Central Park Christmas Bird Count

Birding, for many of us, involves a lot of counting. Counting canvasbacks on the pond or white-throated sparrows hopping about in the underbrush. Counting down the days to a much-anticipated trip. Picking through hundreds of ring-billed gulls and herring gulls, hoping to find something—anything—that will make that hour you spent in the cold worthwhile. (But it’s always worthwhile, right? Well, I haven’t yet caught the gull bug, so maybe not that last one…)

Although I’ve been birding—and counting!—for a good 5 years now, I’d never before participated in a Christmas Bird Count. There are a number of CBCs in the New York metro area, but something always got in the way that prevented me from signing up. When I was just starting out, I was worried about slowing down more experienced or competitive birders, and when I moved to the city a couple of years ago, transportation and scheduling became more of an issue. This past year, however, I resolved to put a stop to this silliness—Christmas shopping be damned.

The 115th Annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count took place on Sunday, December 14. It was cloudy and cold, but there was no snow on the ground and no rain or snow in the forecast, so there was nothing stopping us from heading out of the apartment that morning. (I later heard that this was the best weather they’d had in years.) But despite our best efforts, E and I ended up running 15 minutes late; by the time reached the park, the 80 or so birders already congregated at the South Pump Station had already split up into groups

The park covers 843 acres, but it’s divided into seven sectors during the count: the Ramble, the Reservoir, the Great Lawn, Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, and Northeast. My birding excursions are usually confined to the Ramble, with its twisting paths and “dense” (ahem, by NYC standards) woods, and the Reservoir just to the north, so I wanted to try somewhere new. After hemming and hawing, and a bit of confusion, E and I threw up our hands and went with the group with the friendliest faces: Southwest it was.

There were nine people in our group, all women (score!) and many of them staff members at NYC Audubon. It’s a good thing that they were such a welcoming group, as the Southwest sector is known for being, well, pretty damn dead. It has no real wooded areas or bodies of water that might attract a greater variety of birds and mostly follows West Drive down to Columbus Circle, then back up along the ballfields and Sheep Meadow. Useful knowledge to have for next year, but I don’t regret our choice; good company made up for the lack of birds.

As we headed south along the bridle path towards 72nd Street, we came across one of the more interesting sightings of the morning: a baby opossum! The poor dear was cowering in a sapling as dogs and their humans ran by. After passing under the Riftstone Arch, we began our count. Tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches were in abundance this year, in stark contrast to 2013, when only one of each were counted in the entire park. At Tavern on the Green, we came across our first red-tailed hawk, perched in a tree above the take-out window—which prompted a few in our party to purchase hot chocolate to warm their hands. A smart move. A ruby-crowned kinglet and hermit thrush added some more interest, but for the most part it was…pigeons. Lots of pigeons. And European starlings. And house sparrows.

After almost 4 hours of birding, we headed over to the Arsenal on the east side of the park to warm up, share results, and fill our bellies with soup. Groups argued over hawks—who saw what where? “Reservoir, your hawk was flying from the southeast at what time? Then it was probably the same bird that the Great Lawn reported at X hour.” Et cetera, et cetera. And I am proud to say that although our sector reported nothing out of the ordinary, we did have the high count for rock pigeons, so that has to count for something! (Pure desperation, you mean? Oh…)

The final tally for the Southwest sector (based on my records, so consider this unofficial):

Canada goose 7
Red-tailed hawk 2
Rock pigeon 130
Mourning dove 1
Red-bellied woodpecker 3
Yellow-bellied sapsucker 1
Northern flicker 1
Blue jay 24
Black-capped chickadee 2
Tufted titmouse 17
White-breasted nuthatch 8
Ruby-crowned kinglet 1
Hermit thrush 1
Northern mockingbird 1
European starling 115
White-throated sparrow 69
Northern cardinal 4
Common grackle 50
American goldfinch 1
House sparrow 129
Total Birds: 567
Total Species: 20

All in all, a fine way to end the morning. Until next year!

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