Desperately Seeking Shorebirds

Tales of Early Fall Birding in New York City

I’m going to preface this by saying that birding in New York County (in other words, Manhattan and a few small harbor islands) is very different from birding in even other parts of New York City. Fairly common birds in many neighboring counties/areas can be scarce, rare or downright mega rare in New York County. And perhaps no group of birds exemplifies this better than shorebirds. Only a few species – Solitary, Spotted, and Least Sandpipers, American Woodcock and Killdeer – are common/regular in the county. One can go out to places like Plumb Beach, Jamaica Bay, Cupsogue, etc and see hordes of shorebirds – of many species to boot. However, there are very few places with large in Manhattan, and so, if you’re attempting a County Big Year like I am, you have to visit these few spots often in August and September in hopes of finding them.

July 26 – Inwood Hill Park: “Episode I: The Phantom Shorebirds”

With my friend and fellow young birder Adrian, I went to perhaps the best spot for shorebirds in New York County – the mudflats of Inwood Hill Park, right at the northern tip of Manhattan. This park has two small tidal mudflats that in recent years have shown themselves to attract shorebirds with regularity, including such county mega-rarities (don’t laugh) as Pectoral and White-rumped Sandpiper. But, despite careful scanning, Adrian and I could not find a single shorebird.

July 30 – Inwood Hill Park: “A Race Against Tide”

I awoke at about 10am to Manhattan Bird Alert text alerts that Semipalmated Sandpipers (my NY County nemesis bird, and a bird of mild county rarity) and a Greater Yellowlegs (a bit more of a county rarity, only being seen a few times a year) were being seen at Inwood. Both would be county life birds. After a bit of groaning and facepalming (“Why didn’t I wake up earlier? Why didn’t I set an alarm? O sleep, why hast thou forsaken me?”), I got ready and hightailed it up to IHP and made it there at 11:30. Peak low tide had long passed and the tide was coming in, but I rejoiced when I saw that there was still a good amount of mudflat left above water. After a bit of scanning, I picked up two distant Spotted Sandpipers and, more excitingly, the Greater Yellowlegs (NY County 2017 #174) in all its great, yellow-legged glory! Although distant at first, the yellowlegs eventually gave very close views, allowing for some digibin photo-ops. I left soon afterward, and while I was jubilant about the yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpipers retained their status as my top New York County nemesis bird.

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Greater Yellowlegs

August 6 – Central Park: “A Walk In The Park”

Passerine migration is soon to kick in to high gear, and already a good smattering of warbler species are being seen in Central Park, one of New York City’s top migrant traps. A few hours here were highlighted by a Carolina Wren (NY County 2017 #175) in Shakespeare Garden, an American Redstart, and good looks at a Blue-winged Warbler, one of my favorite warblers and always an awesome bird to see, in the Maintenance Field.

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Carolina Wren

August 11 – Jamaica Bay NWR: “Real Shorbin'”

Adrian and I decided to go to Jamaica Bay NWR on this day, arguably NYC’s best spot for shorebirds, for some actual shorebirding, with good chances to see actual large flocks of actual shorebirds. Actually. When we arrived at the north end of the East Pond, we noticed, as had been discussed on the listserv and Facebook groups, that the water level was rather high, but we still immediately found a flock of shorebirds. Among the Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, and Semipalmated Plovers, we quickly picked out a few White-rumped Sandpipers, my favorite peep, which are always rewarding to identify and just generally awesome.

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White-rumped Sandpiper (photo by Adrian Burke)
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Lesser Yellowlegs (photo by Adrian Burke)

Afterward, we headed to the West Pond to try our luck at things like Gull-billed Tern and Tricolored Heron. However, no sooner had we started along the trail, I checked my email to learn that a Wilson’s Phalarope had been found at the south end of the East Pond. Well, shoot. Wilson’s Phalarope would’ve been a lifer for me, and the last phalarope species I’d yet to see. Shoulda checked sooner – the email was 20 minutes old by the time I saw it. We tried to get there as fast as possible, but the mosquitoes and biting flies on the trail were the worst either of us had ever experienced at this location, and thus frequently interrupted the hike. After about 40 minutes of being eaten alive, we arrived at the pond’s edge and began the trek to the phalarope spot – a trek through the muck. It had been a while since I had last been here, so I had mostly forgotten about how deep you must wade to get around the East Pond. Let’s just say that I went in with gray/brown hiking boots, and emerged with shiny black ones. When we encountered other birders, including the finder of the phalarope, we heard that the bird had flown away high to the south a while before we got there. This was very disappointing, I’m not gonna lie, but we did find a little bit of a consolation prize in the form of a Pectoral Sandpiper and a few Stilt Sandpipers, both yearbirds for Adrian and I.

August 14 – Inwood Hill Park/Swindler Cove and Sherman Creek/Central Park:             “The Birders Strike Back”

With winds out of the north overnight and an early Harlem River low tide, conditions boded well for shorebirds. Adrian and I chose to bird Inwood Hill Park again on this morning. Arriving a little before 8am, it became instantly clear to us that, aside from two flyby Killdeer, there were no shorebirds on the mudflats. A couple of quite nice bonuses, however, were a Louisiana Waterthrush and a flyover Osprey (NY County 2017 #176). We then headed over to the nearby Swindler Cove and Sherman Creek, a small park on the Harlem River with two mudflats that in recent years have been good for shorebirds. As soon as we arrived at the larger mudflat, Sherman Creek, we noticed a fairly large flock of peeps! We immediately started scanning. One of the first shorebirds I put my bins on instantly caught my eye – a Semipalmated Plover (NY County 2017 #177), a solid county rarity! Yes! After getting Adrian on it, I got a poor-quality digiscope through Adrian’s scope and issued a Manhattan Bird Alert (Twitter) text alert. Continuing to sort through the peeps, it became apparent that the majority of them were Semipalmated Sandpipers (NY County 2017 #178) – a county nemesis no more! Also present were 8 Least Sandpipers, only the second time I’d seen them in NY County, and 2 Killdeer. We left a couple hours later, after many careful scans of the flock. I was elated – after three years of county listing and many unsuccessful checks of these mudflats, I’d finally seen a New York county shorebird flock!

Later, I birded Central Park for a bit, as today was the best day for warblers so far this season. Starting at the 59th St. Pond, I quickly found a Northern Waterthrush, in addition to the reported Spotted Sandpiper. Making my way into the Ramble, I paused at the ex-Swampy-Pin-Oak when I heard a warbler chip in the bushes on the side of the path. A little pishing, and a Blue-winged Warbler came right in. This little spot turned out to be the place with the highest warbler density I’d encounter today, with singles of Chesnut-sided and Yellow Warblers, American Redstart, and another Blue-winged Warbler. The Maintenance Field/Iphigene’s Walk area, where Worm-eating Warbler had been reported earlier, produced Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warbler, and a lovely Canada Warbler. After unsuccessfully trying for reported Hooded and Mourning Warblers, I headed home feeling contented and accomplished. Between a nice selection of warblers, two county birds (SESA and SEPL), and, finally, success with shorebirds in Manhattan, today was undoubtedly a success.

I eagerly await what the rest of the summer will bring!

Until next time,

Ryan Zucker

New York, NY

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