Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Birding Central Park

We spent a few days in New York City last weekend and early this week, and I spent Monday exploring and birding Central Park. I’d read that the park is a major stopover point for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway and since this is migration season, I figured it would make for a good day.

A guidebook in the hotel suggested that The Ramble would be a good place for birding since it’s the wildest corner of Central Park, featuring landscapes similar to what might have existed in Manhattan before Europeans came. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but the area certainly was wilder than the rest of the park and to my surprise the birds most common in the rest of the city—pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows—were virtually absent in The Ramble.

The weather was beautiful, a cool and crisp autumn day, of the kind I especially love and haven’t seen since leaving Rhode Island 22 years ago. I’ve been back up to the northeast several times since then, but never in the fall. Unfortunately, the leaves were only just starting to change, but some of the trees had come into their fall reds, oranges and yellows and after all these years in Texas, that was a real treat.

We were staying in Midtown so I came up Park and entered the park at 59th, bought a map and headed toward The Ramble to lose myself. I’ve been in Central Park before, but this was the first time I’ve been able to spend time slowly exploring it, and discovering for myself what a treasure it is.

Once I got to The Ramble, I immediately noticed that the pigeons were gone. You can hurry through those looping and winding trails and probably not see much more than the ubiquitous gray squirrels, but when you stop for a few minutes, quiet and patient, the ground comes alive with white-throated sparrows digging in the leaf litter or jumping onto weed stalks to shake some seed loose as they ride the stalks to the ground. At first, I saw only the occasional weed dipping and then popping back up, but on closer inspection, I realized that it was the sparrows doing this.

White-throated Sparrow

It wasn’t long before I forgot the city all around me; I suppose that’s part of the point of Central Park, creating an illusion of wilderness and a connection with nature that I think would seem pretty dear to me if I lived in a place like New York. Occasionally I would notice the tops of the big apartment buildings of the Upper West Side and feel almost surprised by the sight… oh, yeah, that’s there. I’m in the middle of this giant city.

American Robin

I saw several birds that were new to me: hermit thrush, white-throated sparrow, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, black-capped chickadee, and (I think) rusty blackbird. I also saw a couple of species I have only seen once or twice before:  dark-eyed junco and white-breasted nuthatch. I spent a lot of time focusing on and trying to watch these new birds that are rarely, if ever, seen in Texas.

Hermit Thrush

At one point, I heard what I think was a red-shouldered hawk. The gray squirrels bolted for the trees and the birds froze when the hawk flew over. The hawk’s voice was similar to what I’m used to hearing from the red-shoulders down here, but there was a slight difference in accent. I only got a quick glimpse through the trees as he soared overhead, but size and shape were about right for a red-shoulder.

Northern Cardinal

Coming out of The Ramble, I came to a meadow filled with dark-eyed juncos. I watched them for a while, trying not to appear too interested in the scene in the middle of the meadow where a guy on his knees was clearly proposing to a woman. It was a beautiful scene with the light slanting through the trees and golden leaves drifting down all around them. I wanted to try for some shots of the juncos, but the couple would have been in the background, and I didn’t want to appear to intrude on their moment, so silently wishing them all happiness, I moved on.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

After The Ramble, I headed back toward the east side again to go to the Guggenheim Museum, one of the New York things I’d never done in all the times I’ve been up there and so I left the park at 90th and went to the museum. It was interesting, but my heart wasn’t in it. I walked quickly through the exhibits, stopping to study a few of the pieces here and there, but after a morning among changing trees, migrating birds, and foraging squirrels, the art in the museum seemed somehow empty to me and so I left the museum and headed back to the park. Perhaps I’ll give it a closer look if I ever find myself up there on an inside kind of day.

I walked around the reservoir back toward the west side. I considered, briefly, walking all the way to the northern end of the park, but I was starting to get tired and the hike back to Midtown already seemed like it would be long enough so I saved that part of the park as something to look forward to for next time.

After a tasty dog at a Shake Shack on the Upper West Side, I headed back for The Ramble, quickly losing myself in its meandering trails. This is where I found the golden-crowned kinglet and a blackbird that I think is a rusty. I got this picture and some good looks, long enough to tell he wasn’t a red-wing or a grackle. I’ve heard rusties are getting scarce, and I hoped that that wasn’t why he was alone.

Common Grackle or perhaps a Rusty Blackbird?

Eventually, it was time to go and so I left The Ramble and walked through The Mall and out of the park at Fifth and 59th back into the bustle of Midtown where I saw the damndest thing: a line of people waiting to get into Abercrombie & Fitch, which really surprised me since I can’t imagine waiting in line to get into a store that has a website especially when something as magnificent and lovely as Central Park is only a couple of blocks away and the day was so autumn perfect.

Here’s my list with stars by the ones that were lifers for me:

  1. Winter wren *
  2. White-throated sparrow *
  3. Red-shouldered hawk
  4. American crow
  5. European Starling
  6. Rock dove (pigeon)
  7. House sparrow
  8. Downy woodpecker
  9. Black-capped chickadee *
  10. Tufted titmouse
  11. Mallard
  12. Ruby-crowned kinglet
  13. Hermit thrush *
  14. Blue jay
  15. American robin
  16. White-breasted nuthatch
  17. Golden-crowned kinglet *
  18. Red-bellied woodpecker
  19. Canada goose
  20. Northern cardinal
  21. Mourning dove
  22. Common grackle or perhaps a Rusty (?) blackbird *

Here’s a link to a .pdf checklist of the Birds of Central Park.

12 Comments

  1. I like the thought of the romancing couple, and the birds, and you, all coexisting in parallel at the centre of their own universes!

    I’d so like to see cardinals. Lovely post!

    • Thanks, Lucy. Often the people are just as interesting as the birds when I’m birding in heavily peopled places. Cardinals are such great birds. As common as they are over here, I never get tired of seeing them.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful!

    I’ve been to the Park, but not on my own and able to bird. I envy/am so glad for you! I was also surprised by how many of your lifers are average birds in my part of the states, and yet how I’ve never seen a hermit thrush (nice photos). And yes, I’ve heard the rusties are getting rare, too, and I haven’t ever seen one of those, either.

    You might enjoy “Redtales in Love” about hawks in Central Park and some of the avid birders who watch them. Very easy to read, but there is some joy in that, too. :-) http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679439974

    • Thanks, Deb. It’s amazing how different the birds can be when changing regions. Texas is odd since we get both eastern and western birds here, but there are many species that never come this far south and others that just fly over.

      I saw Reditails in Love at the gift shop where I bought the map and considered buying, but I didn’t think I could cram it into my bag (no checked luggage for us) so I put it on my list for later.

  3. sounds like a wonderful place to birdwatch, its great to have places like that in the middle of cities

  4. no checked luggage here, either. i so enjoyed this post, esp the photo of the rock, which is what i found most memorable in my visit to nyc not too long ago. i didn’t stand in any lines, but next time i visit, if there is a line for a ride on a tugboat, i might get in line for that.

    enjoyed.

    • I’ll sometimes stand in line for a boatride :)

      Those rocks really surprised me. I know that part of the country is very rocky (I’m from New England) but I guess I’d forgotten.

  5. sounds like you having a great day! Congratulations for all the lifers.

  6. What a magical day. Thanks for a great read. So glad you began to unlock the beauties of Central Park. I’m a native New Yorker who, after spending 16 years in Dallas, moved back to Manhattan two years ago – and am loving it. But I wouldn’t survive w/o Central Park and Riverside Park. In NYC I miss the profusion of mockingbirds that you find in North Texas as well as wintering pelicans on White Rock Lake and endless egrets.

    • It really was a great day. I look forward to going back one day. I haven’t tried Riverside Park yet so I’ll have to keep that in mind for next time too.

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