by Doug Gochfeld
New York City is known far and wide for a lot of things, none of which I need to re-hash here, because, well, the internet.
However, severely neglected amidst all of the hubbub about this glorious city that I call home, are the elements of the natural world that thrive in spite of, and sometimes even because of, the dramatically urban environment.
Birding on New Years Day in the northeast usually involves scouring beaches for rare gulls, checking feeders for winter finches, getting a leg up on your year list by chasing rare waterfowl, and maybe some staring off shore into the teeth of a frigid wind frustratingly trying to pick out alcids and other northern waterbirds hiding in the waves. Whatever the type of birding you’re used to doing in early January in this part of the world, it probably hasn’t involved looking at a bright lemon yellow flycatcher that should be hawking insects in Mexico…let alone two of them. That is, until this year.
This New Years Day, I found myself in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood, with birding gear in hand: definitely not a scenario I could have imagined, until about a week prior.
I was kicking off my personal contribution to the Urban Birding Challenge by being part of the gaggle of people chasing the COUCH’S KINGBIRD around the labyrinthine building-formed canyons of the West Village with no waterfowl, beaches, or bird feeders in sight, and with an aural background more heavily composed of taxicab and bus engines than the screams of gulls.
The Couch’s Kingbird was half of the double-MEGA (technical birding term, kind of) Kingbird smackdown that NYC experienced this holiday season; the other half being the Cassin’s Kingbird whose occurrence in south Brooklyn also spanned the New Year. The Couch’s Kingbird in Manhattan was the first record of the species for New York State, and just the 3rd for eastern North America, while the Brooklyn Cassin’s Kingbird was the 2nd record of that species in New York State, and only the 7th or so in Northeastern North America.
Because the accounts of the absurd findings of the two Mega-rare Kingbirds were remarkable stories on their own (but were SO last year), you can read more about doubling your Kingbird here.
I ended up visiting the neighborhood to see the Couch’s Kingbird several times, and it became one of my favorite (perhaps my absolute favorite) rare bird settings that I’ve ever experienced. This was in large part because of the mass of non-birding humanity that was inextricably part of one’s experience when chasing the bird. This afforded many birders and I the opportunity to engage throngs of non-birders in conversation about this wayward 1.5 ounce songbird. From people who were learning for the first time that birding was a thing, to those who were interested in nature but assumed they had to leave the city to get theirs, it was a very satisfying experience to be able to broaden so many people’s horizons. Giving passerbys more awareness, even if just slightly, of the natural world around them was a very fulfilling win win for everyone involved. Birders scouring the area for the Kingbird recorded >25 species in the neighborhood over the couple of weeks of now-regular (thanks to the presence of such a rarity) birding coverage. That may not seem like much to birders from some settings (of course, it also can sound like a mind-bogglingly HIGH number to non-birders), but to fully appreciate this, one should consider the situation. The West Village is completely urban, with just a handful of postage-stamp sized “parks,” that in the winter sport very little in the way of plants with any foliage on them. It’s an area with 34,000 residents jammed into 0.4 square miles (which works out to be a higher population density than all but 4 cities in the world, for perspective), yet there were dozens of American Robins and White-throated Sparrows, with other species like Dark-eyed Junco, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush, Northern Cardinal, White-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrow, and Blue Jay making a decent mid-winter living throughout all of the Kingbirds’ haunts.
It’s not completely clear whether the city is truly an oasis for birds looking for a respite from the cold and looking to take advantage of the copious (from a bird’s perspective) food scraps that are so prevalent, or whether it’s a trap that migrants have difficulty migrating out of once they get there in the late fall. Either way, the phenomenon of a higher than normal diversity of songbirds trying to tough out the colder months of the year in very urban parts of cities is real. In the late fall in New York, as it starts to get cold, birders have more success finding species that should be much farther south (often a continent away) in small parks surrounded tightly by urbanity than in the large green spaces like Central Park and Prospect Park, which are much more well-known birding locations which see some 200+ species of bird each year.
Winter birding in cities in temperate climates captures, in many ways, the essence of urban birding. Is it a simple function of the number of eyes looking, or the ease of covering the majority of decent habitat? Are the micro-climates generated by cities providing a viable wintering option for half-hardy species? These are some of the questions we hope the UBC will help to answer. Are you in?