Progne martin sp. in Brooklyn, NY

2nd – 3rd April – Prospect Park Lake, Brooklyn, NY

I was heading down to Brooklyn to spend the Easter holidays when, on 1st April, a strange hirundine was found feeding over Prospect Park Lake by local birder Doug Gochfeld. The weather was overcast, rainy and he had noticed a bird hawking over the water with a small group of Tree Swallows. Initially he considered, rightly so, the bird may be a Purple Martin, albeit an early one. To his credit, he quickly realized something was odd about the bird and soon came to realize it was more likely a southern martin, possibly one of the so-called “snowy-bellied” forms – either Caribbean/Cuban/Sinaloan. Identification of progne martins is tough, especially of a lone vagrant.

Several local people were able to see the bird that afternoon and discussion began as to its identity.

I arrived midday on the 2nd, and after dropping Alex off at the apartment, I drove up to the lake to see the bird. The weather was overcast and chilly, and after a few minutes of seeing nothing, I located the bird feeding in a small cove at the west end of the lake. Along with locals, including Ryan Mandelbaum and Doug, we were treated to crippling views as the bird fed low over the water. I’ve zero experience with Caribbean or Cuban Martin, but compared to Purple Martin, it was clear this was a smallish progne martin with a dusky brown head, blue-black ear-covert patch and a contrasting whitish belly. The tail was rather narrowly forked, and overall the bird often looked more like a big swallow than a Purple-type martin.

The following day, I revisited the lake, and the bird was still present, but views were rather poor. I met up with Tom Johnson, Doug Gochfeld and Jay McGowan, and we discussed the bird. Tom had seen Caribbean and remarked he got a larger, more robust feel for that species rather than the smaller, slighter gestalt of the Brooklyn bird. Talk had turned to include Gray-breasted Martin, a form we all had seen in Central/South America, but as normal on such trips, I rarely spend much time studying them. They also vary across their geographical distribution adding to the identification issue. The small size and rather narrow tail fork seemed to be the features making Doug and others lean more into Gray-breasted Martin, an identification that is tentative, based on the limited info and inherent issues in progne martin identification.

Below are some composite shots of the bird taken on the 2nd April 2021. (CLICK FOR HI-RES IMAGES)

A small slim martin, with brown-washed head, dark auricular patch and a paler throat contrasting with a whitish belly and vent. Narrow tail fork and brown-washed flanks noticeable.
Upperparts with bluish washed mantle and median covert and upper rump, contrasting with brownish remiges and rectrices gave it a somewhat Barn Swallow feel.

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