dmitriy and I with the first Sanderlings ever recorded at Randall’s Island, as well as a pair of Caspian Terns and a high-flying Golden-Plover. A visit with Brent the following weekend delivered another Hell Gate first with a flyby Glossy Ibis duo, and I stumbled upon a skulking Connecticut Warbler while birding with Efua a week later. Marsh Wren, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Clay-colored Sparrow, and Red-headed Woodpecker are among the other highlights observed so far, and the excitement of autumn is far from over.

The most notable bird to grace my patch this season was discovered the same morning as my apartment Golden-Plover sighting, with news breaking after I had already wrapped up my rooftop vigil and started making my way towards work. Manhattan birder Junko Suzuki, who was scouting Randall’s Island ahead of a Linnaean Society walk, reported a Buff-breasted Sandpiper foraging on the northeast ballfields. This was a long-anticipated first record for New York County, and the celebration of the sighting was electrifying. The work day definitely felt a little longer with such a high quality patch bird hanging over my head, but fortunately the sandpiper elected to stick around longer than most visiting shorebirds do. As soon as I finished teaching my final classes, I gather up my effects and made haste to chase. I arrived at the island to find the wayward migrant contentedly strolling around the edges of the outfield, picking at prey as it went. At times, it walked within mere feet of the assembled crowd of observers, offering crippling views and photo ops. If only all county firsts were so staggeringly cooperative!

As the end of September drew near, the fickle winds of autumn bestowed a delightful gift upon my apartment list and patch list both. Persistent, powerful northwesterlies ferried huge kettles of southbound Broad-winged Hawks to the coast, providing an excellent opportunity for New York City birders to document the impressive concentrations of migrants that are more typically seen further inland. Hoping to get in on the excitement, I headed up to the roof as soon as I got home from work. I spotted a Broad-wing hunting over Astoria Park almost immediately, and it didn’t take long for larger flocks to materialize in the skies above Randall’s Island and beyond. I counted over 450 individuals in less than 2 hours, an especially impressive total considering that my only other Long Island encounter with this species was a lone bird circling over my school last spring. A visit to Randall’s Island with Adam and Ryan the following day produced an encore performance, featuring a low-flying immature bird and a variety of other raptors mixed in with the hordes towering in the thermals overhead. Migration never fails to impress.

As of this writing, with October about to begin, my apartment list stands at a solid 65 species. At the rate the tally has been increasing, and with the expanse of scannable sky available to me, I can’t help but wonder how high the total may grow as the seasons march on. The cumulative Hell Gate Sector patch list has reached an impressive 195 species, with 175 of those having been seen at Randall’s Island. The major milestone of 200 seems well within reach, and the gap between the Randall’s count and the overall total is likely to continue shrinking now that I’m birding there more regularly. I am confident that the next phase of fall migration will bring its own share of new and surprising treasures for both Astoria and the Hell Gate. There’s always something new to see, and autumn is a season when just about anything can happen. Here’s hoping the rest of the season is as productive as the first act!