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A Bird’s Eye View: Birding Brooklyn’s Hot Spots

Birding Brooklyn’s Hot Spots

Last spring I went to Brooklyn, where I’d never birded, with a small group to see the annual spring migration at two hot spots, Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery. It was early May but it felt like early March. As we pass the Ebbets Field Apartments, in my mind’s eye the gray 2008 morning is transformed into a sunny 1950s May afternoon. I’m in the Ebbets Field bleachers during batting practice, before a Brooklyn Dodgers game, holding a pink Spaulding-type rubber ball. It was a “dead” ball that someone had thrown to Dodgers right fielder Carl Furillo. When he threw it back, the ball stuck in my hands; I never forgot it.

Now minutes later, with binoculars in hand, we’re at Prospect Park, a 585-acre park that has a 60-acre lake and the borough’s last forest. It is before 6:30 a.m. when an orchard oriole, a drabber cousin of the more common Baltimore oriole, which has a richer orange breast, is one of the first avians we see. A male rose-breasted grosbeak perches atop a tree. Its color combination of a black head, white breast and a rich, rose-colored breast make it eye-catching. There is another lower on a nearby tree and soon both fly off leaving the moment divested of brightness.

The Lullwater Bridge, an old structure, sits quietly casting its reflection into the early morning smooth-as-glass water. Silently it speaks of another time. A great egret flies over the lake and lands near shore stalking the water’s edge. The egret can spear a small fish with its long yellow dagger-like bill in a millisecond. It flies to the other side and then down the winding lake. The scene looks rural; I’m amazed that we’re in NYC.

As we leave the park a large flycatcher is perched on an open branch. This bird is a welcome change from smaller warblers and vireos, which don’t often remain still or are partially hidden. It has a pale green breast and seems to have a crest. Someone has their field guide open and in front of our eyes, side by side with the live bird is a drawing of a great crested flycatcher. Nice.

Green-Wood Cemetery, not far from Prospect Park, is 478-acres and was founded in 1838 as a rural cemetery in Kings County, now in Brooklyn. It was granted National Historical Landmark status in 2006. Far from being morbid, it is a fascinating place to bird. Atop the cemetery’s main gate is a large façade resembling a medieval church. It has three steeple-like structures all of which house large monk parakeet nests. There is a colony of about 30 of these parakeets that nest here and several are carrying long branches. These bright green nearly foot-long birds with ivory-colored bills awk loudly as they fly. They land on the sticks and then disappear inside. One holds it branch tightly in its bill working it into the existing nest. It isn’t easy work as the parakeet has its tail flat against the side of the stone structure as it pushes and forces the stick to merge within the existing nest. Later about eight of the parakeets are perched in various places on the outside of these large nests. How long have the birds been here? One of the workers, who has been here for 22 years, says that they were here before he came.

Amid tombstones and mausoleums are rolling hills and a large pond where there are several flowering cherry trees. A breeze has blown many of their small petals onto the grass making it look covered in pink snow. The March-like weather makes it feel so. On the stone rim of the pond stands a cormorant, a large black diving bird. I look at the emerald green eyes of this solitary bird so out of place here. Nearby in one of the cherry trees, about 7 feet off the ground, is a cup-like robins’ nest. Sitting there is a robin that seems to be incubating eggs. So as not to disturb it we move on.

Warblers are 5-inch, fast fleeting spring migrants that can be bedeviling to get a good look at but rewarding because of the variety of their contrasting color patterns. The black-throated green warbler is a favorite of one of the group. Right now it’s offering an unusually long look. Above its black throat is a bright yellow face, which stands out in the gray morning and an olive green crown. Nice.

Atop a hill we look down at three kingbirds that are on branches below, an especially pleasing view. The kingbird is a large flycatcher with a telltale white band across the tip of its tail. They often perch on open branches to watch for passing insects. A strong breeze up here finally takes its toll. We are cold and fatigued having been out in the raw dampness for six hours. Just then someone suggests an early lunch. Hot soup sounds wonderful.

On the way out we get some looks at chipping sparrows near a mausoleum and a robin standing on a tombstone. There’s a wood thrush on a hill beneath a pine tree, many of whose needles have fallen to the ground. It’s a rust brown bird with a thin white-eye ring and a white breast with brown striations walking around in plain sight eating insects it plucks from those needles. The Dodgers left Brooklyn 52 years ago but the birds haven’t. Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery have been revelations. I’ll be back again to see more of both hot spots, preferably on a less chilly day.