The Bird Bulletin: A Guide to Birding from Home

By Alex Israel

For those of us able to work remotely, each day can feel monotonous and draining—hunched over our computers, staring at screens, and stuck on endless streams of back-to-back Zoom meetings. Even for those on pause for the moment, it can be nerve-wracking to make the decision to stay outside for longer than a quick walk. Confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, I humbly recommend a new hobby: birding from home.

By some definitions, ‘bird-watching’ is the passive act of noticing birds, while ‘birding’ is a more active behavior, where one gets up early or travels to seek them out. But since birding is not an essential activity, I’m willing to give anyone actively looking for birds out their window a pass, and welcome you into the birding community. There’s no better time to pick up the hobby, since all it requires is your eyes and ears. Sure, a fancy pair of binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens will certainly make some birds easier to spot and identify; but even without them, you can still start with the basics.

Whether your ‘backyard’ is the interior of your apartment complex, a busy city avenue, or a tree-filled sidewalk, you might be surprised at how much you can find out your window. Between the rarer species that touch down only during a 6-8 week migration window each spring and fall, and the species who reside here year-round, more than 200 different birds frequent the New York City metropolitan area in a given year. And if you know what to look—and listen—for, you can become a pro at identifying them from the comfort of your home.

Get down and birdy with the guide below.

BEGINNER TIPS

These birding ABCs will help get you started. 

Actively Listen

The most exciting birds I’ve ever found (inside and outside) were prompted by a call or chirp. Keep your window cracked, and if you hear something, start by pinpointing where it’s coming from. Then think about who it might be so you know what type of behavior to look for. 

Be Calm

If you’re excited to have spotted something out of the corner of your eye, don’t rush to your window. Birds can be easily spooked, especially if they’re super close. Calmly make your way over, position yourself in a comfortable spot with the best view, and keep any motion slow and steady. 

Confirm Your ID

Check external resources to shore up your identification skills. I recommend the Sibley Guide to Birds (available via print, ebook, or app) which features in-depth illustrations, as well as Merlin Bird ID, an app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that lets you explore photos and sounds from 5,000+ species.

MEET THE LOCALS

These are some of the most common birds that I’ve been able to spot—14 floors up—during the last several weeks of quarantine. Included are photos of the birds up close, as well as how they appear from my window. 

Blue Jays

Arguably the most vibrant of our regular city birds (matched only by the northern cardinal and the American goldfinch), surprisingly, blue jays are typically heard before seen. While its namesake jay! jay! can often be heard, don’t be fooled by its frequent mimicry. It’s not uncommon to hear what you might expect is a hawk, only to look outside and find a blue jay, screaming at the top of its lungs. When in doubt, look out for its beautiful speckled tail, black beard, and bright blue tuft.

Mourning Doves

A cousin of our unofficial city mascot, the rock dove (AKA pigeon), mourning doves are known for their calls, which I like to refer to as ‘sad cooing’: a soft coo-OO, followed by by 2-3 louder coos. Another common city sound comes from their wings, which make a loud whistling when they take off or land. Look for their disproportionately small head, plump brown body, and long, pointed tail sitting overhead on thin perches like wires and fences.

House Finches

These objectively adorable birds tend to hang out higher up than some of the other local songbirds. You can’t miss the male, with his a rosy-red breast and face (though no one will fault you for confusing the all-brown female with a house sparrow). Listen for their cheep cheeps undercut with some low warbling, which—when you take into account that they mate for life—can sound a lot like the bickering of an old married couple. Losing resolve several weeks into lockdown, a male paid me a spirit-boosting visit, so don’t discount how high up they’ll fly.

Northern Mockingbirds

Mockingbirds are exactly what you’d expect: master mimickers, specializing in the sounds they hear most frequently. If you think you hear several different birds trilling, or even an ambulance wailing—think twice, and take a peek outside to see if this bird is the culprit. It often takes the high ground, perching atop chimneys and water towers while bobbing its tail. Once you spot it, you can watch it sing—sometimes for 20 seconds or more, cycling through different ‘phrases’ that will sound familiar. During quarantine, the mockingbird across the street has become a reliable friend, brightening my day with its car alarm impression.

Double-Crested Cormorants

Don’t forget to look up! If you look toward the skies, aside from the more common local gull species and Canada geese, you might also catch a glimpse of this black aquatic bird taking flight—usually headed toward the nearest body of water for some fresh fish. While gulls glide with the wind and geese flap steadily (and honk), cormorants will combine both, flapping a bit before gliding in short bursts. When not in flight, you can find them sunning themselves alongside Central Park’s bodies of water, like Turtle Pond and the Lake, throughout most of the year.

—————

Congratulations—you’re all set to start birding from home. If you spot (or need help identifying) any of the above species, or have other locals keeping you company that you want to share, let us know in the comments or tag @westsiderag (and me!) on Twitter. Good luck!

This is the fifth installation of ‘The Bird Bulletin,’ a recurring series featuring topics about birds and the people who love, chase, and help them on the Upper West Side. 

COLUMNS, OUTDOORS | 23 comments | permalink
    1. Linda says:

      Greetings.
      We now have not one but a pair of bald eagles in the Upper West Side. I am around 79 and West End Ave. I’ve been seeing one fly south over my building. But today it was a couple. So love seems to be in the air. They flew south, then came back around and circled high above a building a couple of blocks north of me. There is also a pair of red-tailed hawks in the same area. I hope there won’t be territory issues. I love seeing them all.

      • Alex Israel says:

        Thanks for your comment, Linda. I heard about yesterday’s bald eagles—what a treat! I have yet to see them from my apartment. Luckily, the eagles like fish, so even if the hawks eat all the mammals in the parks, the eagles have a whole river of food to snack on!

    2. For me it’s always been hawks that put a spring in my step (though I enjoyed your piece and accompanying photos A LOT!)

      There’s something about watching them glide and soar and float on those thermals that speeds up & energizes my heart, & watching them quietly dominate all, even on the limb of a tree, causes me to hold my breath. I’ve always loved them.

    3. Anya Schiffrin says:

      We have wonderful birds that chirp in certain bushes and trees on Riverside in the 90s and 100s . Always there in the same places. Will take a closer look and see if I can figure out who they are. Thanks very much for this great reporting.

      • Alex Israel says:

        Thanks for your comment, Anya! I left out house sparrows and northern cardinals from my list, but those are two common chirpers to look out for.

    4. Tali says:

      Great tips

    5. Susan says:

      During yesterday’s Blue Angels and Thunderbirds flyover on the Hudson, two bald eagles did their own flyover. I was torn between scrambling for my phone to get a photo or just enjoying watching them. I chose the later. On Monday, at the lake in Central Park I saw a gang of eight cormorants sitting in a tree at the edge of the water. It was an overcast day which made the sight of all of them a little ominous.

      • Alex Israel says:

        Susan, that actually brings up a great point that I think falls into my ‘be calm’ category. I always choose the latter—always better to get a nice long view of the bird(s) than lose them while fumbling around for a camera, in my opinion.

      • Boris says:

        I will never understand people’s’ need to take a picture of something and miss the experience of seeing the event while it’s happening. I saw many people taking pictures of the flyover yesterday instead of watching it. It’s likely that many people will not have such an opportunity again so why waste it taking a picture that can easily be obtained online. I know all about people doing it so they can post it on social media but that seems so shallow.

    6. Robyn Finer says:

      On my daily walk I saw a Pileated Woodpecker down at ground level hammering a thick fallen branch. First sighting ever in my 40 years in this neighborhood.

      • Alex Israel says:

        Wow, Robyn! I haven’t seen a pileated woodpecker anywhere in Manhattan, I believe they’re quite rare here. That’s an amazing find.

    7. Anna says:

      The “FIELD GUIDE TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD BIRDS OF NEW

      YORK CITY” – by Leslie Day with photographs by Beth

      Bergman is the definitive

    8. Sally Fisher says:

      This is the last section of a four-part poem of mine about bird watching. (The others have section titles like Ironist, Imagist, etc. It is the only one set in NYC.

      4 TELEPATHIST, MANHATTAN

      Wind whistles
      with the windows closed,
      sixteen floors up.

      Rain dots spatter the glass.

      I am indoors
      standing
      right behind a red-tail
      who is stationary in the rush,
      riding it, feathers beating.

      Then he veers down and out
      taking a break,
      dips, loops
      relaxes it seems

      then returns
      to the wind stream
      rides it again, trembling.

      I know, with certainty I know,
      how thrilled he is
      that he loves this.

      As much as I do.

    9. Louise says:

      Thanks for this. Being on the 35th floor I mostly see gulls. But one day last year a gorgeous blue heron alit on a nearby roof and returned the next day never to be seen again. Alas.

    10. Sandra says:

      I’ve found that if I have suet feeder you get the opportunity to see a variety of the birds mentioned and more. Today I saw my first Red breasted Grosbeak!!

    11. NYYgirl says:

      I know exactly what you mean about the mockingbird! We have been treated to one, not sure if it’s the same one, for quite a few years across the street atop a water tower. We have many blurry pix of our friend 🙂 and as a family, hope for and look forward to his presence every year. There is also a wonderfully fairly loud robin song, fantastic!, coming from somewhere on the Broadway median, plus a very consistent gentle early morning mourning (lol) dove call. Love them all!!! Even the screaming blue jays…

    12. BklynBorn says:

      This is great! Thanks for the little specifics that make it easier to grab and ID. Please continue with another bunch!

    13. John Butler says:

      How can I receive The Bird Bulletin?

    14. Dik Fraser says:

      I noticed last year that there were very few starlings around. They seem to be back now but still in reduced numbers.
      Has anyone else experienced this?