City Hall Park, New York, New York, November 27, 2016
David J. Ringer
Nov 28, 2016 · 4 min read

A Western Tanager — generally unexpected anywhere east of Colorad0 — is visiting downtown Manhattan, and it’s the first of its kind seen here since the spring of 2008. The bird is hanging out at City Hall Park, a historic site between Tribeca and the Brooklyn Bridge, and there, high in the sunlit treetops, bird silently flitted, fed, and preened its feathers on this bright, chilly morning as I and many others watched.

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) at City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan, November 27, 2016

Female and immature Western Tanagers show yellowish wingbars and bright orange bills, among the more obvious features differentiating them from our eastern Scarlet Tanagers. Both features are visible here:

The bird has been a challenge to photograph well, but here are links to some good images from Rhys Marsh, Sean Sime, and Heydi Lopes (note some of Heydi’s photos showing the bird feeding from sapsucker wells — neat).

City Hall Park is fairly small — about 9 acres — busy, not fully accessible, and not often birded. There were only about two dozen eBird checklists at the public hotspot before the tanager’s discovery (since, in five days, nearly 90 lists have been submitted).

But on November 23, Cédric Duhalde, visiting from California, was birding the park, and something caught his ear:

Initially heard a familiar call that I was ready to pass off as a HOSP. But it really sounded different, making a “pir-u-ket” call, and I ended finding a medium-sized bird (smaller than a robin, larger than a Zonotrichia). It was all yellow beneath, had a large pinkish bill, dark wings with visible white WINGBARS.

He submitted an eBird checklist, which was quickly discovered by local birders, who spread the word, refound the bird, and set off a twitching frenzy that continued through today. Here’s Cédric’s original checklist and report:

Rare Birds in Autumn

Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens)

Meanwhile on the south end of City Hall Park, a Yellow-breasted Chat has been hanging out for a couple of weeks. Some birders have managed beautiful photos of the bird, though I did not today: The above was the best I could manage.

I was happy to see the chat, this odd songbird that’s probably a blackbird instead of a warbler, one of an unusually high number of its kind that have been present in and around New York City this autumn.

During late autumn and early winter, New York sees two rare-bird phenomena that I’ve been thinking about today:

  1. Rare vagrants arriving from the west and south (this year, for example, the Manhattan Western Tanager, another on Staten Island, and a couple of Ash-throated Flycatchers; last year, the superstar Prospect Park Painted Bunting; the year before, New York state’s first-ever Couch’s Kingbird and a Cassin’s Kingbird);
  2. “Half-hardy” migrants staying longer into the cold season than might otherwise be expected — catbirds are a frequent culprit, as are some of the warblers illustrated below.

I think chats represent both categories. They’re near the northern limit of their breeding range here, so we certainly get a few birds lingering as they pass through the city on their way back south. But, they are more frequently reported in autumn than in spring, and they have an established pattern of autumn vagrancy up the eastern seaboard into the Canadian Maritimes, north of their breeding range, so I suspect some of New York’s autumn chats have probably come up from farther south or west as well.

Of these vagrants and lingerers, many disappear by early January as cold deepens and snow accumulates. Presumably, some continue their journeys south when things get tough while others succumb to the elements, hunger, or predators.

There is some evidence that both of these autumnal behaviors play roles in helping birds adapt to climate change, colonize new areas, and exploit additional resources. After all, a genetic mutation, an aberrant navigational or phenological choice, or a surprise weather front could create evolutionary opportunity, not just an evolutionary dead end, and our old ideas of these birds being hopelessly lost or infirm have proved to be overly simplistic.

A Few More Avian Stars

I saw a total of 17 species in the park today, including a striking young Red-tailed Hawk, three lingering warbler species, and some good winter residents and year-round city dwellers. Here are some pictures.

A first-year Red-tailed Hawk (note yellow irises) with blood from its last meal still staining its belly
Common Yellowthroat, lingering late
An Ovenbird, also staying later than most of its kind
A lovely Hermit Thrush

David J. Ringer

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PR for the birds. Take care of each other.

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