When I think of New York’s flora and fauna, I usually just think of pigeons, rats, and cockroaches––not exactly a thrilling set of exotic animals. Of course, I know that there’s a bit more happening than that, like the hawks in Washington Square Park or the coyotes that occasionally wander through the Bronx (yes, really). But it was still a surprise when I learned from a friend that you could birdwatch in New York.
At first, I definitely scoffed. I’d believe you if you were just counting pigeons, but I had a hard time imagining that you could find a real diversity of species in the concrete jungle. However, after accompanying Ivy on a few walks, I have to admit, I’ll eat crow (pun!). Ivy makes a good guide, being a writer for the Audubon Society, occasional bird-rescuer for the Wild Bird Fund, and owner of an impressive collection of bird-related merch. She taught me that you can find a pretty impressive number of birds in the parks of New York, and I will freely admit that I’ve become much more invested in birdwatching than I would have ever expected.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we took a subway ride up to Central Park to bird (it’s a verb in “birding” circles). Here’s what I packed, though Al decided to stay home:
I’ve only ever gone birding in New York, so I assume it requires a bit more packing elsewhere where it's more like going hiking. My binoculars are my only dedicated birding equipment––other birders take journals to record their sightings or DSLR cameras among other equipment. This was my first time using these "bins", which are a vintage pair that belonged to my mother. Ivy brought a book for bird identification, and we were good to go.
We took the subway up to the Natural History Museum, where there's some great mosaics of animals. Public transit can feel a bit worrying right now, but my encounters with unmasked people in the subway have been very rare. Seeing a mosaic of an owl was especially apt, since we weren’t just looking for any birds. A few weeks before this birding trip, a barred owl moved into the park by 103rd Street. Now, a Great Horned Owl had landed in the Ramble, a woodsy area of the park near the Great Lawn. We’d already seen the Barred Owl, named Barry, soon after his arrival––now we wanted to see the Great Horned.
Fall is prime time for birdwatching because migrating species that typically aren’t seen in New York are passing through from their summer to winter homes, like many warblers and songbirds. These species of owl aren’t big migrators, so it’s unclear what exactly prompted their move to Central Park. However, because Central Park, like many New York Parks, works like an oasis of greenery for birds compared to the rest of the city, they tend to collect in high density in these areas.
Last time it took about an hour and a half in the rain to find Barry’s hiding spot, which is only a moderate amount of time. A birding walk can be an all-day event, once you build up the concentration. But this time, when we weren't even looking for him, he showed up right by our path, visible less than ten minutes after we'd entered the park. He’d traveled about a mile south from his previous spot, probably because some other birds (likely blue jays) had flushed him out. I remain surprised by the number of curious birders in New York. If you’re ever on a walk in a park, look for binoculars slung around necks. Those folks are probably birders.
Spotting a “famous” bird, like Barry or the (as yet unnamed) Great Horned, is a very different experience from my other birdwatching trips. To find Barry the first time, we had used Twitter (pun! Sort of) to check where others had seen him, then searched for a group of birders looking up. It’s probably an uncommon birding experience outside of New York or another large city where a single bird can become famous, but it’s no less valid, nor is it less fun. In the city, birding is surprisingly social, and can lead to far more interactions with strangers than a simple walk in the park. However, this differs a lot from looking for smaller songbirds, or trying to locate a hawk in a tree alone. Seeing Barry is a bit like going to a famous landmark building like the Empire State; spotting a thrush or a parula is like noticing a cute house while on a walk in a neighborhood.
The park was pretty lively, probably because it was a surprisingly warm day for late November, and we saw a few musical groups performing on our walk to Belvedere Castle. The building is only styled like a castle but really houses a weather station, and overlooks the Great Lawn and Delacorte Theater. However, Ivy was hunting for waterfowl in Turtle Pond, where she spied a Shoveler Duck. You’ll just have to trust us that that’s what that little speck is.
If I’m being frank––and this may get my New Yorker card taken away––the Ramble still confuses the heck out of me. The trees are too dense to get my bearings by the skyline, and I get turned around very easily. But that’s part of what makes it so good for birdwatching. The density and hilliness resembles an actual woodland area much better than most other parts of the park, and so attracts more birds. It took a bit of wandering, Twitter coordination, and map-checking to find the Evodia Field where our Great Horned friend was staying, but it was still quite fast. In under an hour we found a ring of fascinated birdwatchers gazing up at him.
The trouble with photographing birds is that generally, animals tend to avoid being seen, and birds can do that easily by flying away. You might think that a nocturnal bird like an owl is easier to photograph because they're sleeping when we spot them, but they pick roosts that are very inconvenient for visibility. Even in the slightly better photo, taken using Ivy’s binoculars, the owl looks basically like a blob of gray feathers. And even though I was there, it’s still hard for me to say exactly what the owl really looks like. Not pictured were the few precious moments when his head swiveled and, finally, his silhouette was clear.
The Evodia Fields are fairly well known for birders in the Ramble because the several bird feeders there attract a pretty rich variety of songbirds. We stepped away from the owl for a few moments and decided to check out the chickadees, nuthatches, and blackbirds snacking like crazy. Birds in New York are already pretty comfortable around humans––I’d noticed that on prior walks when warblers failed to scurry at the sound of our heavy footsteps. But this tufted titmouse landing on Ivy’s hand was a new level.
I’m not a big hobbyist, but it only took one or two trips birdwatching with Ivy before I was as eager to go as she was. She's a great, incredibly knowledgable teacher and her excitement is infectious, but the birds deserve credit as well. Watching them is a blend of meditation and competition, a hunt and a casual stroll.
Leaving my neighborhood and even just going outside have become real luxuries since the world's moved online. Birding takes me out of my house and into parks, walking and musing and wandering in search of birds. It’s kept me moving when it’s felt hard to move. So look forward to more birding tales soon!