New Tenants: Birdwatching in New York City

Photo: Benjamin Willis.

If you would have told me a dozen years ago that I would move to New York City and develop an interest in ornithology I would have said “Great, I love Bird!” As an aspiring musician with a tendency towards jazz the thought of performing the standard canon of the beboppers in the cradle of the music’s birth would have been exhilarating. Packing my instrument and effects, leaving the doldrums of the Rust Belt with dreams lit by Broadway’s flashy neon whilst humming the angular melodies of Parker, Gillespie, Monk, and Powell would have seemed splendid. My journey, propelled by the force of three hundred beats per minute on a splashy cymbal, launching me to the heights of a career performing a living, breathing tradition in Midtown and beyond.

Alas, a dozen years later I can honestly say that while I do play jazz for people, and sometimes for money, my growing intrigue in ornithology has nothing to do with one of the music’s most famous characters.

Bird watching is as New York as baseball, bagels, and be-bop. Some of the very first citizen-scientists in the modern-day field, many New Yorkers, have been elemental in the development of the Audubon Society and ornithological institutions dedicated to the study of these fascinating creatures of flight and song.

You’ve probably heard of birds, and regrettably, birders making the news in the city during the pandemic. There was the racist white lady with her dog who accosted the African-American birder.  A snowy owl brought out all the bored amateurs, pissing off the experts.

My interest level in the topic was piqued one day by a strange encounter of another kind.

It was about a year after we moved into our new co-op. We had started our family in crowded Jackson Heights, in a lovely prewar with sculpted lions sitting watch at either side of the entrance. But, like many others, we began to be priced out of the neighborhood with rent raises and found out how little we could get if we wanted to buy.

This morning I strode down the tree lined sidewalk in the open green of my new residence, beyond our old digs, where urban Queens begins to blend into suburban Nassau, when storefront bodegas and apartment buildings turn to strip malls and single family homes. The path on the green concludes in an oval with a bench and a copse of short trees where the cement sidewalk fragments into brickwork. The brick’s trajectory takes it under an evergreen that’s cut short, obligating the passerby to stoop while continuing onto the street. As I crouched and lurched forward, careful to not catch my hair in the leaves, a tremendous rush of air came upon me from above and the commotion of the upper branches of the tree being separated by great force startled me to run.

We have raccoons in our back yard, and possums. Bigger animals than you would think, especially the raccoons. They’re like medium sized dogs, bigger than a Cocker Spaniel, yet smaller than a Labrador, and a lot meaner. The sound of whatever it was exiting the tree sounded big, but the thrust, palpable in both air movement and kinetic energy was too powerful to be a raccoon, no matter how rabid.

Clearing the short cut evergreen in hurried, panicked strides to the curb, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of an enormous bird rising in the air. Its astounding wingspan graced the sky, flapping long and languid, the sound of its wings still audible in those precious first seconds. Banking to one side the carved features of the beak and the penetrating eyes came into full view. A long piercing cry echoed throughout the neighborhood, a sound that I would later identify as that of the Red Tailed Hawk.

Birds of prey are captivating creatures. Childhood memories are dotted with the silhouettes of hawks and eagles riding thermals above the banks of the Illinois and Mississippi. Falconers who emerged from the Arabian sands with their leather gauntlets and weathered faces, clucking at their birds perched dutifully on their arms. Guttural commands urge the bird to flight and hunt as a team. This specimen was no less marvelous than any of the others.

Since then I’ve noticed other species, both migratory and local, in my corner of the “world’s borough”. Crimson cardinals, loaded with symbolism, with their ornate necks and spiked crests appear often at my window. Ostentatious blue jays with their black eyes centered in a snowy circle of down and their perfect tails. Orioles, black and orange, presumptively on the way to Baltimore, flit around with sparrows and starlings.

Located on the southern edge of Flushing Meadows, it’s a quick jaunt for us over to nature trails and the open waters of Willow and Meadow Lake to observe egrets, herons, ospreys, terns, all types of warblers, and the myriad migratory species of goose, duck and gull that pass through on their way to more hospitable climes, be it northwards or southerly.

My son and I go for walks on the trails and in our co-op. The other day we heard a woodpecker’s tap piercing through the carpentry happening in a nearby apartment, a perfect antiphonal counterpoint. We found him by listening to his knocking and glancing from tree to tree, trunk and branches. His head hammered the bark and my son laughed at the thought of pounding his head against the tree so hard. I’m not confident enough in my birding skills to say whether it was a Downy or Nuttall’s Woodpecker, but the darker zebra mantle would suggest a Nuttall’s.

Over the winter, some three years after meeting the hawk, he (or she) and a mate, built a nest in the highest boughs of one of the great American Elm trees still standing in New York, just over a hundred and fifty yards from my backdoor. The nest stood out as a dark patch against the barren limbs and greyish-white sky of February. I watched as both would swoop in with precision and perch on the branches, placing twigs to fortify the nest or devour a fresh catch.

Are they making a home up there and hatching a brood? It seems so perilously high and the wind rocks the boughs like a ship in a squall. Is this a place for eggs? Or, is this their city pad? Leaving the precious children on some ledge overlooking the Hudson somewhere up in Rip Van Winkle territory and jetting down the river for the weekend.

At some point in time, when the hawks were remodeling, another plumed friend took up residence in the depths of the boxed-leaf holly directly outside our bedroom window. Unbeknownst to me, a red-breasted American Robin was sitting on her eggs watching me get too close one morning about a month ago. Out of nowhere, she shot out of the holly and landed on one of the nearby trees and started yeeping at me. This is a distress signal in order to call the male. It wasn’t the morning song of “cheerily, cheerup, cheerily, cheerio” that begins at sunrise. It sounded more like “Hey! You! Git! Git!”, like my grandmother used to say to stray dogs from her porch, cane flailing in the air.

I couldn’t understand the aggression. About a week later we found out why. My son and a friend had found a nest, buried in between the small dark green leaves and spindly branches of the holly. Nestled inside were four eggs with a color that deserves its own name- robin’s eggs blue, a mix of cyan and turquoise with flecks of light and dark.

Being a teaching moment, I let them know that they couldn’t touch the nest or mess with either the eggs or mother, or else she might abandon them. The thought horrified them and they have become careful observers.

We are all waiting now for this blessed event. The robin sits still with head cocked and tail straightened, warming her growing younglings at all hours. If you walk calmly right by the holly and don’t make any sudden moves she’ll let you watch her.

Benjamin Willis is an activist living in New York who worked with the Cuban American community in bringing about engagement during the Obama era.