Last weekend, the National Audubon Society teamed up with the group Runstreet to host a running tour of the Audubon Murals in Upper Manhattan. Let’s see . . . an event that combines running, birds and street art? Sign me up!
And so, only slightly challenged by weekend train schedules, I headed across the East River and up, up, uptown to the Harlem Public at Broadway and W. 149th. A small crowd of participants had already gathered – easily recognized, first, by the fact that they were milling around outside a closed bar at 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, and second, by their mix of running and bird-themed apparel. As we arrived, a preternaturally cheerful organizer checked us off from her list of registrants. New arrivals continued to trickle in, muttering about “trains” (the all-purpose NYC excuse for tardiness), until someone decided that it was time to get started.
First, though, some background on the Audubon Mural Project, echoing the introduction provided to us by Avi Gitler, a local gallery owner and project coordinator. The ambitious goal is to depict all of the more than 300 North American birds threatened with extinction because of climate change. Eight years into the effort, the count has reached 138, spread across 100 murals, mostly in Upper Manhattan – where John James Audubon was once a major landowner, and where he is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church.
I ran to and around Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood twice last week: once on a long-shot quest for Snowy Owls (they’ve been showing up in all kinds of unlikely places this year, so why not a warehouse roof somewhere in Red Hook?), once to get sandwiches from Defonte’s. It was on the first run, which meandered through likely unlikely Snowy Owl habitat and yielded no owls, but an inordinate number of Fish Crows, that I saw these cool examples of poster art.
The amorous skeletons at the top of this post were pasted on an expanse of brick wall on one of the quiet streets leading west from Van Brunt toward the waterfront – Van Dyke, maybe? (I made a mental note to remember the location, then promptly forgot it.) They shared the wall with this tagged-over jaguar by the same artist(s) . . .
. . . and this delicate plant, in a very different style.
And finally, not art, but a reminder of how long it had been since my last Red Hook run . . . and how fast the neighborhood is changing; I’m pretty sure this Potemkin building had four walls the last time I was on Coffey St.
It’s time – past time, honestly, but who among us isn’t mired in the deep lethargy of another pandemic winter? – for a look back at the last year in birds. It was a great year for them. Northern finches descended on Brooklyn in abundance, for reasons I won’t go into here, but which folks who study such things will cheerfully explain if you’re at all interested, or even if you aren’t. So, for reasons no one has been able to explain to me, did seagoing ducks. Plus the usual suspects, and a few breathtakingly unusual ones. Above all, with human time either frozen or stuck on repeat, the progress of the avian calendar – migration, courtship, babies, migration again – was reassuringly normal. It’s OK, the birds seemed to be saying. You’ll get through this.
Burros – along with their diminutive (at least in name) cousins, burritos – have always struck me as problematic. They’re invariably overstuffed, often grotesquely so. When they’re not dry, they’re drowning in goopy sauce and (horrors) cheese. Worst of all is the dreaded burrito fold, confronting the eater with double or triple or quadruple layers of gummy flour tortilla.
But Eric and I are in Tucson this week, and Tucson is the land of flour tortillas, where chimichangas were born and burros reign supreme. As the saying goes: when in Rome, do as the Sonorenses do.
It started with a quest to see a bird; it ended with a search for a different bird, and a takeout container of tacos on the F train.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. When I left the apartment early this morning, headed for the R train, I had visions of glory. That Sandhill Crane that’s been reported several times at the Dyker Beach Golf Course, always vanishing before others could lay eyes on it? I would find it. Maybe I’d even manage to document it with my handy iPhone camera.
Ha! You know who gets up even earlier than birders (or at least this birder)? Golfers, that’s who. By the time I had surfaced at 86th St and jogged west to the golf course, multiple foursomes were already well into their games. The idea that a freakishly large, long-legged bird would still be out there grazing in the short grass began to seem a bit farfetched.
50 Favorite Places #28 Shirley Chisholm is a new state park, opened in the summer of 2019 and named after the pioneering Brooklynite who represented central Brooklyn in Congress from 1969 to 1983. It’s located on the far eastern edge of the borough, just off the Belt Parkway, where East New York butts up against Howard Beach.
From 1956 to 1985, the site was a pair of working landfills. As the Starrett City housing complex rose, so did the landfill piles across the Belt Parkway from it. The landfills blocked not just waterfront access, but even waterfront views, for residents of the waterfront neighborhood. Take it as a sign of the disregard the city has historically shown its 520 miles of coastline (fun fact: NYC has more coastline than Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston combined), and its scornful attitude toward residents of modest means. (You can find an excellent history of the site here.)
By the time I started birding and running Brooklyn’s coastal edge, the area’s reclamation was well underway – the formerly stinking mounds were covered with grass – but it was closed tight. Ominous signs warned away trespassers, while increasingly tattered banners promised a park was coming.
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.
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.
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.
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.