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.
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.
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.
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!