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What's in Flight

December, 2020

Carl Schurz Park just pipped Central Park for one of the most exciting, rare bird sightings of the fall/winter season. What birders call a ‘lifer’ because these birds are so rarely seen in these parts.

1 Western Tanager by Gig Palileo.jpeg

Western Tanager

Gig Palileo

Our new resident is a beautiful Western Tanager.  Up close it looks a little bit like the Loony Toons cartoon bird Tweety with its orangey-pink bill and fluffy yellow plumage. It is around six-to-seven inches tall and has dark wings with two wingbars.

2 Western Tanager by Jay Zemann.jpg

Western Tanager

Jay Zemann

3 Western Tanager Male (spring plumage)

Western Tanager Male (spring plumage)

Jerry McFarland

It was spotted first by local birder Jay Zemann on December 11, in a Siberian Elm tree at the East side of the 86th Street entrance.  Since then it has been spotted multiple times by other birders including Ed Gaillard, who saw it sipping sap on the Siberian Elm to the right of the entrance to the Catbird Playground. One birder saw it flying down East 90th Street near East End Avenue.

4 Red-tailed Hawk by Ed Gaillard.jpg

Red-tailed Hawk

Ed Gaillard

5 Tufted Titmouse and local birder Lisa

Tufted Titmouse and local birder Lisa Zemann

Jay Zemann

How it got here is a mystery.  Western Tanagers usually keep to the West Coast and never venture further across the country than the west side of Texas.  Jeff Kimball, a previous president of NYC Audubon told that; ‘It’s always a delight to see them. It’s not the most common bird on the West Coast either.‘ His guess for how the Western Tanager made it over here is that it got turned around during a storm and instead of flying south to Mexico and Costa Rica, where it usually winters, it headed east until it hit the East River. ‘Now it doesn’t know what to do, so it will hunker down and may not survive the winter.’  Unless of course, it can find enough good things to eat in Carl Schurz Park.

6 White-breasted Nuthatch by Gig Palileo

White-breasted Nuthatch

Gig Palileo

7 White-throated Sparrow by Deborah E Bi

White-throated Sparrow

Deborah E Bifulco

Full disclosure, there are two Western Tanagers in Manhattan at the moment. The other one landed in Chelsea and has been spotted foraging for food up and down West 22nd Street. One birder joked they must be male birds because they ‘refused to ask for directions.’   However ours is likely a female or a juvenile bird, says Ed Gaillard.  The male Western Tanagers have a striking red head, as if they’ve been dipped head first into crimson paint, but the red markings often fade in the fall.

8 Baltimore Oriole (fall plumage) by Gig

Baltimore Oriole (fall plumage)

Gig Palileo

9 Hermit Thrush by Gig Palileo.jpeg

Hermit Thrush

Gig Palileo

On a late December day, three birders scoping out trees in Carl Schurz for the Western Tanager were delighted by a large Red-tailed Hawk, with its four-to-five foot wing span, swooping down just feet away to catch prey.  They are a very visible species in the park right now, as are Tufted Titmice, White-throated Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatch and Black-capped Chickadees. 

10 Yellow-bellied Sapsuker by Ed Gaillar

Yellow-bellied Sapsuker

Ed Gaillard

11 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by Gig Palil

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Gig Palileo

12 Red-bellied Woodpecker by Jay Zemann.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Jay Zemann

Gig Palileo, who captured images of the Western Tanager, is a nearby resident. She began birding in 2019. ‘It is my therapy.  It’s pure joy. Especially now since Covid.’ This month in Carl Schurz Park she also spotted two Baltimore Orioles, a Hermit Thrush pecking on the ground, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (a small woodpecker) enjoying the sap on an Elm tree.  Jay Zemann recently spotted another rare find a Leucistic House sparrow, a partial albino sparrow with white tips to its wings.  Birders also reported a Carolina Wren, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a pair of Cardinals and a huge flock of House Finches (the males are distinguished by their striking raspberry-colored heads). 

Carolina Wren by Gig Palileo.jpeg

Carolina Wren

Gig Palileo

14 Cardinal by Jay Zemann.jpeg


Jay Zemann

So if you were thinking Winter in the park is the quiet season, you may want to bring your binoculars.  As Jay Zemann notes: ‘The cool winds have brought an interesting flush of birds through the park.’ 

15 House Finch by Renee Grayson.jpg

House Finch

Renee Grayson

16 Leucistic House Sparrow by Jay Zemann

Leucistic House Sparrow

Jay Zemann

Words: Lucie Young

Images:   Gig Palileo, Jay Zemann, Ed Gaillard, Jerry McFarland and Renee Grayson

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