Birdwatchers in the Storm

March 20, 2013 at 9:53 am

Whenever there’s a hurricane, birdwatchers are the only people who are really happy. Hurricane Sandy pancaked homes and toppled trees as it spiraled up the East Coast, but it also brought something that only eager New York City birdwatchers were anticipating. During the superstorm, tropical birds were swept up from the Bahamas and blown over 700 miles to New York, where they stayed for a day or two. This occurs whenever there is a big storm, and it gave us the opportunity to explore the world of birdwatching.

Birdwatching is very hardcore. People can lie about the birds they’ve seen.

After verifying that such a phenomenon actually takes place, we dropped in on a birdwatching tour with Deborah Allen, a local birder, who took us and other bird enthusiasts on an expedition around Central Park. We arrived with no binoculars and a camera featuring a laughably short zoom lens. We had no idea that we would see such a collage of birds in the middle of the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Woodpeckers, sparrows, blue jays, robins and much more, were all cajoled out of the bramble by Allen’s bird calls, a call which birdwatchers dub “pishing.”

“Normal pishing is like pshpshpsh,” said Allen. “Then there’s pChoo! That’s when you see the bird hovering over and you want it to drop.”

On her quest, she jotted down the different species of birds she saw along the way, adding them to her already extensive list.

Allen spotted the striped owl perched on the highest branch of a massive oak tree, tucked under a blanket of golden leaves. “Do you see it? Do you see it!” she exclaimed.

“No,” we replied simultaneously. We didn’t see it. Most of the people on the trail had been watching birds for decades and had developed more heightened senses. Which meant they heard birds before they saw them, and spotted camouflaged wings and beaks faster than the average person.

While on the tour, a few birders faithfully checked their smartphones. They showed us birding apps like iBird and BirdsEye, which are used to notify the birding community of what people are seeing in real time across New York City. We had no idea that bird watching was so competitive. Robert Paxton, who has been scouting birds for 70 years, told us, “Birdwatching is very hardcore. People can lie about the birds they’ve seen.”

But the apps keep the birdwatchers more accountable by timestamping the sightings and tracking common birds seen in particular areas. This also made it possible for us to see which species people encountered during Sandy. The apps listed tropicbirds, sooty terns, gannets, storm petrels and jaegers among others. Some of them were blown in from as far away as Bermuda. We also noticed that one particular birder’s name kept popping up on the apps–Dr. Andrew Farnsworth, an ornithologist. Farnsworth is a rockstar in the birding world. His ability to identify the calls of migratory birds remains unmatched.

We were missing one crucial element for our story: footage of people actually birdwatching the morning after Sandy. We stumbled across a YouTube video showing a group of birders huddled along Riverside Park, attempting to spot birds flying back home up the Hudson River. Dr. Richard Fried, who appears in that YouTube video, is a well-known veterinarian in his neighborhood on the Upper West Side.

“I’ve done all kinds of crazy stuff to feed my passion,” he admitted.

After all of our interviews were in place, we set out to the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge without a tour guide this time. We roamed the area for hours, making clumsy efforts to “pish” for birds. In an attempt to get really close to some sea gulls, one of us tripped over a log and fell face first into marshy water. This was our cue to wrap up the story.