Monday, November 2, 2015

Birding Tour Rescues Injured Bird at Final Fall Session

We recently wrapped up another season of bird walks in Bryant Park. This fall, we decided to double the number of walks, and offer them morning and afternoon. The walks had an average of 19 participants per walk, so they proved quite popular. We tallied 56 different species of birds in the park, which is pretty remarkable for such a small park in a dense part of the city. This included the 120th species for the park, a rare Nelson's Sparrow.

We had another noteworthy bird encounter on our penultimate walk.  We were joined by NYC Audubon's Executive Director Kathryn Heintz, and shortly after commencing the walk, she spotted an American Woodcock flying by. Woodcocks are unusual birds: upland shorebirds (sounds like an oxymoron I know) that feed on damp forest floors, probing the loam and mud for earthworms with their comically long bills.  Their eyes are set very high on their head, giving them stereo vision behind their heads, allowing them to keep an eye out for predators approaching from behind while they probe for worms.

A Woodcock was spotted on the final tour. Read on to discover why it allowed someone to hold it.  

Woodcocks migrate through the city, and sadly frequently collide with windows in our dense metropolis.  They fly low and fast, and have trouble seeing directly in front of themselves.  Not ideal for navigating NYC!

This particular bird zipped past and sure enough, flew towards a window on a building on 40th St.  Luckily the bird slowed as it approached the building, and instead of colliding with the window at a lethal speed, it sort of fluttered against it for a bit before falling to the sidewalk.  There the stunned and confused bird huddled there until we ran across the street and found it where it had landed.  I picked it up to keep it from flying into the window again and to protect it from being trampled by commuters hurrying by unaware.

Kathryn ran over to the nearby Blue Bottle café to get a paper bag - when you find a stunned bird, the best thing to do is to place it in a dark but breathable paper bag where it will be insulated from the stressful bustle outside. She then rushed uptown on a train to take the woodcock to a wildlife rehabilitation facility specializing in injured birds: the Wild Bird Fund.

As you can read on their website, woodcocks are unfortunately frequently delivered to the Wild Bird Fund...over 50 some seasons!  Many of these injured birds don't survive. Happily, I checked in with them a couple of days later, and our woodcock made it through its first night, the largest hurdle. It had a bruised wing and an abscess in one eye, but was otherwise healthy. If all goes well, it will recover in captivity and then be released to the wild, perhaps even getting a lift south out of the city, further along its migratory route.

Collisions with glassy skyscrapers and other windows is the number-one cause of death for birds in urban settings (nationally, predation by domestic and feral cats are the only larger threat, along with habitat loss). NYC Audubon has recognized this threat, and is studying the impact through Project Safe Flight, a largely volunteer-led initiative to track bird deaths and injuries from collisions with buildings in NYC. Bryant Park has worked with PSF to train park workers to report injured and dead birds.  

We have had some victories as a result of these efforts: one of the largest bird-killing buildings in the city (both in terms of the size of the building itself and of its lethal impact) was the Javits Center on the west side.  I say was because the center recently underwent a massive renovation, adding a huge green roof (one of the largest of its kind in the country), switching much of the reflective glass for patterned glass or metal panels, and drastically improving its energy efficiency. As a result of these changes bird collisions dropped by over 90%!

The Woodcock calms down in a paper bag. 

There are steps that can be taken to ameliorate the threat that buildings pose to birds, such as using less reflective glass in construction, or better yet, using glass with UV-reflective patterns that birds can see but that are invisible to humans, such as Ornilux glass.  This glass significantly reduces bird collisions, and hopefully will become widely used.  Buildings can also turn off their lights at night; bright lights confuse and disorient night-migrating species, and turning off lights has the additional benefit of reducing electricity usage.

Hopefully as this issue becomes more widely known, urban planners and architects will take steps to reduce the impact that buildings have on birds.  But there will still be collisions, so be on the lookout for stunned, injured, or dead birds that result.  If you find a dead bird, you can make a difference by reporting your sighting to NYC Audubon's D-Bird website, where avian fatalities are tracked.  If you find an injured or stunned bird, bring it to the Wild Bird Fund and it stands a much better chance of survival.

Hopefully the Woodcock that we found on the Bryant Park walk will continue to thrive under their expert care, and be transported to an area with more habitat for easier passage south.  It was a lucky bird to be spotted by Kathryn's sharp eye, and taken to safety!  It was also an excellent "teachable moment" to illustrate the hazards of urban migration to the group.

Bryant Park always provides surprising sightings and experiences.  I hope you will join me there when the spring migration season brings birds back northward and our walks resume in mid-April!  Until then, I lead numerous walks and tours for NYC Audubon.  Check out their calendar to see more.

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