What’s in Flight
We’re having an epic Fall migration season. And it isn’t over yet!
Peregrine Falcon exercising its wings. This falcon is the fastest animal in the world (it can dive at speeds up to 186 mph). One was spotted in the park on 10/8/23.
Video by Brad Balliett
Carl Schurz’s new star; a Clay-colored Sparrow, photographed by Gig Palileo
On October 12, birder and naturalist Gabriel Willow spotted a super rare Clay-colored Sparrow pecking in the grass on the North Lawn. Within minutes of the sighting being relayed on a Manhattan bird alert, birders from across the city arrived to catch a glimpse of our tiny stripy American Sparrow.
Palm Warbler video by Brad Balliett
The North Lawn (a hill just north of Gracie Mansion), is an important area for birds, as it is the largest undisturbed lawn in the park. The same morning as the Clay-colored Sparrow sighting here, birders spotted a beautiful yellow and rust streaked Palm Warbler wagging its tail, hopping through the grass and feeding on seeds.
Northern Mockingbird by Lucas Urbe
Nearby, our resident Northern Mockingbird, who likes to flit between the North Lawn and the trees in Gracie Mansion, was practicing its impressive repertory of calls. Gabriel Willow identified it mimicking over a dozen of the birds commonly sighted in the park; including a Blue Jay, Barn Swallow, Herring Gull, Tufted Titmouse, European Starling, Northern Cardinal and House Finch. At one point it also mimicked a grasshopper.
Golden-crowned Kinglet video by Brad Balliett
Other Fall migrants, recently sighted in the park include colorful Cape May Warblers, American Redstarts, Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Nashville Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Kinglets and a flock of Cedar Waxwings with their sharp piercing calls.
Cape May Warbler by Deborah E Bifulco
Learning to identify bird calls is an epic task that can take years to learn and eludes most of us. But not any more. Call it the most important birding breakthrough since binoculars. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s new Merlin Bird ID App, (which is free to all users and easily downloaded on any smart phone), has a Sound ID feature, which is extraordinarily accurate and fun to use, with the result it is attracting up to 1 million new users each month.
Merlin Sound ID App in action
The App makes the park’s subtle soundscape of tweets and trills come alive. Those impossible to see, high-up-in-the-trees, warblers, that flock into our park during fall and spring migration, are suddenly ‘visible’. Even the birds hiding in plain sight, which prove too nimble to be caught with binoculars, can be heard on Merlin Sound ID.
Nashville Warbler spotted near the Peter Pan Statue by Gig Palileo
We reached out to Drew Weber, Merlin Project Manager, to find out about its success. ‘It is 95% correct at ID’ing birds,’ he says. A key part of Merlin’s unprecedented success has been teaching the App how to distinguish each bird’s various songs and chip notes using 100s of recordings in the Cornell archives, and also teaching the App non-bird sounds like human voices, cars honking and AC units in order to eliminate them from the soundscape.
Brown Thrasher by Gig Palileo
The Merlin Sound ID App is a great way to spot the Pavarotti of the bird world, the reclusive Brown Thrasher with its huge repertory of over 1,100 songs. This tall bird (larger than an American Robin) with striking yellow eyes, reddish brown wings and a speckled breast has been heard multiple times in the park this fall season. In case you were wondering, it gets its name from its habit of aggressively stabbing the ground with its bill to get food.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher by Gig Palileo
Another first for the park this fall, was the appearance of a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, a tiny greenish bird with a white eye-ring and a two-toned bill (the under part is yellowy-orange). The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is an aerial insectivore – an expert at snatching prey in mid-air. This tiny bird was likely resting during migration before continuing onto its wintering grounds in Central America.
Winter Wren, a tiny bird with a huge, beautiful voice, was spotted multiple times in the park. Image by Gig Palileo
During fall migration a million birds at a time can fly in vast swarms over our park and New York City. But it is frustratingly hard to experience this phenomenon first hand as it happens over night. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has another hugely popular tool that is making this nightly migration experience come alive. It is called Birdcast.info
Birdcast.info migration video of the US’s record-breaking 1.2 billion bird night on October 6, 2023
Birdcast.info (a free website) taps into local weather surveillance radar, which captures minute by minute, the numbers of birds in the air and their flight patterns. Birdcast.net produces live videos of the birds as they swarm overnight across the whole country, and a daily 15 second video digest that illustrates what happened the night before. For instance on October 6, the whole country lit up with an unprecedented 1.2 billion birds on the move across the continent. And on October 12, New York County had its biggest migration day this season with 872,500 birds traveling at an average of 26 MPH, 1,200 feet above the city.
Birdcast.info migration dashboard for New York County, October 12, 2023
The bigger the number of birds in the air overnight, the more likely you are to spot colorful migrants in the park the next morning. Birdcast.net offers alerts to let you know in advance when a big migration is going to happen. This is useful intelligence for everyone, as dimming building lights during migration between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. can minimize the risk of birds hitting windows. NYC Audubon estimates nearly a quarter million birds die each year in the city from building strikes.
Words: Lucie Young
Gig Palileo – X (formerly Twitter) @gigpalileo
Brad Balliett – X (formerly Twitter) @BalliettBrad
Deborah E Bifulco
The Cornell Lab Merlin App, which contains the Sound ID feature is free to download in App stores. You can also read more on merlin.allaboutbirds.org/sound-id
Birdcast.info is a free website, where you can view live and historical North American bird migration videos, get local migration data and alerts about upcoming migration nights.
NYC Audubon’s Project Safe Flight offers advice on how to bird proof your building
Check out our previous edition of What's in Flight