Tucked away in the greenery of one of the busiest cities in the world, a small group of birders sets their sights on warblers, vireos, orioles, Monk parakeets and many other unique species.
Led by nature and bird enthusiast Rob Jett, these birders of New York City—home to about eight million people and the country’s tallest skyscrapers—see many species that birders in rural areas only dream about.
While some people assume birding in the city is not possible, they are completely wrong.
“Birds and animals can live in extraordinarily diverse environments,” said Rob Jett, who leads tours in New York City and runs the fantastic City Birder blog. “You can see them pretty much anywhere. You see them in the arctic, in city parks, in the desert.”
Under current estimates, about 250 million people live in or around cities in the U.S., which is around 80 percent of all Americans. This means more and more birders are finding themselves surrounded by concrete. But, where there is space, there are birds.
Organizations like the Los Angeles Audubon Society, Audubon Society of Portland, Dallas Birding Society and other local birding groups in cities help educate, build interest and guide birders in the city to prime spots. It’s also possible for youngsters to learn and foster an interest in birding while in cities.
New York birder Jett grew up in the city and developed an interest in nature early on. He said he recalled going hiking with his dad, looking closely at birds, getting binoculars and following hawks around. His passion eventually led him to make birding friends, join the Brooklyn Bird Club and lead tours around Greenwood Cemetery and other New York destinations.
What makes birding so unique in cities is that each city has its own hotspots and purpose for birds. For example, New York is located on the Atlantic Flyway where many species travel north and south during migration. You also get some interesting birds in Seattle, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix.
Even though birding in cities is possible, it can be different than birding in rural areas.
Sometimes, Jett said, you have to work harder to find birds in urban centers whereas birding in places like South America is more effortless. By having to work a little harder to find prime birding locations and different species, you learn to appreciate them more.
In some instances, Jett said you’ll occasionally find birds in unexpected places in the city.
“Virginia Rails, marsh birds, have the tendency to drop off anywhere,” he said. For example, his wife’s coworker saw a Virginia Rail off Broadway, and one had to be rescued from a wedding reception at the Picnic House in Prospect Park.
Not long ago, a very rare gray-hooded gull was spotted hanging around Coney Island.
When I asked Rob Jett what sort of advice he’d give to birders in cities around the country, he said the best thing to do is find others with similar interests and join birdwatching clubs.
“I’m sure every major city has an Audubon chapter where you can learn more about birds in the area and go on birding trips,” he said.
So, the next time you’re lamenting the fact that you’re stuck in a city and suburban area, just remember that birders across the nation in cities are taking the initiative to go birding and you should too.
If you’re in New York City, I highly recommend visiting Rob Jett’s site The City Birder, where you can learn more about his amazing tours.