Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

City Birding

Most city people are not birders. They run from one place to another, ear buds providing a soundtrack to their world. If they notice them, "birds" are sparrows and pigeons. That the sparrows might be song sparrows or white-throated sparrows and the pigeons mourning doves is lost on them. They are just birds you barely notice.
High Line (R.E. Berg-Andersson)

I grew up in New York, and until I moved to New Jersey and was given a feeder as a housewarming present I didn't notice the birds either.

I've learned that if you unplug, you will find birds. The key is to be alert and be in an area where there aren't a lot of people. That can be hard in many urban areas.

Until a few years ago I was commuting by train to jobs in Jersey City and midtown Manhattan. The train took me through New Jersey's Meadowlands -- once a dumping ground but now a marvel of shorebirds, ducks and the occasional hawk -- and Hoboken, on the west side of the Hudson River where in its harbor the cormorants would mass before heading south and the ruddy ducks would spend the winter.

Jersey City hadn't filled in all its open space when I worked there. The vacant, weedy lots drew parula, goldfinch and winter wren. The waterfront drew mergansers and ducks. Around the time my company moved a light rail line was completed and the vacant lots were being converted into large apartment buildings. A good hunk of one of my favorite birding spots was turned into a dog park. The birds were harder to find.

Gansevoort end (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
I guess this is the challenge of urban birding. The more people you have, the fewer birds you will find unless you are in an area of many trees. Central Park is where MH and I usually go when we want to see birds, especially in migration. That huge, green space in the middle of the concrete jungle is big enough to accommodate tired, hungry birds as well as people.

I've been working for over two years from my home in the New Jersey suburbs so going to New York City is more of a special occasion now. On this particular trip we decided to visit the High Line, the linear park that runs from Gansevoort Street to the south to 30th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues) to the north (for now; the line is being extended to the north and west).

The High Line is the former freight line built in 1933 to connect the old Penn Yards at 30th with the St. John's terminal on Clarkson St. and literally raise train traffic off the streets. New York was a city of elevated trains -- there were elevated lines on Third and Second avenues (it has taken generations but a Second Ave. subway is being built) and there is are still elevated "subway" lines in Brooklyn and Queens -- so this west side line just added to the noise.

Trains ran until 1980 and for the next 19 years the line stood silent, a home for wildflowers and birds. In 1999 a group was formed to protect and renovate the line into a lineal park rather than tear it down.

MH and I found the lower part of the line (it does not run to Clarkson St. but farther north at Ganesvoort, around which is the old meatpacking area, now very trendy, chic and expensive and a historic district) more interesting, in part because it incorporates the old Nabisco factory, now the "Chelsea market," an urban food court similar to Boston's Faneuil Hall. Farther north the line narrows while Manhattan island widens and you lose sight of the Hudson River.

We started at the northern end, and after a few blocks we detoured to the river, which was far more interesting and where we found a flock of herring gulls aloft, reminding me of growing up along the southern coast of Brooklyn where the resident gulls were herrings.

It is nice that city officials have realized the importance of connecting people with waterfronts. They provide space and light. This was the "beach" area for the city dwellers we passed sunning themselves as we looked at the piers with open restaurants and the old piers where the railroad companies -- Pennsylvania, Erie, Lehigh Valley -- would bring their goods from New Jersey by barge across the Hudson.
(R.E. Berg-Andersson)

Back on the High Line, we felt as tho' we were in a human highway, there were so many people in the sunshine. But around us, buildings are going up. Luxury buildings where once were warehouses and factories. I wonder -- if enough of these buildings go up will they blot out the sun from the ornamental grasses, coneflowers, sedums and other flowers (which I have in my yard)?

This "park," this tourist walkway, this elevated sidewalk, seems a poor excuse for "nature" when I compare it to my backyard. Would there be more birds than the barn swallow I saw around if there had been fewer people?

The barn swallow and the herring gulls were the best birds I saw. But sometimes you can see something common from an unusual perspective.

At Chelsea Market we were resting in the shade when I pointed out to MH a female house sparrow that had flown to the open part of  a pole holding street signs. Young were calling and she was feeding them. When done she flew off. Soon her mate came up and he fed the young. I have seen this many times in my travels, but not from above. 

When my mother was sick towards the end, she said she enjoyed hearing the birds "sing" in the open space that was created when the old air conditioner was removed from the bedroom wall and a smaller one put in. The birds she heard were house sparrows, which will make a nest in human-created cavities.

House sparrows don't sing - they aren't even really sparrows but weaver birds that stowed away on ships from Europe centuries ago -- but their cheeping cheered her.

What a pity the common house sparrow may be the best bird the people who will move to the luxury residences going up around this "park" will see, presuming they even notice.

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