NYC Bird Watcher
posted: September 28, 2009
Peter has been watching birds in New York City all his life, and despite being hearing-impaired his favorite bird is one known best for a song he’s never heard. (This is part of Overlooked New York, my series of portraits and interviews with ardent New Yorkers about their joyous obsessions.)

“When I was 14, I was looking out the back window of my house near the Brooklyn/Queens expressway, and I saw a brilliant red bird come down to the backyard. It was a Scarlet Tanager, as I later learned. I was mesmerized by the color of the bird. It got me interested and my mother got me a field guide and affordable binoculars, and I was hooked.

“Being hearing-impaired, I can’t hear most of the bird calls; I can only hear the low-pitched ones. I can hear a Cardinal, I can hear a Blue Jay, or a Carolina Wren, which are very loud song birds, but Warblers and Flycatchers are out of my range. I don’t hear the songs and the high-pitched calls. But I’m a Warbler person, even though I don’t hear them. They’re a spectacular genus of colorful bird.

“I discovered the Brooklyn Bird Club when I was 15 or 16, and now I’m its president. My role is not only to act as the steward of the club and to promote it, but also to act as a conservationist. We always have to be on the look-out for habitat preservation, so there’s somewhere for birds to live and to use on their migratory journeys. For 50 years, because of the encroachment of humans, bird numbers have declined considerably. If you go to a website I was just looking at this morning called State of the Birds, there’s a part put out by Fish and Wildlife discussing the issue of birds declining.

“Of course, there are natural factors in the decline of bird populations,  like weather changes, but that’s always been like that for millennia. What’s happening now, though, is our human hand in this decline, with things like cell towers, reflective glass, and air and light pollution. You’ve probably heard about how the Empire State Building might have an effect on migrating birds like a flame on moths. The birds fly around the building, perhaps confused by the lights and reflective glass, and they fly into the glass or get confused and tired and just drop to the ground and die.

“A bird is entirely dependent on the food and energy stored in its fat for its journey of thousands of miles. A bird like a Blackpoll Warbler that weighs about 15 grams, takes off from New York City and flies over the Atlantic Ocean without landing anywhere or stopping to eat or drink or rest on a 3,000 mile journey to Venezuela. And then it flies back here to breed.

“New York City is a great place to see migrating birds. Let’s start with the spring. Mid-March you start seeing the Sparrows, the Flycatchers and the hawks making their moves. And then in April the earliest Warblers start coming through with some other passerine type birds, Orioles, the Tanagers, and Egret and Herons. Then the peak is in May, when all these species are coming through. In the spring they’re all going from South to North.

“And then like May into June, the Shorebirds are coming through, like the Sandpipers. And then in July is the slow time of the year, because these birds are already on their breeding sites raising their young.

“Starting July and August, the Shorebirds start coming back, because they breed up in the northern shoreline of Canada, and then into September we get more of the grass, upland type Shorebirds, and Warblers, Song birds, Tanagers, Orioles, Flycatchers, the whole gamut. And then into October is the peak for the hawks; you see people going up to the hawk watches in late September and October. And then in November and December, the ducks come through. And they stay all winter.

“So migration occurs all year round. It’s going on every month, depending on what species is moving at that time.

“Me,  I prefer winter birding. It’s not as intense; during the migration time, there are too many birds. In the winter it’s a slower time, you have fewer people at the locations that you want to bird, so it’s a more enjoyable, peaceful time. But you get some really interesting birds: you get coastal-type birds, you get Auks, you get raptors that hang out here during the winter, ducks in great numbers, and sometimes you might see the rare bird, like owls.

“Last winter there was an irruption of Snowy Owls throughout the whole Northeast, meaning that they were in a forced migration because they were starving. Their main food source, lemmings, were scarce, so it was believed that the immature owls were forced out by alpha males adults up in the tundra ... the juveniles are wiser to move out than tangle with the adult males, so the young owls were looking for food elsewhere. There were a few out in Jones Beach area and along the Southern Barrier Island and the mainland of Long Island. They’re a spectacular sight.”