Of a Feather

Of a Feather

The grass is still wet from the rain as the morning light pushes through the fog on a brisk spring morning in Prospect Park. The paths are dappled with joggers, cyclists, strollers, and dogs, yet no one notices our group of twelve, necks conspicuously craned and binoculars pressed up to our faces. It’s only 7:30 a.m., but this walk with the Brooklyn Bird Club began 30 minutes ago.

“Did everyone see it?” Steve Nanz, the leader, asks as he adjusts his telescope and points it into the branches. “Has everyone seen the palm warbler?” When we all answer affirmatively, he puts his scope on his shoulder and moves on. The rest of us let our binoculars hang around our necks and follow to scout out the next bird.

Birders, like the creatures they seek, often go unnoticed until someone points them out. Once you know how to find them, they seem to be everywhere. In Brooklyn, they are particularly overlooked despite being a robust constituency of the borough’s incredible natural habitats, such as Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery, Floyd Bennett Field, Dead Horse Bay, and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Once one looks beyond the pigeons pooping on park benches and sparrows pecking at the trash, hundreds of new birds come into view. The borough is one of the best places in the world to to go birding, and the club’s 250 members — in the face of park visitors and ecological disasters that pose a threat to avian habitats — are working to keep it that way.

Founded by Edward Vietor in 1909 as the Bird Lovers’ Club, the Brooklyn Bird Club has waxed and waned over the course of its 105-year history. Today’s club, though, is as strong as ever. Having always aimed to educate the public on the birds that make their homes in Brooklyn or pass through each year, the club focuses on conservation and on sharing the joy of birds with other Brooklynites. In 1918, Vietor gave a lecture at the Brooklyn Museum on various local species, a tradition that continues today. As early as 1920, the club donated books to school libraries and held contests for students in which they awarded medals to the best bird essay or poster illustrating bird life. To raise awareness and encourage fundraising for conservation efforts, the club has long hosted an annual Christmas Bird Count in December and a Birdathon in May for International Migratory Bird Day. But what the club prides itself on is providing free guided walks throughout the borough, into Queens, and even outside the city to places like Doodletown, Sterling Forest, Nickerson Beach, and central New Jersey. All trips are open to beginners and experts — even those who haven’t paid the $20 annual dues.

For many members, birding is less a hobby and more a way of life. Since discovering birding seven years ago, Dennis Hrehowsik, 38, a master printer for a fine-art print shop, has arranged his entire life around the activity. He and his wife chose an apartment within walking distance of Prospect Park and only a short bus or train ride away from Floyd Bennett Field, Marine Park, Coney Island, and Plumb Beach, so as to be optimally located for birding. Like most members of the club, Hrehowsik didn’t know much about birds the first time he went out, but by going on walks with the club’s more experienced birders, he learned the basics. Now he often wakes up at 5 a.m. to go out before work. He is a trip leader and runs the program committee, an arm of the club that brings in speakers for meetings. Last year he saw 240 species in Brooklyn alone. “It’s been a vehicle of self-discovery for me,” Hrehowsik says. “It’s good to be an active member of something in a society where a lot people live very passive lives. It’s been transformative.”

Like Hrehowsik, members of the Brooklyn Bird Club can’t speak of birding without using words like “transformative,” “thrilling,” “meditative,” “beautiful,” “fun,” “infectious,” and “magical.” It’s so enticing that Rob Bate, the current president, who was an abstract painter for a long time, doesn’t find himself in his studio much anymore. “One of my reasons for painting was the beauty of it, being connected to the real world. But I tell you, birding gets you connected to the real world in a hurry, and very dramatically.”

Rob Bate, president of the Brooklyn Bird Club, in Prospect Park.

Before I go out on my first birding adventure, I am skeptical of its appeal. Wandering alone in Prospect Park on a cold February afternoon, I desperately want to feel transported and put my new binoculars to use, but my ignorance is winning out. After some time of wandering, unsure of where to look, I finally hear something. Haphazardly, I raise my binoculars to my face and survey the branches. Suddenly, a blaze of red appears in my vision. The bird’s head is bobbing in and out of a hole as I stand mesmerized by its zebra-like wings and red mohawk. I have no idea what I am looking at, but it is stunning. I stand there, captivated, breathless, awed. And just like that, I understand the obsession and want my next hit of beauty.

With the help of another birder who walks up to me, I identify my inaugural bird as a red-bellied woodpecker. I meet this same woman, Kathy Toomey, 63, on a bird walk in Green-Wood Cemetery and again at a meeting for the Brooklyn Bird Club. She has been a member of the club since the 1980s. Now that she is retired from teaching second grade at P.S. 130, she spends more time in the park. “I go birding almost every day. It’s like meditation because it’s so peaceful,” she says. “There is a puzzle to solve and so you really have to focus on it.”

Birding can be anything from a little walk in the park to a lifelong obsession or profession. One can bird perfectly well with a pair of binoculars for $100. One can also spend a fortune on trips and equipment. In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that birders spent $107 billion, created 666,000 jobs, and generated $13 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenue. Some people chase birds and keep competitive lists. The most extreme attempt a big year, a 365-day race to log the most birds in North America. Others, like Peter Dorosh, 53, who was president of the club for twelve years before Rob Bate took over, likes to go slow. “I enjoy it. I'm not a chaser or a lister,” Dorosh says. “I'm approaching 40 years of birding, and I only have 425 species of birds for a lifetime. Most people who have been birding for that long would already have a couple thousand birds.” For him, it’s about the beauty of nature and the relevancy of birds within their habitat, the interconnectedness to where they live. It’s also about sharing that joy with others. “You have to be careful of elitism. You can get too competitive and leave everybody else behind,” Dorosh says. “We should all be inclusive.” The club’s supportive community is what first hooks many of its members. “In a club like this, you begin to see what’s possible,” Hrehowsik says. “Your senses are heightened, and it changes your life, but I don’t think you can do that on your own. You have to have someone help you open the door.”

A dedicated birder can spend a fortune on trips and equipment, but a simple pair of binoculars will suffice.

Tom Stephenson, 64, author of The Warbler Guide and a lecturer and guide for the Brooklyn Bird Club, is trying to open the door for people by heightening their sense of hearing. “Most people in the city shut down their hearing because they’re assaulted by sound everywhere they go,” Stephenson says. “In the city you’re in an audio tunnel.” As he speaks to me on a park bench in Prospect Park, he stops to identify some songs. “There’s a cedar waxwing calling, and starlings. There’s a warbling vireo!” Stephenson is a professional musician and studio engineer who has worked with several Grammy and Academy Award winners. His clients have included the Grateful Dead, Phil Collins, and the FBI. At one point in his career, he led birding tours in South and Southeast Asia and even trained guides for the government of Bhutan. After realizing that most people’s methods of learning bird songs were inadequate, he endeavored to establish a better system, which he used to learn 500 songs for one of his trips. Stephenson’s system evolved into part of The Warbler Guide, which uses sonograms — a visual representation of frequencies — to teach a revolutionary system of song identification. He is now working on new apps, one of which would recognize the birdsongs around you the way Shazam identifies a song playing.

But having a musician’s finely tuned ears is not a prerequisite for birding. Hrehowsik didn’t know a thing about birdsongs, but now, he says, “My ear is so developed that when I walk into the woods, it’s like walking into a whole different world. There is so much going on!” And then there is Dorosh, who was deaf until he was eight years old, when he received hearing aids. He depends on lip-reading and cannot hear birdsongs at all but gets by quite well using just his eyes.

If you encountered any of the club’s members in the park, they might seem like a small group of friendly naturalists, decked out in hiking boots and sun-blocking hats, notable for just how un-chic they are. Most are reflective of the average birder in the U.S. — white, educated, and over 50 — but the stereotype that bird-watching is your grandpa’s hobby, better suited for aching joints, gray hair, and a life outside the city, doesn’t tell the whole story. In the U.S., there are 51.3 million birders. In New York state, 20 percent of people are birders. It is the fastest-growing outdoor hobby, and the club has begun to see more younger birders join its ranks.

In Brooklyn, birders are not settling for a few bird sightings in an urban landscape while pining for more natural habitats. People come from all over the world to go birding in Prospect Park. Comprising only 585 acres, the park hosts more than 200 species of birds, including both residents and visitors. That puts it just behind the Great Smoky Mountains, whose 521,085 acres are home to 240 species, and Yellowstone, with its 2 million acres and 300 species. (Central Park’s species count is comparable to that of Prospect Park.) “Urban birding, in many ways, is better than birding anywhere else because it concentrates the birds,” Tom Stephenson says.

Prospect Park is a migrant trap, which means that twice a year, birds funnel into the park in astounding numbers as they fly north in the spring and south in the fall, searching for food and suitable breeding conditions. Many of these birds, starting in South America and bound for northern Canada, fly thousands of miles at night. Because they refuse to fly over water, they follow the coastline until they see lush patches of trees where they can rest and refuel. Around New York City, there aren’t many options, so they inundate the parks. The most famous migrants are the warblers — small, colorful songbirds — of which up to 35 species pass through the city. When they arrive in full mating attire in May, birding season kicks into high gear.

Though the migrants descend upon the park in great numbers, Brooklyn’s songbirds, the warblers in particular, have declined by 70 percent over the last 20 or 30 years. “It’s hard to care about that, though, when you never noticed them in the first place,” Stephenson says, “so that’s part of our mission: to educate people.” To raise more awareness, Rob Bate is integrating the club into the conservation and political communities: “I took the job as president so I could use the reputation of the Brooklyn Bird Club to open some doors and have a greater voice for conservation issues.”

Conservation efforts go hand-in-hand with birding because everywhere a birder goes, they see habitat under threat. They’ve experienced firsthand the dwindling numbers of birds. “It’s difficult to see habitat getting destroyed, so you naturally want to do something about it,” Bate says. “You become very attuned to what’s going on and how sensitive the birds are to any kind of disturbance. It can change your life.”

Jonathan Franzen had a similar awakening when he started birding. In an essay in the New Yorker, he writes, “Birds needed help. And this, I realized, was the true disaster for a modern New Yorker. This was the scenario I’d been at pains to avert for many years: not the world’s falling apart in the future but my feeling inconveniently obliged to care about it in the present. This was my bird problem.” And this is the problem Bate has taken up for the club: to make people care about the birds and the environment now.

For that to happen, Bate says that Prospect Park needs to be established in people’s minds as a natural habitat. This is difficult, however, because Prospect Park was built for people, not birds. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1800s, the park was created to be a respite from the busyness of city life that everyone, not just the wealthy, could enjoy. “It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God’s handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances,” Olmsted wrote. The Park opened in 1867 and bore the mark of men in the milieu of transcendentalism who were infatuated with the idea of democratic recreation and contemplating nature. “Their vision wasn’t about some of the mess that is necessary for habitat preservation,” Bate says. Instead, Olmsted and Vaux created a park with winding carriage drives, scenic lookouts, lush meadows, trickling waterfalls, and, of course, a variety of plants, including those imported from Asia and Europe, which is now problematic for the park.

Dorosh, who works for the Prospect Park Alliance as a field technician for natural resources in the landscape management department, builds and protects habitats. The day I interviewed him, he was overseeing an effort with volunteers to remove sycamore and Norway maple saplings. These invasive species, originally from Asia, grow abundantly and shade out other plants. Olmsted first planted them, but now they act as a nuisance to the area’s natural residents and as very poor hosts for birds, who have been coming through the area for hundreds of thousands of years. Relatively new species of plants can upset symbiotic relationships between birds and trees.

Olmsted wasn’t a perfect landscaper, but his vision for creating a “rural resort” in the midst of urban life was invaluable. The 10 million people who visit the park every year are still inheriting its benefits. With so many visitors, though, it’s difficult to prioritize the park’s concerns. There are over 50 local organizations that claim some stake in the park, whether runners, bikers, birders, or whatever, and they gather monthly to discuss their interests at the park’s Community Committee, better known as ComCom. It’s a way to work on issues locally and specifically. Until this spring, Rob Bate had attended ComCom as the Bird Club’s representative. (Member Stanley Greenberg is now the club’s representative.) Bate believes that if more people understood how crucial the park was to so many species of birds, they would happily comply with certain regulations. In particular, he is worried about the dogs and mountain bikers who tear through the underbrush, the fishermen who go out onto the peninsulas, and others who trample the vegetation that serves as crucial feeding and bathing areas for birds. But without a park ranger to enforce the rules, they often go ignored. As a result, the park doesn’t get as many ground-nesting species as it could; it only gets birds that nest in trees. A majority of warblers like to nest in grasses and low shrubs along the edges of water, so any kind of disturbance forces them to find somewhere else to rest. But given the limited options, that might mean they have nowhere to go.

When fenced off, a park’s natural underbrush can thrive. When accessible to visitors and their pets, it can quickly disappear.

While many residents of Brooklyn might consider themselves environmentally friendly, they are likely unaware of the ways they are damaging the park’s biodiversity. To better educate people, Bate has been building friendships with the other local organizations. For example, he is working with the Fellowship for the Interests of Dogs & Their Owners; Wildlife Interests, Learning and Development; and GooseWatch, a group that advocates for the protection of geese and swans. While sympathetic to the work these groups are doing, Bate points out that they work to protect the very visible geese and swans but often lack a broader understanding of the many other species of birds that live in the park and are fighting the invasive mute swan for space. Others might not understand the harm their dog is causing or the damage that can be done by climbing a tree. The club hopes that through their efforts to raise awareness, everyone may begin to care more about birds and their important ecological role.

The Brooklyn Bird Club is not only interested in Prospect Park, though. Members go birding throughout the borough, and their conservation efforts reach beyond the park. Right now there is a petition to save West Pond in the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. When Hurricane Sandy swept through New York in October 2012, it ruined West Pond, a 45-acre avian oasis that is the only significant freshwater habitat in New York City’s coastal ecosystem. Before Sandy, it was a diverse habitat that hosted over 330 bird species, including breeding and migratory waterfowl and coastal birds. The pond was also a critical nesting habitat for the threatened diamondback terrapin and a variety of butterflies and insects. But after Sandy, it was destroyed by the salt water that now flows freely from the bay into the pond. According to the petition, it is “virtually devoid of interesting wildlife.” There are various proposals for what to do with West Pond, many saying to leave it alone, so the Brooklyn Bird Club has joined a coalition of other birding associations such as New York City Audubon, Queens County Bird Club and the Linnaean Society, to make a case for restoring it. They are helping officials look at the area as a natural habitat resource area. The pond even gained the attention of David Sibley, the famous author and illustrator of The Sibley Guide to Birds, who wrote, “Its loss would be a sad and serious blow to birds and to birders.” The petition to save it currently has 5,519 supporters, including Margaret Atwood, and many club members have written letters about the area’s importance.

Vocal support of the birds and their habitats has always been a vital component of the club. In 1917, Bird-Lore — now Audubon magazine, the flagship journal of the National Audubon Society — noted, “The club sent typewritten letters to all Senators and Representatives at Washington in favor of the Migratory Bird law.” Letter writing is still a big part of the club’s efforts to fight for the conservation of the birds and their migratory routes. When, in 2011, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey wanted to expand John F. Kennedy airport into Jamaica Bay, Dorosh and others wrote to the executive director Christopher Ward to dissuade him, arguing for the importance of the bay’s ecological habitat. A few years before that, in 2006, Paul Newman wanted to use Floyd Bennett Field for a 10-day car racing festival that would have brought 65,000 Grand Prix fans to the area every September. Floyd Bennett Field, however, is an important grassland for birds. Last year, remarkably, it hosted several rare snowy owls. Newman’s race would have marred the habitat, so Dorosh wrote a letter to the Gateway National Recreation Area’s superintendent, Barry Sullivan, who then wrote to Paul Newman’s partner, successfully nixing the idea.

Members of the Brooklyn Bird Club gaze skyward in Prospect Park.

Another habitat currently under threat is the Ridgewood Reservoir on the Queens-Brooklyn border, which many members of the club have been active in trying to preserve, and which Dorosh and others have written letters about. The Ridgewood Reservoir was built in 1858 to supply water to Brooklyn but was abandoned in 1959 when New York’s water started coming from upstate. Since then, the reservoir has reverted to nature and become a sanctuary for birds. Now, however, there is a plan to turn the reservoir into a recreation area with ballfields, bike trails, and running paths. The club has been fighting the $6 million plan.

The Brooklyn Bird Club has always worked behind the scenes to not only protect birds and their habitats but to promote their beauty and value. Bird-Lore’s 1917 report says it best: “The club works quietly, doing little advertising, and the number of its members at any one time is naturally small, but we feel that its influence is far-reaching. It is, of course, very important for the world that everything possible be done for bird conservation.”

Not much has changed in a century. The club continues to share the joy of birding while working furiously to save declining bird populations and sensitive habitats. And even when the voices of its members may not be heard above other interests at stake, the birds for which they speak are singing loudly in the Brooklyn’s trees. Take a moment and listen.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Brooklyn Bird Club’s representative at Prospect Park’s Community Committee. The club’s current representative is Stanley Greenberg.

Kristen Scharold is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, Day Job Magazine, Books & Culture, among other places. She works at New York Public Radio.

Mike Hicks is a freelance photographer and multimedia producer. He lives in Park Slope.

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Q&A: Michael D. D. White of Citizens Defending Libraries

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The Hour of the Scavenger

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