Prospect Park: An Unexpected Birders Haven

Home Brooklyn Life Prospect Park: An Unexpected Birders Haven
A Hooded Warbler (Photo: courtesy of Tom Stephenson)
A Hooded Warbler (Photo: courtesy of Tom Stephenson)

by Joe Deaux

After more than an hour of searching, they finally spot the Yellow-throated Warbler. “I found the Yellow-throated Warbler,” Tom Stephenson, an avid birder and member of the Brooklyn Bird Club, cries out to the remaining bird seekers. The group rushes over to one large tree in the southwest section of Prospect Park, right next to the lake. Stephenson calls to two men who had left only seconds ago to go to work. They spot the bird from afar, wave and leave. Others peer through their binoculars to get a close view of the beautiful golden color that shines on the bird’s chest. This is a rarity, because Yellow-throated warblers do not fly this far north during migration. Grins stretch across each person’s face as they look at each other to signify that they have spotted the bird. The group quietly celebrates its victory.

The Brooklyn Bird Club was founded in 1909 by Dr. Edward Vietor. The current president, Peter Dorosh, says their present enrollment hovers between 100 and 150 people. Membership costs $20 a year, but they encourage non-members to join their weekly walks in the park for free. Birding, or watching birds, is not an uncommon hobby. Dorosh says that approximately 47 million people bird in the U.S, about one in every six people.

Prospect Park is a popular destination. “Prospect Park is one of the best places to go birding, not just in New York, but the whole Northeast,” Dorosh says. Birds typically migrate at night and eat all day to replenish energy for the next night’s migration. A bird that finds itself over Brooklyn before dawn looks down and sees nothing but lights, which the bird registers as human areas and a no-go for landing. But there’s also a humongous dark spot amid the lights, which means trees, grass and food. So they dive toward Prospect Park and hunt for sustenance.

Late April to early May is the best time to observe northern migration. Depending on the species, birds could be coming from Florida, or as far south as the tip of Argentina. Dorosh says that on an exceptional migration day, one might spot about 100 species of birds. Glenn Phillips, Executive Director of New York City Audubon, says this is because the park marks a major half-way point for birds flying up the East Coast, a bottle-neck where the coast suddenly turns east.

What a bird eats depends on the bird. Some birds, like the cardinal, feed on seeds that they find on exposed ground. Seedeaters also do not migrate as much because seeds thrive through most seasons of the year. Other birds, like some warblers, require insects and worms. These birds prefer densely treed locations, because trees are home to most of the insects they devour. Some birds, like robins, can eat seeds or insects, and thus have odd migration patterns. These types of birds inhabit Prospect Park.

There are also birds of prey in Prospect Park. Red-tailed Hawks claim three nests in the area, in the highest trees. The Red-tailed hawk typically preys on rodents, hovering directly above its victim before dropping into a sudden and vicious free-fall. The Peregrine falcon, which can attack at speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour, hovers above an unsuspecting bird (yes, they hunt other birds) and dives at it with its talons, strip off the meaty breast of its prey and discards the worthless carcass that remains.

Dorosh, who is thin and has a white-stubbled beard with striking blue eyes, says he got “hooked” on birding in 1975, when he was about 14-years-old, in the back yard of his mom’s house, which used to be next to the Brooklyn-Queens expressway. A measure of his obsession: A few years ago, he says he heard about a Snowy Owl that had temporarily stopped in New Hampshire. This was uncommon, Dorosh says, because Snowy Owls usually stay in the open frozen tundra of Canada and above. He knew that this was a “lifer” – similar to a birder’s version of a bucket list, something he had to see. So he planned an impromptu trip from New York to snow shoe and ski in New Hampshire, but mainly to see the owl.

*        *        *

In the late morning, the club spots a Great Blue Heron perched upon a tree branch above a small pond. It is a rather large bird that is a beautiful shade of grey that effervescently turns to a pale blue, or sometimes green. It has a pointy bill, yellow eyes and whitish feathers below its head that look like a long-hanging beard. Suddenly it drops to the water; it is hunting for fish. At this moment, someone exclaims, “There’s the red tail,” and the group turns its attention to a beautiful hawk floating back and forth, forth and back above the pond, without ever flapping its wings. The movement is hypnotic. The hawk winds left to right over and over again, but it does not pace the same area; each turn furthers the hawk along his journey.

Tom Stephenson (right) and Brooklyn Bird Club during peak migration season in Prospect Park (Photo Joe Deaux/The Brooklyn Ink)
Tom Stephenson (left) and Brooklyn Bird Club during peak migration season in Prospect Park (Photo Joe Deaux/The Brooklyn Ink)

A few joggers zip past the birders. Both parties are incredibly kind and accepting. Someone usually remains aware of the group’s position, and calls for them to mind the sidewalk when a pedestrian swoops through. Likewise, runners often squeak, “Bird watchers? Cool,” or give tips about a bird they spotted further up the path. Dogs also scramble past, but the birders have mixed feelings about canines. They loathe dogs without leashes, because as Stephenson says: “they stress the environment.” The dogs playfully chase birds, but this sends many birds into frenzy and forces them to scatter from a spot that may have been a fertile feeding ground. One man in a blue jacket jokes about the people who tell him “Don’t worry, my Pit bull is much friendlier than all the other Pit bulls.” But others do not seem fazed by the animals; when an unusually pudgy French Bulldog runs past with its owner, three or four of the birders begin to giggle with amusement, and say that he looks like one happy dog.

Around this time, the group loses several members who have to go to work. The group is not too diverse. Stephenson is a retired keyboard technician; the leader of today’s walk, Rob Bate, is also retired. One woman in the group who just left has been retired for ten years, and got into birding when she took a trip to South America. Another man, Stanley Greenberg, works as a freelance photographer and freed his morning so he could get out for the early northern migration spotting. That’s when Stephenson spots the Yellow-throated warbler. Though immersed in conversation, he has an incredible ability to multi-task.

His bird obsession involves sound more than sight: Birds have two types of sounds – a song, which is a long chirp, and a call, which is a shorter chirp, and in preparation for a birding trip to Bhutan, Stephenson memorized about 450 songs and calls. While he was there, the government had hired a group of researches to identify birds. Stephenson tagged along, and eventually the researchers became aware that he knew more than they did. The Bhutanese government asked Stephenson to come back to help research birds in the country. He returned with the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology and aided in the University’s research, which was funded by Bhutan’s government.

Glenn Phillips, of the New York City Audubon, says that the Brooklyn Bird Club makes it clear that they are “fiercely” independent from his nonprofit organization (and any other birding organization). New York City Audubon runs programs that encourage and enrich people on the advantages of birding, but they are also hugely active in conservation. They have a tight relationship with the city’s park service and advise them on matters that concern park forests (trees contain insects that feed the birds) and human impacts (like a shopping mall that Brooklyn borough wants to build next to Four Sparrow Marsh in Mill Basin). But he says birding is important because it raises awareness and increases knowledge of surrounding ecosystems. “[Birds] really do matter, they’re not just pretty things. They’re critical to our ecosystem.” The New York City Audubon and the Brooklyn Bird Club, though independent of one another, share the same goals, he says.

A week after they spotted the Yellow-throated warbler, the Club stands at the water, directly across from Terrace Bridge in Prospect Park. They are quiet and seem exhausted. Suddenly, a beautiful Black-crowned Night Heron – the back and the crown of its head are grayish-black, and it has a white under-belly and deep red eyes – swoops over the water in front of everyone. It glides east across the water and makes a smooth 160 degree turn and soars west as if to show off its grace and wingspan. The heron repeats this twice more. As it floats west the final time, it approaches a low-hanging tree that sprawls slightly above the water; simultaneously, the Red-tailed Hawk materializes by the same tree. The heron wails at the hawk, and the sound reverberates off the surrounding trees and water as he jerks westward beyond the tree line. The hawk shoots vertically and lingers above. Tom Stephenson turns and chuckles.

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