- New York City is home to some of the most competitive bird watchers in the world, says avid birder Rochelle Thomas.
- Perhaps unrivaled in their intensity, NYC bird watchers have become driven by what we would otherwise perceive to be a leisure activity.
- In an interview with Mongabay, Thomas shares her tips on where and when to get in on the action starting in mid April.
Rochelle Thomas is president of the Linnaean Society of New York and former membership director of the Wild Bird Fund, and she coordinates multiple bird watching or ‘birding’ groups in NYC.
As peak Big Apple birding is about to kick off in mid April, she spoke with Mongabay over breakfast at a busy Manhattan café, after her weekly birding excursion at Central Park and before she travelled to her day job as strategy director at Columbia University’s Teachers College. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Mongabay: Why are people fascinated by birds?
Rochelle Thomas: They can fly. It is everyone’s fantasy to fly. Birds are often fast moving – neither here nor there – and you only have a moment to glimpse them. They are also very accessible. There are roughly 5,500 species of mammals and more than 10,000 species of birds. The likelihood of encountering a bird is far higher, so it is easier to see and learn more about them.
Birding became more popular in New York City during the pandemic. It helped relieve loneliness – it helped people feel like a part of the fabric of the universe. It was about connecting to something bigger.
Mongabay: Tell me about how you got into birding?
Rochelle Thomas: In 2010, I went to Costa Rica and one of my nature guides happened to be a man named Manolo, who was a really good birder. We walked into the Monteverde cloud forest and within 10 minutes, we saw the resplendent quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. That was my ‘spark bird’ – that’s the birding term for the bird that hooks you on birding. It is such a magnificent bird – with an unbelievably long tail, and is such a hard bird to find. I was like: ‘wow, birding is interesting.’ You actually get to see the things you want to see. It is not like mammals, which are often nocturnal or live underground. I went back home to New York City, and have birded ever since.
Mongabay: What sets the NYC birding crowd apart?
Rochelle Thomas: New York City is home to some of the most accomplished and competitive bird watchers in the world. Take Central Park, during Spring migration – that’s mid-April to mid-May. Strawberry Fields might be packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people with binoculars at 5:45am.
The listers – people who make ‘life lists’ of all the birds they have seen in their lifetime – will compete against one another and themselves to see if they can get the biggest list. As birders often say, birding is just hunting without killing. The trophy is seeing an animal and adding it to a list. There is a lot of adrenaline in running around. When alerts go out, people will jump into taxis and cars and rush around the city to pursue a bird.
I think the listing kind of birder always starts out with a love of nature. But the competitive element can overtake people very quickly. The intensity of birding in New York City is unique. People become so driven at what we would perceive to be a leisure activity.
Mongabay: How long does the average NYC birder spend birding?
Rochelle Thomas: If you are retired, you might spend 2-3 hours a day, so 20 hours a week birding. If you have a job, you might say 5 hours a week. I know people who are looking for jobs, and to avoid looking for jobs, they spend 40 hours a week, plus, in the park.
Mongabay: Where are the most popular places in NYC for birders?
Rochelle Thomas: The Ramble at Central Park is the center of the NYC birding world. It reports some of the highest species counts in the city.
But Central Park is just a little microcosm of the New York birding world. There is all of Brooklyn – Greenwood Cemetery, Prospect Park, Staten Island and Jamaica Bay, too. There is a whole Bronx contingent. People who bird regularly in these places consider it as their ‘patch.’ People are very proud of their patches, and sometimes, may get very protective of their patch.
We are very lucky that NYC is situated on the Atlantic flyway – it is a major stopover on an ancient migratory route. Because we have developed almost all of the land in NYC, birds are drawn to the green oases in the city – the parks. That is where they land to refuel for destinations north if it is Spring or destinations south if it is the Fall.
Mongabay: Step-by-step, run me through what happens when you go birding?
Rochelle Thomas: You walk into the park, and turn off your brain that is used to looking at a screen. Then you turn on all of your other senses. It is about looking for differing patterns of movement in the trees. Do I see a leaf? Do I see a squirrel? Or do I see a bird? Then you listen.
If it’s Spring and in the morning, you will hear a cacophony of bird sounds. Birds are crepuscular – they are most active at dawn and dusk. In Fall, birds go into a ‘fall molt.’ They are not trying to attract mates, so they do not sing. Many of the birds are also going to look brown and drab.
You need a decent pair of optics, and there are good options for under $100. First, you should spot the bird with your bare eyes, and only then find it with your binoculars. And that’s when you really see it properly. There is a ton of technology to help identify a bird. One of the best is Merlin, and last year they released a sound module that is the ‘Shazam’ for bird calls. You hold up your device and it will identify from a 1-2 minute recording all the species present. According to American Birding Association rules, if you can correctly identify a bird call, you can add it to your day list or life list.
See more news about birds here
Mongabay: What is missing from your life list that you desperately want to see?
Rochelle Thomas: Oh, a ton, because normally I will not chase a bird south of 86th Street. But I would love to see a Connecticut warbler. It is here in New York, like, one day a year. It is totally drab and non-discrete and skulks on the ground. In the birding world, you call this a ‘nemesis bird’ – it is the bird you always miss even when it is around. The Connecticut warbler is my nemesis bird.
Mongabay: Tell me about your most memorable birding experience?
Rochelle Thomas: A once-in-a-lifetime-bird, a Steller’s sea eagle appeared in Maine in early January this year. It was the first time it was seen in the continental U.S. It is the largest sea eagle in the world. It weighs about 20 pounds, which is extremely heavy for a bird.
A friend sent me a text message on Wednesday night saying ‘Hey, do you want to go to Maine to find this bird on Friday?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely,’ and cleared my schedule. We drove for seven hours, got up before dawn on Saturday, and it was minus 17 Fahrenheit with the wind chill. I was wearing three pairs of wool socks, three pairs of pants and could only make it 10 minutes at a time before I had to get back into the car. And while I was there, I spotted four people that I knew from birding at Central Park, seven hours away in Boothbay, Maine.
More than 1,000 people joined the Maine Rare Bird Group alert in the month of January. It was like everyone who was anyone in NYC birding went to Maine in the space of three weeks to see this bird. The restaurants were running out of food. The accommodations were full. The town was a mad house. The police were out monitoring the traffic because people were standing in the middle of the street with binoculars. I don’t know what the people in the town thought.
I saw a man sitting on the ground for hours. Minus 17 Fahrenheit, sitting on the ground with just a blanket and a huge camera. For hours. Just looking at this eagle.
Mongabay: How do I become a skilled birder?
Rochelle Thomas: What makes a good birder is being patient. However, a lot of people that enjoy birding struggle with the basics. Like using binoculars, or identification, or being able to hear all the notes in a birdsong.
What makes a skilled birder is different; it is about being quick to identify the bird. You will often see birds in motion; they are blurred. You need to see all the things that make up a northern cardinal, and to see all of that at once. You need to move past the checklist of diagnostics and move into instantaneous composite analysis.
People will say: ‘I see a bird. It’s blue and green.’ And I am like: ‘That’s not helpful.’ How is it moving in the tree? What is its relative size and shape? You need to train your brain to see all the features of the bird at once. If you have a mind like an impressionist painting, you can become a very skilled birder.
Alice Yan is an environmental lawyer and Fulbright Scholar, currently conducting research at Columbia University’s Department of Ecology Evolution and Environmental Biology. She sits on the Council of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, and served as an Australian delegate at the World Social Forum.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion about finding nature in cities, aka urban ecology, with Georgia Silvera Seamans, an urban forester who has spearheaded a number of “hyper local urban ecology” projects in New York City, plus author Kelly Brenner, listen here: