The Accidental Birders: Saving Our Sanity in a Pandemic

When your world contracts, you have to do what you can to expand it.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

Photograph by Andy Makeley. Copyright free. Unsplash.
Source: Photograph by Andy Makeley. Copyright free. Unsplash.

We didn’t become birders intentionally; instead, my daughter and I just stumbled into it, and the gateway was turtles. During the months that the pandemic first flattened New York City—shutting down the leisurely hangouts with friends, the shopping for the fun of it, the galleries, museums, movie theatres, and restaurants—my Facebook feed was flooded with images of how other people coped. There were the curators of sourdough starter and their loaves, the re-decorators and those deputized by Marie Kondo, the knitters and tatters, the newly hatched photographers and writers but none of these appealed. The constant wail of the sirens, the hum of the portable morgue parked across from my building, the discarded furniture that littered every street, and the ubiquitous moving trucks made it seem that only those who had nowhere to go were staying.

It was this native New Yorker’s “discovery” of the Turtle Pond in Central Park—not unlike Columbus’ similar finding of a continent that had always been there—that began the transformation of two of the least likely candidates for birding. We were there for the turtles and while there were some Canada geese and mallards and their mates on the water, our eyes were peeled for our Chelonian pals. Next to us was a gaggle of teens—all in school uniform—accompanied by two adults. They were squealing and pointing, looking upward. I looked up and saw nothing. Finally, I asked: “Kids, what are you looking at?" A blonde girl answered: “There’s a hawk in that tree.” Sure enough, there was and then it took off, high in the sky, flying west. We were, to say the least, thrilled.

Photo by author
Source: Photo by author

But it was a chance encounter with a true birder—with superior binoculars and a very fine camera—that changed it all, once again at the Turtle Pond. He was peering intently in the distance at what seemed to be dark blobs, and I asked what he was looking at. “Northern Shovelers,” he replied. We hightailed it to another path where we could see them up close and, boy, what a sight it was! Shovelers are pleasing to look at—the males are brightly colored and the females mottled—but what sets them apart is their bills, black for him and orange for her, which are long and flat. Amazingly, there were about 15 Shovelers, all swimming in a circle, bills down, like guests at a Jewish wedding dancing the hora and unlike any other duck either of us had ever seen. It turns out that their bills are more like colanders than not—allowing them to filter out water and keep the duckweed, seeds, and other things they eat in.

I knew I had binoculars somewhere and fished them out as we began to explore Central Park in a more dedicated way. We headed north, we went south. While once we’d looked to see what passersby were wearing in a famously chic city devoted to black, instead we started scanning the skies—hawk watch—and were amazed that, on any given day, we’d see at least five or six. My Millennial daughter took to social media to inform our walks—yes, birders alert you to rarities on Twitter—and as late summer turned to autumn, we became alert to the calls and songs of our avian neighbors and the wholesale scattering of pigeons when a hawk was around.

We discovered the deliciousness of bufflehead ducks, the Houdinis of the waters who are here one minute and gone the next as they dive down to eat, leaving just ripples in their wake, only to pop right back up but not always in the same place. We went in search of the Great Blue Heron (success!) and then Manhattan’s newest celebrity, the Barred Owl. He provided us with a 3-D version of Where’s Waldo as we spied him in a Pine tree, saw his shape in yet another, and finally got a real look as he perched in a Hemlock. Along with many other New Yorkers—famous for giving the human celebrities who live here wide berth—we became part of the faithful, visiting time and time again, hoping to make eye contact.

With the dedication of the knights who sought the Grail, we searched for the Great Horned Owl and were rewarded with the sight of a brown bottom, high up in a tree. More than once, we watched as a hawk swooped down from a tree, caught a rodent in his talons, and perched on a branch for an al fresco brunch, bits of fur floating down with the leaves. We stalked the Peregrine Falcon by the reservoir (nope!) but were rewarded by the sight of Wood Ducks and the American Coot. (And, yes, it turns out that the old childhood chant of someone having “cooties” is connected to the bird who was long reputed to be a harborer of lice and flies. The idea of kids with “cooties” came via the soldiers of World War I who came home with “coots.”)

Photo by author
Source: Photo by author

We sat down on a bench in Hallett’s Sanctuary to spy on another Great Blue Heron only to look down on the ground and see that we had a kestrel for company. We marveled at the Hooded Mergansers with their heads like hats more suitable for Ascot or a British royal wedding than everyday swimming.

Inevitably, we developed bird envy—the birders who could get to Jones Beach and see the Snowy Owls, the lucky Westsiders who happened to catch the Bald Eagle who stopped by, the people who saw the rare-to-these-parts Western Tanagers (one uptown and one downtown)—and, of course, FOMO which grew more intense as my daughter was stuck on a business call when people were watching the Long-Eared Owl who came by Belvedere Castle. We tried not to become bird snobs; I swatted down my daughter when she said, “It’s just a mallard” and made sure I took photos of the cardinal bright against the snow and rejoiced when a vireo showed up among the chime of wrens in front of my apartment building. And, to be sure, you can never see too many chickadees, nuthatches, or tufted titmice—just saying.

photo by author
Source: photo by author

We studied up on the different hawks—was it a Cooper’s or a Red-Tailed or a Red-Shouldered?—but were lucky enough to find ourselves in contact with masked founts of knowledge, real birders, who showed us where to stand and look, and helped us figure out who’s who. The shared delight of every birder lifted our spirits immeasurably and we learned to follow those who had the most serious equipment.

In the midst of an angsty pandemic, the birds and the birders reminded us that beauty and camaraderie are in the details. Yes, we were masked and socially distanced but the wariness was replaced by common purpose, pleasure, and even moments of joy.

Just a few days ago, we stood under a tree by the reservoir where a hawk had perched, clearly visible,  and as I took photos, a woman stopped by, looked up, and said, “Aren’t we lucky?” Indeed, we are.

photo by author
Source: photo by author

Copyright © 2021 by Peg Streep