Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer Birding in New York City

Over the last few years, we have cultivated a relationship with the NYC Audubon, resulting in biweekly Birding Tours of the park during migration led by Gabriel Willow. The migratory season is over, so tours have ceased and will pick back up in the fall. In the meantime, you can get your birding fix with Gabriel's Harbor Eco-Cruises (every Sunday) or visit the NYC Audubon website.

Those of you who follow Bryant Park events and activities (and if you’re a reader of this blog, you probably do) might be wondering where the bird walks went, and why we don’t have them in the summer.

Believe it or not, in our area, bird numbers & diversity are lowest in the summer. You might think this is the season of abundance, and warmth, and in the winter all of the birds migrate somewhere warmer. This is somewhat true, and yet, it’s also the season when birds are nesting, and there aren't many good nesting sites in NYC. From a bird’s perspective, it’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to raise a family here.

There are a few exceptions. Along our rivers, shores, and estuaries, several species of birds choose to raise their young, and some are quite rare, since they inhabit a limited and degraded habitat.  Piping Plovers and Least Terns nest on the sandy beaches of Brooklyn and Queens. Willets (a type of large sandpiper) nest in the grassy marshes of Jamaica Bay. Canada Geese, Mallards, and Wood Ducks nest in some of our larger parks. And the biggest colonies of herons, egrets, and ibis in the Northeast are on various small obscure islands around NYC.

Gabriel leads a group in May. 
 On Manhattan however, the marshes that would have once hosted such species have long since been drained or filled. The forests that once hosted many nesting songbirds have largely been cut down. For birds, the primary significance of most of NYC is as a stopover point during spring and fall migration, and NY Harbor is host to large wintering congregations of boreal and arctic breeders such as loons, grebes, and various ducks (seals too!).

Of course, some forests remain, as fragments in our city parks, and even individual street trees. During the migration season, these are crucial stopover points for millions of birds representing hundreds of species to rest and feed. But most of them choose to move on to breed, either because their nesting sites are in different habitats further north (such as the vast boreal forests of northern New England and Canada), or because there simply isn’t enough habitat here to provide for the territories of many nesting birds and their hungry offspring.

Just a short ways outside the city, there are many more breeding species. On a recent trip to Constitution Marsh Audubon Sanctuary by Cold Spring, NY (about 50 miles north of the city) I heard singing Common Yellowthroats, Worm-eating Warblers, Yellow Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Pine Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Wood Thrushes, American Goldfinches, and there was even a pair of Bald Eagles on their nest.  All of these species nest there, and most would be a rare sight in NYC during the summer months.

A Hermit Thrush peeks from behind a tulip.
There are a few exceptions. Some intrepid pairs of Wood Thrushes nest in Central Park and Prospect Park every year.  This summer, birders were delighted as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird built her tiny nest in Central Park near a busy pedestrian bridge, the first time they’ve ever been recorded nesting in the park!  Her nest is the size of half a walnut shell, woven from lichen and moss, held together with spider-webs, and expertly camouflaged on a small sweet gum tree branch.

The diversity of birds nesting in a given location is directly proportional to the amount of available habitat, and the quality of that habitat.  Staten Island and The Bronx have more breeding bird species than Manhattan because they have more parkland and green space.

Some species find surprising pieces of habitat in Manhattan though. Common Nighthawks, Killdeer, and Herring Gulls regularly nest on the flat gravel rooftops of parking garages and industrial buildings. Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, and of course pigeons, nest on the cliff-like sheer sides of skyscrapers. Chimney Swifts nest in… you guessed it, chimneys!

Birds will likely choose to nest in NYC in greater numbers as green roofs become more common, street trees proliferate under the nearly complete MillionTreesNYC initiative, and people plant more native plants in backyards, balconies, and community gardens.

Until then, we will continue to focus our bird tours on the spring and fall migration season, as the only birds currently nesting around Bryant Park are Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, and a pair of European Starlings. More charismatic, perhaps is the pair of Peregrine Falcons that nest atop the nearby MetLife Building and feed on the aforementioned smaller birds.

One of the beautiful things about migration is that it happens as sure as the seasons change, and in a few months, the birds will return from their nesting sites, headed to southerly wintering grounds, and Bryant Park will be there to provide shelter and a respite from their flight. We’ll be there to see them too; in the meantime, enjoy the movies in the park!

Birding Tours
September 25 - October 23
Thursdays, 8am - 9am
Meet at 'wichcraft coffee kiosk

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