Long ago I predicted that I would eventually see a Western Tanager in Queens. Last December one was even found on the Queens County Christmas Bird Count but it was only seen by one birder and subsequent searches by me and others did not rediscover it. So when Eric Miller found one on Sunday, 12 November, in the restoration area by the Alley Pond Environmental Center I was psyched to search for it even if I was upstate for the weekend and couldn’t look for it until the following morning before work. That day I searched hard for a couple of hours in the company of other birders but the bird did not show again though it was seen briefly by two birders in late morning. After that, the bird was not seen again by anyone, including me (despite putting two more searches in), until…
…Thanksgiving morning, when Peter Reisfield stumbled upon the bird once again. And, once again, I was upstate visiting my folks and wouldn’t be back until Friday night. All day Friday I suffered the “Needs Alert” emails as birder after birder found the bird and reported it to eBird. It was enough to drive a county-lister crazy!
Saturday morning I was once again walking the trails on the east side of Alley Creek where some great restoration work is happening as invasive plants are removed, ponds are created, and native vegetation is planted. Sparrows were plentiful, with Fox, Song, Swamp, and White-throated enjoying the patches of mugwort that hasn’t been removed yet. I wasn’t having much luck finding flocks of frugivores and the crabapple trees were distinctly short of crabapples. (The tanager had been seen feeding on crabapples at least a couple of times.) A murmuring call note came to my ears and as my brain processed the sound I spotted the source of the call, a bright blue male Eastern Bluebird!
Sadly, the backlighting means that I had no hope to do this bird justice.
The bluebird was nice and only my second for the year in Queens but it was not the bird I was looking for. The search continued. Eventually, I found a nice flock of American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, European Starlings, and a Fox Sparrow all feeding on some kind of fruit well west of where the tanager had been seen previously. But as these were the only birds I had seen feeding on fruit in the nearly two hours I had been searching I decided to stick with the flock for awhile. And my perseverance paid off!
I spotted the tanager, briefly, from behind, sitting on a branch, partially obscured by foliage. As I moved to try to find an unobstructed view it took off and flew about twenty meters to the back side of a tree that was still thick with leaves. But the sun was at my back and I positioned myself so that if the bird came through the tree to the sunny side I would have a clear view. And the bird cooperated and all was right with the world.
Well, all was right with the world except for that annoying branch with two leaves hanging in front of my first Western Tanager in Queens!
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their indoor cat, B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.
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