Merlin: Easy ID in the technological age

The Merlin App

“What is that bird?”

We’ve all had a moment in which we wished we had a pocket field guide. Merlin, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a free app for iOS and Android smart devices that helps identify birds in real time! It’s our hope that, like the wizard himself, Merlin will “magically” guess which bird you’ve seen. We also drew some inspiration from the Merlin, which happens to be a small, speedy, and energetic falcon!

The magic of Merlin is rooted in hundreds of sightings by birders who uploaded their data and photographs to our eBird citizen science project. That means we are able to continually update the app as more people use it to send in their sightings. Once Merlin predicts your bird through location, time of day, appearance, and activity, we show you a few photographs of potential matches.

After selecting your bird, the app has a wealth of information to share about the species! Another feature of Merlin is completely photo-based, so we’ll match your uploaded photograph to the species we have on record. Interested in adding to our database? We’re always looking to increase our library of photos and audio recordings.

After identifying with Merlin, the eBird website or app (also available for iOS and Android) can track your sighting so you know where and when you’ve “collected” your birds.

Merlin has information for a lot of species, so we’ve introduced Bird Packs that are more specific to region. For example, in March we released the Yucatán Pack for the Península de Yucatán, México. It also comes in Spanish, because birders speak many languages! Our goal is to make Merlin accessible worldwide, including an online version.

Celebrate Urban Birds, an interactive initiative here at the Lab, also benefits from this type of data collection. Celebrate Urban Birds is meant to be accessible for birders of any level, especially beginners. With the help of our Citizen Scientist network, we track the sightings of birds all throughout the United States, Canada, México, and Puerto Rico (so far), and pay special attention to a few focal species in particular. Although we have printer-friendly identification guides, it’s always important to stay relevant and accessible through technology!

Central Park and Jamaica Bay, NY

with Simon Tickle

If you intend to visit New York, then a few hours waving your binoculars around in Central park is a great way to spend your time. The accessibility, variety of habitat and the prolific birdlife of the park make it a must for New York visitors and residents alike. If your body is set to GMT then jet lag will work in your favour with a 5-hour head start on the day.

There are other small city parks dotted around Manhattan but none will compare to Central Park. Don’t discount the small sites however as they can give the birder a few minutes to indulge themselves during a hectic day, or a brief reprieve from the retail madness.

Further out are the saltmarshes of Jamaica Bay and beyond there, the barrier beaches that stretch up the seaboard of Long Island. We will explore the sites accessible by public transport or by foot from Manhattan. The barrier beaches are beyond us in this respect. Birders will need a rental car and a warm coat to visit the seaside.


Back in the 80’s, the park suffered from a bad reputation as a reliable place to witness violent crime at close quarters. But the New Yorkers took back the park for the people during the 90’s and in over 20 years of birding there I have never had a bad experience, nor heard of another birder falling prey to violent crime. The message, as in any city, is to be discrete and don’t make a target of yourselves.

If you see another person with binoculars, you have usually found a new friend. Many visitors are keen to strike up conversation about what is being seen and locals are usually very happy to point you in the right direction. There are a few guides who lead groups around the park for small fees, but the groups often get quite large.

A first timer to North America will thrill to the sights of Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay and Northern Cardinal; all common residents in the park. More experienced birders will find plenty to keep them entertained too with over 250 species recorded there. Central Park has built a reputation as a great migrant trap and has become one of America’s favourite passage-watching sites. If it is possible to time a visit to coincide with migration, the visitor may witness a spectacular passage of warblers, grosbeaks, orioles and flycatchers.

A steady build up during the second half of April peaks during the second week of May and is mostly past by the beginning of June for the northbound migration. A visit during May might also coincide with the fledging of the Red-tailed Hawks. Hawks that nest on a building overlooking the park (Park Ave and 75th St.) have produced young for more than 20 years now.

The return south is more protracted and can start in August and continue through into November. The confusing plumages of the juvenile and non-breeding birds will challenge even the experienced eye during the autumn/fall passage.

The park covers nearly 850 acres and stretches for 2.5 miles between 59th St and 110th St.

From 5th Ave in the east to Central Park West, it is about half a mile across. Hot spots include; Hallet Sanctuary (fenced off, but easy to view across The Pond), Strawberry Fields (woods and low cover), The Ramble (a maze of trails through the woodland), Turtle Pond (with a lookout from Belvedere Castle for hawk-watching during fall migration), The Reservoir (wide open water with gull roost) and North Woods (woodland with lots of low cover).

If time is limited, target The Ramble (cut and paste these coordinates into Google Earth; 40 46 36N 73 58 10W) and try to find the feeder station. You are likely to find three species of woodpecker, 5 species of sparrow, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Goldfinch and House Finch. A walk around The Reservoir might bring more species, but the list will contain a number of cosmopolitan birds such as Northern Shoveler, Mallard, Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull. North American species might include; Ring-billed Gull, Bufflehead and Common Loon.

If time is no object, start from the south end to keep the sun behind you and begin at Hallet Sanctuary and The Pond at 59th St. Head north towards Strawberry fields and then into the Ramble. Linger here as it will probably be the most productive part of your day. The path south of Turtle pond is good for warblers and flycatchers during spring and summer.

The Reservoir is a big, fenced expanse of water with a 1.6 mile circular trail running round it. It is seldom necessary to walk all the way round as most of the surface is visible from anywhere on the trail and there is very little bank-side vegetation.

The Red-tailed Hawk’s nest can be viewed from the west side of the boating lake, close to the statue of Hans Christian Anderson. During late April and May, there is often a hawk-watcher who will tell you the history of the birds, update you on most recent progress and allow you to look through the scope that he has trained on the nest.

There are plenty of concession stands that sell drinks and snacks with a couple of restaurants close to The Ramble that sell more substantial meals. Toilets are also available throughout the park. All the paths are well paved and in good repair, but be aware that some traffic may be seen on the crossways and there will be a lot of cyclists and joggers on the main routes.

A snapshot of a winter visit to the feeders in The Ramble can be seen here:

This post was from the first day of May in a year when the migration was late and most of the birds passed inland due to strong winds coming in from the ocean.


Birders at Bryant Park get regular surprises with the likes of American Woodcock and Dickcissel livening up a list that would otherwise contain a high proportion of common birds.

It is only small, half a city block, but it is a popular park with birders on their lunch hour and can boast a life list of 113 species. During May, any passing migrant may pop in for a visit.

Bryant Park can be found in Midtown at the junction of 6th Ave and 42nd St. Immediately east of 42nd St – Bryant Park Station, served by the B, D, F and M trains.

Also check out small city parks such as Madison Square Park on 5th Ave and 26TH St. Immediately northeast of 23rd St Station served by the N and R Trains.

Union Square Park can be found at E16th St and Union Square West. Served by the N, Q AND R trains from 14th St and Union Square Station.


Jamaica Bay is a wetland area close to JFK International Airport. Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a sanctuary on an island in the bay. Trains run regularly from the city to Broad Channel Station from where it is a short walk to the sanctuary.

Freshwater lakes and salt marshes attract wildfowl and waders whilst the passerines prefer the wooded and scrubby areas. Predators are common with Ospreys nesting and hawks frequent during migration. A visitor centre can be seen at Google earth ref; 40 37 1.18N 73 49 28.08W and visitors are asked to sign in before entering the refuge. The sanctuary is an island surrounded by salt marsh and the sheltered, Jamaica Bay. It is split into east and west sides by the road running through it. The visitor centre is on the west.

There are lakes named for their respective sections. West Lake used to be freshwater with a trail circling it but in 2012, Superstorm Sandy breached the banks and now a tide rips in and out through a large gap. Brant and Snow Geese are abundant during the winter on the bay side of the trail. Herons and egrets like it here too. Mergansers, ducks and waders can be seen on the lake during their respective seasons. A wooded walk close to the visitor centre will produce plenty of passerines and it is possible to follow the path around the lake until it meets Sandy’s gap from the other side.

Across the road is East Pond. This is still fresh water and attracts wildfowl and waders. The approach is wooded and scrubby, often producing plenty of passerines. There is a screen on Big John’s Pond which can be very productive during spring and summer.

Broad Channel train station can be seen at Google Earth ref; 40 36 28.47N 73 48 57.01W. It is served from Manhattan by the A Train. The reserve is a 15 minute walk from the station. Buses and taxis are not likely to be found waiting at this out-of-town station. Train takes around an hour from the city. Bus numbers Q52 and Q53 run from Queens along the road that passes through the site. There is a stop immediately outside the visitor centre.

Birding Brooklyn Bridge Park

with Heather Wolf

Brooklyn Bridge Park opened in 2010, transforming a series of dilapidated piers into a beautiful 85-acre waterfront park with some of the best views in New York City. It became my urban patch in 2012 when I moved into an apartment a block away. Surprised at the species turning up in this under-birded location, I began to document and photograph them. I’m up to 142 and counting.

While the 85-acre park extends a bit north of the Brooklyn Bridge, the best birding is on the southern side of the bridge, from Piers 1 to 6. It takes about fifteen minutes to walk this stretch (if not birding), and its narrow north/south layout makes it easy to cover a lot of ground without veering off the beaten path. Each pier is somewhat of mini-patch, offering different habitats and seasonal “birdscapes”.

The park’s best birding is at Pier 1, with its wide variety of habitats including a marsh, a meadow, ponds, wooded paths, and large open lawns. Just opposite lower Manhattan, the pier’s “Granite Prospect” steps offer breathtaking views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. Walk up the steps and you’ll reach one of the park’s migration hotspots – a stand of Catalpa and Paulownia trees. In spring and fall, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets hover as they snatch insects from the undersides of the trees’ large leaves. Yellow Warblers and American Redstarts move along the branches, peering under the leaves for high protein snacks. The Paulownia tree’s purple-fluted, nectar-filled flowers of spring attract the Baltimore Oriole and an occasional Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I once saw a nectar-greedy oriole chase a hummingbird out of the tree!

Below the trees on the north side is a sloping meadow that I call “The Magical Knoll”, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, and dozens of others have made appearances here. During migration, an Eastern Wood-Pewee can often be found perched in a Catalpa and fly catching over the meadow. Late August is the best time to find Least and Willow Flycatchers, which tend to perch on the trees at the bottom of the Magical Knoll and hunt facing up the meadow.

The large lawns of Pier 1 attract migrating sparrows such as Savannah, Field, and Chipping. White-throated Sparrows are near-residents – only absent from the park during their breeding season from June to September. They often forage alongside migrating sparrows but are usually found hopping in leaf litter throughout Pier 1 and the entire park.

Along the park’s main path (that runs past all of the piers) are two ponds. The longer pond in the middle of the stretch is most productive and a reliable location for Northern Waterthrush during migration. In spring, Barn Swallows collect mud here for their nests, which they build under the park’s piers. In the paths just above the pond the summer soundtrack is the “meowing” of breeding Gray Catbirds that can be seen through fall.

As you head south, you’ll pass by Pier 2 – a sports facility with everything from basketball courts to a roller-skating rink. In spring and early summer it’s worth a visit to watch and hear the antics of Common Grackles that nest under the roof. While shorebirds are uncommon in the park, the spiral tidal pool at the foot of Pier 2 has turned up Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer. It’s also not unheard of to see herons and egrets here including Great Egret, Great Blue Heron and Black-crowned Night-Heron that are often seen roosting in various waterside park locations in summer.

The next notable habitat is the uplands at Pier 3 where the park’s most vocal and aggressive resident Northern Mockingbird will greet you. In spring and summer of 2016, I counted seven mockingbird nests in this small area that would seem to be the territory of just a single male. The uplands are also home to year-round resident Song Sparrows that are joined by migrating sparrows in spring and fall. American Kestrels take notice, especially from mid-September through November, and hunt the sparrows from the surrounding light posts. This past winter, dozens of American Robins hunkered down here to partake in the only food source left until spring – the bitter berries of the upland’s holly trees.

Pier 4 has not been a structural pier since well before the park opened in 2010, but the area where it once stood is now home to “Bird Island” and a mini manmade beach – with no swimming allowed! While Bird Island doesn’t live up to its name compared to other park locations, in winter the surrounding waters are home to Buffleheads, Red-breasted Mergansers and Gadwall. In summer, Common Terns fly over this area with fish in bill, headed to nearby Governors Island where their young await a food delivery. Each summer, a small colony of terns nests on a closed pier there.

South of Pier 4 and stretching to Pier 5 is a recently constructed marina. In winter, its floating platforms are a popular evening roost for gulls. A recent count in early February turned up over 4,000 Ring-billed Gulls roosting on the platforms at sunset. I tallied my first rare gull sighting here that same month in 2016 – a Black-headed Gull. December through early February is the best time to catch this gull roosting spectacle.

Just south of the marina is Brooklyn Bridge Park’s second best pier for birding, Pier 6. Fifty-five steps is all it takes to circle this pier’s “Exploratory Marsh,” located across from a pair of sand volleyball courts. Though small, the marsh is a popular migration stop for many species including Northern Waterthrush, Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Winter Wren and Wood Thrush. Adjacent to the marsh is the “Water Lab” playground – off-limits to adults – but easily birded from the low surrounding fence. In fall, as the sun goes down, insects rise like clouds here attracting warblers that fly-catch from a Dawn Redwood tree until the sun goes down.

Just steps away, at the west the end of Pier 6, is a wildflower meadow circled by trees and shrub-lined lawns. A great sparrow spot, it is frequented year-round by resident Song Sparrows and in much of the year by White-throated Sparrows, who dominate early spring’s dawn chorus before they depart for northern breeding grounds in May. During migration, White-crowned Sparrows have been making regular appearances here and a Fox Sparrow or two can usually be found double-hopping under the surrounding trees. One of the newer sections of the park, the meadow’s trees are young and low, making it easy to spot migrants including Blue-headed Vireo and Yellow Warbler

In addition to those already mentioned, the park’s year-round residents include Northern Cardinal, American Robin, Mourning Dove, Ring-billed, Herring and Great-Black Backed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Mallard and American Black Duck. Also notable are part-year resident Laughing Gulls which can see seen April through November. Red-tailed Hawks are sometimes seen flying over Brooklyn Heights, the neighborhood above and to the east of the park.

You can read more about the birds of Brooklyn Bridge Park in my book Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront (with a foreword by the The Urban Birder himself, David Lindo).

Heather Wolf

Urban Patch in Columbus, Ohio, USA

The West Campus Woodlots

with Aaron Boone

Birding is literally a way of life for me. I have been fascinated by feathered creatures since before I can remember. Throughout the majority of my birding life, thinking about birds typically brings to mind those grand wild places of our planet Earth. However, one of the greatest discoveries that I have made as a birder is that birds are amazingly adaptable animals that will readily take advantage of those not so wild places.

I grew up in somewhat rural Illinois, USA. Granted, my hometown wasn’t located in pristine wilderness, but we lived far enough away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago and other nearby cities that I never truly knew what living in an urban setting felt like. Fast-forward 15 or so years and I find myself living and working in the midst of one of the largest cities in the United States: Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is home to more than a million people and is currently ranked as one the 20 largest cities in the country. I was shocked to learn this upon arriving and I couldn’t help but wonder if living in such a vast concrete landscape would cramp my birding style.

After 4 years and much exploration, I have to hand it to this city for their conservation-mindedness and for setting aside quite an array of green spaces. The Columbus Metro Park system is phenomenal and I always feel like I can temporarily escape the constant pressures of this rapidly developing urban center. Despite all of these local birding perks, I mustn’t forget about my local patch and the constant surprises that come from frequent, almost daily pilgrimages.

I work at The Ohio State University and I’m fortunate that I don’t have to drive into work on a daily basis. My wife and I live close enough to the campus that I can easily walk there in about 25 minutes. The best bit about this “commute” is that walking brings me in direct contact with an amazing little birding jewel consisting mostly of scattered woodlots with some small areas of scrub and farm field. To the average citizen, it’s not much to look at, but I had high hopes for the place when I first started investigating the area. I figured that something was better than nothing and this mentality has certainly paid off.

The worth of my new patch quickly revealed itself one day in early May. The northbound journey of millions of Neotropical migrants was in full swing and fitting weather conditions encouraged hundreds of dazzling songbirds to take advantage of this vegetation island. Birds were everywhere and I just couldn’t keep up with all of the motion. I was definitely impressed with my list of 15 species of wood-warblers (not counting the “Brewster’s” Warbler hybrid) and the additional assortment of flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, and orioles. That first spring was phenomenal, but it didn’t stop there. In fact, my patch has provided top notch birding year-round.

The incredible rush accompanying a stellar bout of spring birding can often leave a birder feeling a bit jaded, especially with the onset of lazy summer heat. I was committed to forging on through the summer months. I wanted to see what really lived there. Any bird can stop anywhere along the way when it’s traveling from Point A to Point B. Could this small isolated patch have been a Point B for some? What I discovered was eye opening.

I never thought that such a place could host such an amazing diversity of nesting species! Nesting Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Dueling Willow Flycatchers. Drumming woodpeckers of at least 3 species. Hunting Red-shouldered Hawks and a successfully breeding pair of Bell’s Vireo? I do not lie…in the middle of Columbus, Ohio…in a small patch of scrub about 1.5 hectares in size…surrounded by pavement.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to go into detail about Fall and Winter birding at my West Campus Woodlots. In my opinion, this place is a birding hotspot. Yeah, yeah…people would likely call me crazy after hearing me make such a claim, but I’m serious. It has definitely changed my outlook on what birding is and can be. Indeed, I am an Urban Birder. I can’t imagine forgoing the opportunity to bird just because I’m in an urban setting. Birding doesn’t need to be reserved for those infrequent jaunts to migration hotspots or prime wildlife preserves. Any time, any place…the greatest discovery a birder can ever make.

Aaron Boone

The American Robin

An Urban Success Story

by Michael Fritz-Graham

“I’ll take Manhattan!”… and they have, by storm and popular demand. Possibly the most famous and loved bird in the USA, the American Robin Turdus migratorius was once only a common transient and irregular winter visitor in inner urban Manhattan, only regularly nesting in the suburbs and in the largest city parks. New Yorkers would hear their beautiful caroling in the middle of the night all over Manhattan echoing in the moonlight in March and April, but then they would all but disappear from late May until early autumn. But not anymore!

The Robin phenomenon started around 2003 or 2004, and it seems that any sheltered ledge or light fixture in the smallest possible garden, terrace, or rooftop is open and acceptable real estate for this red-breasted thrush. Robins can now be seen in almost any urban area of Manhattan. This was not the case five years before. In a time when so many of our native urban birds like the Common Nighthawk and Chimney Swift are disappearing, Robins are not only stable but thriving in a city near you.

Robins are approximately ten inches long, have a grayish upper body, darker, almost black head, white eye-ring, throat and belly and of course, their trademark brick-red breast. They can be found in every state of the continental U.S., every province of Canada, and even down into Mexico at certain times of the year. In the US, they are the most well known member of the thrush family and have become extremely adaptable, living in almost any available habitat. They are the state birds of Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin and are featured on the two-dollar Canadian bill.

Their famous nests of mud and straw can be found in an astonishing list of places near human habitation. The list includes sheltered ledges, lamp-posts, busted chimneys, trellises, arbors and even statues, mailboxes and hanging flower pots. They are second only to wrens for their outrageous choice of nest sites. Their beautiful nests are so sturdy that other animals often utilize them after they are abandoned. Everything from Mourning Doves and Common Nighthawks to insects and even dormice have used the Robin’s former homes for nesting and roosting.

“A song, a story, and a legend”… the Robin has been celebrated in all forms of music and art: e.g. “The Ballad of Cock-Robin,” “Rockin’ Robin,” and, “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along”. They even have a color named after them—Robin’s egg blue. Everyone knows that Robins are the original harbinger of spring and are often a child’s first introduction to the world of birds and nature. In other words, they are literally the singing, living, lawn-ornaments of America.

They are genuine kings of the turf and must be appreciated and protected. It’s truly exciting for New Yorkers to see this native bird among the Starlings and House Sparrows. I have watched even the most jaded Manhattanites stop to admire and marvel in disbelief that Robins are living in this concrete jungle. They are regal; dashing birds that give the city much needed color and beautiful music. They more than hold their own. They are strong and loving parents, displaying real American spirit in the cement forests of the United States.

You can attract Robins to nest in your area by building a nest shelf (the instructions can be easily found online). Remember to put the shelf in a quiet sheltered area because it is not an ornament to attract unwanted attention from predators. Don’t be surprised if a House Finch or Mourning Dove decides to take over your shelf. If you live near water, you may also end up with a Barn Swallow or a phoebe.

Planting native fruiting and evergreen trees and shrubs like Eastern Red Cedar, Bayberry, Inkberry, Hawthorn and Mountain Ash will insure the survival of our true wild heritage and also provide nesting sites, food and shelter for many species of birds, including Robins.

For my European friends, your Blackbird Turdus merula is probably the closest relative you have to our Robin. Juvenile Robins look amazingly similar to your Fieldfare Turdus pilaris with their spotted breasts and light brick-red chests. For my friends in Asia, your Brown-headed Thrush Turdus chrysolaus and Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus look almost identical to our Robin.

About the author

As a lifelong conservationist, I have many special memories of my Adirondack homeland, but not all my fondest memories take place in the wild. One of my most magical experiences took place right in New York City. In May of 1999, I was spending an evening renting movies with friends. After everyone went to sleep, I remained awake in my window-side bed on the top floor of an old five-story building. It was an unusually cool, clear night for the city. I could make out Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, and the North Star above. The scent of bourbon roses and apple blossoms wafted up with the cool breeze from the churchyard below. I drifted off briefly and awoke to the echoing sound of a Robin, serenading the night from the rose hedge below. I was caught up in the moment when I suddenly became aware of the reverberating calls of two Common Nighthawks orbiting the sky around me. The night chorus had begun and I was wrapped up in it. The nighthawks sailed, fluttered dove-like all around the silent building like giant moths. I could barely make out their silhouettes in the faint crescent moonlight. It was as if my window bed was a small projection booth into the sky and only I was listening to this nocturnal symphony and watching the scenario unfold while the whole city slept. I was absolutely lost in a trance buried in the secretness of this microcosmic other world from the other side of midnight. It seemed to be a separate entity from the city, as elusive as a will-o-the-wisp coming to life only in the dead of night then disappearing the hours before dawn. I do not even remember falling asleep. All of the audio and visual elements remain in my mind to this day. The Robin, the nighthawks, the apple tree and roses. And the luminous galaxy above it all with the Manhattan skyline glittering in the background like a jeweled bracelet. True magic from a true chapter in the ongoing tale of an urban birder.

Michael Fritz-Graham, New York City

August 2009

Monk (Quaker) Parakeets in New York City

by Michael Fritz-Graham

How The Quakers Landed.

Urban legend has it (now documented) that c.1967 a large, live shipment of monk parakeets left their native South American home in route to the pet shops of lower Manhattan. Shortly after landing at JFK airport the large crates fell and broke releasing the parakeets who took off in all directions.

Since then, small, very local colonies of monks have turned up in various areas of the tri-state region: Pelham Parkway, Bronx. Brooklyn College campus and the Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn, NY which I visited on a cold March day. I had heard and read about these green Martians and wanted to investigate for myself. I was accompanied by my friend, photographer Kazuki.

We were immediately taken in by these intelligent, peaceful and beautiful birds. They built their huge stick dome nests among the tops of the gothic cemetery gate, hanging like ornaments on a Christmas tree. They alternated between observant curiosity and, “as if we weren’t there”, oblivion. Some hid and cavorted within the monstrous weeping beeches and thick stands of hemlock and incense cedar. Other monks played and worked together rearranging and rebuilding the nest structures. And (lucky for us) some small groups of five or six monks would fly out from the tower, circle and land exposed atop the row of small weeping Chinese mulberry trees for head-bobbing meetings.

Amazingly pigeons, Mourning Doves and even one very cranky, over-territorial Northern Mockingbird sat and roosted among the quakers within inches of the nests in complete harmony with absolutely no aggression from the obviously much stronger quakers.

Human De-Conservationism.

Extinction and the “Starling/House Sparrow Syndrome”.

Around the 1900 mark, four of the worst avian ecological disasters possible occurred in the USA. First, the heartless persecution, slaying and ultimate disgraceful extinction of the Passenger Pigeon and the beautiful Carolina Parakeet. The Carolina Parakeet was the only member of the parrot family ever to be native to and breed within the USA. They were abundant and even nested as far north as the Great Lakes and the Catskills in New York State.

At around the same time, some very ignorant people brought and introduced two of the worst, most destructive agricultural and garden pests in the history of the world. The Common Starling and the House Sparrow soon overtook and overpopulated every area from Alaska and Canada south to Argentina and the Falkland Islands. These two non-native birds have been directly responsible for decimating the population of some of the most famous and loved native birds of the USA (which the monks live with in total harmony), including Purple Martin, Eastern Bluebird, Red-headed Woodpecker and many more species. They have basically achieved this through competition for hole and nest cavities and relentless aggression.

So what is my point? How is all this pertinent to the monks in New York City? My point is that the monks have shown none of these negative signs of behavior in the almost fifty years since arriving in the tri-state area. They don’t compete with other birds for nest sites or territory. They seem very happy to live on tree and weed seeds and buds and also eat many harmful insects. Monks are no stranger to many of the United States’s native birds. Long before the colonists arrived such birds as the Common Nighthawk, Eastern Kingbird, Purple Martin, House Wren and many others have been wintering five to six months each year within the native range of the Monks in South America. They have been coexisting and interacting for centuries and obviously the parakeets fit perfectly into the ecosystem here. Most importantly, they maintain very local, contained colonies and show no signs of taking over the U.S. I also believe that the quakers are possibly filling the ecological niche of their extinct distant cousins, the Carolina Parakeet. Both were native to similar temperate regions of the Americas.

Kazuki and I left Greenwood Cemetery with an admiration and respect for these wonderful birds. People can learn so much from their intelligent and gentle behavior towards each other and towards other birds and their loving caring family and social structure. We should welcome these green gems to melting pot of urban America.

Michael Fritz-Graham
New York City
April 2009

Chimney Swifts

Swift… ly disappearing from our urban skies

Michael Fritz-Graham discusses the demise of the Chimney Swift in New York

What Is That?

Twittering, chattering little acrobatic cinders with wings have been swooping in and out of your chimney stack. They’re not bats. They’re not swallows. They look like small flying cigars. They’re that skydiving spirit of the brick and cement stacks, the Chimney Swift. What the Common Nighthawk was to the city evening sky, the Chimney Swift is to the sunlit day sky. At least for now. Following in the sad path of the nighthawk, Chimney Swifts have disappeared by 45% from all of their urban range in eastern North America. BBC (Breeding Bird Count) and state radar maps confirm this sad fact.

There’s Something In My Chimney

Chaetura pelagica are small sooty gray swallow-like birds that now nest only in chimney stacks, silos and abandoned buildings. They are five inches long and depend solely on flying insects as their source of food. They build their nest of twigs and saliva inside these structures. Their disappearance is a big mystery. Some cite pesticides and habitat loss. In addition, newly developed automatic furnace switches can asphyxiate and kill them if the furnace turns on during the breeding season (previously, New York City laws stated furnaces only had to be on between mid-October and mid-April, sparing the chimney swifts during their breeding season here.) So PLEASE, PLEASE cover your chimneys with caps or secure screens if you have an automatic furnace switch or if your chimney is made out of metal. These beneficial birds can be trapped and die inside metal or steel chimneys. Otherwise, encourage and enjoy these beautiful, comical little native birds that will reward you by eating thousands of mosquitoes, flies, and other insects. To attract swifts to nest in your area, you can find out how to build a chimney swift tower on many sites online.

The Neo-tropical Migrant Mystery

The Chimney Swift, the Common Nighthawk, the Purple Martin, and Whip-poor-will all share one common, unfortunate bond. They cross the Caribbean en route to their winter home in the Amazon basin in South America. I believe somewhere there lies the answer to the devastating decline of these birds. Pesticides, jungle deforestation and even reports of the horrid hobby of using these birds for target practice on a large scale in many South American countries are all possible causes. We need to be in contact not just with ornithologists and conservationists in these countries, but also with government officials. Only they can truly educate the people as to the importance of protecting, and not destroying, these migrant birds.

Michael Fritz-Graham

March 2009

The Uncommon “Common” Nighthawk

by Michael Fritz-Graham

There is something incredibly sad, even tragic about a summer night in New York City without that magic spirit of the starry sky, the Common Nighthawk Chordeilies minor. They would sail and dive among the lamp posts and moonlit rooftops while their ‘beezle-burb-peent’ calls would echo from above. These calls are now a part of history for over 95% of these mysterious native birds have disappeared from urban areas in New England, the mid-west, the mid-atlantic and now even the south-east.

The Common Nighthawk is not a hawk at all. It is a cousin of another nightjar, the Whip-poor-will, which is also experiencing an unprecedented drastic decline. Nighthawks are brown and gray, cryptic, swallow-like birds who feed on thousands of insects a night and are an extremely beneficial native bird. Many reasons have been cited for their disappearance including crow and gull predation, loss of gravel-roof habitat and pesticides. However, I believe the major problem exists in their winter home and on their migration routes. Between the fall of 1994 and summer of 1995 there was an 80% reduction of these birds from the New York City area.

This was my sixth summer of returning to eight key former nighthawk hotspots. I returned two nights a week from June first to September first, on clear, calm, moonlit nights. Nighthawks had been very common to almost abundant in all these areas until the summer of 1995. The sky was starry but empty. I heard American Robin and Northern Mockingbird singing in all these areas late at night, but still have never heard a single Common Nighthawk since the late spring of 2002.

Northern Mockingbirds are a good meter of what’s living in the area. They can only repeat what they hear. I studied each mockingbird’s repertoire in all eight areas. They were all an exact repetition of the other: an American Robin, a Northern Cardinal, a Blue Jay, a Common Starling, a Northern Flicker and even car alarms. End result: the mockers had never heard a nighthawk. Despite this sad fact I will continue my personal research, returning to all eight areas this coming summer, in hopes that the nighthawk may return.

I hope that by bringing this precipitous decline to the public’s attention, I can reinforce the fact that the environment and conservation of native flora and fauna need to be the number one priority in this country now. The nighthawk is a special bird of American folklore, story and song, sacred to the American Indians and a true urban legend. Action must be taken quickly to save this spirit of America’s night sky.

Michael Fritz-Graham
November 2008

Mount Auburn Cemetery. Cambridge, MA, USA

with Andrew Culshaw

For me, birding has always been primarily about covering a local patch, mainly in urban or suburban locations. One of the most memorable of these urban patches is Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. I was fortunate to live in the Boston area in the early 1990s and the site became a regular haunt. This brief article recounts some of my experiences in Mount Auburn throughout the year, but is focussed upon the spring migration, which can be spectacular.

Mount Auburn Cemetery was established as the first garden cemetery in the USA in 1831. It is a beautifully planted oasis within the sprawl of the city of Cambridge – home of Harvard and MIT and countless industries. Mount Auburn is barely a couple of miles from the coast and has considerable elevation lying adjacent to a major river. It is therefore not surprising that it is one of the best birding locations within the Boston area. The site is known primarily as a migration watch point, particularly during spring.


Mount Auburn Cemetery

The site covers approximately 175 acres and hosts a large variety of trees and shrubs. There are a couple of fairly large ponds and the highest point provides panoramic views south across the Charles River to Boston and is a good vantage point for observing migratory hawks and hirundines.

The winter months can be quiet with a visit typically producing resident birds such as Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse and Blue Jay. Cedar Waxwing and American Robin can be present feeding on fruit left on the trees from autumn. True winter visitors include American Tree Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco. The early migrants such as Red-winged Blackbird and American Robin start to appear from late February and mid March respectively, but by late March or early April the first Tree Swallows and Eastern Phoebes have made an appearance.

Diversity really increases as April progresses and the first of the migratory warblers are seen during this month – Yellow-rumped, Pine and Palm can all be found from about the third week. Other visitors at this time include Hermit Thrush, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a selection of sparrows. However, it is during May that Mount Auburn really becomes a world class birding destination.

Downy Woodpecker

Fox Sparrow

The trees can be full of warblers early on a May morning with the best falls of migrants typically occurring after the winds have switched to a south or southwesterly quarter overnight, especially if a cold front has also passed. My notes for 9th May 1990 record a cloudy morning clearing to give warm and sunny conditions with a moderate southwesterly wind. The commonest warbler was Yellow-rumped with 40+ birds present along with slightly lower numbers of Black-and-white Warblers. Among the 14 other species of warbler present were a Cape May – an uncommon visitor, three flaming orange Blackburnians, three Prairies, a couple of Wilson’s and eight Magnolias. The warblers are only part of the story. Blue-headed Vireos were present in double figures. A couple of Least Flycatchers were readily identifiable by song, Red-breasted Nuthatches trumpeted away and waders included Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers. Nearly 60 species were logged in a couple of hours before heading off to work.

Shortly after entering the main gate of the cemetery, a path to the left (Indian Ridge) becomes a useful elevated vantage point. The middle branches of the large trees in Dry Dell below are around head height here, effectively bringing the birds closer. At the end of Indian Ridge it is possible to drop down to either of the two ponds – the larger Halcyon Lake or the aptly named and more enclosed Spectacle Pond (aka Auburn Lake). If time is limited, I prefer to skirt Spectacle, scanning the muddy edges for Northern Waterthrush, Spotted Sandpiper or Green Heron. One can then climb a further ridge, making progress towards the tower via the shaded Dell and its small pond with possibilities for thrushes and Ovenbird.

Downy Woodpecker

Fox Sparrow

Green Heron

On the cool, drizzly morning of May 18th 2005, Mount Auburn was again alive with birds. Yellow-rumped was still the commonest warbler, but the supporting cast was slightly different and included good numbers of Ovenbird, two each of Bay-breasted and Tennessee and several Blackpolls in smart summer dress. Thrushes included Hermit, Swainson’s, Veery and Wood. Northern Orioles were calling seemingly everywhere and three male Bobolinks flew over.

As spring gives way to early summer, there is still a chance of the odd special bird – a Mourning Warbler or an Olive-sided Flycatcher, perhaps – but overall things become a little sleepy at Mount Auburn. Certainly it is now possible to lift one’s binoculars without attracting a crowd! Mount Auburn has hosted around 50 breeding species in recent times, including Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Flicker, Baltimore Oriole and Eastern Phoebe. At this season it is sufficient to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, enjoy the flowers and trees and pick up the odd lazy summer songster.

Autumn birding at the site is less frenetic than spring and large falls of migrants are unusual. Nevertheless, a good selection of birds passes through, including many warblers – now in their drab non-breeding plumage and demanding close scrutiny. There is an additional advantage to Mount Auburn at this season. Many tourists travel to New England to admire the fall foliage, but here, in the heart of urban Cambridge, the spectacle is almost as impressive.

Since coming back to the UK I have been fortunate to return to the area many times and find that it has lost none of its charm – or birds. For anyone who happens to be in the vicinity, Mount Auburn Cemetery would certainly repay a visit at any time of year.

Andrew Culshaw
June 2008