Fishermen and anglers from Maine to New Jersey will often call this time of year the “fall run.” An exciting length of time from August to November when large schools of baitfish bring sizeable schools of striped bass, bluefish and other big fish in hot pursuit. With the fall run, every surfcaster from miles around is attracted to the water for a chance of hooking a large or unusual fish.
For birders throughout the fall, this is an equally enthralling time. Birds too are on the move to wintering homes as colder temperatures and shorter days foretell frostier times ahead. Fall, especially October, can be an electrifying time for birding around New York Harbor, as you never know what might show up. Each day holds great promise to see a diversity of rare species that pass through on their way south or north for the winter.
Such was the case last Sunday. A remarkable wanderer flew in near North Beach at Sandy Hook, not far from the mouth of New York Harbor. A very rare and irregular migrant.
A beautiful adult male fork-tailed flycatcher was seen foraging for flying insects among the cedars and shrubs near the North Beach parking lot at the Sandy Hook peninsula, part of Gateway National Recreation Area in New York Harbor.
Sporting an extremely long forked tail, even greater in length than their cousin the scissor-tailed flycatcher, this male forked-tail flycatcher was mostly black and gray above and white below. The shape of the bird’s body resembled a kingbird, which makes sense because it’s a member of the kingbird genus Tyrannus.
The sun’s elevation around noon was still high enough in the sky to cause a certain degree of glare around the bird. Enough so to make picture taking difficult, but there was no mistaking that conspicuously long forked tail.
Wikipedia tells us the fork-tailed flycatcher “has the longest tail relative to body size of any bird on earth. The tail in adult males is 2 to 3 times longer than the length of the bird from the bill to the base of the tail.” No one knows for sure why this bird has such a stretched out tail. Females have a somewhat shorter tail, while the tail of juveniles is even significantly shorter. Most likely the males’ tail is for attracting a mate.
But the long forked tail on this individual flycatcher didn’t seem to be working too well. The poor bird was alone, and far away from where he should be this time of year. The birds are normally found from southern Mexico, through Central America and into much of South America in open habitats, including agricultural fields, shrub lands, forest edges, residential areas, lawns, and savannahs. The bird is often spotted perched on top of fence posts, bushes or small trees searching the ground for some tasty fruit to feed on or flying from tree to tree to forage for flies on the wing. Despite their lengthy tail, forked-tails are supremely agile fliers, but maybe not great at navigation. No doubt this bird was far off course.
It’s generally believed that a majority of forked-tailed flycatchers that are seen along the Atlantic Coast of the United States and as far north as southern Canada are from migratory populations in South America. These are commonly long-distance Southern Hemisphere migrants that spend the austral winter (June to September) in northern South America and their summer breeding season (November to February) as far south as Rio Negro, Argentina and the Falkland Islands. Along the way, a few forked-tails will get blown off course or get lost. Most of these vagrant sightings occur during our fall migration (September to November) around New York Harbor, which coincides with "spring" migration in the Southern Hemisphere. Mexican and Central American populations of forked-tail flycatchers are believed to be largely permanent residents.
But this wayward bird was the talk of the town for local birders in New Jersey. The finding was spread far and wide on many listserves. It was first discovered by a small group of people with New Jersey Audubon, including renowned birders Linda Mack and Scott Barnes.
Although sightings of forked-tail flycatchers occur almost every year in North America, particularly near the Atlantic coast of the United States, it’s difficult to predict where or when it will appear. This tropical flycatcher is rare and unpredictable, especially males. In fact, this is the first known sighting of a forked-tailed flycatcher at Sandy Hook, NJ.
William J. Boyle, Jr writes in his book, The Birds of New Jersey, there have been “nineteen accepted records for the state, half of them in the decades of the 1900s. The first was shot near Bridgeton, Cumberland County around 1812, while the second was shot in Camden in 1832 and painted by John James Audubon.” Back then I guess a bird in the hand was really worth two in the bush. Thankfully birders, at least the ones I know, use binoculars, scopes and cameras now.
If you want to view the forked-tail flycatcher, a bird you are most likely to see during a tropical island getaway not near New York City, get your binoculars, scope or camera and hurry up. Soon this bird will be gone and you will have missed a chance to see this long-tailed bird at Sandy Hook. An opportunity that will mostly likely not happen again for a very long time.
To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at http://www.nyharbornature.com