Every New York naturalist knows that the month of May is the big one. Migration kicks into high gear and there seem to be birds everywhere. When the conditions are right, however, we occasionally get treated to an early push of traveling birds before we change our calendars. Late April movements have a lot of potential for interesting vagrants, as the patterns of wind and weather are often a bit wacky during this rainy month. 2016’s Central Park Swainson’s Warbler was a great example of such a pre-May surprise. This year, the back half of April’s final week featured continuous days of southerly winds, perfect for ferrying migrants into the region.
On Thursday, the word from the outside world reported good numbers and diversity of Neotropical migrants in the NYC area. I had a date night in Manhattan planned with Miriam, so I spent a few hours wandering Central Park while I waited for her after work. Foolishly, I had neglected to put my binoculars in my work bag to prepare for the seasonal excitement. Without optics, I had to rely on my ears and the kindness of others to locate birds. Both served me quite well. I managed to pick up Yellow Warbler, Veery, Brown Thrasher, and Baltimore Oriole on my own, and friendly birders lent me a look through their bins at Nashville Warbler and Warbling Vireo. I even bumped into some familiar young birders from the Jamaica Bay trip last August, and I asked about a previously reported Yellow-throated Warbler. No one had spotted the local rarity since early morning, until one of the guys picked it up while we were talking. 7 year birds on an afternoon stroll without my binoculars was an impressive and welcome accomplishment, especially in the wake of Florida migration time. My good fortune continuous with a lovely night on the town, enjoying Dueling Pianos at Bar Nine and continuing on to BarBacon for a late bite before returning home.
Friday saw more reports of good birds, but I went straight home to close out the long work week with some relaxation. I awakened early on Saturday to try my luck at Jones Beach in the wake of continuing winds from the south. Forster’s Terns, typically the first species of this family to return to our shores, were seen while crossing the bridge to the barrier islands. Conditions were foggy and gray at first, though the mist gradually burned off as the temperature rose throughout the day. There were clear signs of migrant activity, with hordes of “Myrtle” Warblers flitting about in the foliage. I found a flock of Indigo Buntings along the backside of the hedgerow, and noticed a blocky-headed bird foraging among the sparrows behind the fence at the Coast Guard station. This was a female Blue Grosbeak, who had apparently been present for the past few days.
I continued along the median, counting birds as I went. Cooperative Baltimore Orioles, House Wrens locked in a territorial battle, and a sneaky White-eyed Vireo were among the early morning’s highlights. I noticed Fish Crows carrying nesting material into the denser groves, and a wild call overhead drew my attention to passing Common Loons. Not quite yet May levels of excitement, but a springy and pleasant atmosphere overall.
I was debating continuing on to another park as I approached the Coast Guard parking lot. Passing birders informed me of a male Blue Grosbeak that had been seen foraging on the lawn near the park entrance. Since this bird generally breeds south of Long Island and shows up only a few times each year during migration when individuals overshoot their destination, I’ve had very few quality encounters with the species. I hastened my pace and headed for the tollbooth. Sure enough, I found the grosbeak and a small group of admirers.
At first, the bright blue bird mostly kept his distance. I watched from across the road as he bounced along, picking in the grass and periodically fluttering up to nab flying insects. I slowly followed as he worked his way west from the entry road toward the gazebo, where he finally ducked into the brush. I returned to the lot and got in my car, only to rediscover the grosbeak had continued his trajectory and was now feeding on the lawn a stone’s throw away. This was by far the closest and longest view I’ve ever enjoyed of this species, and it was a stunning, pristine male! I used the car as a blind and snapped a few more photos, creeping along as the bird foraged on his way westward. When he took off into the foliage, I left Jones and headed home.
I took an afternoon stroll at Hempstead Lake with Dad, where we found Wood Ducks, a few migrants, and Canada Geese with goslings. The most majestic bird of the day was a stately Northern Mockingbird perched atop the impressive antlers of the local Elks Club elk. Saturday night was a chill session in Brooklyn with Miriam, Edem, and Kelsey…some much-needed relaxation! I didn’t get out birding on Sunday until well after noon, but I was determined to find some avian activity. The presence of singing redstart, parula, Black-and-White, and “Myrtle” Warbler outside my house was a very welcome sign of spring migration hitting full swing. Reports from the morning were promising, and I wanted to score a few more new birds before jumping into May madness with both feet.
My first stop was Valley Stream State Park, and I was surprised to find that overall activity levels were still high so late in the day. Orioles, wrens, vireos, and dozens of warblers were singing and flitting about in the trees throughout the area. A number of birds were periodically mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk perched near the entrance. I found my first Swainson’s Thrush of the year, cold-colored and buffy-spectacled compared to the nearby Veery and Hermit Thrush. I made my way to the comfort station for a pit stop, and stopped in my tracks when I heard a bird call I didn’t know. Not a call I didn’t remember after the long winter, not a call I didn’t hear well enough to recognize, an unknown call I simply had never heard before. THAT’S the sort of thing that gets a birder’s blood pumping! I spun around to inspect the source of the noise, and spotted a dull yellow bird with its back to me. It turned to reveal a heavy, horn-colored bill, continuing to utter its staccato, chuckling “pit-tuk” vocalization. I quickly checked the wings, uniformly colored with the plumage of the body, and the tail, relatively long and slightly cocked up, to confirm its identity: Summer Tanager. Separating Summers from the similar Scarlet Tanagers is usually easy with good views, and this female was cooperative enough to show all relevant field marks, including the distinctive call. My encounters with this species have been infrequent due to its irregular occurrence in these parts, and I feel like I learn something new every time I see one.
The northern limit of this bird’s home range is in southern New Jersey, and they are a rare but expected visitor to Long Island and NYC when spring migrants fly too far. New York birders typically find a few individuals each year, and this time I was lucky enough to be one of the finders! There had already been a handful reported from other locations in the past few days, apparently a part of the larger incursion of southern specialties that included the Blue Grosbeaks and Yellow-throated, Hooded, and Prothonotary Warblers. The prolonged period of winds out of the south seems to have worked like a “slingshot” to propel these southern belles beyond their normal range, and we are always happy to see them up here. The tanager disappeared from sight behind the building, and I failed to refind her for a documentation photo. I spent the remainder of the evening at Hempstead Lake, where I enjoyed double-digit species of warblers and a variety of other birds still showing off in the fading light of day. It was a perfect end to a surprisingly productive April, and a grand entry into the excitement of high migration season.
Year List Update, April 30 – 262 Species (+ Nashville Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Warbling Vireo, Yellow-throated Warbler, Veery, Brown Thrasher, Baltimore Oriole, Forster’s Tern, Blue Grosbeak, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, Blue-winged Warbler)