The Magic of May Migration

In the birding calendar year, the month of May is the big event that everyone looks forward to. After a solid showing in April and an uncharacteristically strong March, May 2022 had a tough act to follow. Even with the pressure of sky-high expectations, spring migration always manages to deliver a unique and wonderful experience year after year. This season was no different. I had the good fortune to spend much of my free time this month birding, and every time I was out in the field there was something exciting to be found. 

Due to the concentrated intensity of northbound migration, May is one of the best months of the year for big days. Birds are in a rush to get back to the breeding grounds and secure their territories in the spring, so the action is limited to a narrower window than the prolonged passage of fall migrants. Global Big Day and the World Series of Birding are traditionally celebrated during this peak of avian activity. In 2021, my friends and I conducted a pair of big days focused on finding as many birds as we could within the borders of Central Park. We continued the tradition by starting the month with a full-day birding blitz on May 1st. Although the overnight wind conditions preceding our effort weren’t ideal, they offered a break from a prolonged period of unfavorable northwesterlies and ushered in a noteworthy influx of birds. We connected with a number of familiar Neotropical migrants like Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Baltimore Oriole, as well as a smattering of warblers and other songbirds. A sighting of the Park’s resident Great Horned Owl, a high-flying Northern Harrier, and a vocal Purple Finch were among the other highlights encountered over the course of the day. All told, we recorded 92 different species of birds before the sun set. The month was off to a fantastic start!

When migration is at its zenith, birds seem to be everywhere you look. In fact, sometimes all you have to do is turn your eyes to the skies. When the winds are right, you can see countless migrants passing overhead at daybreak, even in the busiest parts of New York City. Visible migration, or vismig, is one of the most remarkable phenomena in the natural world. I love when I have the opportunity to start my day with a schoolyard skywatch or an unexpected flyby during my commute. One of our best mornings for vismig this season took place at Randall’s Island, the New York County parcel of my beloved Hell Gate Sector patch. Several hundred Yellow-rumped Warblers made up the bulk of the flight, with a decent sample platter of other species mixed in including Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Solitary Sandpiper, and Common Loon. I also got to take my new thermal scope for a spin during some nighttime rooftop birding, watching countless luminous specks streaming their way northward high above The City That Never Sleeps. It’s mind-boggling to think about the scope of the incredible journeys these winged travelers undertake each year, and it’s always a privilege to bear witness to a small portion of the odyssey. 

Our second big day attempt took place on May 8th. We’d seen a huge arrival of birds leading into the weekend, and the winds had kept most of them from moving on in the intervening days. Dmitriy, Efua, Adam, and I set out at first light to see just how many birds we could find. The stars of the show during this all-day effort were, predictably, the warblers. A 20 warbler day is the gold standard for a productive May outing in our region, and we documented 24 different species between dawn and dusk. Highlights included a locally rare Kentucky Warbler working the slopes of the Great Hill, two separate encounters with friendly Worm-eating Warblers, a treetop battle between a pair of blazingly bright Blackburnian Warblers, and several singing male Cape May Warblers, my personal favorite member of the family. We tallied double digits totals for multiple species, and I was treated to unparalleled photo ops with a male Black-throated Blue Warbler foraging on the rocky shoreline of the Pool. Spring doesn’t truly feel like spring until warbler diversity and abundance reach their peak, and the colorful songbirds were absolutely out in force for our big day.

We started racking up a pretty impressive species total as the day wore on. A handsome Red-headed Woodpecker at the Loch was a welcome addition, and we also spotted the local Wood Duck drake paddling around the Reservoir with his Mallard mate. We crisscrossed the Park multiple times in our efforts to track down all of the birds that were present, and when all was said and done we’d managed to connect with exactly 99 species of birds. Though it stung a bit to come up just short of the triple digit mark and our personal best of 102 from last year, we all had an amazing time documenting the marvelous array of species that visit Central Park during migration. A May big day is always a worthwhile enterprise!

May provided plenty of delightful surprises in between our extreme weekend endeavors, too. A morning report of a Yellow-breasted Chat just a few blocks from my apartment prompted me to take a small detour during my commute home. In keeping with my fantastic fortune with this bizarre species, the bird popped up into view as I approached the scene, posed beautifully for a moment, and then ducked back into the dense vegetation. I will always be grateful that chats seem to like me as much as I like them! A roosting Chuck-will’s-widow in the North Woods made for another exciting post-work chase, resulting in my first visual observation of the species in several years. May always presents great opportunities to reunite with favored Neotropical migrants like Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Bobolink, and Philadelphia Vireo, and over the course of the month my year list continued to grow at a steady rate.

One of the most unexpected events of this year’s spring migration was the unusually high quantity of Bicknell’s Thrushes that were documented throughout New York City’s parks. These secretive songsters are known to pass through the region en route to their mountaintop breeding grounds, but they are seldom identified with confidence due to their extreme similarity to the related and more common Gray-cheeked Thrush. They can only be reliably distinguished from one another when they are heard singing, since the song of the Gray-cheek descends at the end while the Bicknell’s finishes with an upward inflection. The Manhattan birding community was incredibly excited when a vocal Bick was reported at the North End of Central Park, and I was able to swing by for a daybreak performance before heading into work. This particular thrush lingered in the Park for over a week, and reputable reports of additional individuals continued to trickle in throughout the month. Later in the season, I crossed paths with another Bicknell’s Thrush down by the Upper Lobe. Hearing the ethereal, fluting song of this rare migrant alongside the dulcet tones of a nearby saxophonist playing “La Vie en Rose” made for a uniquely New York experience.

By mid May, unusual weather patterns produced ideal conditions for fallouts of migrating waterbirds. The most shocking example of this was a massive influx of Arctic Terns throughout the Northeast. Many NYC birders were able to get in on the action with sightings of the world-class travelers along the Hudson River and other coastal sites. I was unfortunately out of town and missed the chance to score an Arctic Tern for my City list, but the surprises didn’t stop there. Several mornings of thick fog combined with warm, southerly winds and early low tides created a perfect storm for some fantastic birding on the outer islands of New York County. One misty daybreak jaunt to Randall’s Island turned up a veritable bounty of shorebirds that had dropped in to feed on the soggy ballfields and exposed mudflats. Semipalmated Plovers, Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs were among the species present, and we also spotted a Common Tern cruising along the Hell Gate stretch of the East River. When we got word of a Short-billed Dowitcher found by Mary Beth Kooper at Governor’s Island, we dropped everything and made a mad dash down to the ferry terminal. The bird was kind enough to stick around for us, and we picked up a sweet bonus in the form of a flyover Glossy Ibis flock as we were departing the scene. When it rains, it pours!

The later stages of migration in the back half of May brought came with their own set of unexpected surprises. A Forster’s Tern was a welcome patch bird for the Hell Gate Sector, and I checked off the remaining expected warbler species over the course of several post- and pre-work outings. Mourning Warblers put in an especially strong showing throughout the City this season, and I met with different individuals at Central Park, Randall’s Island, and Prospect Park before the month was through. We spent a lot of time skywatching along the Hudson on warm, sunny days, and this effort produced an unexpected addition to the New York Breeding Bird Atlas: a hybrid Cliff x Barn Swallow (a.k.a. “Clif Bar” Swallow) that Dmitriy discovered building a nest at the Dyckman Pier. Although hybrid birds do not truly “count” for any official listing purposes, I personally keep track of which combinations of species I’ve seen. Meeting this funky little freak of nature was an absolute delight, and I look forward to seeing the results of its nesting attempt over the course of the summer.

Memorial Day Weekend provided a fantastic opportunity to tie up some loose ends and close out the spring migration season with a grand finale. My aunt and uncle invited me to join them for dinner at the Nickerson Beach campground; an especially convenient offer since I was already planning to visit this productive shoreline hotspot. Scanning the nesting colonies added Black Skimmer, Piping Plover, Least Tern, and Willet to my year list, and a brief seawatch rewarded me with sightings of a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel pattering just beyond the breakers and a Sooty Shearwater sailing eastward at high speed. I don’t get to go birding at the beach as often as I might like to nowadays, but the ocean never fails to deliver!

I was up before the dawn the next day, making my way out to Timber Point Golf Course just in time for sunrise. A small crew of birders gathered for a stakeout near the eastern marina, hoping to catch a glimpse of a regionally rare King Rail that has established a territory within the adjacent marsh. Ever since the bird was discovered by John Gluth a few weeks ago, it has been putting in regular but unpredictable appearances at this relatively accessible wetland site. We spent several hours patiently watching and listening intently, and the other denizens of the marsh put on quite a show for us while we waited. The local Clapper Rails were especially active, and we witnessed a dramatic territorial interaction between two individuals. Seaside Sparrows were busy gathering nesting material, Saltmarsh Sparrows were chasing one another around, and a lone Nelson’s Sparrow could be heard singing across the water. Eventually, we heard a guttural series of grunts emanating from the dense grass, delivered at a notably slower and more deliberate tempo than the analogous vocalizations of a Clapper Rail. Though I would’ve loved to get a visual on the skulking King, I was still thrilled to add this species to my state list as New York bird #388.

After leaving Timber Point, I made a bold decision to head upstate and search for a Neotropic Cormorant reported by Bruce Nott and Ken McDermott the previous evening in Newburgh. Early morning searchers had come up empty, but I couldn’t resist taking the chance to look for it myself. Figuring out which roads led to waterfront access proved to be a bit tricky, but I eventually located a public parking lot with a trailhead that paralleled the shoreline of the Hudson River. It was clear that there was plenty of potential habitat in the search area where the bird could be hiding, and the low pilings it had been using as perches were presently below the high tide line. Just as I was starting to sweat about my odds of refinding my quarry, I spotted a small, slender cormorant flying in from downstream and splashing down just offshore. Scope views revealed the angular white border on its throat pouch, clinching the identity of my 389th New York State bird. It’s been a long time since I scored two new additions for my state list in the same day, and now I’m only 11 species away from the major milestone of 400! Here’s hoping there will be more exciting discoveries within the boundaries of the Empire State soon to follow.

I made one final detour on my way home from Newburgh, stopping by Ironwood Drive at Sterling Forest State Park for a short hike. Though I sadly couldn’t find any Golden-winged Warblers at this famous hotspot, I did spot a hybrid “Brewster’s” Warbler and heard the buzzy song of a Cerulean Warbler high in the treetops. My official tally of warbler species observed during spring migration here in New York thus closes out at an impressive 34, highlighting what a remarkable season it has been. I’m just as happy spending quality time with beloved common species as I am chasing after unexpected rarities, and 2022 has provided plenty of opportunities for both thus far. Between the rapidly approaching end of the schoolyear and my imminent move back to Astoria with Jacqi, the start of the summer is shaping up to be exceptionally busy in all the best ways. The manic magic of May migration always feels like it’s over too soon, but I’m positively thrilled about all of the wonderful experiences I was fortunate enough to enjoy this season. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year has in store!