A Brooklyn Bird Watcher
posted: July 27, 2009
I met with Rob outside the main entrance of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where he showed me some of his favorite spots for sighting the creatures that have opened up the world for him. (This is part of Overlooked New York, my series  of portraits and interviews with ardent New Yorkers about their joyous obsessions.)

"I didn’t really discover my love for birds until I moved to Brooklyn 20 years ago. I saw a red tail hawk in Prospect Park and was mesmerized and said, I’m going to have to get a pair of binoculars and a book to figure out what kind of a hawk that is. Then I started looking at the other birds, and then I started looking at the bugs that the birds were eating, and so the obsession began.

"What I love about hawks is that they're completely wild; it’s an odd juxtaposition to see a hawk sitting on top of a building in Brooklyn or chasing their food in a city park. It just shows us that as urbanized and man-made as these habitats are, we're still entrenched in nature. We just need to sometimes stop and look around a bit.

"I'm very involved with trying to preserve the Ridgewood Reservoir, which is this wonderful 50-acre wild site on the Brooklyn-Queens border. Even though I grew up a short distance from there in Queens, I had no idea that it existed. I was amazed that it was so untamed and yet it was in the middle of Brooklyn. We found more breeding birds there than I ever expected; in fact, the list of birds that we’ve observed there--not just breeding birds, but migrating birds that use it as a stopover--was, I think, 148 species, which is just a little bit less than the bird list that they have for Van Cortland Park. Van Cortland Park is like 1200 acres compared to Ridgewood Reservoir's 50 acres.

"My favorite bird to watch is the one that's in front of me at the moment. I really dig just even watching a house sparrow taking a dust bath in a dry section of dirt and Warblers, which are neo-tropic songbirds that are all really unique colors and songs and behaviors. And I don't mind pigeons; they're a good food source for the hawks. The way they get them is to land on top of them on the ground -- a good hawk will usually kill a pigeon the minute it sinks its talons into it.

"Most people think a hawk’s bill is sharp and nasty, but there is a wildlife rehabilitator who the city uses a lot when the hawks get injured. He works for the FDNY and he rehabilitated a couple of hawks that were down in Brooklyn and he called me one day and said, 'I’m going to be releasing them in Prospect Park and I thought maybe you’d want to be there and take some pictures'. So I thought, 'Yeah, this'll be great,' so I went along and he had them in little like animal carriers, and he took the first one out and he handed it to me and he said, 'Here, you want to release it?'

"I was petrified of the bill and he said, 'Oh no, the bill is fine, you just have to watch the feet.' And he showed me how to hold it around its legs. And then took his finger and lifted the bill up and showed me the inside of the hawk’s mouth and it didn’t try and bite him. He said, 'No, the bill isn't a problem with hawks, it’s he feet,' and you look and they’ve got these dagger-like talons.

"Did you ever get  a cat on its back and they decide to start going at you with their feet? That’s what  a hawk will do to you.

"When you start to look at birds, you begin to realize the interconnectedness of everything in nature: birds and insects and plants are all a part of the bigger picture and you can’t just pull birds out of it and expect that it won’t have an effect on everything else.

"There's this wonderful feeling of discovery when you go out looking for birds. You may go out saying, 'Oh, I want to go look for such and such a bird,' and then you’ll get out there and you’ll see something you’ve never noticed before and that will make you look at something else, and then something else, and then something else. With birding, it’s something new every day. And I love showing that to people, because as New Yorkers you know we tend to walk around with our eyes on the sidewalk and not really notice the world around us. We could be standing directly beneath a red tail hawk and not notice that it’s sitting up there eating a squirrel.