Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Urban Birding

I spent a lot of years working in New York City. Most of my time was spent either in an office or rushing to or from it, particularly to catch transportation home.

But the nice thing about birding is you can always find something anywhere, even in the middle of the concrete jungle.

It is definitely a change of pace for MH and me when we decide to go to The City from our little New Jersey town. For one thing, people move faster. For another, there are more of them shoving into you.

White-throated sparrow
Even big places like Central Park can sometimes feel too crowded, particularly during a nice day when there are tour groups coming through or visitors enjoying a big swath of green in the midst of the city or gathering around the "Imagine" mosaic near the W. 72 Street entrance, remembering John Lennon. Dogwalkers are there, of course, sunbathers in season and, yes, birders. Alot of birders, alone and in flocks of various sizes.
But while Central Park is more famous, just about any place where there is some shrubbery can produce something interesting beyond a pigeon, even  a more common visitor such as the white-throated sparrow and its cousin the junco.

When I worked in New York I would usually go to Bryant Park at W. 40th-44th streets, especially after reading a report of an unusual visitor. Considering how often the lawn is torn up for an ice rink (winter) or concert stage (summer) and the thick crowds that pass through or sit and eat there every day, it is amazing I've found as much as I have in the shrubbery and the huge London plane trees that border the lawn.

Here are other ways urban birding is different.

When I go to the city I have to be careful what I carry, and I don't just mean money or important papers. I refuse to drive on midtown streets so that means carrying no extra boots or walking stick or Sibley guide to help me identify anything. I don't even take my big binoculars unless I have my backpack. I have small ones I can pocket.

Concrete sidewalks and blacktopped streets are harder on the feet, knees and lower back than grass or cindered trails. There’s the noise of traffic, including the incessant sirens, and people talking to each other or on their phones in a Babel of languages.

While you can go slow, look around, listen for a call and hope to be lucky, there are additional rules: Watch out for the traffic and keep one eye on your surroundings so you don’t get your pocket picked.

A male wood duck (top) with mallards at Central Park's pond.
If you can get past that, it’s always a treat to find something unusual in an urban area at the wrong time of year.

One Saturday last year as we were walking through Herald Square – a concrete triangle in midtown Manhattan filled with tables and chairs and some greenery along the edges -- MH and I found four catbirds. This was winter. Catbirds don't usually hang around this area in winter. When I would walk through here every day on the way to my old job I might see one or two. Yet, here were four, and they were quite bold, running or flying around after the crumbs dropped by the visitors, fighting bill and wing with the house sparrows, pigeons and white-throated sparrows.

Those crumbs were keeping the catbirds and the rest of the birds alive.

Union Square is another busy New York park, with a farmers market, benches, people, dogs and, as it turned out, birds. Sparrows and white-throats, of course, but last year I went there with MH after a day of wandering to look for a reported yellow-breasted chat, the largest of the warblers and a bird that should’ve been far south of where I stood.

As it got darker, I heard sparrows chirping from a holly and started looking for the larger and yellower chat. Instead, if found a yellow-bellied sapsucker roosting on a low branch. Then, despite the traffic, I heard the “laugh” of a flicker. Then, as sparrows flew up to the holly, so did the chat.

Prothonotary warbler, found in the front
garden of the New York Public Library
on Fifth Ave., not far from Bryant Park.
This happened last winter, a milder one than this year's has turned out to be. This year I haven't felt much of a desire to go into New York and bird the usual places or, when we were going to New York to meet people for supper, the weather was so dicey we just came in, dined and left.

This Saturday we will be going to a daytime party in Brooklyn. If the weather holds, we will go into lower Manhattan, perhaps by walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, and wander around. I doubt we'll get to Central Park but I know we'll be in City Hall park.

I don't doubt that somewhere, where I least expect it, I'll find something wonderful in this urban wasteland.

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