Jean M. Loscalzo is a resident of Queens and has been kind enough to not only show Corey around Forest Park a bit (and give Corey and Charlie a ride not so long ago) but she has also agreed to share this article with the 10,000 Birds readership. The article first appeared in the newsletter of the Queens County Bird Club, an illustrious organization which Corey will soon be joining (if they’ll have him).
“Eric Miller’s Observation of Rare Bird Identification” certainly applied to the situation that occurred in Union Square Park in Manhattan during the winter 2008 season. For those not familiar with Eric’s Observation, it goes something like this: the really rare birds that show up are often first misidentified as a much more common bird. Even though reported, no one bothers to check it out. Eventually, someone does check it out, a correct identification is made, and BAM! birders come running from all over to get there to see it!
The bird was first reported as an Orchard Oriole in Union Square Park on Tuesday, December 4, 2007. Alice Deutsch was just out for some air and a quick walk in the park with her husband. She always brings her binoculars, and even though it is a small park, she has managed to accumulate a park list of over 50 species. On this particular day, she was enjoying the usual suspects, the expected birds, when she spotted a bird that was noticeably different. Calling to her husband to come look even though he is not a birder, Alice immediately started making mental notes of any field marks she could discern, and noted the wingbars, breast color, head and back patterns. She also noted how the bill appeared “black, pointed, and fairly long”, and decided it looked like it belonged in the blackbird family.
When Alice got home she phoned Lenore Swenson, who was able to meet her in the park that afternoon. After some thorough searching, they were finally able to relocate the bird, and Lenore identified it is as an oriole. The Orchard Oriole identification was arrived at because they knew it wasn’t a Baltimore Oriole, and the only other oriole we get in our area is the Orchard Oriole. Neither of them were familiar with the winter plumage of that species, since their breeding plumage is just starting to fade when they migrate from our area. So even though it didn’t look quite right for an Orchard Oriole, they decided that was most likely what it was.
To be sure, an Orchard Oriole that late in the season is still a great bird for the day. And in a small urban park like Union Square, the probability the bird would stay any length of time was not very likely. So the fact that it wasn’t seen again was not unexpected. But every time she passed through Alice would give a look around anyway. Except for the White-throated Sparrows and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker there wasn’t too much around. And then she was out of town for a few weeks around the holidays. It also turns out the park is deemed too small to be bothered with on the Christmas Bird Count, and no one checks it. Time passed, and the oddly-plumaged bird gradually faded from memory.
Fast forward to Tuesday, January 22, 2008. As a reward for going to the dentist, Alice stopped in the park to enjoy a nature break and went over to her favorite part, the little triangular area that has some various plantings and a statue of Gandhi. All of a sudden, she saw the bird fly in to a viburnum bush that had been regularly drilled by the sapsucker. She observed the bird chase away the sapsucker and help itself to the fresh sap. She also observed that while it was definitely the same bird, its adult plumage was becoming more evident, and it now had a much darker head as well as a dark bib.
Upon arriving home, she checked her Sibley, Costa Rican, and Mexican field guides, trying to find an image of how the Orchard Oriole looks in the winter. Not one of them showed an Orchard Oriole with that particular plumage. Determined to document this bird, she arranged with Ardith Bondi to meet her the next afternoon (Wed. 1/23/08) to photograph it. The bird was still there in the same place, and Ardith was able to get several extraordinary shots that showed all the important field marks clearly.
That evening Ardith posted it on her web site as an Orchard Oriole, and invited people to comment on the possible age of the bird. Within a half-hour, Seth Ausubel had seen the post, checked out the photos, and in Seth’s typically understated fashion made the observation “this appears to be a Scott’s Oriole”. That was all he said. But that was all it took for the local birding community to engage in quite the lively debate as the photos were closely examined and hopes were raised. The image of small children hardly able to contain themselves thinking about Santa Claus comes to mind, since by now it was night and all anyone could do was speculate and wait for sunrise.
At first light Thursday, January 24, 2008, numerous area birders descended upon Union Square Park, all determined to check out this bird for themselves. No one was disappointed: not only was the bird still there, the identification of Scott’s Oriole was indeed the correct one! Eric Miller, Gary Straus and I went into Manhattan a little later that same morning, the directions were perfect, and BAM! there was the bird, right in front of us. A life bird for each of us and a first New York State record of Scott’s Oriole, in one of the most unusual places one could imagine!
The bird remained there for several weeks, and was seen by hundreds of birders from all over the eastern United States. It was also seen by numerous non-birders, who just happened to be passing by and wondered what all the fuss is about. A very special thanks goes out to Alice Deutsch for her keen observation and persistence in obtaining an identification of this unusual visitor. And needless to say, every time I passed either of the two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers over-wintering in Forest Park, I kept imploring them: “Please Find Me A Scott’s Oriole!”
Unfortunately, they did not oblige.
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