On Tuesday morning, after being a New York-based birder for five years and several months, I finally saw a Yellow-breasted Chat in New York State.* It was the 353rd bird checked off my New York State checklist and one of the few regularly occurring and expected birds left for me to see in the Empire State. How did I finally find Icteria virens? The internet, Central Park, a lunch break, and dogged determination! Join me in the next paragraph and I’ll explain.
I hadn’t been at work for long on Tuesday when a somewhat cryptic, and to non-birders perhaps incomprehensible, email message appeared in my inbox from one of the New York City birding listservs. The subject line said “Central park Chat + yellow-billed cuckoo” and the body of the message said, merely, “In tangle west side of Maintenance Meadow. Now Irene.”
I did not have any hope of seeing the Yellow-breasted Chat referred to in the subject line. First of all, I had no idea who “Irene” was so I had no way to determine if Irene could identify a Yellow-breasted Chat. Second, chats are notorious skulkers, and, in autumn, tend not to make any noise. Third, on Monday I spent a bit of time poking around Alley Pond Park where a chat had been reported the day before and I found nothing. Fourth, I had never seen a Yellow-breasted Chat in New York State so why should Tuesday be any different?
But, of course, when my lunch break rolled around, three hours after the bird was initially reported, I left the office and made my way to Central Park, showing some of that dogged determination that one needs when one has already seen most of the expected birds in a state. As I made my way through the Ramble to the Maintenance Meadow I watched a flock of Blue Jays harass a Sharp-shinned Hawk and spotted a Veery. Then, when I was almost to the meadow, a fellow birder noticed my binoculars and let me know that a chat had been seen earlier in the meadow and some people were waiting to see it. I thanked her and started walking a bit faster, thinking that I didn’t want to dawdle and hear the dreaded words “You just missed it.”
Three birders awaited me in the Maintenance Meadow, in the little bit of shade available to protect them from the noon sun. As is normal among our obsessive tribe we neglected to exchange names but I did learn that the bird had been seen as recently as twenty minutes earlier and that it was occasionally making brief appearances. I put my binoculars up and scanned the underbrush and came to a bird that was partially obscured but that had a bright yellow chest, or, wait, breast, and then it poked its head out and it was the chat! Sweet, sweet, easy twitch! The other birders got on it and then it disappeared into the underbrush again. I waited until it made another brief appearance and then it was back to work for me.
Above is what most would consider a great look at a Yellow-breasted Chat. Photo by Charlie Moores.
Somehow, the afternoon at work went by a bit faster after checking the chat off of my New York State list. But then I started to think about it and realized that with Icteria virens checked off it has become much more difficult for me to add anything to my state list. I will have to travel way up north and get extremely lucky to find a declining Adirondack breeder like Spruce Grouse or Gray Partridge or go out to sea and find a Manx Shearwater or any storm petrel besides Wilson’s Storm Petrel or just get lucky with a western vagrant like Pacific Loon or White-winged Dove or a European vagrant like Northern Wheatear. There are no easy ticks left. I now understand why the top listers in New York State aren’t much above 400: it gets exponentially harder to see a new bird in New York once you break 350.
But, on the plus side, I can now say that I have seen every single breeding wood-warbler in New York State. All that are left of the wood-warblers are birds that are even less likely to cross my field of view than a chat. In fact, there are only three wood-warblers on the New York State checklist that I could possibly see: Townsend’s Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, and MacGillivray’s Warbler (there is also the impossible-and-never-to-appear-again-in-New York Painted Redstart).
Seeing a chat made my day and I look forward to seeing many more because, as every birder knows, once you’ve seen a nemesis bird once you won’t be able to avoid them afterward.
*The one previous Yellow-breasted Chat on my life list was from coastal Connecticut in 2005, when I had been birding for only a few months. The fog of time since then makes me question the sighting but not enough to make me take it off my list.
Good for you–the yb chat continues to be *my* nemesis to this day.
Stick with Central Park, Corey. You might even see a Boreal Owl there.
I’ve seen chats very rarely, usually only in the company of birders who are more attuned to them than I am.
Well done! Wednesday was also the day I knocked off one of the harder English birds, the Bearded Reedlings. Just twenty minutes after seeing a small family in, obviously, reeds, I heard someone grumbling in the hide that he had been coming for years and never seen one!
I just visited a friend in NYC for the first time two months ago. We didn’t make it to Central Park but I guarantee it’s at the top of my list next trip. Congrats on the sighting.
Also a nemesis bird for me Corey. Congrats on the find!
Nice! Congrats on the chat, and a pretty amazing NY state list!
Congrats on the Yellow-breasted Chat. It was kind of nemesis bird for me for a couple years, but now where I live in the Boise foothills, they nest in my neighborhood and I get up close views all the time. This is one cool bird that I don’t yet take for granted.
Congratulatons! If adding birds to your NYS list is so frustratingly awful, there is always the option of working on your NJ list. I bet NJ is geographically closer to your office than Central Park. And, much closer than Jamaica Bay (where I had the pleasure of having a Chat fly right up to the VC early one Sunday morning).
Great bird for NY! I still need that one for the state. Although I havent kept track of my NY state list, despite growing up birding in western NY, it sounds like I need a lot to get close to the number of species you have for the state.
@Nellie: The last one showed up the first year I was birding and I will probably always regret that I didn’t get how great a chance that was.
@Duncan: I can’t believe you fell for the “Bearded Reedling ruse.” Everyone knows that those things don’t really exist. 🙂
@Donna: Even if I lived in Jersey I would still care more about my New York list…
@Pat: I must say that getting to 353 has been a great time and I highly recommend everyone do it.
Just found your site and love your writing style and enthusiasm. My first chat surprised me as it just happened to poke its head through a tangle of bushes, right in my line of sight as I was seated on a bench near the coast in MA. My initial reaction was YELLOW! followed by WOW!
I’m not knowledgeable enough to consider myself a birder, although I spend a considerable amount of time watching the winged critters. The Chat is a beauty. Congratulations and thanks for sharing.
I had no idea what a yellow breasted chat was when I saw this on my morning walk through Central Park. Just saw yellow and knew it was special. Thanks for confirming my suspicion! It opened my eyes to other interesting birds and the next day I saw a Hawk in a tree in Inwood about 10 feet from my head. Amazing.
OK, I am into nature, but not specifically birding. I have seen a spectacular yellow-chested bluebird-sized round/fat bird every day this week (Buffalo New York, last sighting Monday December 6, 2010) that looks exactly like a Yellow-breasted chat in Peterson’s Field guide and anywhere else I look. (Including the photo on this page). A friend who is an avid, locally famous and respected birder says no way, since there hasn’t been one seen here in 5 years and since there can never be a sighting after September. He says things like “Evening Grosbeak” or “Juvenile Baltimore Oriole”, but they do not look like the bird I am seeing. The bird’s behavior is famously chat (lurking, in the bushes, eating bugs, etc). I have three photographs which I just forwarded to my friend, but I believe he is traveling now. I do not know how to show photographs here, but I would gladly email them to anyone interested. firstname.lastname@example.org
Update to last message: Well, the aforementioned birder friend got back from a trip, saw the pictures, and confirms it definitely is a chat! I guess I am very lucky because it was in my back yard feeding on dried fruit all morning, taking cover from time to time. Seems hunger is competing with elusiveness. Perhaps what attracted it is that I just trimmed my lilac, and the “thicket” of branches are still in my yard. The fellow is *so* spectacular in the snow when the sun is out. . .literally blindingly yellow. Enough to make a birder out of me. So, there is a Chat, in December, in the lower west side of Buffalo New York!
As a note, haven’t you seen two wood-warblers in New York since this, both first state records?
@Derek: Yes, yes I have!