Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Audubon Guide to Bryant Park

Over the last few years, we have cultivated a relationship with the NYC Audubon, resulting in biweekly Birding Tours of the park during migration. We've been delighted as our Audubon Guide Gabriel Willow teaches us about the avian life of NYC, and helps us spot some of these magnificent creatures up close. Now Gabriel shares his experiences in the park.

By Gabriel Willow

When I tell people that I lead urban bird-watching tours, I brace myself for the inevitable pigeon jokes.  “Ha-ha, yes, lots of pigeons.  But did you know 250 species of birds have been seen in Central Park?”.

When I began leading tours in Bryant Park a few years ago, even I thought there might not be much to see there aside from pigeons and the equally ubiquitous House Sparrows.  It’s a small park, located in the bustling heart of midtown, surrounded by imposingly tall buildings, and featuring only a couple of species of trees.  Hardly an avian oasis or well-known bird-watching destination.

But I’m never one to turn down an opportunity to explore nature in any urban setting, and there are actually a lot of interesting facts to share about pigeons and sparrows, so I agreed to lead regular tours in a partnership between NYC Audubon and the Bryant Park Corporation.

I read up on pigeons, determined to impart as much information as possible about the few species I anticipated finding.  However, much to my surprise and delight, Bryant Park actually was an avian oasis.  Warblers flitted in the tops of the London Plane trees, gleaning insects off the leaf-buds.  Normally shy Ovenbirds and Towhees strutted around on the lawn, taking foraging cues from the resident House Sparrows.

Photo by Phil Jeffrey 2010

Bryant Park was really put on the birding map when a Prothonotary Warbler took up temporary residence in 2010; it is a southern species of swamps and bayous, rare this far north.  Its deep gold hue and beady black eyes beguiled birders who travelled from around the city to marvel at its presence.  I had seen them before, but usually while slogging through a mosquito-infested swamp.  It was a whole new experience to witness one from a few feet away, hopping around on the library steps, eating bugs and breadcrumbs and seemingly unaware of the throngs sitting and standing nearby.

Often, the throngs are equally unaware of the birds.  We began our seasonal tour series this past Monday, and were treated to another uncommon visitor: the American Woodcock, a snipe-like bird of rural fields and fens.  They migrate through the area, and are often disoriented by the tall buildings and bright lights.  Many fall victim to collisions with the windows of city skyscrapers.  But here in Bryant Park were not one, but two Woodcock, which seem to have successfully navigated the cityscape thus far.  One was bobbing along in the bushes, probing the ground for earthworms with its extraordinarily long beak.  The other appeared exhausted, and was napping at the base of a yew shrub, nearly indistinguishable from a rock or pile of leaves.

Photo by J. M. Miller 2013

The park is busy at this time of morning; people were bustling by on their way to work.  Few had time to stop, although perhaps some wondered why our group was standing and staring into the bushes with binoculars.  One of my favorite aspects of birding in Bryant Park is seeing how many people can walk right by such a remarkable creature as a woodcock without even realizing it's there; how many rare and unusual birds remain unnoticed in unexpected corners of the city?  How often do we walk within feet of something strange and wild?

Within a few days, the Woodcocks will most likely be gone, resuming their journey northward, where the males will take up residence in damp meadows, and perform a remarkable aerial display.  They will woo females, who will nest nearby in marshy stands of alders.

Although the Woodcocks will be gone, other birds will be arriving.  Tanagers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, orioles, and more will seek food and shelter in this unexpected urban oasis.

Birding Tours of Bryant Park
Mondays, 8:00am – 9:00am
Thursdays, 5:00pm – 6:00pm
April 8 – May 23
Meet at the corner of 42nd Street & 6th Avenue


  1. Gabriel, it was great to attend my first Birding Tour in Bryant Park today. It seemed so cold and gray and unpromising - and then the special treat of the Palm Warbler, among many other birds. Quite rewarding. Many thanks.

  2. ls it possible that the English passage migrants from yesterday's walk saw a Bicknells Thrush this pm?
    Thank you for great walk yesterday. We saw. A mockingbird on Highline this morning too.
    Thanks again.Linda A