Friday, January 10, 2014

A Decade of Brooklyn Bird Blogging

Ten years ago today I published my first blog posting on this site. It was about a trip that I lead for the New York City Audubon Society up the Hudson River to Croton Point Park. Ironically, I described weather conditions that sound eerily similar to this past week's weather:

At 7am this morning the temperature was 1 degree, the wind was out of the north at 14mph and the wind chill was -13. Despite the arctic conditions 7 intrepid (or insane) souls met for a NYCAS field trip to Croton Point Park.

Prior to the creation of this blog I had been involved with a small, but growing, birding email discussion group. I would write to the group fairly regularly about my bird and nature observations. At one point I discovered a Red-tailed Hawk nest in Brooklyn's Prospect Park and began writing about the intimate comings and goings at their nest. At the suggestion of literary agent Regina Ryan, I turned those emails into a manuscript for a book. That journal was ultimately (and very politely) rejected by several publishing companies.

For the decade celebration of "The City Birder" blog I decided to post weekly excerpts from the book every Wednesday, beginning today with the book's introduction.


The Red-tailed Hawk Journals:
A City Birder in Brooklyn

By Rob Jett


In February 2002, I began to watch a pair of Red-tail Hawks build a nest in Prospect Park near my home in Brooklyn. I would have never predicted that watching these hawks and their eventual offspring would become a nearly full-time obsession and a source of enormous enjoyment. I kept a journal and for eight months reported on them almost daily to my fellow birders in the New York City area on “eBirds NYC”, a moderated e-mail list.

Twelve years may not seem like a long time, in the grand scheme of things. However, between writing this manuscript and actually sharing it with the world a lot has changed for birdwatchers. For one, Apple wouldn’t introduce the world to the iPhone for another five years. In fact, mobile “dumb” phones were still relatively new in 2001. Today most birders have nearly instant access to any and all bird sightings through the use of their smartphones employing text alerts from various sources, such as, Twitter feeds and Cornell’s eBird website. Smartphones are also being used for field guides, tide charts, weather reports and bird song playback. In 2002, the first consumer level digital SLR camera was only 2 years old. Now it seems like every birdwatcher has some form of digital camera either in their pocket or hanging off their shoulder when out in the field. In addition, “blogging” was still in its infancy in the 1990’s and “Blogger”, one of the most popular tools for online journals didn’t launch until August 1999. Now it seems like everyone has some type of personal or multi-author blog.

This is my journal just as I recorded it, although edited somewhat to make things clear for the reader. I've added some descriptions, for instance, about such things as who the people are that visited the hawk-viewing spot I inhabited, or where the Prospect Park hawks were as they began to grow and move around, first on the ground and then in the air. I have divided the journal entries into four sections corresponding to the season and written an introduction for each section. I have also included a few journal entries on trips that I made outside of Prospect Park and Brooklyn during this period.

The Seeds of an Obsession

People have asked me over and over how I got into this hawk-watching and even more importantly, how I was able to do it nearly every day for hours. (I'm definitely not independently wealthy, unmarried or out of a job!)

I wasn’t always interested in birds. I was born in Manhattan and grew up in Forest Hills, Queens and neither place would be considered by most people to be teaming with wildlife. As a youth bird watching was never even a part of my vocabulary let alone an activity that I would consider appealing.

Every summer my father would cram the family and ten tons of camping equipment into our station wagon for two weeks of fun in a campground somewhere along the eastern seaboard. Vacationing away from the city was an important part of my childhood but my explorations in the “country” rarely involved any interest in birds. My first memory of a bird observation occurred when I was roughly 10-years-old. I was in my backyard in Queens when I heard a high-pitched mechanical sound coming from our neighbor’s yard. After a few minutes of searching I was quite stunned to discover that it was actually a Blue Jay making what I would now refer to as the “rusty clothes line” call. I think that I may have also been a little disappointed that it wasn’t some sort of strange machine that was making the noise.

Perhaps it was the regular doses of televised nature in the form of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”, "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" and Marty Stouffer’s “Wild America” that planted the seed for a future passion but it wasn’t until my wife, Robin, and I moved to Brooklyn that I really began looking closely at nature.

The Birth of a Birder

In 1992 we moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, a city-designated landmark neighborhood of brownstone buildings bordering Prospect Park with a view of lower Manhattan. Prospect Park is not nearly as famous as designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux other New York City park (Central Park), but is considered by many to be their crowning jewel. At 526-acres the park contains a 60-acre lake, a 90-acre meadow and Brooklyn's last natural forest. The park, a popular destination for city dwellers looking for an escape from the urban jungle, is also located along a major bird migration path and attracts large numbers of hungry, migrating birds.

When we first came to Brooklyn Robin and I mostly used the park for cycling, jogging or just finding a grassy spot in the shade to read the Sunday New York Times. Then one day we received a flyer in the mail from the Department of Parks and Recreation describing free Urban Park Ranger nature programs and we began looking at the park from a different perspective.

“Hawkwatch at the Boathouse” was the title of the first program that we attended. I’m not sure what the general allure of birds of prey is but I’m fairly certain that if the pamphlet had been entitled “Sparrows of New York City” I would not have shown up. We joined the Urban Park Ranger on a balcony on the second level of the boathouse. I remember the experience like it was yesterday. It was a crisp, breezy day in October and the sky was the color of a robin’s egg. Karen LaRiche was the enthusiastic ranger in charge of the program. After a brief introduction to hawks she handed out binoculars to the small group of us that showed up and excitedly pointed out every passing raptor.

We could only see a large open section of sky to the west above the Nethermead Meadow. To the north and south are the wooded habitats of the Midwood and Breeze Hill. Over the years I have learned that most hawks watches have expansive views and 360 degree vistas in which to scan for hawks. In retrospect, it seems amazing to me that from that less than ideal location at the Boathouse we spotted a few kestrels, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks whizzing past or soaring high above the meadow. The next day I went out and purchased my first pair of binoculars.

Soon after, Robin and I began taking long strolls through the park exploring its waterways and many wooded areas. I soon located a Red-tailed Hawk perched low in a tree. At the time I wasn’t even sure what type of hawk it was and, to be honest, it really didn’t matter that much to me. The very thought that a large hawk could live in Brooklyn amazed me. I was intrigued by the powerful looking animal and would occasionally track it down and spend long periods of time just sitting on a log or boulder watching it watching me, or preening or sleeping. Then one day in early May of 1995 I watched in awe as a Red-tailed Hawk carrying some kind of dead animal landed on a large nest near the top of a tree inside of the Quaker Cemetery.

The Quaker Cemetery is an 11-acre cemetery owned by the Society of Friends that is located within the borders of Prospect Park but is closed to the public. It is surrounded by a barbed wired topped, chain link fence so I could only watch the hawk nest from a considerable distance.

Over the coming weeks I spent as much time as I could before work, after work and on weekends monitoring the nest. The view with my inexpensive optics wasn’t very good but they were effective enough that one of my first journal entries that season was, “One adult sitting on nest, second adult arrives with a large piece of meat and feeds offspring(s?)”. This was my first hawk-on-the-nest obsession. Seven years later the overwhelming fascination struck again and that is what is recounted in this book.

The Birding Community of Prospect Park

One day, while I sat watching the nest I noticed a man with binoculars hanging around his neck walking through the woods towards me. As he got close I said, “I guess you’ve discovered my little secret”. He responded, “Guess not”. When I pointed out the hawk nest he seemed genuinely excited, which surprised me because I naively figured that anyone with binoculars must surely know about the hawk nest. He introduced himself as Jerry Layton. He was a much more experienced birder and generously spent the next couple of hours leading me around the park, pointing out dozens of incredible looking birds that I had never noticed before.

Jerry started to introduce me to other birders in Prospect Park and in 1996, when the Red-tailed Hawks returned to the same nest, I began eagerly sharing my hawk observations with them.

At the same time I also began looking a little more closely at some of the other 190 plus species of birds that either reside in or pass through the park. By the end of the year my excitement over Red-tailed Hawks had sadly begun to wane, replaced by a no less enthusiastic drive to learn about all the other birds in the park.

The year 1997 saw a radical change in my career, as well as, my interest and involvement in the local birding scene. After a decade as the staff technical director for a corporate communications company I became a freelancer. As a freelancer my schedule was no longer 9am to 5pm and my odd working hours allowed me to spend more time in Prospect Park.

The Birth of eBirds NYC

In 1995 I had begun to build a database of my sightings in the park and by 1997 I started inputting some data from my new found circle of birding buddies. In addition, a small group of friends created an e-mail group whose purpose was to provide up-to-the-minute information on bird sightings. Because of my ever-growing database and access to e-mail I ended up posting regular Prospect Park reports with end of month summaries. Late in 1997 our e-mail group joined forces with another group organized by a Manhattan birder named Peter Shen. That e-mail list ultimately became known as eBirds NYC. The purpose of eBirds was to provide timely information about birding in the five boroughs of NYC, Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, New Jersey and the lower Hudson Valley. Eventually other Internet-based birding groups came into existence. Currently thousands of people can report or retrieve bird sighting information from around the entire state.

Hardcore Birding and Biking

I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but by the end of 1997 I had been transformed into a hardcore birder whose main objective was to see as many species of birds as possible. In 1998 our group of local birders began a game to see if we could document at least 200 species of birds in Prospect Park for a single year. Unfortunately, I fear that the spirited enthusiasm the challenge created may have clouded the judgment of some individuals and certainly blinded me to many of the more compelling elements of the local flora and fauna. Somewhere along the line I had traded in the quiet simplicity and excitement of discovery for the aggressive activity of collecting sightings.

My friend Steve Nanz inspired me to begin using my bicycle for birding in the park. We began spending a lot of time together with our bikes and binoculars as it allowed us to move around the park quickly and “get” as many birds as possible. The two of us would occasionally spot a very desirable bird after which one of us would hop on our bike and ride around the park like Paul Revere trying to find any birders so we could announce the location of the feathered treasure.

During my metamorphosis into an obsessive New York City birder my infinitely patient wife joined the Prospect Park Track Club and began running in local races. We’d both leave the house early, synchronize our watches and, when the time came, I’d put the caps on my binoculars and pedal back to the race finish line in time to cheer her on.

We sometimes use that arrangement on our vacations. After we choose our destination she researches local races and I try to learn about local birding areas. I end up exploring the habitats near the race finish line while monitoring the clock to make sure I get back in time to see her cross the line.

Losing My Passion

It’s unclear what the last straw was, but somewhere between the Spring “Birdathons” and the annual “Christmas Counts” I lost my passion for birding. The pace, pressure and competitive spirit that embodies New York City had even managed to creep into the uncomplicated act of observing nature. Perhaps for some people birding was always a sport that involved capturing on one’s checklist more species than the other guy but in my rush to beat the opponent I lost sight of what attracted me to birds to begin with. Eventually I stopped caring that Prospect Park tallied 25 species of warblers when Central Park only had 23. I missed the days when I could sit quietly in the woods and listen to a spring morning’s dawn chorus without having to worry that I might overlook one of that week’s warblers. I also missed the simple joy of watching a sparrow taking a dust bath or discovering a songbird carrying a piece of nest material.

I continued submitting reports to “eBirds” but they became more a personal nature journal and less an announcement of the seasonal specialties that many people searched for to complete their year list.

The Hawks Save Me

Then, as if on cue, the hawks re-entered my life and rescued me from my disenchantment. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks decided to build a nest on the west side of the park about one block from our home. My clients’ computers seemed to be operating virtually trouble free so with binoculars, bicycle and cell phone I decided to spend as much time as possible monitoring the pair of hawks. At times my computer help desk was a log in the woods below the large hawk nest. From that “hi-tech” location I’d assist clients via cell phone while hoping that they wouldn’t ask me about the loud chirping sounds in the background.

Each day that I spent with the Red-tailed Hawks was like opening a present. I was never quite sure what would be revealed and following their activities in one of this country’s most populated urban centers became one of the best experiences of my life. I also learned that despite the fact that I spent much of my time sitting in one location I observed almost as many bird species as when I was rushing from place to place.

After each day’s hawk session I was so anxious to post my journal entry on eBirds that I sometimes wrote them on the subway on my handheld PDA (smartphones were still a few years off) and posted them as soon as I arrived at an appointment.

Each journal entry concludes with a list of birds observed that day. The species lists show the incredible diversity of wildlife in this small urban park. It is also meant as a simple guide for anyone interested in learning what birds they may likely encounter in Brooklyn at different times of year.

Prospect Park Locations Note:

During the years subsequent to me writing this journal restoration projects in Prospect Park have not only changed some of the habitats but also their names. The small ponds known previously as upper and lower “Swanboat Pond” have been renamed “The Upper and Lower Pools”. A swampy habitat labeled the “Pagoda Swamp” by birders no longer exists. It has been dredged and turned into a pond named “The Lily Pond”.


Next week's installment - the patient wait for new Brooklyn arrivals.

1 comment:

Akira Kurosawa said...

Congrats, you are the fore-father of us all! Keep on bringing us the great bird info.

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