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Thursday, November 20, 2014

New Brooklyn Rarity

Unfortunately for myself and my birding buddy Heydi, this particular bird falls under the category of "you-should-have-been-here-10-minutes-ago".

Last Saturday, November 15th, I spent about an hour or so just after dawn birding the edge of Gravesend Bay and Coney Island Creek at Coney Island Creek Park. It wasn't very birdy, so by 8am we left and headed east to Floyd Bennett Field.

To avid birdwatchers November in New York is known as the month when rarities and western vagrants tend to appear in our area. Storms and strong west or south-west winds might carry a directionally challenged bird our way. An arctic blast could also help propel denizens of the north into the northeastern tri-state area. This theory guided our birding decisions on Saturday and we convinced ourselves that if we planned our route carefully and searched methodically we might locate, say, an unusual flycatcher, waterfowl, owl, or, who-knows-what. Floyd Bennett Field, with its large grasslands, coastline and wooded areas seemed to be a good choice for our treasure hunt.

We spent around 4 hours birding the grasslands, cricket field, North 40, Raptor Point and Ecology Village. We even walked down the south shoreline, under the Gil Hodges Bridge to Dead Horse Bay and back along Dead Horse Trail. Most of the expected seasonal birds were present, but we failed to spot any roaming vagrants from the west or north.

I had to leave by around noon and Heydi offered to drive me to the train station. As we were driving towards the main entrance on Floyd Bennett Blvd I noticed a guy with binoculars near a chainlink fence that borders the north side of the road and a large stretch of grassland habitat. I didn't recognize him as one of the local birders and joked that he was birding in "our" spot. The remains of a defunct roadway runs though the field here from the community gardens in the north, to the small ranger station at the park's entrance. I've never seen anyone birding this location other than myself and Heydi.

Flash forward to just after 9pm Saturday. My wife and I just walked out of a play in downtown Brooklyn and I turned my phone back on. The following email forwarded from my friend Doug popped up in my notifications:


On Saturday, November 15, 2014, Kai Sheffield wrote:

Hi Andrew,

I was hoping for your thoughts on a bird I saw today at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. I'm fairly confident it was a Cassin's Kingbird, but was hoping for a second opinion before I post it to eBird. Photos are at the link below:

A few notes:

-The bird called once, making a "ka-PEW!" sound. It matched the Cassin's Kingbird call sound on my Audobon bird app very closely and didn't sound anything like the Western or Tropical Kingbird calls.

-It had a concentrated white patch on its throat and a medium-dark gray head. The throat patch indicates Cassin's rather than Western, which seems to generally have whitish cheeks and less sharp contrast on the throat. This bird did not have whitish cheeks.

-It had a whitish fringe on the end of its tail feathers, but no white on the outer side edges, potentially distinguishing it from Western Kingbird. At one point I saw the bird fan out its tail and didn't see any noticeable white on the outer side edges.

-The whitish edging on the upper wing coverts was fairly distinctive. This seems to indicate Cassin's over Western.

-The bill did not look particularly large. A number of the photos show it in profile. This seems to rule out Tropical and Couch's which have quite heavy bills.

-Forehead was relatively dark, again indicating Cassin's over the other Kingbirds.

-Behavior: it dove to the ground and onto the branches of a low bush several times. It also bobbed its tail briefly a couple of times.

-Depending on the lighting, the gray on the bird's head and upper breast looks lighter than some photos of Cassin's Kingbirds. However, this could be due to a combination of lighting and the bird having worn plumage.

-I observed it for about 30 minutes from 1130 a.m. to 12 noon, then lost it and wasn't able to relocate it.

Would really appreciate your thoughts. Thanks!


Just a brief note about the people in the email chain. Andrew Farnsworth works for Cornell and is one of the regional moderators for their eBird website. He was about to get on a plane in Argentina, so copied my friend Doug Gochfeld, who is the Brooklyn moderator for eBird and birder extraordinaire. Needless to say, emails, texts and phone calls began to fly. I couldn't believe our bad luck of being at the opposite end of Floyd Bennett Field when this guy Kai spotted the kingbird.

This would be only the second sighting of a Cassin's Kingbird in New York State and a first for New York City. Here is the report for the previous sighting from The New York State Avian Records Committee for 2007:


Cassin’s Kingbird (Tyrannus vociferans)
2007-57-A/B One, intersection of Gloucester Ave. & West Lake Drive, Montauk, Suffolk, 13 Oct (Shaibal S. Mitra, Angus Wilson; ph S. Mitra, A. Wilson)

This handsome kingbird was discovered by Andy Baldelli as it hawked insects along the roadside. Realizing that it was not the more likely Western Kingbird (T. verticalis), Baldelli phoned Shai Mitra and Patricia Lindsay, who were out on Fire Island, and they quickly relayed the exciting news to others. Angus Wilson was able to rush to the spot, where he was joined by Karen Rubinstein, Barbara Rubinstein and Vicki Bustamante. After a few minutes of waiting, the kingbird reappeared and the tentative identification as a Cassin’s Kingbird was confirmed. Major field marks included the brilliant white malar and chin, deep gray breast and head, deep bill with a distinctly curved culmen, and absence of white edging on the outer tail feathers of the square tail. More phone calls followed, and a caravan of birders from all over Long Island and the New York City area braved the fearsome Hamptons summer traffic, reaching the spot in time for stunning views of the bird as it perched on the roadside fencing or sallied forth to collect insect larvae from the ground or flying insects on the wing. In the late afternoon, the kingbird was flushed by a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and vanished into private property, where presumably it went to roost. Extensive searches the following morning and on subsequent days failed to relocate it. Passing motorists were puzzled by the assembly of cameras and suspicious looking characters spread in a phalanx along the street, and those who stopped to ask ‘who the celebrity was?’ were quickly shown the funny little yellow and green visitor. A short feature by local reporter Russell Drumm with a photograph by Angus Wilson appeared on the front page of the East Hampton Star. Color photos by Shai Mitra appeared in North Am. Birds 62(1): 190 and The Kingbird 58(1): 47 and cover.

Cassin’s Kingbird inhabits arid to semi-arid open habitat in southwestern North America and breeds as far north as Montana. The northernmost breeders are strongly migratory (Tweit and Tweit 2000), and records from eastern North America have increased in recent decades. Florida had its first record in Dec 1988 (Sykes et al. 1989) and accrued twelve accepted records through 2008 (Kratter 2009). Elsewhere east of the Mississippi River, the species has been recorded three times in Massachusetts (Eastham Town Hall, 21 Oct 1962; Monomoy, 9 Oct 1965; and Whatley, 2 Nov 2002); twice in Ontario (specimen Grand Lake, Achray, 4 Jun 1953; Britannia 19 Sep-9 Oct 1970; see Crins 2003); and once in Virginia (Eike 1978).


Cory, Shane, Heydi and I arrived at Floyd Bennett Field on Sunday morning just after sunrise. Our grogginess only slightly bolstered by a shot of cautious optimism that we'd relocate the Cassin's Kingbird. It was much colder than the previous week and I was glad I'd thought to layer up with winter gear. We immediately began to spread out, carefully making our way across the field. At the southwest corner a flock of Eastern Bluebirds began to stir, feeding on the tart berries of several Autumn Olive trees near the fence-line. Within a few minutes it became clear that there were a few dozen bluebirds in the flock. At one point Shane and I counted a total of 44. More would be seen throughout the morning with my final tally being around 60. While I always enjoy seeing bluebirds, I really wanted the kingbird.

Floyd Bennett Field covers 1,358 acres, more than 1 1/2 times the size of Central Park. This map will give you an idea of the challenge facing the dozens of birders who made there way to this national park on Sunday in search of a Cassin's Kingbird. There were so many pairs of eyes searching for this bird, it's hard to believe that he'd be able to slip by unnoticed. Although, that is exactly what happened. Shane gave up at around noon. At 1:20pm I sent a note to the NYS bird list that Heydi and I had thrown in the towel. Ultimately, nobody was able to relocate this rare western flycatcher who was probably already booked on the overnight flight back to Arizona or Mexico.


The kingbird was relocated the following weekend and has been present at the picnic area on the south end of the community gardens for over a week. It was last reported on Thanksgiving in the afternoon.

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