2020 in birds

This has become an annual post. In an ordinary year, it’s a nice way to remember where and with whom I saw which birds, and to try to explain why that particular bird, in those particular circumstances, warrants “bird of the month” honors.

Of course, 2020 was not an ordinary year. Most of my birding was done within a 5-mile radius of my Brooklyn home. Despite that constraint, or perhaps because of it, I birded even more obsessively than usual. By late November, I’d already seen more species in Brooklyn than I’d ever managed before.

This was also the year when scores, maybe hundreds, of Brooklynites took up birding for the first time. It was fun seeing them in Prospect Park (at first) and then (as we all started feeling safer traveling a bit farther afield) in places like Fort Tilden, Jamaica Bay and Plumb Beach. Their enthusiasm was a welcome reminder of just how purely, stupidly joyful the pursuit and observation of birds can be.

A year’s worth of idiosyncratically-chosen birds follows. A few were rarities, some of them lifers. Others were birds I see every year, but that took on new meaning in 2020.

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Street Art Sunday: Brooklyn’s pandemic year

Good-bye and good riddance, 2020. Starting in late March, when the streets were still mostly deserted, I snapped photos of creative responses to the pandemic. Some pieces offered encouragement and hope; others admonished us to act responsibly. Many paid tribute to the workers who cared for the sick and kept the city functioning. The most poignant memorialized the dead.

A sampling follows.

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Floyd Bennett Field

50 Favorite Places #26
It has history. It has creepy ruined buildings and empty hangars. It has miles of runways and a coastline. It has birds, from soaring raptors to twittering finches to goofy woodcocks. It has that most coveted of urban luxuries: space.

What it doesn’t have are easy transit connections. Consequently, I’d lived in Brooklyn for more than three years before I made my way to the end of the 2 subway line, found the Q35 bus stop alongside the Nostrand Junction Target store, got off by the Gateway Marina and dashed across Flatbush Avenue to what was, at one time, the main commercial airport serving New York City.

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Sometimes, you just need . . .

As regular readers will know, I’ve been sporadically documenting the bitterly cryptic comments pasted on walls around Brooklyn by an unknown street artist or artists. It’s been a long time since I found a new one – my last update was nearly a year ago, which in pandemic time equates to either 118 years or 2 days.

Then, on Thanksgiving morning, I happened upon this. Too tagged and tattered to read, it invites multiple interpretations:

Sometimes, you just need to burp the horse.

Sometimes, you just need to burn the house.

Sometimes, you just need to bury the birdseed.

Sometimes, you just need to bump the bruises.

Ditmas Park (Halloween edition)

50 Favorite Places #25
Ditmas Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood of tree-lined streets and gracious Victorian homes, is one of my favorite places any time of year – but that’s for another post. This post is about Ditmas Park at Halloween.

Several years ago, I heard someone mention that Halloween is to Ditmas Park as Christmas is to Dyker Heights. I was intrigued, but then forgot about it until after the holiday. Last year, it slipped my mind again. But in this pandemic year, with nothing but time on my hands, I made a point of reconnoitering the neighborhood on a damp late-October morning.

At first, I was disappointed. I saw the requisite pumpkins, many spider webs, and a few skeletons. An inflatable black and purple ghoul, bobbing in the breeze, struck me as more playful than terrifying. Frankly, I saw nothing that would have stood out as exceptional in any residential section of Brooklyn.

Then I came to the corner of Argyle and Albemarle roads. It was just one house, but what a house! Its wraparound porch, typical of the neighborhood, lends itself to discrete vignettes of horror. There’s one dedicated to witches, one to zombies, one to demons, and one – my favorite, shown below – to scary clowns.

If I weren’t signed up to make calls to voters tomorrow (my attempt to avert true horror), I might run by there after dark to check out the full show.

Then again, I might be too scared to.

Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park

50 Favorite Places #24
My pursuit of birds has taught me a lot about my city. Before I got serious about birding Brooklyn, much of the borough south of Church Avenue was a mystery to me. Sure, there was Coney Island and Brighton Beach and DiFara Pizza and all those lettered avenues you run past during the Brooklyn Half Marathon . . . but I had at best a glancing familiarity with vast swaths of the city.

For example, I’d never heard of Marine Park. And even after I heard of it (from eBird, naturally), I had no clue where it was or how to get there without a car. But it seemed like one of those places someone attempting a local “biggish year” should go, and so, after looking it up on a map and figuring out transit connections, off I went.

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Industry City

50 Favorite Places #23
Industry City: it’s complicated. Is this still one of my favorite places, or is it a nightmare of hyper-gentrification? If I write about it here, am I encouraging its transformation into the kind of “destination” I despise? Should I move on to something less complicated, like parks and bakeries?

But Brooklyn is all about complications, and so is this blog. In the end I decided to include it for what it has to say about the past, the present, and possible – contested – futures.

Besides, Industry City is already part of every post I write: this blog’s banner features a detail of one of its buildings, circa 2010 or so. Even before I moved here for good, the complex and its surrounding blocks were one of my favorite destinations for easy runs. I love old industrial architecture – it’s the Detroiter in me, I suppose – and the Sunset Park waterfront is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in factories and warehouses. It’s lined with hulking, yet oddly graceful, multi-story factory lofts, interspersed with lower-rise warehouses and knit together by abandoned railroad tracks. Some buildings are, if not abandoned outright, underused. Others hum with activity, from the production of customized t-shirts to building supplies to beer. Smaller businesses sell live poultry, rebuild cars, and machine the components that go in those rebuilt cars. Truck traffic bumps along the uneven, block-paved streets.

Against this backdrop, the Industry City complex rises between 32nd and 37th streets like something conjured by a wizard or a movie director . . . or a developer. Oh, it’s real enough: the buildings date from the 1890s, when Irving T. Bush was pioneering the integration of transportation, manufacturing and distribution (you can read more about Bush and his legacy here). But today, they stand apart from the rest of the waterfront neighborhood. They’re in it, but not of it.

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Mazzola Bakery

Fifty Favorite Places #22
In 1928, when Nicolo Mazzola opened a bakery at the corner of Henry and Union streets in what was then called South Brooklyn, the neighborhood was well into its transition from Irish to Italian. Both groups were driven by hunger – the potato famine, the almost feudal poverty of the Mezzogiorno – and drawn by the lure of jobs along Brooklyn’s developing waterfront. Today, the area has been re-dubbed Carroll Gardens, and it’s pretty thoroughly gentrified. Judging by what one sees and hears on the street, intimidatingly stylish and attractive young families from France are now the biggest immigrant group. But traces of older waves remain. There are the fig trees brought as seedlings from Sicily or Campania, replanted in Brooklyn gardens, wrapped and coddled through half a century of harsh winters, and still bearing fruit today. There are old school barber shops and funeral homes with unmistakably Italian names. There’s the Cittadini Molesi social club, the last of its kind. There’s the church where Al Capone was married. There are front yards like the one pictured below.

A Carroll Gardens classic

And there’s Mazzola Bakery – still in its original location and still family-owned, though since 1980 that family has not been the Mazzolas but the Caravellos.

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Sunset Park

50 Favorite Places #21
This is about Sunset Park – the actual park, not the neighborhood of the same name (though I love the neighborhood as well). In general, I rank parks according to the quantity, variety and novelty of the birds I’ve seen or aspire to see within their boundaries. Sunset Park is an exception. Not so with Sunset Park. While you can see birds there – Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Crows of both the American and Fish persuasions, as well as the ubiquitous pigeons, House Sparrows and starlings, other common backyard birds, and the occasional weary migrant – it’s no one’s idea of a birding hot spot. The fact that I love it so much despite its failure to contribute a single species to my life list attests to its other charms.

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