Reviews 2017

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Birdwatching in New York City and on Long Island — book Review 2/9/2017

Birdwatching in New York City and on Long Island by Deborah Rivel and Kellye Rosenheim
University Press of New England, 2016
ISBN 978-1-61168-678-4
Paperback, $24.95

Review by Andrew Rubenfeld

This is a must-have book for anyone who watches birds in the New York City area. Authors Deborah Rivel and Kellye Rosenheim have thoroughly investigated key sites—from birding hotspots to smaller parks and lesser know locations—offering an abundance of natural and cultural history as well as choice bits of arcana and advice.

Consider Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn: “one of the first rural cemeteries in the United States and the site of the Battle of Long Island in 1776.” It ha “jaw-dropping views” and famous graves. “There are also infamous birds, such as the flock of Monk Parakeets that have taken up residence in the gothic spires of the gatehouse.” As with all of the major site descriptions, there is a listing of key species by season—so that you know this is a spring warbler hangout.

Or some useful suggestions about Randall’s Island: “Food is hit or miss here … One tip to score lunch: if there is construction going on, look nearby for a food truck.” All of the major site descriptions include information on how to ge there by public transportation (if an option), in a car, or on foot. For Randall’s Island there are pedestrian walkways on the busy RFK Triborough Bridge but there are also the at-grade Randall’s Island connector from th Bronx, “with no schlepping up and down the Triborough’s staircases,” and the footbridge over the East River at 103rd Street.

Northern Manhattan’s Sherman Creek and Swindler Cove, “once a spot known for illegal dumping,” now form the centerpiece of the New York Restoration Project (thank you, Bette Midler). The birding here is “good but not great” although this is one of the few places in Manhattan where shorebirds can be seen with regularity. The authors point out that Muscota Marsh in Inwood a short distance away is better for peeps. They also note that “This can be a pleasant outing with non-birding friends, who will enjoy the gardens” of native plants while you do your birding thing. But if you really want to deal with those non-birding companions, try nearby Fort Tryon Park, “an elegant woodland with beautiful stone bridges, lovely gardens, leafy pathways, and breathtaking views over the Hudson … if the birds are not cooperating, the art [at the Cloisters] will more than satisfy.” With all those flowers keep an eye out, especially in the fall, for a hummingbird other than a Ruby-throated.

There are warnings. Four Sparrow Marsh in Brooklyn, for example: “Even though it was once designated Forever Wild, that status may not protect it from development … we cannot recommend the site for safety reasons.” Calvert Vaux Park, also in Brooklyn, is excellent for winter ducks (especially huge rafts of scaup), Horned Lark, and “interesting sparrows, some of which may also be lurking on the unused baseball fields to the north.” The shoreline, the authors point out, accumulates a huge amount of trash and insofar as few people “use the lonely area near the water … make sure you take along a friend.”

The book is full of interesting and sometimes off-beat birding tips. What about a former garbage dump such as the now reclaimed landfill at Freshkills on Staten Island? This ambitious park-in-progress in not yet fully open to the public but you can get a visitor permit from the New York City Parks Department or join a birding tour by the local nature organization. Mariner’s Marsh Park, temporarily closed for the removal of nasty chemicals, offers old-growth and transitional woodlands as well as ten connected freshwater ponds, each one somewhat different. Check for the park’s reopening. The authors claim that this will become a real birding hotspot. Almost all of the sites in the book include postal addresses, telephone numbers, and websites in addition to information about organized walks, trail conditions, opening times, entrance fees, parking, food stores and cafés, restrooms, poison ivy, and ticks.

In Queens the Rockaway Beach (Arverne) Endangered Species Nesting Area is dedicated to the protection of Piping Plovers, Least Terns, and American Oystercatchers. “You are going to be glad that you brought your scope,” the authors write, “as the viewing is from afar so as not to disturb the birds, which as protected by the Urban Park Rangers.” The Queens Botanical Garden and its counterparts in Brooklyn and the Bronx are excellent venues for birds, bees, and butterflies due to the native plants. The scale of the Queens and Brooklyn gardens “makes finding and viewing birds a cinch.”

Of course any site guide to the New York City area must have ample write-ups of the major parks. Central Park gets a detailed dozen pages. Coverage in Manhattan of the Battery, Washington Square, Union Square, Madison Square, Bryant Park, Riverside Park along the Hudson River, Carl Schurz Park along the East River, and Inwood Hill is ample and focused. The same attentive writing about a site and its birds can also be found for the other boroughs: Prospect Park, Forest Park, Alley Pond, Van Cortlandt, Pelham Bay, Clove Lakes, Clay Pit Ponds, and all of the units of Gateway National Recreation Area, including Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge—to name just a few of the larger and more popular areas.

And keep in mind that a third of the book (beyond the space limitations of this review) is about birding on Long Island, from Jones Beach to Montauk Point—and a lot in between.

Deborah Rivel, who has supplied the truly fine photographs, is on the board of New York (state) Audubon. Kellye Rosenheim is New York City Audubon’s director of development as well as a bird walk leader in Central Park and elsewhere. So it is no surprise that the front matter to this volume is replete with information ranging from pelagic birding to hawk watches to help for injured birds to birding ethics. The back matter includes bar charts noting the seasonal abundance of the species found in the area covered by the book plus lists of rarities and accidentals and a useful bibliography. The maps deserve special praise for their accuracy and clarity.

Why New York City with just Long Island added on? The book is over 300 pages as it is, so I suppose a publishing decision about what to include and what not to include was inevitable. Montauk is over a hundred miles from the city. There are key birding areas in Westchester or at Bear Mountain, Sterling Forest, and even Bashakill that are somewhat closer—not to mention New Jersey. Based on the likely popularity and success of this site guide, perhaps the authors are planning a sequel to cover the northern reaches. I certainly hope so.