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In Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, a Bird Watcher Haven, with History

RIVERDALE — John Young has been scouting birds in Van Cortlandt Park for so long, he can’t remember when he began doing it.

“I started writing things down when I was 14, but it must have been earlier than that,” said the Riverdale resident, now 70, who keeps meticulous records of his twice weekly bird walks — what species he saw, how many — with notebooks dating as far back as 1956.

Van Cortlandt Park is known for many things: its golf club, horse stables, and a renowned cross country running course. But less known is the parks’ history as a premiere bird watching spot. The 1,146-acre park includes woodland forests, a freshwater wetland marsh, meadows and fields, making it a ripe home for different types of birds not typically found in the same place.

 Over 240 bird species have been sighted at Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park.
Over 240 bird species have been sighted at Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park.
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DNAinfo.com/Jeanmarie Evelly

Over 240 bird species have been recorded at Van Cortlandt, Young said. He estimates he’s personally seen about 220 of them.

“The habitats in Van Cortlandt are so varied,” he said. “There are no other parks in New York City that offer the same kind of habitats.”

The park also holds a significant spot in ornithological history: it was once a favorite spot of bird watcher Roger Tory Peterson, an influential naturalist known for his Peterson Field Guides, a series of pocket-sized books that established many of the species identification methods used by birders today. Peterson was a member of the now-defunct Bronx County Bird Club, started by a group of teenage boys in the 1920s who performed annual bird counts across the borough.

This year, the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy is hoping to rekindle some of the bird watching excitement that so defined those earlier eras in the park, according to Conservancy president and park administrator Margot Perron.

“We just want to bring that movement back,” she said.

Every Saturday, group bird walks depart from the park’s Nature Center at 8 a.m., led by members of the Parks Department's Urban Rangers crew or by Audubon experts like Young. Fall is the optimal time of the year for bird watching, Young says, since the park is along a major migratory path for many species heading south for winter.

The walks attract a variety of participants, from seasoned regulars to college students studying animal behavior, according to Perron, and Park-goers record their sightings in a log book outside the Nature Center.

“We see hunting, we see mating, we see preening, we get excited when we see them poop,” she laughed. “The behavioral stuff is fascinating.”

Part of the hobby’s appeal, according to Young, is its accessibility.

“A pair of binoculars and a field guide is all you need,” he said.

Young is so often seen with his own pair of binoculars that he's know to his Riverdale neighbors as the “Bird Man,” according to his wife, Minty Young. His birding notebooks, handwritten in pencil, contain neatly recorded counts of bird species spotted at the park over the last 50 years.

“He’s meticulous,” Minty Young said.

His records date back to a different era for Van Cortlandt, before Robert Moses built the Major Deegan Expressway and the Henry Hudson Parkway, breaking the park into segments and fragmenting many bird habitats. And while the park has changed dramatically over the years, its most important feature has remained, in Young’s eyes: its vast swaths of unbridled wilderness, perfect for birding.

"That’s pretty much how I would like it to stay,” Young said. “Every time I sit down at a [parks] meeting, I hear people say, "Wouldn’t it be great if this park was more like Central Park? And my answer is always 'No.' It would chase me to Florida."

According to Perron, it’s park-goers like Young who help guard the beauty and history of Van Cortlandt.

“We want people to respect and protect this park,” she said. “And bird watchers are the most vocal conservationists.”