This past Saturday, I joined a group of avid birders on a Bird Walk led by August Davidson-Onsgard. This group meets almost every Saturday morning during spring and fall migration to engage in patch birding, which is birding on a small site on a frequent basis — a good way to create a more manageable and intimate birding experience. In an urban area, birding in a relatively small park like Fort Greene Park can prove especially advantageous, since so many birds congregate on this patch of green space.
As off-leash dog hours come to an end and the park empties out, the songs of birds become increasingly clear. Despite having spent nearly every day of the summer in Fort Greene Park putting on events, from kids’ concerts to movies, I felt like I was seeing the Park with new eyes.
We set out towards the Willoughby area of the park, where Park Director Dave Barker and Gardener Maxine Webb have worked to introduce more native plants in garden beds. Consequently, the diverse native plant palettes have also attracted a variety of new bird species. August recently spotted a Yellow Breasted Chat in these gardens, and while that bird was quite shy, we figured it was worth a shot to see if it would come out again.
“Pishing” is a rough whisper or repetitive sound that some birders make to encourage shy birds to emerge from behind or underneath leaves and shrubbery. While this tactic didn’t work for us Saturday, August said it has worked for him in the past. Unlike playing a bird call, pishing doesn’t trick birds into thinking a possible mate or friend is nearby, and is considered a more ethical technique.
We continued our walk, and August pointed out circular indentations on several trees. He explained that this indicates Sapsuckers, a type of Woodpecker, have been there. After pecking these marks into the trees, the Sapsuckers will wait for the sap to start oozing from the tree and return repeatedly to consume it (as well as insects on and around the tree). At this point in our walk, we heard a Mockingbird’s unmistakable call, and caught a glimpse before it flew away.
As we walked around, my usual propensity to move quickly and get on to the next task completely subsided. Birding is exciting and fast-paced, yet slows me down as my focus is consumed as I try to listen for birds, keep my eyes and ears open to rustling leaves, and attempt to make sense of all the different mannerisms, colors, and habits of birds being explained to me. For birders, identifying a bird isn’t just about what it looks like, or the call it makes. Based simply upon what kind of tree a bird is in, where on that tree the bird is sitting, and what sorts of movement the bird makes, even a new birder will have an idea of what species they are looking at.
That’s how we spotted several Brown Creepers on the trees at the top of the Myrtle lawn. One of few birds with “bad posture” as a fellow birder explained, the Brown Creeper has a flat back. They enjoy hopping up the trunks of trees, and then will glide back down to the base of the trunk. Near the brown creepers we caught a glimpse of several Black and White Warblers, a beautifully striking little bird that let us get pretty close before flying away.
At this point in the walk, I had become more confident in my birding skills, and caught sight of a bird with a round red belly and blue-grey wings. As I pointed this out to the woman next to me, she explained that the beautiful bird was nothing especially rare, just a robin. So much for my first exciting spot!
Soon after August noted that good weather days are often more difficult for spotting birds, we caught a glimpse of one of our rarest finds of the day. This bird had a long tail and flew high up in the tall trees near the monument steps. August and the other birders identified this bird as a Brown Thrasher. The thrasher flew between tall trees, and I borrowed someone’s “binocs” (birders’ shorthand for binoculars) to catch a glimpse of this difficult-to-spot bird. August pulled out his camera for the occasion, and we all spent 15 minutes in that one spot, just looking up into the trees seeking the brown thrasher as it hopped from branch to branch.
Once the Brown Thrasher flew away, we continued walking through the park and saw several Pine Warblers. These striking yellow birds flitted and pranced on low branches and along a wire fence. Near the same group of trees we spotted more Black and White Warblers and Brown Creepers.
The walk ended as we completed our circle around the park. August was ready to take another lap as soon as we finished, but I needed a moment to soak in everything I had seen. Urban birding is special because it is immersive in a way most things in a city are not. So often in New York City, all the sights and sounds blur together as we hurry to the next place we need to be. Stepping into a park relieves that tension, and allows us to absorb more fully what is hiding right in front of us, or perched above our heads.
By: Thais Reis-Henrie
August Davidson-Ongard is a birder, photographer, and excellent teacher and guide. Join him and fellow birders on walks October 6th, 13th, 27th, and November 3rd. All walks start at the visitor’s center at 9am.
You will also be able to check out August’s beautiful photographs of birds in Fort Greene Park in the Visitor’s Center, and at an exhibition at Gnarly Vines on Myrtle Avenue starting November 8th.