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Best Late Summer Spots to Go Birdwatching in New York

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | August 24, 2012 6:39am

QUEENS — New York may be a concrete jungle, but the city’s biggest greenspaces — from Central Park to Prospect Park — are meccas for birds, letting enthusiasts take a gander at them for the price of subway or bus fare.

Birdwatching has been gaining popularity in the city, becoming a theme for many cultural events this year. The hobby attracts people of all backgrounds who don't mind getting up at dawn — when birds are most active — and craning their necks upward armed with binoculars and cameras.

And because the Big Apple is located on a major bird migration route, local birders can catch a glimpse of hundreds of colorful migrant birds, from warblers and orioles to hummingbirds and indigo buntings in addition to species that are present year-round, like blue jays, downy woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks and northern cardinals.

While spring is considered the best season for the activity, now is the time to catch a glimpse of "shorebirds in New York City, particularly at Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge,” said Tod Winston, New York City Audubon’s Outreach Program Manager.

The wildlife refuge is teeming with different types of birds and some 335 of the 400 species observed in the state have been sighted there, said Don Riepe, of Jamaica Bay Guardian Program, which patrols the bay and conducts its restoration.

At this time of year, birdwatchers coming to Jamaica Bay can also see egrets, herons, ibises, geese and cormorants.

But shorebirds are the real attraction of the midsummer season.

From stilts to oystercatchers, “up to 35 species of shorebirds may show up here during the course of the next two months,” according to Riepe.

“They migrate earlier than most other birds and are already heading south, many of them on several thousand-mile journeys from their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra to their wintering territory in Central and South America,” Winston added.

Then in September, the refuge will also start attracting a variety of raptors.

“The hawks and falcons, ospreys… they come through in good numbers,” Riepe said.

But Jamaica Bay isn't the only spot to catch a glimpse of the city's winged wayfarers.

NYC Parks ranger Jeff Billak recommends Forest Park and Central Park for woodland birds and the Rockaways for shorebirds, which live on the coasts.

Central Park is considered one of the best birding spots in the country, where more than 280 species were recorded, he said. It's famous for many migrating warblers but also for its numerous hawks.

Experts also recommend Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx, where breeds include the great horned owl and rose-breasted grosbeak. 

Prospect Park in Brooklyn is considered another prime bird-watching location where bobolink, indigo bunting, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and yellow-billed cuckoos are spotted.

Staten Island's Great Kills Park is home to short-eared owls, and it also has the only breeding colony for bank swallows in the metropolitan region.

Aside from going on your own, there are birdwatching clubs in the city such as Audubon, which is named after John Audubon, who developed a bird identification system in the 1930s.

Jeff Billak, a NYC Parks ranger who takes New Yorkers on bird watching trips around the city, said that the abundance of wildlife is an indication that nature is going strong.

“It brings us inner peace that nature is still around,” he said.

Ann Seligman, of Manhattan, an environmental activist who recently went birdwatching on Jamaica Bay, said birds fascinate her because they are colorful, they sing, and naturally, because they fly.

They “show all kinds of interesting behaviors, so you can just watch them for hours,” she said. “There is also so much diversity among birds.”

Many birders also merge their hobby with a passion for photography.

“I just love taking pictures of the birds,” said Lawrence Pugliares, 48, a teacher and court stenographer from Staten Island who was birdwatching at Jamaica Bay recently. “They are a challenge for me because they are hard to photograph.”

On Aug. 25, NYC Audubon invites New Yorkers to Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the Shorebirds Festival.

To read more about birding opportunities in New York City, go here.