Gray-breasted Martin flying over Ruddy Ducks, photo by Alex Lamoreaux

*Apparent* Gray-breasted Martin in NYC!

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Apr 4, 2021 | by Alex Lamoreaux

On April 1st Doug Gochfeld discovered an immature female Progne martin species flying around Prospect Lake in Brooklyn, New York City. In short, the small size and overall appearance suggests a Gray-breasted Martin over the expected Purple Martin. Cuban or Caribbean Martin are also options, however plumage and size details lean toward Gray-breasted. This would be the 3rd ABA record, if confirmed! There are at least two previous specimen records from southern Texas. Lauren and I got word of this sighting early on April 2nd and shot over to Brooklyn as fast as we could. Lucky for us, we have just moved to Paterson, NJ and so we were only 50 minutes away! After two rounds of frustratingly brief and distant observations, the martin eventually settled in to the SW cove of the lake and really showed off with point-blank views as it cycled around over and over, staying low to the water. It did not associate with any other swallows. We never saw it perched. We did hear it briefly call in response to a flyover Accipiter. The call was a harsh, gurgling rattle.

Immediate impression naked-eye and at a distance was that this was a small martin (hardly larger than surrounding Tree Swallows) and starkly black-and-white in appearance. It did not give the large, thick impression of Purple Martin at all; even the flight style was more reminiscent of a swallow. Closer views or when in better lighting showed it was brownish-black with a faint navy-blue sheen to the center of back, rump, and lesser coverts. This blue coloration was reminiscent of a female type Barn Swallow. It has broad, brownish flanks with a defined white belly and white undertail coverts. There is no streaking on the breast/belly and the undertail coverts are very clean white aside from pencil-thin streaks along the feather shafts. The tail fork is shallow, and the outer tail feathers are blunt and rounded; not sickle-shaped. The collar is brownish, not light-gray as in Purple Martin. The throat is light gray. There are thick buffy tips to the lesser and great underwing coverts (retained juvenile feathers). The short, rounded outer tail feathers and retained juvenile underwing coverts suggest an immature (second-year) female.

Martin ID is very difficult and confusing, but things are coming together to suggest this bird does fit best for an immature female Gray-breasted Martin due to the smaller size; brown collar; white belly and clean white undertail coverts; shorter tail and shallow tail fork; and broadly brownish flanks. It is clearly wrong for Purple Martin. Most female/immature Cuban Martins seem to show much more grayish smudging in the undertail coverts and don’t have such stark-white bellies. Compared to Caribbean Martin, this bird’s particularly small size seems in favor of Gray-breasted. In size, Cuban/Caribbean Martins are larger and much more comparable to Purple Martin.

This remarkable bird, whatever species it turns out to be, is a major ABA rarity and incredible find by Doug. The bird continues at Prospect Park as of April 4th. The martin roams the entire lake, but seems to prefer the SW corner of the lake. Updates can be found on the New York listserve.

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