For much of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic upended life across the country. When lockdowns cancelled activities like Broadway shows, weekend dinners out and days at the museum, some people turned to baking sourdough, some learned a new language and others — like me — started birding to pay more attention to our feathered friends and neighbors.
Bird-watching, or birding, has become more popular this year, and organizations like the New York City Audubon Society are trying to safely run programming for new and experienced birders alike.
Come along as Scienceline’s environment editor Casey Crownhart takes you on a masked, socially-distanced birding adventure in New York City’s Van Cortlandt Park.
Casey Crownhart: I’m out on a morning walk through Van Cortlandt Park with Joe McManus and a half-dozen other bird-watchers. My eyes are straining to catch birds that Joe can spot with ease through the tree branches.
Joe McManus: Two mourning doves just flew by. There goes the catbird. Right here, right here — you see that bird flying around? That’s a goldfinch.
Casey Crownhart: Full disclosure, I didn’t catch most of those. Living in the city, my bird Rolodex mostly consists of pigeons. Well, and geese.
(Geese honking, music fades in)
Casey Crownhart: Things are still a bit quieter in New York City these days, eight months into the coronavirus pandemic. Broadway performances are cancelled, bars are mostly closed and restaurants are at limited capacity.
One show that hasn’t stopped? Fall migration. Millions of birds pass through New York City every year on their way south for the winter. Pandemic or not, this year is no exception.
I joined a public walk, hosted by the New York City Audubon Society, to see if I could catch a glimpse of some of the birds passing through.
(Chimes of subway doors closing)
Casey Crownhart: I hop off the subway at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and make the short walk to the nature center.
Casey Crownhart: I approach a small group — eight altogether. Everyone wears binoculars and masks and clusters around the guide.
Joseph McManus: I’m Joseph McManus. I lead the bird walks for New York City Audubon.
Casey Crownhart: Joe’s our trusty guide to the birds of Van Cortlandt Park. Given the context, I can’t help but think that his N95 mask looks a little bit like a beak. As he talks, he tends to trail off, trying to catch passing birds in his binoculars.
Joseph McManus: You know, you have to wear a mask… Oh, there’s a white-throated sparrow and a song sparrow.
Casey Crownhart: We set off through the park. Joe stops us frequently to watch for birds: in a small field, near a patch of trees and on the edge of a lake. Joe points out birds as he sees them, and helps those of us — beginners — who need some extra help.
Joseph McManus: See the big tree? OK, look to the left. By the fence, where that brown is, there’s a palm warbler just jumping around in there. Right? See, it just moved.
Casey Crownhart: I missed the palm warbler. It was too quick for me to get my binoculars on it. But I see the next one, a magnolia warbler. Warblers are among the visiting birds this time of year. They migrate through in the fall and spring, journeys that can take them thousands of miles. I felt lucky to have caught this one on his journey.
I’m definitely not the only person who’s recently gotten more interested in these feathered visitors.
Andrew Maas: So birding has definitely picked up an interest, I think.
Casey Crownhart: That’s Andrew [Maas] — he works for New York City Audubon, the group that sponsored the walk. He says that lots of people around the city are getting into birding these days.
Andrew Maas: Yeah, both from New York City Audubon’s perspective, and even a lot of my friends who could care less about birds before, they started texting me about how they’ve gotten into hummingbirds, setting up like a hummingbird feeder in their backyard. Or asking me random questions about, you know, a certain blue bird that they’ve been seeing in their yard.
Millions of birds are coming through the city each year. And so I think people are just starting to notice them and appreciate them.
Casey Crownhart: For some, their interest in birding has been reignited by our circumstances. I spoke with Mona Canning, who joined the walk in Van Cortlandt Park with me. Mona is a high school teacher, and she said she’s been trying to get out into the parks as much as she can since the shutdowns started in March.
Mona Canning: I’ve been working from home, so it was a little easier to go birding. I mean I was, you know, teaching during the day, but I could get to Central Park earlier.
I think birding made me feel much less cooped up. It helped me relax and, just you know, cope with all the — what was going on and also having to be you know, inside all day sitting down at my desk. It was something I really looked forward to.
Casey Crownhart: The good news for birders, whether new or experienced, is that birds are still out and about, wherever you are and whatever’s going on in the world.
Joseph McManus: There’s no place in the world you can go that there’s not birds: on top of mountains, in the middle of the ocean, Antarctica, you name the place. Any kind of habitat. Some birds had made it its niche.
Casey Crownhart: And as I found out on the walk, New York City is definitely not an exception to that rule. I think I expanded my bird Rolodex far beyond pigeons and geese.
While it might be tempting to whip out a camera when you see a new bird, Joe’s final piece of advice to interested birders: Don’t worry about trying to snap photos, just stay in the moment and enjoy it.
Joseph McManus: I say the best camera in the world is right between these two ears: your eyes.
(Music fades in)
Casey Crownhart: When you’ve got your eyes on a bird, it’s easy to forget anything exists outside the binocular’s sights. And in a way, it’s comforting that the birds are just going about their business, whether it’s pigeons strutting down the sidewalks or songbirds making their yearly migration south. There are few things that feel normal these days, but watching a warbler hop around in the trees is as close as I’ve gotten in a while.
For Scienceline, I’m Casey Crownhart.