Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Birding at the Bridge

Heather Wolf and Laura
Heather Wolf and Laura

I’ve been visiting my daughter in New York City for a few days, which gave me an opportunity to meet the author of one of my favorite books of 2016, Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront. And what better place to meet Heather Wolf but at Brooklyn Bridge Park?

So on Monday morning, I caught a subway near Katie’s apartment and headed to the stop nearest the Brooklyn Bridge, where Heather was waiting. It’s easy for birders to pick one another out even in a bustling metropolis. I was wearing my binoculars, and Heather was not just binoculared; she was also lugging her camera, with the same 100-400 millimeter lens I use. Of course, we were also meeting at 7 am, well before the crush of commuters. There were only 6 other people in my subway car, and hardly anyone walking about at street level—it was blustery and 19 degrees—making picking Heather out even easier.

Birders belong to something of a family or tribe, and we usually have instant rapport and plenty to talk about even if we've never met before. But meeting Heather was different from meeting even the most compatible birder—she is a genuine kindred spirit. We both share an abiding love for even the most common birds, love telling stories about our adventures, and love bringing birding to non-birders.

Central Park House Sparrow
I photographed this House Sparrow in Central Park in September 2012. I just threw it in for the heck of it. 
We also both enjoy pigeons, starlings and House Sparrows much more than most birders do. We realize that starlings and sparrows pose huge ecological problems in wild habitats here in America, though they don't pose most of those problems in a big city where plenty of other factors keep those other birds away. Most complaints about pigeons have to do with people, not wildlife—they provide a lot of food for urban Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks. House Sparrows were the most abundant species we saw on our walk—there were a few dozen of them, but only a handful of starlings and a couple of pigeons.

Most birds had apparently taken refuge somewhere out of the high winds, leaving us with a grand total of only 14 species, counting the two crows that refused to call out their identity. In New York so close to the coast, there's no reliable way to figure out if crows are American or Fish Crows without hearing the tell-tale caw. Like me, Heather doesn’t invest a lot of ego in identification—on our eBird checklist, we were both happy to call them “crow sp.” rather than making a guess that couldn’t be supported. Of course, we’d have been even happier if they’d called out to us. I tell people you can tell crows apart by asking, “Are you an American Crow?” Any self-respecting Fish Crow who understands English would answer “Uh uh!” but these two refused to divulge any information at all.

We didn’t see as many waterfowl as I’d hoped. Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Gadwalls were the only ducks, and the only geese we saw were three Brants flying by. Most of the gulls were Ring-bills, with Herrings here and there. Two Great Black-backed Gulls and three Double-crested Cormorants hunkered down on pilings looking rather miserable.

Fifteen or so White-throated Sparrows lurked in dense vegetation here and there. In one spot I heard what sounded like two American Tree Sparrows. I know their sweet call note well, but with my heavy winter hat covering my ears and hearing aids, I couldn’t be certain.

Heather took this mockingbird photo—I didn't travel with my camera this time. 

My favorite birds of the morning were three Northern Mockingbirds that popped out here and there. Mockingbirds usually look so elegantly slender, but these were jarringly plump, their down feathers lofted as insulation against the cold, doubling their bulk.

Just two days earlier, Heather had covered Brooklyn Bridge Park on the Christmas Bird Count. With the careful scrutiny that a bird count group gives an area, her group found 50 percent more species than we did, tallying 21. I didn’t feel at all shortchanged. Heather Wolf was every bit as wonderful as her book made me think she'd be. I’m already looking forward to visiting New York again just to spend more time with her.