Sunday, December 14, 2014

A year in Central Park

December 15, 2013: View from the Great Hill on the 2013 Christmas Bird Count
in Central Park, looking south over the park toward lower Manhattan

I noticed a bird and quietly announced to a couple friends, the closest birders to me in the group, “There’s a titmouse.” This is not a particularly odd phrase, as Tufted Titmice are common North American birds, even in some urban parks. It didn’t even strike us as odd at the time, but it was the first individual titmouse of the day. We did think it a little strange that it was the only one we noted over a few hours at the end of our route. It became much more peculiar when all groups reporting at the round-up of the 114th annual Christmas Bird Count noted that it was in fact the only tufted titmouse that had been spotted or even heard during the event where over 100 people were scouring the park to document every bird species present.

The southern three-fourths of Central Park. The Lake is the water body
in the center of picture, with the Ramble just above it in the picture,
filling in the 90 degree angle. The Reservoir is the much larger water body
in the far left and it extends to around 97th St.

Things seemed to be back to what I think of as normal when there were 186 tufted titmice noted in the 115th CBC at Central Park in 2014. This experience reflects one of the great aspects of getting to know the birds, birdwatching, birding, or whatever you want to call it. No single day is the same experience, as birds fly, populations shift around in space and in abundance, habitats change, and your eyes become attuned to new details. Getting to know the birds can be done almost anywhere, and for me, Central Park is just the closest spot.

February 2014: Fox Sparrow at the feeders in Evodia Field, in the Ramble

New York City is a place filled with cement, asphalt, steel, and glass, among other various materials to support millions of people. Bob Dylan once sang of this town that, "there's buildings going down to the ground, and people going up to the sky." As the pictures from the air show, there are not many spaces for birds to go or for humans to see them.

The North End of Central Park. The Pool is hardly visible near the bottom
of the left corner of the park in this picture, at 103rd St and Central Park West. The Loch,
Wildflower Meadow, Ravine, North Woods, and the Great Hill are in the area
between the Pool, the 110th street edge of the park and the Meer, which
is the body of water in the left upper corner of the picture.

And yet there are places like Central Park. It's not like Central Park is a wild area; on the contrary, it is also a heavily human-influenced place, landscaped and planned. But Central Park is a place that exists possibly as a recognition of the importance of the outdoors and nature in the human experience. As a result, there are trees, both native and ornamental, bodies of water, open grassy areas, and brushy areas. While these spaces serve a huge human population for many varied purposes, they also provide places for different birds at different times of the year.

March 2014: Red-necked Grebe at the Reservoir

Birding at Central Park provides a chance to walk slower in contrast to the fast-paced everyday life in the city, so I don’t always go to see every bird, unless it’s on my way or something that really stands out, like the red-necked grebe. The colder months bring waterfowl to the waters of places like the Reservoir. In March, when most of the Reservoir was still frozen over, a Red-necked Grebe (I think others documented more than one) visited the human-made water body. I have seen red-necked grebes previously, but usually the view is way out there in the water, the bird just a figure in the spotting scope.

April 4, 2014: Looking south from the Great Hill

As the tilt of earth changes in relation to the sun, the weather shifts, plants cycle from dormant to harvesting the sun (and back), and arthropod populations that feed on the plants (and each other) fluctuate dramatically. Birds pass by on their journey to and from breeding grounds, stopping in Central Park for food and water.

April 27, 2014: Looking south from the Great Hill

May 2014: American Redstart (a type of wood-warbler) at the Point,
which sticks out from the Ramble, into the Lake

Wood-warblers make spring especially bright. Wood-warblers are a group of small insectivorous birds that after breeding in North America, mostly migrate to the southern parts of North America, Central America, the Caribbean islands, and South America. Warblers, as most people call them instead of wood-warblers, are fairly diverse in appearance and habit. The spring of 2014 was especially good for observing birds in Central Park, and the warblers were no exception. On the first five days of May, I saw Worm-eating Warblers each day and saw them a few times again in the two weeks; this is an uncommon bird, and in my experience, they were much more prevalent than in previous seasons at Central Park. I even got a chance to sketch one!

May 2014: Wood Thrush near Warbler Rock in the Ramble

May 2014: Solitary Sandpiper in a muddy pool in the Compost area
at the north end of Central Park

There was one day, May 10, when after working on Saturday, I made it to the Ramble by 3:30 PM to meet a friend. Covering less than a quarter-mile walk between Belvedere Castle, the Upper Lobe and Mugger’s Woods, we saw 18 species of warblers, including Blackburnian, Worm-eating, and Hooded warblers, before it started pouring rain in a thunderstorm around 5PM. At around 6:20 PM, Michele met me where I had sheltered at Belvedere Castle to bird for the last hour and forty minutes of sunlight. We also saw 18 species of warbler around the same area, missing three of the species I had seen earlier, but adding Tennessee Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and Prairie Warbler to the day’s list (total of 21 warbler species). Between the spring weather and the birds, the last week of April and the first two weeks of May are about as good as they get in New York City!

May 2014: A Chestnut-sided Warbler comes in close by the Loch. The
chestnut on the sides can be seen if you look closely. As you can see,
this bird has a lot more than just reddish-brown sides, including  a yellow crown
and the striped back.

May 11, 2014: Looking south from the Great Hill

I didn't visit Central Park in June, July, or August to look for birds but I did see the Counting Crows in June at the Summerstage concert series. Central Park birds dwindle to the breeders, like American Robins, European Starlings, House Sparrows, and a few other species. I usually focus my birding time elsewhere.

September 2014: An adult American Robin feeding a younger bird in the
north end of Central Park

September 13, 2014: Looking south from the Great Hill
(432 Park Ave residential tower is now fully built and part of the skyline)

Central Park birding at any time of the year is pretty casual, easy, and requires a low commitment. I can spend 2-4 hours birding and still make afternoon or dinner plans. Sometime I might only be in the park for 50 minutes before or after work, but in a place like the Upper Lobe or Strawberry Fields, it can be an exciting start or finish to the day.

September 2014: Black-throated Blue Warbler in the North Woods of Central Park

October 2014: Red-tailed Hawk picking apart its feathered prey
above the Captain's Bench, in the Ramble.

October 2014: Part of the loch, just east of the rustic bridge, in the northern section
of the park. This is a great spot to check for migrating birds.

 Another important aspect of Central Park birding is that it is often a social experience. Without ever really planning to, I generally bump into other bird folk, and this is a good thing. This year, I have marveled at the electric blue wings of blue jays with brand new birders and discussed the finer points of striping on an unusual sparrow with birders far more experienced than me. Sometimes you just share a view of a bird, smile and move on. I don’t even know the names of many birders, but like seeing familiar birds, it’s good to see familiar faces, too.

October 2014: A walkway through the Wildflower Meadow in the north end
of Central Park.

People also share sightings, which if you happen to be in the park, makes it very easy to go see something neat. I got a text message about a Kentucky Warbler and was watching birds about a two-minute walk away. I was able to grab a friend who didn’t have the text service, and we were among the lucky people that saw the bird that night before it got dark. It was not found again the next day or thereafter.

October 2014: Golden-crowned Kinglet near the Compost Area in the north end
of Central Park.

October 2014: Looking south from the Great Hill. The Empire State Building
has the glowing, golden spire at the center of the picture.

Likewise, the naming of nearly every spot is very helpful to sharing news about where to look. You might go past the rustic bridge, along the loch, around the wildflower meadow into the ravine and then head to the north woods, stopping along the high meadow and by the blockhouse, before rounding the great hill and down to the pool (spots in the ramble are even more specifically named). For this reason, I bet birders are the most accurate people to ask directions to any given spot in the park (at least as long as they have ever looked for a bird nearby!).

November 2014: looking south from the Great Hill

Fall brings changing colors, wildflowers growing prolifically in some areas, and moderate temperatures. October is a good time to find migrating sparrows, including common species like Song Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows, uncommon species like White-crowned Sparrows, and possibly even rarer ones (like a Lark Sparrow). Looking up for birds of prey, especially during migration, can yield species such as Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, and American Kestrels (among others). The variety of birds changes from September to November, when the winter mix of species finally starts replacing the late fall migrants. It is winter again. 

December 2014: Tufted Timouse, abundant enough this year to pose for a picture
on a fence, near the Lake, on the 2014 Christmas Bird Count.

December 14, 2014: A view from the 2014 Christmas Bird Count
On cold rainy day this past week that prevented me from heading out to the park, I surveyed my notes from the past year. I visited Central Park for birds on 42 days and saw 141 species of birds in Central Park. The cast of characters for 2014 included:

Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard Duck, Northern Shoveler, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Double-crested cormorant, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Turkey Vulture, Osprey, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Ring-billed Gull, Great-black Backed Gull, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Black-billed Cuckoo, Common Nighthawk, Chimney Swift, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow Bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Phoebe, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Eastern Wood-pewee, Eastern Kingbird, Great Crested Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Blue-headed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Cedar Waxwing, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Carolina Wren, Winter Wren, House Wren, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Grey Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Common European Starling, Veery, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Swainson's Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Blue-winged Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Nashville Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Pine Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Palm Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Worm-eating Warbler, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded Warbler, Wilson's Warbler, Canada Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, Brown-headed Cowbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Savannah Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Indigo Bunting, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal, Pine Siskin, American Goldfinch, Purple Finch, House Finch, House Sparrow

Central Park Links and Resources (just a few and there are many others):

Birders: The Central Park Effect is a documentary that captures birds, birders, and Central Park in 2009. Address:

Central Park Birding is a nice website that has information about birds by location, by season, and lots of other birding advice for the park, especially the Ramble area:

Central Park Flora is a website that explores the plants of Cnetral Park. While not birds, the trees and wildflowers provide the setting for bird adventures. Address: