By Bonnie Eissner
Photographs by Beth Bergman
Along with changing leaves, pumpkin-spiced everything, and a new crop of Broadway shows, fall in New York brings another wonder: thousands of birds who stop by as they migrate south to more abundant feeding grounds. From mid-August to mid-October, the fall bird migration peaks, and the Upper West Side, bordered by expansive parks, is a prime place to discover the joys of birding, say experts.
Marcus Caceres, a volunteer events coordinator with the Riverside Park Conservancy, started the Riverside Park Birding Club with his colleague Victoria Bolster to connect birders of all experience levels with birding hotspots in the park.
“You can bird in Riverside Park,” he said as he and Bolster, a Riverside Park Conservancy gardener, led a small band of soggy but cheerful birders through the rain on a Riverside Birding Club walk on a Saturday morning in late August. “You don’t have to go to Central Park.”
That morning, despite the downpours, the park, in the Forever Wild Nature Preserve and the Pollinator Meadow north of 116th Street, showed its splendors. Participants, with help from Caceras and Bolster, spotted regal red-tailed hawks, dainty female and male American redstarts, a hummingbird, several noisy blue jays, a northern flicker, and an ovenbird.
Between the sightings and the rain showers, people conversed about birding, the outdoors, their jobs.
“Birding,” Caceres said, “is something that opened the outdoors for me.”
He grew up in the Bronx and as a teenager participated in an environmental science program run by the nonprofit Rocking the Boat. A mentor in the program introduced him to wading birds. “When I saw my first yellow-crowned night-heron and my first black-crowned night-heron, I was like, ‘This, is it,’” he said. “And ever since then, I’ve been hooked.”
Leslie Day, author of “Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City,” fell into birding while living in a houseboat at the 79th Street Boat Basin. One morning while walking her dog, she encountered a female northern cardinal who, Day writes in her book, “awoke something inside of me” and compelled her to know the names of all the birds that resided in or flew through the city. “Once you connect with birds,” Day writes, “you will see them everywhere.”
Day has since moved to Riverdale but retains an intimate familiarity with Upper West Side birding hotspots.
“People who live on the Upper West Side are so lucky,” Day said, observing that both Riverside Park and Central Park are great birding spots. “In fact,” she said, “any park is a wonderful place to look at birds and study birds and be enchanted by them, because in the park, we have trees, and we have seeds, and we have fruit and berries and things that birds love to eat.”
Water and wetlands, which are plentiful in city parks, also attract birds looking to feed or bathe, Day said. “Even in Riverside Park, I always knew where the puddles were,” she said.
“Just walking down the street, you will see all kinds of birds,” Day said. That’s because of the hundreds of thousands of trees that line New York’s streets. “During a season where there are leaves on the trees, it’s not always easy to see them at first,” she said. “So, you’ll hear them and then you just follow the sound.”
In addition to photographs and illustrations, Day’s book, like most field guides, includes descriptions of the sounds bird make. Merlin Bird ID Wizard, a free phone app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, helps users identify birds based on their sounds.
As for birding equipment, Day said that binoculars are a must. “I like lightweight pocket binoculars,” she said. “I pretty much go everywhere with them.” Other experts recommend 8×42 binoculars, which refers to the magnification – 8x – and the lens diameter – 42 millimeters. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently reviewed some more affordable 8×42 binoculars.
The migratory birds that frequent New York in the fall include songbirds, such as warblers, thrushes, and sparrows, and raptors, such as hawks and owls, according to NYC Audubon. The organization’s website links to New York City eBird charts, collected by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that track bird sightings by location. They show, among other things, that red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons reside in New York year round.
First-time birdwatchers and those looking for a social birding experience can benefit from the bird walks and events offered by organizations such as NYC Audubon and the Riverside Park Conservancy. Caceras and Bolster lead the conservancy’s free monthly bird walks on Saturday mornings from May through November. The NYC Audubon Society posts events on its calendar, and many are free.
Roslyn Rivas, the program manager at NYC Audubon, aims to make the organization’s birding events more accessible, she said. Last spring, she introduced a bird sit for those who have difficulty walking. NYC Audubon also conducts bilingual birding outings and events in a wide variety of neighborhood parks, such as Morningside Park.
Events are often held in the early morning and evening as birds are out at those times. “Birds are very active in the morning because they’re hungry,” Day said. Morning and sunset are also prime times to catch insects, which many birds feed on, making the two times of day good for spotting bird insectivores, said Rivas.
And spotting birds is just part of the fun, said Rivas. For her, bird-watching is a way to enjoy time in nature and the city’s green spaces. “It’s also about building community,” she said. “You get together with people you know, people you may not know at all, and make new friends. But you are all enjoying this little experience together, and I think that’s just so beautiful.”
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