A Joyous Meditation: Surveying Birds at the NCL

A Year of Birds at NCL: One Small Space, Many Bird Benefits

Guest Author: Loyan Beausoleil

A small bird with a yellow chest perches on a wooden wall in front of golden fall foliage.
Photo by Anna Bakis / BGI

I didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to explore the birds of the Naval Cemetery Landscape (NCL). As I made my way to the NCL I walked through a variety of expected urban areas: residential, industrial, gritty in places, gentrifying in others, and overall very built. I wasn’t prepared for the beautiful shock of meadow nestled in the Brooklyn Navy Yard adjacent to a highway. 

I work with an environmental organization, Washington Square Park Eco Projects, and had been asked to complete a yearlong bird survey of the NCL in an effort to provide a better understanding of the birds that used the space. This task became an opportunity to experience a hidden gem and learn how a small space can provide benefits to a variety of bird species.

The survey protocol included standing on the large stones in the center of the meadow and walking the boardwalk in search of avian activity, and very quickly what began as research turned into a joyful meditation. Standing on the stones made it seem that I was part of the meadow. I could see birds moving all around the edges, dropping down into the meadow to pluck seeds from native grasses and flowers, sometimes in large groups, then flying back to treetops to safely watch and determine when to go back down for another snack. All the while it felt like New York City had disappeared as I was surrounded by the sounds and sights of birds and swaying grasses. If this hadn’t been a research protocol I might have sat or laid down on the stones to disappear into the meadow even more.

A small bird with a yellow chest perches on a wooden wall in front of golden fall foliage.
Photo by Remy Schwartz / BGI

The year-long survey took place from June 2020-May 2021. Implications from the pandemic limited my number of visits to the NCL, but with 13 survey records documenting 37 species, I had enough information to provide a snapshot of what’s going on with the birds at the NCL, and what I found was pretty awesome! 

The first big takeaway is that finch species love this place! It’s no surprise that seed eaters such as American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, and House Finch would forage in the NCL. The meadow, with it’s grasses and flowers, which are left to go to seed, provides a smorgasbord of food for these birds, and the survey data demonstrates that American Goldfinch is the most abundant bird at the NCL! 

A second finding is that a variety of native sparrows also love the landscape. Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow were seen, likely attracted to the amount of high-quality food. 

A small grey bird perches on a twig
Photo by Gregory Topscher / BGI

The third finding is that the NCL is a place where people can see Chimney Swifts flying low over the meadow during spring and summer. This is a wonderful thing;  as Chimney Swifts are a vulnerable species and can be hard to see. The NCL provides a perfect opportunity for the public to experience these remarkable creatures up close.

Finally, the NCL provides breeding habitat for at least eight species, including two which are much- loved species: American Robin and Northern Cardinal both nest at the NCL!  Northern Mockingbirds and Gray Catbirds likely nest there too, and this is a fun place to be in the late spring and early summer when you can watch parent birds busily attending to their kids.

A brown and rust-colored bird perches on a green cedar branch
Photo by Gregory Topscher / BGI

What does this research mean for visitors to the Naval Cemetery Landscape? This means you can go there and experience the fall migration, which is happening now. The NCL, with its small size, is a wonderful place to see fall migrants up close!

When you visit the NCL this fall, be on the lookout for finch species. American Goldfinch and House Finch will probably be busy foraging in the meadow and at treetops, fattening up for the winter. If you’re patient and lucky you might even see a Pine Siskin, a streaky finch, with a sharp pointed bill and yellow in the wings. They are excellent at camouflage – so be on the lookout. 

A black-and-yellow striped bird perches in low greenery
Photo by Gregory Topscher / BGI

Take the opportunity to look closely at sparrows, which are also abundant at the NCL in the fall. Consider if that beautiful little, brown bird is just a house sparrow or a native species. Sparrow species can be hard to identify and they like to go down in the grasses – so take a closer look, because there are a lot of different sparrows at the NCL. 

Golden-crowned Kinglets delight NCL visitors with their antics as they busily forage for fall food. You will know when you see one. They are the cutest, tiniest bird you will find at the NCL. They look like they have a bright yellow mohawk and they can sometimes be seen right out in the open, foraging on the boardwalk.  

Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse will be coming to the NCL soon. Watch for them this winter, beginning in November.

And lastly – resident Blue Jays, Northern Mockingbirds and Carolina Wrens will be busy defending their territory from all of those migrating birds. They will loudly let avian and human visitors know that NCL is their home and their territory, as they call out in bird language, to you and everyone else, “Enjoy your fall visit to the NCL!”

A bright blue and white bird with a grey chest and black beak perches on bare branches
Photo by Gregory Topscher / BGI

Interested in the full report? Explore the details here: Avian Activity at the Naval Cemetery Landscape

About the Author:

Loyan Beausoleil is a formal educator in NYC and the Bird Program Manager for Washington Square Park Eco Projects. Her interest in birds overlaps with a background in art and science education, and has inspired the development of early childhood bird curriculum, community science and conservation actions, and educational workshops as ways to share her passion with others.  She is completing an advanced degree in Biology with a focus on avian survey methods and Chimney Swift conservation. Loyan is interested in how education, biology and art intersect to provide people with greater access to nature, shared outdoor experiences and opportunities for local engagement through stewardship and conservation. She leads community bird finding events for Washington Square Park Eco Projects, The Inwood Hill Parks Conservancy, The Lower East Side Ecology Center, and at Governor’s Island.

About the NCL:

The Naval Cemetery Landscape, developed by BGI and opened to the public in 2016, is an award-winning 1.7-acre contemplative memorial landscape and pollinator habitat. The NCL was designed to provide local residents and other visitors with a respite from the stresses of urban life while adding vital open space and native plant habitat to a park-starved area of Brooklyn.

About Brooklyn Greenway Initiative:

Brooklyn Greenway Initiative (BGI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to the development, establishment and long-term stewardship of the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway – a 26-mile protected and landscaped route for pedestrians and cyclists of all ages and abilities that, when complete, will connect Brooklyn’s storied and iconic waterfront, parks and open space, commercial and cultural corridors, and new tech and innovation hubs for 2.65 million Brooklyn residents, over 1.1 million people who work in Brooklyn, and more than 15 million annual visitors from across the City and around the world.

For more information:

NCL Instagram

BGI website


Greg Topscher – NCL Manager : gtopscher@brooklyngreenway.org

Elizagrace Madrone – Development & Communications Manager : emadrone@brooklyngreenway.org