A Southern Songster in Central Park

My plans for spring break went through a series of revisions in the days leading up to the week off from work. I mulled over the possibility of a large-scale trip to Florida or Arizona, but decided that Texas in February and California in summer probably put enough strain on my bank account by themselves. Thinking more locally, I began to sketch out a trip to the Adirondacks during the weekdays, spending some time camping in my home state. That scheme started to fall apart when I learned that the weather was predicted to be lousy and many of the wild things I sought were not active or present at this season. Taking a cue from my parents’ forcibly-rescheduled trip to Ireland, I elected to put off visiting the ‘Dacks till later in the year. Instead, I relaxed at home, birded at some favored local spots, and made moves to drive up to Ithaca for the last weekend of break. It ended up being a perfectly lovely vacation. When I awoke on travel day, however, there was news from the birding listserv. A Swainson’s Warbler had been spotted near Strawberry Fields in Central Park.

This bird is very different from its colorful cousins who delight birders across North America each spring. It has a fairly plain appearance, and it typically keeps to tangled undergrowth instead of fluttering through tree branches. The reason for the excitement is the difficulty that seeing this species usually presents. The Swainson’s breeds only in the southeastern United States, inhabiting dense thickets in the Appalachians and swampy, bottomland forests. The wintering grounds are located in the Caribbean and parts of Mexico, and birds can be seen along the Gulf Coast when in transit. The warbler can be hard to find even where it is common, making it one of the more sought-after species for North American birders. This individual had overshot its mark during migration, touching down in the heart of Manhattan. This was a rare treat for anyone who could make it in to see the bird, as many birders I know reported doing. With my trip to Ithaca imminent, I wasn’t sure I’d get to catch this one.

I had to shuffle some vehicles around with the family in the morning. The car I was taking upstate needed to have its windshield repaired, delaying my departure by a few hours. I biked over to Hempstead Lake looking to kill some time until my ride returned from the shop. No new birds made themselves apparent, but I got some good views of the previous day’s species and chatted with the birders who’d assembled for a weekly meeting in the field. I mentioned the Swainson’s, and several of them expressed their surprise that I hadn’t gone after the rarity. As I explained my situation, I realized that I had no logical reason not to chase the bird. I couldn’t leave before the car was fixed, and even then NYC is en route to Ithaca. Hell, I bet I could take the train in and back before the repairs are even done. The choice was made, and I raced home to drop off the bike and begin the hunt.

My timing for the impromptu outing could not have been more perfect. The train station is a 10-minute walk from my house, and I returned home with 12 minutes to the next train. I made it to Penn, caught an uptown C, and exited at the 72nd Street stop. I didn’t have to walk more than 500 yards before I arrived at the spot. The bird had been kind enough to stake some temporary territory in an easily-accessible location, saving me from a mad dash to the Ramble or the North Woods. When I arrived, I found dozens of other birders sprawled out on the streets framing a planting, peering under a dark, dense shrubbery. That’s a good sign.

I heard the bird singing as I walked up, and it continued to vocalize at regular intervals throughout my stay. Despite its drab appearance and skulky behavior, the warbler has a sweet, melodious song. The smiling faces and cheerful whispers around me indicated that the bird was visible if you were willing to get friendly with the pavement. I hunkered down and scanned the leaf litter until I spied movement. A small, brown bird was tossing detritus and nabbing insects at a furious pace. It scrambled through the undergrowth like a wind-up toy, pausing every few minutes to sing. This wayward wanderer had no concept of the scene it had caused by taking a wrong turn during its travels. It simply continued about its business, fueling up and whistling its merry tune while the spectacle unfolded around it. People regularly stopped to ask us what was happening, and I gave a condensed tale to explain the context to the amused and confused onlookers.

Warbler Watching

I took a short video that captures the spirit of the scene pretty well: excited birders abandoning their dignity on the pavement, a singing bush, and curious passersby wondering about all the hubbub. Definitely an experience I would not have wanted to miss! After getting satisfactorily acquainted with the newest face on my life list, I dashed back home on mass transit. Once again, I made excellent time and beat the car home by about 10 minutes. I was on my way to Ithaca energized by the thrill of a successful twitch. I love it when a plan comes together!

Year List Update, April 28 – 285 Species (+ Swainson’s Warbler)

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About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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4 Responses to A Southern Songster in Central Park

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