Thursday, November 6, 2014

Bryant Park Welcomes Birds from the North

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.

“Commonly we stride through the out-of-doors too swiftly to see more than the most obvious and prominent things. For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace.” - Edwin Way Teale.  

Another season of NYC Audubon bird walks in Bryant Park has drawn to a close. The ephemeral Winter Village has been rebuilt, the skating rink is in full swing, and the majority of the birds have moved on to warmer climes.

However, there are still many birds to see in the park for those who know where and how to look for them.  Although I won't be there to show you the birds, I encourage all those curious about urban nature to go and look for yourselves!  If you walk slowly around the perimeter of the park, peering into hedgerows and flowerbeds (and ignoring any strange looks you might get), you will probably find some interesting avian visitors skulking in the shrubbery.

Last week, after my tours had concluded for the season, I returned to the park to look around and see what birds were still to be found, and take some pictures of these avian encounters.

The vast majority of migratory species such as warblers, vireos, thrushes, swallows, tanagers, buntings, cuckoos, orioles and grosbeaks are already well on their way to the Caribbean or Latin America, if not arrived already. But for some species, NYC is their warm southern wintering ground: a number of migratory sparrows, wrens, and other species are more likely to be found in Bryant Park in the fall and winter than in the warmer months.

Most abundant of these is the White-throated Sparrow. These plump sparrows, with chipmunk-like striped heads, scratch in the undergrowth in search of seeds and insects, and can be seen by the dozens skulking about Bryant Park's flower beds and hedge rows all winter. They even sing their sweetly whistled "Pure sweet Canada Canada Canada" song all winter, unlike most songbirds.
White-throated sparrow.
Photo: Gabriel Willow.
Another regular lingering species is the Gray Catbird, a jaunty, long-tailed species in the Mockingbird family, decked out in slate gray and black, with chestnut-colored accents.​ This species winters as far south as Central America, but is also fairly hardy and will sometimes spend the winter in our region, particularly if it has a source of berries, its preferred winter fare. In Bryant Park, the Catbirds (like many species) mostly make do with breadcrumbs in the colder months.  Not an ideal source of nutrition, but enough for survival.

Catbird in Bryant Park.
Photo: Gabriel Willow.
There are some surprising species lingering in the park. On my recent visit, several Ovenbirds were conspicuously walking around in the paths and under chairs and tables. Ovenbirds are a plump, spotted, ground-dwelling warbler that looks more like a thrush. They have a unique orange-and-black "mohawk" running down the center of their crown. Generally, they would be down in the southern US or Mexico by now, and yet there were at least three in Bryant Park as of last week. What is even more remarkable about their presence in the park is how confiding they are: the Ovenbird is typically a retiring species of dense deciduous woodlands, best known for its loud "teacher teacher TEACHER" song, but only occasionally seen strutting through the undergrowth. In Bryant Park, they duke it out with the House Sparrows, plucking up breadcrumbs and sometimes nearly walking over people's feet!

I would like to think that the surprising presence of these species in Bryant Park, particularly after most of their brethren have left the area, is a testament to the quality habitat the park provides: an oasis in the concrete desert that is midtown. And that could be. However, it is equally likely that they are disoriented by the bright lights, tall buildings, and general commotion, and stay in the park simply because they can't find their way out (I discussed some of the challenges facing birds in our dense urban setting in an earlier blog post). They then are forced to eke out a living on a substandard diet of bagel bits and ​croissant flakes.

That being said, it beats the alternative, which is having no habitat or shelter at all!

Either way, these species' presence in the park affords visitors the opportunity to slow their rapid midtown pace, to stride a little less swiftly, and to look and see the surprising species that share our space.

My friend and fellow NYC bird-blogger Corey Finger happened to be in the park the same morning, taking pictures of some of the same birds (that's his foot next to the Ovenbird!). You can read his take on the morning, and see some of his excellent photos, here.

Photo: Gabriel Willow.
Tours will resume in the Spring, and I hope to see you then!

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