Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new book, Birding at the Bridge, compiles pictures of the borough’s winged residents.
Heather Wolf found herself flopped stomach-first on a patch of grass, crawling on her elbows to inch closer to a brown thrasher. She was indifferent to the panoramic view, across the water, of skyscrapers and the Brooklyn Bridge.
While many people visit Brooklyn Bridge Park for the sweeping views of Lower Manhattan and the busy waterway that crashes against it, Wolf’s sightseeing mission is on a much smaller scale. She stakes out the park’s avian residents alighting over basketball courts, snack shops, and bikes.
Returning to New York in 2012 after a few years in Florida, Wolf realized that her avian neighbors were astonishingly diverse. There were gulls cawing around the waterfront, sure, and pigeons—everywhere—but also warblers, egrets, and hundreds of other winged city dwellers to meet. She started to spot them around Brooklyn Bridge Park, now her go-to spot for bird-watching.
She’s compiled photos and observations into an informative field diary, Birding at the Bridge ($14.95, The Experiment). At the park, Wolf has documented 130 species of birds, from starlings to grackles to warblers. “How could this be happening in a park right below the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway?” she writes.
New York City is, perhaps surprisingly, a great place to look for birds. The metropolitan area lies along the Atlantic Flyway, a migration route winding from Greenland down the Atlantic Coast towards the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to these avian sub-letters, perching in the city to catch their breath, there are some colorful permanent residents. A colony of blue-and-green monk parrots roosts in the spires of Green-Wood Cemetery, a sprawling graveyard just a few miles from the park. Local mythology holds that they escaped from a shipping crate that arrived at JFK airport in the 1960s; another explanation is that locals, in concert or not, released birds they’d been keeping as pets.
Wolf realizes that she’s a bit fanatical about birds. Migration patterns sometimes dictate her vacation destinations—she once went up to Maine in pursuit of the Atlantic puffin, and detoured from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Saguaro Lake to track down some canyon wrens. Her hobby can be a consuming one. “I want to be out there all day, everyday,” she says. Still, there are plenty of ways to dip a toe into it. “There are so many levels of interest in birds,” Wolf says. “You don’t have to be obsessed or crazy to appreciate it.”
She recommends that novices start canvassing neighborhood pocket parks during July—the beginning of the fall migration season. Before setting out, Wolf recommends scrolling through eBird, a real-time inventory of birds spotted across the globe. A project of the Cornell Ornithology Lab, the crowd-sourced platform lets users zoom in on a region, or enter a specific location; Brooklyn Bridge Park has nearly 150 entries. Checking records of past sightings, Wolf says, can help you know what to look for. Local parks departments and audubon societies often coordinate guided walks, too.
Then, when you arrive, let calls prick your ears and guide your path. Head towards a trill or melody—“anything other than just a straight chirp,” Wolf says. “Chances are, it’s probably a pretty good bird.”
But pairing the song to a bird can be tricky, Wolf adds, especially at the height of summer, when bushy trees, heavy with branched-out leaves, can obscure any glimpses of wings. Instead of peering through a binocular lens—limiting your field of vision—Wolf recommends scanning with your naked eyes for any telltale trace of movement. Look for tree branches moving “more forcefully than wind, but not as forcefully as a squirrel,” Wolf says. Then, once you’ve zeroed in on a particular spot, slowly bring the binoculars to your eyes to magnify the view.
Birding, Wolf says, is transportive. Wolf uses a daily meditation app, and says that birding accomplishes the same thing—inviting an opportunity for mindfulness.
Lifting her eyes skyward offers a reprieve: a sense of hovering, for a moment, above the commotion. The intense focus hushes the distractions: muting the grating stimuli—sirens, horns, crowds—of city life. “Even if the helicopters are louder,” Wolf says, “I can still detect the bird songs.”
Birding at the Bridge, $14.95 at The Experiment.