Tech & Science

Spotting New York's Flying Tourists During Migration Month

Bronx Zoo Scarlet Macaw
A scarlet macaw flies through the Bronx Zoo as part of the "Birds in Flight" show, one of the events going on at the zoo as part of May's Bird Migration Month. Julie Larsen Maher/WCS/Bronx Zoo

A red-winged blackbird appeared suddenly, alighting on an oak limb at eye level less than six feet away. Striking, coal-black plumage with dazzling red epaulettes: I had never seen one so closely before, and I come from Illinois, where they are not rare. Only in flight have I ever thought they were special, showing their red-and-yellow underwings. Like many natural things, they’re undervalued.

Conk-la-ree !

Its piercing, vibrant call shook the bright morning. “I always say that’s the sound of spring, when they start calling,” says David Oehler, curator of ornithology at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo, in New York City. “I know they’re common, but they’re one of my favorites,” he adds.

Oehler, along with birders Myra Dremeaux and Kimio Honda, led me around Bronx Park on Saturday morning, in the stretches of forested land that abut the zoo. Dozens of experienced birders, novices and families had been in the park since early morning, often accompanied by guides like Dremeaux and Honda, toting binoculars and a list of viewable birds they checked off as they made sightings. The event, called the Birdathon, serves as both an educational opportunity—“to get kids interested in the life around them,” Oehler says—and a competition to see who can spot the most birds over the course of three hours. What makes it unusual from other birdwatching competitions is that the species within the zoo’s exhibits are also fair game. A finished list could have checkmarks next to birds as common as the red-winged blackbird and as exotic as an ostrich, on display within the zoo.

The Birdathon is part of May's Bird Migration Month at the Bronx Zoo, a full month celebrating the myriad species that stop in New York on their migration routes. Situated along the Bronx River, the Bronx Zoo—the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States—and its surrounding land are a surprisingly fruitful area for birds and the humans who peer at them. And the Saturday of the Birdathon didn’t disappoint, as dozens of songbirds and migratory species were spotted around the park. Catbirds and sparrows were found in force, the latter even building nests inside the eaves of many zoo buildings, while warblers of many stripes were present and accounted for, and somebody we passed on the trail even said excitedly that they’d seen an oriole building a nest. In the last decade, beavers have returned to the land, after more than a century’s absence from the Bronx River, creating small ponds that lure in animals such as wood ducks and Canada geese. It's a small sign of what conservation efforts, even within a giant city, are capable of accomplishing. 

Canada Geese Canada geese and goslings along the Bronx River. Cady Drell for Newsweek

After a stroll through the riverwalk, the action shifted inside the zoo, as contestants rushed through exhibits to tally species there as well—which included everything from little penguins (Eudyptula minor), the world’s tiniest, to Andean condors (Vultur gryphus), one of the largest. Only a few birders seemed particularly competitive about it; the rest were happy to see such a wide variety of birds that even a brief perusal revealed. Then, staff deliberated over the lists, excluding marks of species that aren’t likely to be found in the park at the time, as everybody else sat down to witness the Birds in Flight show.

Taking place through June 19 and run by Phung Luu, a soft-spoken bird-lover from Delaware, the event consisted of birds flying over the audience, like a red-shouldered hawk spinning to catch treats in midair. One moment, seemingly unbidden, bright red macaws swooped over the audience and landed on a branch next to Luu; the next, a dinosaur-looking creature called a silvery-cheeked hornbill ( Bycanistes brevis ) snatched a grape thrown to him out of the air.

By the time the birds had been tallied, Nathan O'Reilly, a 38-year-old birder who teaches physical education at a grade school in Manhattan, won the event, tallying more than 180 species. It was the second year in a row that he’s won, and as a prize, he gets a behind-the-scenes “keeper encounter” tour of the aquatic birdhouse exhibit, which features penguins and pelicans. He says the secret to winning is that he went to look at the wild birds out in the park first, since early in the morning is the best time to see them, and then ran around to the exhibit birds. “I probably bird four or five times a week,” said O’Reilly. “During migration, before school in the morning, I’ll go, and then after school as well.”

Oehler says that events like Bird Migration Month help, in a larger sense, with conservation. The Birdathon gets people interested in the species that can be found in their own backyard, but which are easy to overlook. From there, the zoo can help teach visitors about the ways in which they can help protect these animals. Oehler says small things, like keeping your cats indoors (house cats kill as many as 3.7 billion birds per year), planting fruit-bearing species like blackberries and native grasses, and using bird-safe glass (adding stripes or stickers to windows so birds don’t run into them) are all ways in which anybody can help protect the birds with which they share a city.

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