The Wasteland

For some strange reason I decided to dedicate the whole of Fall migration to birding a 3 acre patch of urban wasteland on the Hudson river.

I've always been a fan of marginal habitats. Some of the most memorable birds are the ones you find in unexpected places. A Black Redstart in a parking lot in central London on New Year's Day. My lifer Indian Scimitar Babbler in a dusty corner of hydroelectric plant. My state Connecticut warbler (two together!) in a graveyard in downtown Manhattan, when I was looking for a something entirely different.

And, the reason for this post, a steady stream of yellow-breasted chats this Fall - right on this neglected bit of littoral habitat one block from my apartment.

Of course, I had to abide by the First Rule of Patch Birding; you can't miss a day.

So, from September 1st until the CBC on the 18th December, no matter the weather or the radar, I birded it. Even on those days with southerly flow when you just know nothing will be on passage.

The Patch, on the elbow of the Hudson river, roughly opposite Chelsea 
(That huge green migrant-trap-of-a-rectangle to the north is Central Park - birds-eye views like this explain a lot....) 

zoomed in...

  ....and a bit more

At first glance, you might be thinking this doesn't look too promising.

Climbing over the first fence gets you access to a gravel parking lot, with a rotting sofa and a couple of waste skips. The best bird you're going to get here is a starling. At least that's what I thought until I found a Lincoln's sparrow.

But vault the second fence and things get better. You're greeted by the only bit of wilderness left on an increasingly gentrified and manicured waterfront. A continuous scrub of goldenrod and false-willow blankets the shore line. The traffic noise drops perceptibly. Large concrete impoundments have been splintered asunder by vigorous succession trees; birch, willow and sumac. The bridge of a sunken barge periscopes from the shallows, and rotting pylons provide perches for the double-crested cormorants that linger into winter.

Looks like a bunch of concrete, but the phoebes love hawking 
insects as they warm up in its radiant heat

 A black-crowned night heron waits for the tide to flood, 
and a poplar grows improbably from the pier.  

Throughout October and into the mild November, Clouded Sulphurs and Monarchs stopped to refuel.

This young night heron spent about 3 weeks here. He eyed me up every visit,  from his favorite tree. He seems to be saying 'get off my patch' - well it's my Patch too ....

This resident kestrel got used to my presence and made a habit of snatching myrtle warblers as they foraged low on the wrack line. 

I found some good birds. But not until I'd repeatedly confirmed the veracity of The Second Law of Patch Birding; leave your camera at home if you want something good to turn up.

After the expected stream of blackpolls, the first good parulid was a Nashville, turning up almost a year to the day, and in the same patch of goldenrod, since my last one in the county. A few days later another one arrived. Nashville's not a bird that's ever dripping from the trees in Hudson County, and is more of a lesson in the migrant trap ability of The Patch than habitat selectivity.

A day or two later the first chat appeared - a hatch year bird. For me this is usually one of those birds that you really just have to luck into. Manhattan had been bursting at the seams with chats all season, so it was especially gratifying to find one on The Patch.

Then, two weeks an adult male turned up. Then in early November, a third! Unless, of course, it was the same bird that managed to stay several weeks - not impossible for this master skulker.

My best morning-flight experience of Fall came on The Patch too. Sitting on the concrete terminus of the pier, I watched yellow-rumps in their hundreds pour off the Hudson river against strong westerlies. I stopped trying to count them once densities reached around 100 'rumps-an-hour, and focused on separating other warblers that were mixed in, mostly palms - with an 80/20 ratio of yellow to western.

My only disappointment was Fall gulling. My Patch had briefly hosted glaucous and kumliens gulls this Spring, and a LBBG the prior Fall. I was hoping to finally get my tenth Hudson river larid, but sometimes the Gull Gods are fickle.

This chickadee was missing all of his retrices, so stuck around a while

Getting some help with the gulling. 

In all, I eked 73 species out of this neglected patch of wasteland (even adding 3 county birds - american pipit, grey-cheeked thrush and the yellow-breasted chats) and unless they lock the gates next spring,  I'm pretty sure I can hit a century.

But more importantly, by watching the same couple of acres for the entire season, I learned a lot...

In no particular order:

1. Gulls, despite their feeding plasticity, are not cannibals... Of the two dead larids that appeared over the season, both went untouched by their congeners.

2. If you watch sparrows closely enough, you can see clinal phenotypic variation correlate with migration timing. Pretty damn cool.

3.  When you start to think you won't get a winter wren all year,  you will.

4. Wintering ruddy ducks are returning later each year, regardless of what Donald Trump says.

5. When you find an orange-crowned warbler it will get eaten by a feral cat right in front of your eyes.

One thing about patch birding is sometimes there's nothing to look at, so you look at ring-bills, 
and they look pretty awesome. 

Having finally lucked into my county Grey-cheeked early in the Fall, what followed was an unrelenting stream of hermits....

If this goldenrod and willow is deep enough to swallow a 7 year old, it's deep enough to 
hide a skulky chat for 3 weeks....

And finally... I have no idea where these chairs came from. They just appeared one October night, amid a scattering of beer cans. But thereafter gave me a nice place to sit and scope the river. 

Postscript: the last day I visited was December 18, for my territory of the Lower Hudson Christmas Count. I was hoping to turn up something good one final time. Instead, I'd been there ten minutes, ticked a cooper's hawk, pished up some swamp sparrows, when three cop cars pulled up and put an hour long dent in my already tight CBC schedule. I showed the cops the Coop, and they eventually let me go after I pointed out the lack of No Trespassing signs. Hopefully they'll have forgotten about my transgressions by spring migration ;)


  1. Thank you for sharing. Best wishes for a great New Year filled with birds.


About Me

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NYC, Buxton, Buenos Aires
I work in NYC and own a wildlife and wilderness agency specializing in the southern cone of South America. I still do some guiding down there, especially looking for Fuegian and Patagonian avifauna. I'm particularly interested in the wintering ecology of neotropical migrants, and in avian biogeography in general. You can follow me at - @domhall And find me at - AventuraArgentina.com