It’s no surprise that COVID was the catalyst for a dramatic spike in one of the few solo activities at our disposal: Birding. It takes one of the “socially distanced” habits most innate to us —walking— and adds an element of challenge and entertainment. It doesn’t hurt that birding, as confirmed by research, helps reduce anxiety and depression. We all needed a mood booster during a time when the consumption of Tiger King, a story of a depraved man and his victims told with some pizazz, became the nation’s anesthetic of choice.
Beyond the pursuits of memory, birding is at core an art of observation. Perhaps the purest form of observation since, unlike being a socially awkward wallflower at your first post-vaccination party, you’re observing sans the burden of expectations on your own behavior. In fact, the less noise coming out of you, the more mannequin-still you are, the better. The task at hand is to hone in on two of your main senses: Hearing and Sight.
That’s also what brings me to my favorite aspect of birding: The accessibility. All you need is eyes or ears. Although you’d be inclined to think that purchasing binoculars is a prerequisite, and a viable financial barrier to entry, many avid birders can identify species using auditory identification alone. And although accessibility to greenspace doesn’t hurt, you’ll still find scattered species in the urban jungle, away from parks.
I’ve spent most of my time as a “Second-Hand Birder”, if you will. Of my friends who bird, one lives near Central Park and the other near Prospect Park, so I’ve had minimal exposure to birding in my own neighborhood here in Greenpoint. As I looked up birding opportunities in the neighborhood, I came upon Heather Wolf (@brooklybridgebirds), a North Brooklyn resident who hosts birding walks, occasionally offers an online course through Brooklyn Brainery, and has even published a book focused on species found at the Brooklyn waterfront.
Apart from the catbird that pesters me while taking calls in my yard, or the white throated sparrow whose song offers a respite from said catbird’s screeches, the only other bird that’s gotten much of my attention in Greenpoint is, you guessed it, our beloved McCarren Park Hawk. After speaking with Heather, I learned a bit about local birding within eye’s reach.
Heather, who works at Cornell Ornithology in the Center for Avian Population Studies, mentioned that she recently learned via their app, eBird, that the birding community has identified 130 species in McCarren Park and 79 species in McGolrick. These aren’t shabby numbers for two areas which, unlike Central Park and Prospect Park, are not heavily birded. The eBird app is a great resource for birders to take a peek at species which have already been spotted on a given day, before heading to the park, and document their bird sightings while at the park. It’s also for the greater good of research: Data scientists at Cornell’s lab use the information shared by the birding community to model migration patterns of birds and combine it with NASA satellite imagery for habitat and migratory information. Even cooler, this information is used for the website BirdCast.info, which goes live during migration seasons and shows the three day forecast for birds along with a heatmap of their migration.
If you’d like to give the bigger players like Central and Prospect Park a break, or start birding for the first time in your own neighborhood, Heather suggests McCarren, McGolrick, and Bushwick inlet parks. One great thing about birding in Greenpoint is that there’s also waterfront, so you’ll see water birds as well. Many birds also opt for smaller parks, or “pocket parks”, as there is less competition for food and nesting space during migration, as compared to larger parks. If you’re in the mood to travel, the Central Park Ramble is an especially optimal spot for sightings during migration, especially since they use bird feeders.
As a beginner myself, I learned some interesting information from Heather. Among some of the most memorable were the following:
- You can refer to the place you bird most regularly as your “patch”. For example, Heather’s patch, and where she leads her tours, is Brooklyn Bridge Park.
- Try to avoid birding between 11a.m. and 1 p.m., since that is peak heat of the day, when birds are least active.
- The best time to bird is mornings before 11 a.m. and after 3-4 p.m. Birds are especially active before the sun goes down, as that is the last time they will eat for the day.
- Migrations occur in Spring and Fall. Spring migration is generally short, starting slowly in March and coming to a peak in early May, then closing in July. November is the best month for rare bird sightings, as juvenile birds often get lost and show up in places where they typically wouldn’t. Fall migration is also longer, but one downside is that the male birds are not wearing their breeding plumage, and thus won’t be as bright and colorful. Another disadvantage is that males don’t usually sing in the fall because they are no longer trying to attract a mate or defend their nesting territory, and this decrease in vocalness makes finding birds more challenging.
- A great and affordable introduction binocular is the Bushnell Falcon 7x35mm
- YouTube is a great resource to learn bird calls
- Merlin Bird ID is a great app with a Sound Identification feature and photo ID. You can use it to listen to birds and identify what calls you’re hearing. The Song Sleuth app is another option.
Birding, beneficial as it may be for the individual, also ultimately ladders into larger conservation efforts, even if unintentionally. The effects of climate change and habitat conservation are manifested by the data birders enter into apps, such as eBird, so please document what you can when birding in our neighborhood.