The Chat of the Town

For more than two weeks now, a Yellow-breasted Chat has been haunting the northern side of Trinity Church graveyard in lower Manhattan, the side opposite musical-comedy star Alexander Hamilton’s grave.

Chats are small, distinctive songbirds, their creamy yellow breasts contrasting sharply with their olive green tops. Bold white spectacle-like markings about the eyes jump out at you amid the Starlings, House Sparrows, and White-throated Sparrows otherwise found on the church grounds. Always rare in the city, by this time of year Chats should already be in Central America.

The city’s large parks are renowned for their bird populations, but smaller patches of green, including Park Avenue medians and midtown vest-pocket parks, can host a surprising variety of birds during the spring and fall migrations. Bryant Park is the best known of these: there have been 121 species seen there according to ebird, the Cornell/Audubon database to which birders submit their sightings. Trinity Church, with more gravestones than trees, has 75 species recorded.

This may not be all to the good, for tall buildings and bright lights at night seem to act as malign vortices for migrating birds, trapping them in the greens below until they can recover, if they can recover, and fly out again.

Chats, generally skulking creatures of thick, brushy habitat, seem particularly out of place at Trinity. There is a short stretch of low plantings on the graveyard’s western end, overlooking Trinity Place. You might spot the bird there, underneath in the shadows; or the search may take longer, because, after all, it’s a bird, darting, tree-hopping, ground-hugging.

Recently, a birder was looking for the Chat in a drizzle. He ran into a man with a camera who asked him with exasperation, “Have you found him yet?” “No,” the birder had to say wistfully, “but there’s a nice Winter Wren over there…” The non-birder was perplexed. “A what? I meant Hamilton!”

The New Yorker, The Nation, Mother Jones, New York Review of Books, Harpers… are all excellent magazines to subscribe to in these darkening times.

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