Birding in the Big City
Urban dwellers are finding a new way to connect with nature.
By Ellie Martin Cliffe
Craig Newmark photo taken by James Carriere
Craig Newmark may be famous for craigslist.org, but now he's gaining recognition for something completely different: birding. His busy schedule doesn't leave room for even a bird-watching day trip, but it doesn't have to. After noticing birds in his yard, he installed a bird-watching station on the deck of his San Francisco home office.
"I overlook Sutro Forest, and as a result I get a lot of birds," he says-around 30 species, in fact, including Anna's hummingbirds, western tanagers and Townsend's warblers. "That's a really good reason to depart from work for a moment."
Spread the Word
Thanks to social networking, Craig's hobby has gone public. Tens of thousands of people are tuning in to read bird reports, see photos and watch video posted on his blog (cnewmark.com), Twitter feed and Facebook page.
"I'll see one and leap up, grab a camera and go out and try to take a picture," Craig says. "It's fun to share with others, and it feels good to see how many people love birds."
Across the country, city folk are noticing birds during their everyday routines. In Seattle, Ryan Black, a biologist, and Robert Frazier, who works for a nonprofit, relish the birdsongs they hear while cultivating their plot at a downtown community garden.
"After we're done watering, the birds start calling, waiting for us to leave so they can swoop down from the trees and eat the worms," says Ryan, who has spotted a variety of birds, including robins, American goldfinches and Steller's jays, along with eagles flying overhead. "We can actually see Puget Sound from our garden. It's so picturesque. And the wildlife completes that."
Reconnecting With Nature
So what's the draw of urban birding? "People are craving a reconnection with the simplicity of nature," Ryan says, who suggests it's really easy to do. "That can be accomplished as easily as watching out your window or glancing up as you're walking down the street. It's all around us."
I wholeheartedly agree. When my husband, Ian, and I moved to New York City from rural Wisconsin, I told myself that I'd make time for birding in Central Park, but I became convinced that I'd traded my love of the outdoors for a career. I felt very far from home—until we started getting 6 a.m. wake-up calls from blue jays living in our courtyard.
We hung a feeder from our balcony, curious to see what else we might attract. For weeks the seed was untouched, but one Saturday morning incessant peeping interrupted our breakfast. I rushed to investigate and was delighted to find a female northern cardinal hopping along the railing. The male soon followed. Then other birds-slate-colored juncos, mockingbirds, song sparrows became regulars, too. Apparently I hadn't strayed from my roots after all.
Now I know that, wherever we are, we birders have something in common. We have taught ourselves how to reconnect, pausing our busy lives to watch birds go about theirs, even if just for a second.
Urban Backyard Birding 101
You can create your own backyard oasis, even in the city!
Pick a spot. Select an outdoor space that's easy to see from inside your home. If you live in an apartment, condo or co-op, ask your landlord or the owners association if feeders are allowed.
Set it up. Once you have the OK, choose a tube-style feeder (open ones attract pigeons) and a seed mix to attract many species. Find a sturdy bowl for a birdbath. Replenish seed and water as necessary.
Make a birding kit. Gather a field guide, binoculars (for a larger space), a notebook (aka birding journal) and a pen, and store them near your bird-watching area. Keep a camera or camcorder on hand to get footage of mystery birds so you can identify them later.
Share your experiences. Join a count, like Project FeederWatch, to help collect data for ornithologists. Also post your photos and videos on sites like birdsandblooms.com and welovebirds.org.
Mind your p's and q's. Try to be courteous to your neighbors and the birds by removing debris and washing the feeder and birdbath regularly. This will help nix germs and keep the space looking pristine.
Brooklyn, New York
Skip Manhattan's Central Park and visit Prospect Park, where birding lists log more than 200 entries, including American bitterns, green herons and a host of Atlantic migratory birds.
Coral Gables, Florida
Wander along the James A. Kushlan Bird Trail at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and watch for hummingbirds, warblers, herons, buntings and hawks.
Jutting out into Lake Michigan, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is a pit stop for migrating flocks, plus local species like snowy owls and brown thrashers.
The diverse habitats at Houston Arboretum and Nature Center attract a variety of birds, including tufted titmice and pileated woodpeckers.
Look around South Platte Park's ponds and meadows for nearly
100 species, like vesper sparrows, marsh wrens and least flycatchers.
Get a taste of the Southwest and stop at Sabino Canyon in -Coronado National Forest to catch a glimpse of desert species like Gambel's quail, cactus wrens and Scott's orioles.