August 5, 2020

Avian biodiversity in a small park

Large parks such as Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn top the list of birding hotspots in New York City. But smaller, neighborhood parks support diverse bird life, too. My favorite small park, Washington Square Park, is within 10-minute walk from my apartment. It is 9.75-acres and located in the center of the Greenwich Village Historic District. The park is renowned for the Washington Arch, named for the nation’s first president and a doppelganger for the Arc de Triomphe. Locals and tourists also flock to the park to photograph the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center, to sit around the fountain, and to watch and listen to the grassroots performing artists that enliven the park. Locals and tourists engage with wildlife, too. Squirrels are enticed with nuts and bread. Pigeons and house sparrows, the most numerous and gregarious species in the park, get a lot of attention. But most tourists and some locals miss the breadth of bird life in the park. You have to slow down, wander, keep your eyes and ears open, pause, peer into the shrub layer, and stare into the canopy. I learned to take these steps from my birding partner. In the past three and a half years, I’ve been witness to the park’s spectacular bird life. Here are some short tales.

Kentucky warbler in Washington Square Park, photo by Dennis Edge
Kentucky warbler, photo c/o Dennis Edge


Kentucky warbler (Geothlypis formosa)

A Kentucky warbler stopped over in the park in May 2017. My birding partner and I first observed the warbler on May 11th. She spotted the bird on the ground in one of the park’s parterres, a location that seems at first glance, most unfitting for this forest bird. However, Kentucky warblers forage for insects on the ground. For much of the rest of its stay, the warbler took refuge in the crabapple grove just west of the Arch, which is densely vegetated in the spring. The bird’s multi-day layover put the park on the birding radar. On the second day of its R&R, the birding paparazzi descended on the park. A large group of approximately 20 birders and photographers lined the sidewalk and an inner pathway for hours to record this rare sighting. Birders and photographers returned to the park until it was clear that the bird had resumed its migration, moving further north to interior forests. I was happy the warbler stopped over in the park, but was glad the bird moved on to his breeding territory. The Kentucky warbler is an at-risk species; it would have been heartbreaking if the park were an ecological trap for the bird.

Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)

There used to be an aboveground stream that ran through what is now the park, but the last time Minetta Brook saw daylight was in the 1800s. So, it was a pleasant surprise to observe a belted kingfisher in the park on October 13, 2018. This was the first record on eBird, a bird-listing app, of this species in the park. The kingfisher was heard vocalizing before it was seen. I was participating in a Feminist Bird Club walk in the park, and one of the organizers, CL, thought she’d heard the kingfisher’s call early on in the walk, but a kingfisher didn’t make sense in an inland park whose only water body is a fountain. CL spotted the bird during the second half of the walk. The kingfisher was observed flying and perching in a tree in the center of the largest wooded area of the park. The northwest sector of the park harbors the most biodiversity. The entire walk group gathered below the tree to observe the kingfisher. We were bowled over by the sighting.

Black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

A black-crowned night heron spent a couple of days in the park in June 2018. The head gardener alerted me to the bird’s presence via text message. When we met up in person, he told me the heron had been chased into the park by two red-tailed hawks. The heron first landed in the water in the fountain’s basin before taken up a perch in one of the Zelkova trees circling the fountain. My birding partner thinks the heron has generational memory of the pre-colonial landscape. One of the historic ecologies of the land on which the park sits was a red maple hardwood swamp. A wooded swamp is a prime habitat for the heron.

Red-tailed hawk, photo by Hubert J Steed
Red-tailed hawk, photo c/o Hubert J. Steed


Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

In 2019, there were 11 active red-tailed hawk nests in NYC. One of these nests is located on a penthouse windowsill of a university building on the southern border of the park. The first hawk pair launched their residence in the 2010-11 season. Courtship began in 2010 and one eyass fledged in 2011. The adult female laid three eggs but only one hatched. Since 2011, the adult partners have changed several times. The first female (“Violet”) died in 2011. A new female (“Rosie”) took over the territory in the same year, but left in 2014. The current female (“Sadie” aka “Aurora”) is the third resident female. The original male hawk (“Bobby”) disappeared after the eyasses hatched in the spring of 2019, and has been presumed dead. A new male (“Juno”) claimed the territory. His arrival was controversial; people had a strong attachment to “Bobby” and disliked Juno’s harassment of Bobby’s offspring.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)

I was unfamiliar with the yellow-bellied sapsucker, a woodpecker, until I began birding in Washington Square Park. I have seen both sexes as well as adult and juvenile sapsuckers in the park. I typically spot them in the northwest corner of the park, but the hollies in the southeast corner are another within-park hotspot. One day, my birding partner and I were talking about the sapsucker with our mentor at the natural history museum. I was discussing my fascination with the sapsucker, and how difficult it was to find recent scientific studies of the species. Our mentor brought up the female black-crowned morph, which only added to the bird’s appeal. At that point, neither my birding partner nor I had seen the black-crowned morph, but one of the next times we birded in the park, we saw one! It was as if our mentor had conjured the bird into the park. The female black-crowned morph is described as “occasionally seen” in the 2017 edition of Sibley Birds East.

The moral of these stories is to give nearby nature another look. Your local sky (and ground) might surprise you!

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