When we think about our neighbors here in Brooklyn, we tend to think of the stoop sitters, domino players, and bodega owners. But there are large populations of other smaller species that live among us as well, perhaps none more vibrantly than that of the bird population. Brooklyn happens to be located on the Atlantic Flyway which brings hundreds of species to rest here seasonally, but it also has a growing local community thanks in part to efforts to re-green the city. We sat down with friend expert city bird identifier and friend of Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, Heather Wolf, to ask her some basics about birdwatching in the city.
Q: How did you get started with birdwatching?
In 2010, I was living on Pensacola Beach, a barrier island in Florida, and was surrounded by birds, sea turtles, manta rays, and other fascinating wildlife. One day while taking a walk along a paved path through lunar-like sand dunes, a bird started to yelp loudly and dive-bomb me. My walk turned into a run and I escaped, eager to find out more about this bird. I learned it was a Least Tern protecting its “nest,” a mere scrape in the sand that’s highly vulnerable to predators, sunlight, and people walking by. Intrigued by the beauty and behaviors of birds, and their perseverance through many struggles, I joined the local Audubon chapter and have been birding ever since.
Q: Are there unique challenges or opportunities to birding in a city?
Urban birding offers close-up views and encounters that can be more difficult to come by in rural areas and larger habitats. Birds forage in trees and shrubs along our parks’ walking paths and neighborhood blocks, giving us easy access to observe them. Spring and fall migration is especially great in NYC because birds migrating through need a place to rest and refuel along the way. Many land here early in the morning after migrating at night and can be found with just a little effort as they forage throughout the day.
As far as challenges, there is the fact that city green spaces often become crowded, especially on weekends and during summer. This is a good case for birding in the early morning, but I still feel there is plenty to see even in crowded parks. I tell the story in my book of how I heard the buzzing of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird’s wings one summer day in a super-crowded Brooklyn Bridge Park. That’s the only photo I have of a hummingbird in the city!
Q: What kind of birds can a beginning birdwatcher expect to find? What can you expect them to be doing?
In Brooklyn and New York City, the three most common sightings are the Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow and European Starling. These are the birds you see every day and they are not shy about approaching you. Once you start birding, you will become more aware of the bird life around you and start to notice many other species. I’ve spotted 164 species in my patch so far! And over 350 species have been recorded in Kings County alone.
Some of the more common species you can see year-round are:
– Northern Mockingbirds that sing assertively with varied sounds. They imitate other birds’ songs and even car alarms and whistles.
– Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays often perch high in trees along our city streets, vocalizing. Their calls are easy to learn and remember especially if you watch the bird as it makes the sound. You can watch videos of these birds singing at the macaulay library website or on YouTube.
– American Robins forage on lawns and in dirt for earthworms in spring and summer. They switch to feeding on berries in winter. They are a common nesting species in our area.
– Red-tailed Hawks are often seen soaring in our city skies and often perch on buildings.
– Mourning Doves can be found roosting in trees or among leaf litter in parks, or sometimes just walking around on the sidewalk. They often nest on or around building air conditioners. - White-throated Sparrows are here most of the year (except in summer) and have a beautiful, melodic, song. They hop in leaf litter to forage for seeds and insects.
– Common Yellowthroats are small warblers and the male has a distinctive black mask. This can be the easiest migrant to see here, because it often forages low in shrubs. Follow its “wichety-wichety-wichety” call in spring to find it!
– Baltimore Orioles pass through and some even nest here. They pierce the base of flowers to drink nectar.
– Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are woodpeckers that creep up tree trunks (often oak) and drill holes to lick the sap. They also return later to eat insects that have stuck to the sap!
– Barn Swallows arrive here from South America in April/May and remain all summer to breed. They collect mud in their bills to use in constructing their cup nests, which they build on the undersides of man-made structures. In Brooklyn Bridge Park, they nest under the piers.
Q: What about identifying birds when you can’t see them? Are there any easy calls to learn for NYC birds or other ways to observe birds and their environment?
Yes, you can identify birds solely by sound, though when starting that may seem overwhelming. If you are up for learning some NYC bird sounds, try Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, White-throated Sparrow (my favorite), American Crow, and Fish Crow. You’ll be surprised how often you start hearing and recognizing these birds’ calls and songs from your window or as you walk around your neighborhood.
But you don’t have to recognize a bird by its call to have it help you; you can use bird songs and calls to lead you straight to the bird! When you hear an interesting melody, call, or other ruckus made by birds, follow the sound. I recall a class I led at Brooklyn Botanic Garden where we heard what sounded like many Common Grackles making strange sounds. We followed the noise and found about half a dozen grackles jumping on top of a Red-tailed Hawk that was eating a pigeon! (The grackles were likely trying to force the hawk to move away so they would not be its next victim.)
On another occasion, I was walking in Brooklyn Heights and heard a beautiful bird song I didn’t recognize. Once I found its source, I was laying my eyes upon a gorgeous male Chestnut-sided Warbler in its spring breeding plumage. It’s always worth checking out an interesting bird song or sound!
Q: What about timing. Is there a particular time of day or year that is best?
The best time of day varies by location and time of year, but I don’t feel it’s necessary to awake at the crack of dawn to see birds if you prefer to catch some extra zzz’s, especially in the city. Songbirds are generally most active in the morning and before sunset, and less active midday. But during the winter you can observe ducks, loons, cormorants, and even native sparrows all day.
Spring and fall migration are the best times of year to see the most species. This is when neo-tropical migrants are arriving from or returning to wintering locations in
Central & South America, the Caribbean or the Southern U.S. Spring migration happens March-May, peaking the 2nd week in May. Fall migration starts as early as July and lasts through November, peaking in late September and early October. Spring migration is shorter because birds are in a hurry to get to their nesting sites and stake out their territory; in fall they can take their time heading back south. Summer is a great time to bird as well, because you can observe species that breed here constructing nests, courting and mating, and feeding and raising their young. Gray Catbirds, Barn Swallows, Baltimore Orioles, and Black-crowned Night-Herons are just a few of the species that nest in NYC.
Q: Prospect Park is a very well-known hub for birding, where are some good places to see birds along the coast of Brooklyn?
There are some great places to bird along Brooklyn’s waterfront. Brooklyn Bridge Park, right on the Brooklyn Greenway, is my “patch” where I bird regularly. It has a wide variety of native habitats that attract migrating warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows, and more in spring and fall. It’s great in winter as well, with diving ducks and loons, Yellow-rumped Warblers and native sparrows. We even had a rare Painted Bunting this past winter that fed on switchgrass seeds for 2 months!
Though much smaller, Naval Cemetery Landscape is a great spot as well. American Kestrels and Red-tailed Hawks often perch on the tall posts surrounding this space to hunt for prey. Each walk around the boardwalk can turn up new surprises in this gem of a “pocket park.” When visiting, be sure to keep an eye overhead for passing flocks and/or birds hunting on the wing such as Chimney Swifts which are here during summer.
Another great spot on the Greenway is Erie Basin Park at IKEA in Red Hook. It’s especially good in winter for diving ducks like Red-breasted Mergansers and Buffleheads. We even had a Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Belted Kingfisher there during a recent Christmas Bird Count. Barn Swallows and Black-crowned Night-Herons are often seen there in summer.
Close to IKEA is the Van Brunt Pier, a great place to see Common Terns in summer and ducks in winter. One of my fondest Brooklyn birding memories was seeing a Black Skimmer at sunset skimming in the water right next to that pier.
Other Brooklyn Waterfront birding hotspots include Bush Terminal Piers Park, Dreier-Offerman Park, and Salt Marsh Nature Center. The birds you can find in these spots depend on the habitats they contain.
Really anytime you are near the Brooklyn waterfront or waiting for a ferry, there are birds to see. Gulls, dabbling ducks, and cormorants are possible year-round, with diving ducks and loons more likely in winter. Red-tailed Hawks and Peregrine Falcons are also often seen flying over waterfront neighborhoods. Once you start looking, you will start to notice birds wherever you are, and you’ll be more likely to witness the many fascinating behaviors of birds, like courtship and nesting, territorial defense, and more.
Q: What sort of tools do you need to get started?
Binoculars and a field guide are all you need to get started. Don’t worry, there are very affordable binocular options out there! It’s important to choose a binocular with the right specifications for birding, generally 8x42mm or 10x42mm, or 7x35mm. I recommend the Bushnell Falcons 7X35mm as a great affordable option. They can usually be found for less than $40! If you are thinking of getting a more expensive pair, it’s best to try them out and make sure they are comfortable and provide a good view for you.
As for field guides, I recommend the guide I started with, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, or one of the Peterson’s Field Guides. To help you identify birds, you’ll also want to download the free Merlin Bird ID app for iOS and Android from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Q: I know that you have played a large role in the development of the online database for bird observations, eBird. Would you recommend a new birder to record the birds they’ve seen in some way or should they focus on the experience of watching?
Great question! I think recording sightings is very enjoyable, but it’s not something everyone likes to do, especially when starting out. I would say it’s always good to focus on watching birds, and then start documenting them when you feel the time is right. A good way to increase your birding skills is to keep a field notebook and write down the shape, behavior, colors, habitat of birds you see, whether you know what species they are or not. This also allows you to document your sightings privately, and you can always add those to eBird or share with interested parties at a later date.
If you do formally document your sightings on eBird, you will be contributing to citizen science and have a positive impact on conservation of birds and their habitats. Our data scientists at eBird use your sightings to generate models of bird distribution and to identify important migration stopover sites, breeding areas, and migration routes.
Q: What is something that individuals can do to contribute to the health of the bird population?
Window collisions are a big problem for migrating birds in cities because they cannot tell the difference between a reflection of a tree, sky or cloud vs. the real thing. You can help with this by addressing any bird collision issues on your building with anti-collision decals or hangings, and by supporting efforts to promote the use of bird-safe buildings and glass. Contributing sightings to eBird is a great way to help conserve birds and their habitats; eBird data is freely available to all, including researchers, scientists, and conservationists that use it to advance conservation initiatives on large and small scales.
Recycling, reusing, and avoiding plastics (especially single-use plastics), reduces the negative effects these can have on birds and other wildlife. When fishing, be sure to remove the line and hook before throwing any fish back. This winter, there were several Red-throated Loons along the waterfront with their bills entangled in line after diving for a fish. Luckily, one was rescued by the Wild Bird Fund with the help of NYPD Special Ops.
Heather Wolf is the author of Birding at the Bridge, where she identifies and shares her beautiful photography of 130 species spotted in Brooklyn Bridge Park. To see more of her bird photography you can visit her blog.