Top Ten Spots for Spring Birding

East: Islands in a Sea of Concrete: New York City's Green Spaces

New York, you'd think, would be a tough place to be a naturalist. After all, it's the most densely populated, heavily developed city in the United States—Manhattan Island and environs have been paved over and built upon past any resemblance to how things must have looked before we humans showed up.

But New York's urban birders have long known a secret. The city's few real green spaces—places like Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Jamaica Bay on the ragged, marshy edges of Queens—are powerful magnets for migratory birds. The city sits a juncture of the Atlantic flyway used for eons by many species of songbirds, waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and raptors; as they fly into the New York area and get the urge to stop to rest and feed, there are only so many patches of inviting green they see. The city's parks, then, are islands of crucial habitat without which the birds might not successfully make their long journeys across the Americas—and the birds, in turn, are crucial links for rootless cosmopolitans to the timeless rhythms of nature. In springtime, the first swells of incoming migrants start to arrive in early April—just a trickle of palm and pine warblers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, perhaps a few vireos to go with robins, cardinals, thrashers, and catbirds. But from late April through the first two weeks of May, the trickle becomes a torrent; a good day in Central Park's Ramble can net as many as 25 species of warblers, along with tanagers, thrushes, orioles, even peregrine falcons! May is also the peak of the shorebird migration out at Jamaica Bay; the mudflats of South Marsh and over at East Pond will likely teem with black-bellied plovers, semipalmated sandpipers, red knots, avocets, godwits, and more.

In the end, the circumstances of urban birding are as bewitching as the quality and quantity of species logged. New York's birders are a community knit tightly together by love of nature, and the social scene and characters haunting the Ramble on a Sunday in May are as interesting as the birdlife. And weird juxtapositions between the urban and natural deepen the pleasure of city birding—glass a massive Prospect Park oak dripping with a score or two of warblers and you might simultaneously hear the carnival sounds of the annual big-top "UniverSoul Circus" drifting your way; a Jamaica Bay stroll commonly presents you with a foreground of purple martins reeling through aerial acrobatics, while jumbo jets thunder aloft ponderously at nearby Kennedy Airport. Mother Nature's shown resiliency through incredible punishment in places like these—it's only fair that birders have to show a little mental agility in learning to tune her in.

Just the Facts

Birding Hot Spots: At New York's ground zero, Central Park's Ramble is justly famous as a migrant-bird trap; the only comparable Manhattan site is Inwood Hill Park on the island's northernmost tip, where steep hillsides harbor tracts of 300-year-old forest. The outer boroughs sport a few more options: Queens highlights include Jamaica Bay, Breezy Point at the west end of the Rockaways, the old forests and glacial eskers and potholes of Forest Park, and Alley Pond Park in the tangle of expressways east of LaGuardia Airport. Densely populated Brooklyn's best are Prospect Park, Marine Park for its salt-marsh birding, and Floyd Bennett Field, an old airfield gone to seed, for its grasslands action. The Bronx has stellar migrant traps in Pelham Bay Park and especially Van Cortlandt Park, and Staten Island's extensive Greenbelt is also excellent.

More NYC Outdoors: The Big Apple isn't the easiest place to live the outdoor lifestyle, but the persistent can keep themselves from suffering withdrawal. The city's "greenways" are improving by leaps and bounds, offering good bike and jogging paths. The complex of Gateway National Recreation Area—which includes Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge—gives New Yorkers the whole spectrum of Atlantic Coast environments and recreational pleasures within reach of the subway. And if you want more birding, New Jersey's Great Swamp and Brigantine wildlife refuges are not far away.


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