This apparently immature bird was molting its outer tail feathers, as well as its outer primaries, but it was already sporting a fairly clean cut version of the awesome upper-wing pattern that is the hallmark for the species.

Summer Birding Fun in the City

Summer time. It’s the season when the birding in many cities wanes. Binoculars and telescopes are traded out for bathing suits, sunblock, and margaritas. For Northern Hemisphere cities, mid-June is often when the birding slows to a molasses-like crawl. The last of the migrant Blackpoll Warblers and Flycatchers are gone, and instead of being replaced by another obvious wave of migrant species, as has been happening with each wave for the past three months, they’re replaced with…nothing. A big void is left where before there were routinely fresh migrants. However, just because there’s still a month left before shorebirds start pouring south through the region en masse, doesn’t mean you should pack away the binoculars in mid-June. You can find lots of in-city surprises in the breeding season, though the types of surprises vary greatly depending on what kind of habitat you have access to.

For coastal cities, the potential for something great never goes away, and I was reminded of this yet again on June 18. Breezy Point, in New York City (NYC), is part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area (and is eastern half of the outer gateway to New York Harbor, which is where Gateway NRA gets its name). It is also host to one of the largest Common Tern breeding colonies in the state, so even if you go out there in the summer and don’t find any migrants or rarities, it’s still entertaining. The large number of birds on the beachfront also attracts species that AREN’T breeding in the area, and it’s not unusual to see a locally scarce species of tern, like Roseate, or Black, mixed into the loafing groups of Commons. On a Queens Big Day a few years ago (in mid-May, so not a perfect comparison), we not only had both of those species, but also a young Little Gull, which is rare in the area at any time of year, and very rare outside their peak migration windows. This instance alone illustrated the potential of this severely under-birded location.


While this was NOT from June 18, it WAS taken at Breezy Point, giving an idea of the proximity of the beachfront there to lower Manhattan's brand new Freedom Tower.

While this was NOT from June 18, it WAS taken at Breezy Point, giving an idea of the proximity of the beachfront there to lower Manhattan’s brand new Freedom Tower.

An aside is in order here: it is under-birded because the beach surrounds the private cooperative community of Breezy Point, and the only “close” vehicular access is via a parking lot, which in the summer requires a permit. Hence, the site is usually neglected by birders. You can also make a very long day of it by taking public transportation and walking out of it as well. A great byproduct of these circumstances that provide obstacles to public access, is that the beach is relatively undisturbed, compared to other beaches in the region, making Breezy Point a highly successful breeding area for several species of coastal nesting bird: Common Tern, Least Tern, Black Skimmer, Piping Plover, and American Oystercatcher.


Back to June 18- We had already had what we considered to be a very good afternoon: Two Black Terns, a Roseate Tern, two Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Bonaparte’s Gull, and at least two Purple Martins (they don’t breed locally, so it was quite a surprise to see two flying south heading out over the water in mid-June).


Any day with a breeding plumaged Black Tern is a good day!


There aren’t many places in the US where you can reliably see Roseate Terns away from the breeding colonies, as these birds are very pelagic migrants!


After 4 hours of traipsing around the beach, our stomachs were protesting that it was time to be elsewhere. As we were preparing to make one final, if hungry, push to walk to the jetty (a mile away) to try to see if we could find a Manx Shearwater, an interesting small gull appeared in the scope, still a ways down the beach (though luckily in the direction we were walking). It was clearly a small gull, but it seemed to be too dark-mantled for a Bonaparte’s, and the folded, black, primaries had very noticeable white tips. This seemed quite strange, as it apparently resembled a Sabine’s Gull, which would be a true regional mega. We picked up the pace a little bit, even finding an old Sooty Shearwater carcass in the wrack-line that we had missed on our way up the beach earlier.


SOSH carcass

The Sooty Shearwater that briefly de-railed our investigation into the identity of the Sabine’s Gull.



I set up my scope while Sean was still tinkering with the dead bird. It became apparent, rather quickly, why it had resembled a Sabine’s Gull from far away: it actually WAS one! I turned to Sean as he approached (luckily not holding a decaying Shearwater in his hands) and said some rushed and possibly not PG version of “It IS gonna be a SABINE’S GULL!” Lots of hijinks ensued, as we savored what turned out to be only a 3rd record for NYC (a city with a fairly long ornithological history), watching intently as the bird…well, mostly just slept and preened.



It IS a Sabine’s Gull after all!!!




One of the nice things about birds that are preening is that you can get some decent views of the spread wing without having to see them fly.




It eventually took flight to the east back into the tern colony, and we followed it and enjoyed it a bit more as it became more active among the greater numbers of terns and gulls in this section of the beach.


This apparently immature bird was molting its outer tail feathers, as well as its outer primaries, but it was already sporting a fairly clean cut version of the awesome upper-wing pattern that is the hallmark for the species.

This apparently immature bird was molting its outer tail feathers, as well as its outer primaries, but it was already sporting a fairly clean cut version of the awesome upper-wing pattern that is the hallmark for the species.


We left the gull, and decided that it had certainly beaten any Manx Shearwater we could have seen, and agreed that we could call it a wildly successful afternoon of birding. We walked back down the beach to the 4×4 trail that would lead our aching legs to the parking lots and the comfort of our cars, but as any birder knows, there’s always a “last scan.” I’ve done hundreds of “last scans” over my birding life, and they usually end in something between Custer’s famous “last stand” and success- that is to say fairly unremarkable mediocrity. This time though, we were spared both failure and mediocrity. Did we finally see a Manx Shearwater, you ask? We didn’t end up seeing any tubenoses on this day, but just as the fat lady was throwing in the towel, a Jaeger appeared in the distance. “Ah nice, a Parasitic Jaeger, not a bad way to end the day,” was my initial thought, as I became more and more acutely aware of my stomach’s desire for fulfillment., and aware of the impending darkness. The Jaeger was far away, and it was approaching sunset (on an already overcast day), so we couldn’t see much detail. However, as it gradually got closer, we were able to see that it didn’t seem to be the overwhelmingly expected of the three species of Jaeger. Eventually, we got good enough looks to see the clean underparts, small, isolated, black cap, and excessively long tail streamers of an ADULT LONG-TAILED JAEGER. In this case, the best way to give you an appreciation of the rarity of this sighting is a number: 0. Before June 18, there were that many records of Long-tailed Jaeger in NYC. The entire observation lasted about 8-10 minutes before we lost resolution on the bird, though despite being in view for that long, it never came close enough for successful photos (several failed attempts though!). Tired, hungry, sore, and yet overpoweringly happy, we retreated to the parking lot as darkness began to settle over the beach. So ended what may have been my best afternoon of birding in New York City, at a time of year which I never would have guessed could sport a day with that title!


In lieu of photos of the Jaeger, here is an otherwise media-rich eBird checklist from that afternoon:



Northern Parula-3607

Overwintering Warblers in Phoenix

Its still too early for spring migrants, but March birding in Phoenix generally produces a few decent birds.  The latest edition is a male Northern Parula found on the Arizona State University campus last week found by Jay Taylor.  This bird joins the male Chestnut-sided discovered months back also by Jay.  Both photos taken by Jim Ripley this week.  Chestnut-sided Warbler-3622Northern Parula-3607


Birding Like its 1972 in Phoenix

Birding Like its 1972—Greenwood Cemetery, Phoenix, AZ, USA

Aside from a Chestnut-sided Warbler which has remained in a ten foot cottonwood tree in a parking lot on the Arizona State University campus for two months now, and a one-day wonder Violet-crowned Hummingbird seen only by the homeowners at a central Phoenix feeder, it’s been a slow bird winter here in central Arizona, which means hitting the urban spots harder than normal. For me lately, this begins and ends with the Greenwood Cemetery.

You can enjoy a multitude of sins for $5 on Van Buren St. in downtown Phoenix, Arizona, and $20 would probably buy you a few hours at a motel in which to enjoy them. The Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery lies at the heart of it all. The reputation of the neighborhood meant that I actively avoided birding here for my first eight years in Phoenix, even though every time I flew out the airport, I looked down at the big swath of green, and thought about it. I’ve now seen the light.

Maybe you’ve never heard of Greenwood Cemetery. Its no birding afterlife draw like Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, or San Diego’s Fort Rosencrans, but it’s still got some street cred. Pick up Kenn Kauffman’s Kingbird Highway, and you might be surprised to find several pages devoted to Greenwood’s birds. I can’t put it any better than Kenn, so I’ll quote him:

“The Greenwood Cemetery is an anomalous rectangle of green, heavily watered, planted with pines and other coniferous trees, a stark contrast to its arid surroundings. Most winters it was not a birdy place.”

I wasn’t alive in 1972 when Kenn Kauffman covered Greenwood for the Phoenix Christmas Bird Count, but I feel pretty confident that not much has changed within those cemetery walls in the last four decades. Greenwood Cemetery is still green, heavily watered, and planted with pines. It’s the sort of place that will normally reward careful observers with crippling views of a diversity and multitude of Rock Pigeons, European Starlings, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Mourning Doves.

On the 1972 CBC, Rufous-backed Robin, Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finches, and Mountain Chickadee were all found in a single visit. They stopped running the Phoenix CBC at some point back in the 80s. ‘Too urban’ was the explanation I’ve heard from the old timers around here, which is a shame. I doubt anyone birded it for twenty-five years, and I pretty much guarantee at least one other Rufous-backed Robin, and who knows what else, has graced its grounds, undetected.

In an effort to rectify that situation, I’ve taken the Greenwood up as a regular birding stop and have birded it every few weeks for about two years now. It’s still not particularly birdy, unless you’re into large flocks of columbids, but it has managed to consistently surprise me. That’s the thing about urban birding, you really never know what is going to turn up. Even if nothing else is going on, it’s always nice to watch the resident family of Harris’s Hawks bombing through the massive flocks of pigeons.

So far in about 35 visits, I’ve found 75 species. That list includes totally out of place desert birds like Cactus Wren, Gambel’s Quail, and Black-throated Sparrow (all completely absent in the surrounding probably five-mile radius), and overshoots like White-throated Sparrow. My best bird, well two, is a pair of Greater-white Fronted Geese, flying over in a flock of Canadas. I’ve also had Hermit Warbler and Gray Flycatcher, and one particularly memorable day during fall migration, I had 17 Western Tanagers and a half dozen Black-headed Grosbeaks in a single back section by the mausoleum. Not bad for the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. This visit my friend Chris and I turned up 24 species, nothing out of the ordinary for here. Say’s Phoebe, Verdin, a ton of Yellow-rumped Warblers, which we spent a long time going through, hoping for something good.

Clearly, a far cry from the winter of 1972. By the way, Kenn Kauffman, if you’re reading this, you really ought to help us out and get the eBird list up. The Greenwood list is still missing Red Crossbill, Cassin’s Finches, and Mountain Chickadee. And Rufous-backed Robin, though hope springs eternal. I will find one of those in here one of these winters.


Magill Weber lives and birds in downtown Phoenix.


Things Heat Up a Bit in Chicago

The birding this winter has been quite slow in Chicago. But in the past couple of weeks a few nice birds have shown up. First, a Slaty-backed Gull was found by Geoff Williamson at Calumet Park on Feb. 7, on the far south side of the city:

Next, two Hoary Redpolls were discovered barely ten minutes away:

A-B1 A-B

We’re still trying to work out the boundaries for Chicago, because the urban area sprawls in a rather messy fashion … but for the moment, Cook County is the defined area, and we’re at 107 species for the year. Not great, but coming along. Oh, we also had a Snowy Owl at the same location as the Redpolls.


Blackbirds, Blackbirds everywhere!

Desde antes de comenzar con la observación de aves en si una de mis cosas favoritas en Hermosillo siempre fue el invierno-primavera,  por la increíble cantidad de Blackbirds que llenan los cielos de la ciudad en estas fechas. Así que hoy salí en la tarde a pajarear y recorrí la Universidad de Sonora, hice un listado rápido observando especies comunes para la ciudad y cuando empezó a caer el sol comenzaron las enormes parvadas de Yellow-headed Blackbirds, siempre yendo de sur a norte como lo hacen todas las tardes, busque una banca cómoda con una buena vista del cielo espere a mis amigos y pase el resto de la tarde viendo los tordos ir y venir cruzando el cielo en grandes parvadas.


A veces no es sobre cuantas especies ves en un día o sobre cuántos individuos o si vas o no ganando la competencia si no disfrutar la vista y dejar que el tiempo vuele y disfrutar los pequeños (o grandes) placeres de la vida.


Todos deberían tomarse un tiempo para mirar el cielo y ver las aves pasar.


Fotografías: Carolina Gómez


Hermosillo después del primer mes.

Comenzó el UBC en Hermosillo, con personas pajareando desde el primer día de enero, la capital del estado de Sonora nunca había estado tan activa en relación a los pájaros. Haciendo observaciones por toda la ciudad, hemos estado encontrando muchas especies nuevas para la ciudad (o por lo menos para nosotros), visitando parques conocidos de la ciudad, terrenos baldíos, lagunas de aguas residuales y nuestra presa que por fin tiene agua de nuevo y cualquier otro sitio donde encontremos aves. Dentro de lo más destacado este año están: Great Kiskadee visto en El parque Recreativo la Sauceda, una ave muy rara para la región ya que por el pacifico su límite de distribución suele ser más al sur, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser y American Pipit en las lagunas de agua residuales al oeste de la ciudad, Western y Clarks Grebe en la presa, Painted Redstar paseándose por el Parque Madero y Lamentablemente Monk Parakeet que comienza a invadir nuestra ciudad.


Common Goldeneye Foto: Carolina Gómez


Painted Redstar Foto: Diana García

Con un creciente número de observadores, iniciativas como el Club de Ornitología de la UniSon, la Revista Churea, el día internacional de las aves migratorias Hermosillo y la campañas de educación ambiental de la Universidad de Sonora están haciendo crecer este movimiento. Y ahora el UBC, es el último empujón que se necesitaba, está sacando el espíritu competitivo de los observadores para poner a su ciudad en el primer lugar, una excelente iniciativa y debería haber muchas más como ésta.


American Pipit Foto: Carolina Gómez

Con más de 115 especies para el mes de enero y sus observadores muy motivados, Hermosillo está participando y promete hacer un gran papel en esta competencia.


Great Kiskadee Foto: Carolina Gómez

Saludos y nos leemos pronto.



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COKI flared tail

A First State Record in The City That Never Sleeps

by Doug Gochfeld

New York City is known far and wide for a lot of things, none of which I need to re-hash here, because, well, the internet.

However, severely neglected amidst all of the hubbub about this glorious city that I call home, are the elements of the natural world that thrive in spite of, and sometimes even because of, the dramatically urban environment.


Yes, there is actually a Couch's Kingbird somewhere in this photo (top balcony).

Yes, there is actually a Couch’s Kingbird somewhere in this photo.


Birding on New Years Day in the northeast usually involves scouring beaches for rare gulls, checking feeders for winter finches, getting a leg up on your year list by chasing rare waterfowl, and maybe some staring off shore into the teeth of a frigid wind frustratingly trying to pick out alcids and other northern waterbirds hiding in the waves. Whatever the type of birding you’re used to doing in early January in this part of the world, it probably hasn’t involved looking at a bright lemon yellow flycatcher that should be hawking insects in Mexico…let alone two of them. That is, until this year.


This New Years Day, I found myself in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood, with birding gear in hand: definitely not a scenario I could have imagined, until about a week prior.

I was kicking off my personal contribution to the Urban Birding Challenge by being part of the gaggle of people chasing the COUCH’S KINGBIRD around the labyrinthine building-formed canyons of the West Village with no waterfowl, beaches, or bird feeders in sight, and with an aural background more heavily composed of taxicab and bus engines than the screams of gulls.


The Couch's Kingbird alternated between grabbing unsuspecting flies off the sides of buildings, and reverting to what the species does a ton of on the wintering grounds: eating berries and other fruit.

The Couch’s Kingbird alternated between grabbing unsuspecting flies off the sides of buildings, and reverting to what the species does a ton of on the wintering grounds: eating berries and other fruit.


The Couch’s Kingbird was half of the double-MEGA (technical birding term, kind of) Kingbird smackdown that NYC experienced this holiday season; the other half being the Cassin’s Kingbird whose occurrence in south Brooklyn also spanned the New Year. The Couch’s Kingbird in Manhattan was the first record of the species for New York State, and just the 3rd for eastern North America, while the Brooklyn Cassin’s Kingbird was the 2nd record of that species in New York State, and only the 7th or so in Northeastern North America.

Because the accounts of the absurd findings of the two Mega-rare Kingbirds were remarkable stories on their own (but were SO last year), you can read more about doubling your Kingbird here.


Couch's Pigeons

It’s cold out here in these streets. Even the Kingbird’s new Pigeon friends looked chilly most of the time!


I ended up visiting the neighborhood to see the Couch’s Kingbird several times, and it became one of my favorite (perhaps my absolute favorite) rare bird settings that I’ve ever experienced. This was in large part because of the mass of non-birding humanity that was inextricably part of one’s experience when chasing the bird.  This afforded many birders and I the opportunity to engage throngs of non-birders in conversation about this wayward 1.5 ounce songbird. From people who were learning for the first time that birding was a thing, to those who were interested in nature but assumed they had to leave the city to get theirs, it was a very satisfying experience to be able to broaden so many people’s horizons. Giving passerbys more awareness, even if just slightly, of the natural world around them was a very fulfilling win win for everyone involved. Birders scouring the area for the Kingbird recorded >25 species in the neighborhood over the couple of weeks of now-regular (thanks to the presence of such a rarity) birding coverage. That may not seem like much to birders from some settings (of course, it also can sound like a mind-bogglingly HIGH number to non-birders), but to fully appreciate this, one should consider the situation. The West Village is completely urban, with just a handful of postage-stamp sized “parks,” that in the winter sport very little in the way of plants with any foliage on them. It’s an area with 34,000 residents jammed into 0.4 square miles (which works out to be a higher population density than all but 4 cities in the world, for perspective), yet there were dozens of American Robins and White-throated Sparrows, with other species like Dark-eyed Junco, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Northern Cardinal, White-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrow, and Blue Jay making a decent mid-winter living throughout all of the Kingbirds’ haunts.


I bet that this guy wouldn't have been so absorbed in his phone had he known that he was walking mere feet away from an animal called a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!

I bet that this guy wouldn’t have been so absorbed in his phone had he known that he was walking mere feet away from an animal called a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!


It’s not completely clear whether the city is truly an oasis for birds looking for a respite from the cold and looking to take advantage of the copious (from a bird’s perspective) food scraps that are so prevalent, or whether it’s a trap that migrants have difficulty migrating out of once they get there in the late fall. Either way, the phenomenon of a higher than normal diversity of songbirds trying to tough out the colder months of the year in very urban parts of cities is real. In the late fall in New York, as it starts to get cold, birders have more success finding species that should be much farther south (often a continent away) in small parks surrounded tightly by urbanity than in the large green spaces like Central Park and Prospect Park, which are much more well-known birding locations which see some 200+ species of bird each year.

Winter birding in cities in temperate climates captures, in many ways, the essence of urban birding. Is it a simple function of the number of eyes looking, or the ease of covering the majority of decent habitat? Are the micro-climates generated by cities providing a viable wintering option for half-hardy species? These are some of the questions we hope the UBC will help to answer. Are you in?


COKI flared tail

Couch's in the morning, Cassin's by midday, and all by Public Transportation. Gotta love New York!

Double Your Kingbird Double Your Fun

by Doug Gochfeld

The birding community of NYC kicked off the new year of 2015, and the inaugural year of the UBC, already sitting on two remarkably rare (for this region) Kingbirds that had been hanging around since late fall. The story started on November 15, 2014, when someone birding Floyd Bennett Field, in Brooklyn, came across a kingbird with a yellow belly. The only kingbird that is regular at any time of year in the region is Eastern Kingbird, which is a common summer resident and breeder in the area. That species is mostly gone from the northeast by the time October rolls around, and virtually unheard of in the region in November, by which time the species is on its wintering grounds in South America. Western Kingbirds have yellow bellies, and are rare-but-regular migrants along the east coast, and a couple are usually seen on Long Island each fall, as late as December. Western Kingbird would have been the overwhelming odds-on favorite in this situation, but the observer noticed that it didn’t quite fit that species, and identified it as a CASSIN’S KINGBIRD. Cassin’s Kingbird is extremely rare in the northeast, and had been reported just once previously in the state of New York. Word didn’t get out to the birding community until that evening, when the observer got to a computer and sent out some E-Mails to confirm their suspicion, before entering it into eBird.

Cassin's Kingbird Range Map 11-2

Here is the eBird distribution of Cassin’s Kingbird, showing just how unusual it is in the eastern United States. The bottom of the three pink squares in the northeast includes the Brooklyn bird.


The next day, despite extremely thorough searching by a couple of dozen birders, it was not re-found. Tears were shed, and spirits were shattered, as most lost the hope, which had so briefly been kindled, of ever seeing the species in New York State, let alone New York City. However, a week later, a report of a Western Kingbird from the Community Garden at Floyd Bennett Field sent birders scrambling, and within minutes those first responders were staring at was undoubtedly the same Cassin’s Kingbird that had been MIA for a week. All the birders rejoiced.

This rejoicing was justified, as this was probably going to be the regionally rarest bird seen in New York during this fall/winter season, and had a really good chance of being the rarest bird of the entire fall for the northeastern US. Nobody could have foretold what was to come next though.


Floyd Bennett Field is the green patch of land at the SE (bottom right) corner of the map, east of Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

Floyd Bennett Field is the green patch of land at the SE (bottom right) corner of the map.

A side-note here: Floyd Bennett Field was the first municipal airfield in New York City, and while it didn’t catch on big-time for commercial air traffic (very luckily, in retrospect), it hosted many of the biggest names in early-mid 20th century aviation, including Amelia Earhardt, and Howard Hughes (Hughes took off and landed at Floyd Bennett on his 1938 record-breaking around-the-world flight). After being in Navy possession through much of World War II, most of the airfield was transferred to the National Park Service in 1970. There were a lot of things that could have happened over the last 70 years to make this bit of filled land not be a viable birding location, but luckily for the birding community, and for the suite of open-land bird species that utilize the habitat every year, history has seen to it that this 2 square mile piece of land is one of the largest accessible green spaces in New York City (much larger, even, than Central Park).


Many enjoyed the Cassin’s Kingbird through the holiday season, but the biggest gift to local birders would wait, appropriately, until Christmas. On Christmas night, a photo was posted to the New York Birders Facebook group of another yellow-bellied kingbird in New York City. This one was found by a casual birder who was taking photos outside of his apartment in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood. When Zack Winestine contacted Gabriel Willow of NYC Audubon, who he had met on a bird walk once upon a time, about a bird he had seen which was possibly, again, a Western Kingbird, he couldn’t have imagined the crowds of birders that would descend on his neighborhood over the following weeks as a result of Gabriel’s sound advice: “Get a photo!” When he followed that advice, and sent the photo along, Gabriel realized that it was something much rarer than a Western Kingbird; it was clearly either a Tropical Kingbird or a Couch’s Kingbird.

The labyrinthine West Village is purely urban, with a population density greater than the densest large cities in the world (~34,000 people jammed into ~0.4 square miles). Well known for the number of celebrities that live there, it is certainly not known as a haven for wildlife. I’ve certainly never brought binoculars there. In fact, despite the fact that even birders look at me crazy when I mention many tiny and obscure places that I think would be good to bird, I can’t say that even I had contemplated birding in the West Village (It’s got some good bars though).

All that said, there I was the next morning with about 10 other birders scouring the area for the as-yet-unidentified Kingbird. Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds are physically extremely similar, and almost impossible to separate with 100% confidence from visual field observation alone, but their vocalizations are completely diagnostic (so hearing it is key). They are both extremely rare in the northeast, with Couch’s sporting just two records in the region, and Tropical having in the 8-12 range, before the Manhattan bird came to light. Either one would have represented the first record for New York State of their species, though Tropical had been on many people’s radar as a potential addition to the state list for some time.

If you thought Cassin's Kingbird was rare in the east, get a load of this eBird distribution map of Couch's Kingbird!

If you thought Cassin’s Kingbird was rare in the east, get a load of this eBird distribution map of Couch’s Kingbird!

The Kingbird was re-found a few blocks from the location where Zack had initially found it, and the dozen of us who had been spread out over the neighborhood coalesced at the bird under an apartment building at a normally busy 5-way intersection across the street from a children’s playground. The Kingbird was alternately sunning itself on the trees and fire escapes and demolishing flies that were sunning themselves on the sunlit bricks of the building. Within 5 minutes it provided one of the more surreal experiences of my birding life, when it erupted into a chorus of “pip-pip-pip” calls, leaving all of us almost dumbfounded that we were watching a virtually unprecedented and completely unexpected COUCH’S KINGBIRD, with city busses and taxis as a backdrop. Word quickly got out that the kingbird was still there, and was indeed the rarer of the two possibilities, and the various New York birding listservs went into overdrive. With sometimes up-to-the minute updates on the location of the Couch’s being posted in multiple venues online, just about everybody who chased the Couch’s Kingbird got to see it. As a side-note, even Tyrion Lannister’s alter ego, Peter Dinklage, got to add the Couch’s Kingbird to his life list (even though he probably doesn’t even know he has a bird life list…yet) early that first morning—see, I wasn’t lying, there are famous people in New York!

For me, it joined an impressive list of extreme rarities that I’ve seen in New York while using just public transportation. I figured that while I was at it, I should finally add the long-staying Cassin’s Kingbird to that list as well, and why not in the same day! Just an hour and half later, I was in southern Brooklyn watching the Cassin’s Kingbird hawk insects from the low posts of the FBF community garden, its decidedly different, but still very human-altered, habitat. NYC Birding: just take the B to W4th, pause for some fun, then take the 3 to the 5 to the Q35- now THAT’s some urban birding!

Couch's in the morning, Cassin's by midday, and all by Public Transportation. Gotta love New York!

Couch’s in the morning, Cassin’s by midday, and all by Public Transportation. Gotta love New York!

Tempe Town Lake (Magill Weber)

Greater Phoenix Aquatic Waterfowl Survey

by Magill Weber

It’s almost unfathomable to those who have not been to Phoenix, Arizona, but we have water here. A lot more water than you might imagine.  Each year, on the third Saturday in January, every Phoenix birder who can walk more than five feet gets dragged out of bed to cover every single one of these urban and suburban ponds, some barely bigger than a puddle.   Permission is wrangled from hundreds of golf course superintendents, gated community homeowners associations, and other private landowners. Birders ogle waterfowl that bred on a remote prairie pothole in Saskatchewan now sitting at arm’s length next to a parking lot.  For most of these ponds, you definitely don’t even need binoculars, let alone a scope.


Last year’s Greater Phoenix Aquatic Waterfowl Survey tallied more than 62,000 waterfowl and other water-related birds.  Not bad for an urban area, let alone one in a desert.  Over the years, the survey has produced some notable finds, including Pacific Loon, Long-tailed Duck, all three possible scoters, and Maricopa County’s first record of Least Grebe, found in a pond the size of a large Jacuzzi tub behind a suburban retirement condo complex.  Every year survey bragging rights go to whomever can find one of a handful of Eurasian Wigeons that inevitably turn up with the almost 20,000 American Wigeons counted each year.

Tempe Town Lake (Magill Weber)

Tempe Town Lake (Magill Weber)

This year, as per usual, I got up at 5:30am to cover Tempe Town Lake, a man-made concrete pipe of water wedged between two major freeways, the Arizona State University football stadium, and North America’s tenth busiest airport.   Tempe Town Lake is my regular patch, and I cover it by boat four times a week, mostly while I’m coaching rowing.

Right on cue for the start of the count, the three resident Brown Pelicans soared past our fleet of rowing shells.  These directionally challenged birds blew in on a summer monsoon storm in September of 2013 as first summer juvies, and have hung around since that time.  At the lake’s East Dam where most of the waterfowl like to hide, I added a few dabblers, a trio of Western Grebes, and a small raft of Ruddy Ducks and Eared Grebes, along with a large flight of Neotropic Cormorants.  Neotropics were formally locally rare, but in recent years, a large colony at a private water company recharge pond in suburban Chandler is cranking out multiple nest cycles a year, and Tempe Town Lake is a popular foraging spot for the colony several miles distant.  A Spotted Sandpiper and several Least Sandpipers rounded out the lake tally.

Encanto Park (Magill Weber)

Encanto Park (Magill Weber)

After Tempe Town Lake, I headed to Encanto Park, just north of downtown Phoenix.  The number of eBird reports from Encanto Park has skyrocketed since 2012 when the Rosy-faced Lovebird was added to the American Birding Association (ABA) list, and has since become a mandatory stop for any visiting birder.  Saturday afternoons at Encanto Park are a classic urban birding experience—dodging loose dogs and stray children while a substantial number of the Phoenix area’s 4.3 million other residents enjoy giant birthday parties featuring mariachi bands and inflatable bouncy houses for the kids.  The lovebirds seem to love it as much as their native Namibia.  Along with the ubiquitous Rosy-faced Lovebirds and no less than six rental bouncy castles, this afternoon’s tally included 64 Ring-necked Ducks, some Mallards, a Pied-billed Grebe and 32 members of a growing resident flock of moffitti Canada Geese.  A wintering Lewis’s Woodpecker on a palm tree in the parking lot and a pair of Harris’s Hawks flying around were nice birds for the middle of the city.

Steele Indian School Park (Magill Weber)

Steele Indian School Park (Magill Weber)


I finished the survey off with stops at two golf courses, where I added a few Ring-necked Ducks, some American Wigeon, Mallards, a few Pied-billed Grebes, and a surprising male Canvasback.  The last stop of the day was the pond at Steele Indian School Park, which had a female Common Goldeneye (another great find for a downtown park), a single Ruddy Duck, some Ring-neckeds, Northern Pintail, American Wigeons, and one odd molting male Northern Shoveler.

My hot streak with the survey continued—for the ninth year in a row, I found no Eurasian Wigeons.

Magill Weber lives and birds in downtown Phoenix, Arizona.  Her favorite bird is the American Dipper, and if one turns up in Phoenix, she will declare the Urban Birding Challenge officially won.