As temperatures warm and the people of Queens venture out to our parks, beaches and playgrounds, many of our feathered friends are doing the same as they return from their winter homes in Central America and the Caribbean. For a number of species, Queens is their first landfall as they head north.
“Queens is a fantastic place for birdwatching,” said Arie Gilbert, the president of the Queens County Bird Club. “Alley Pond, Forest Park, Cunningham Park, Forest Park and Jamaica Bay are major places where birdwatchers congregate for the spring migration.”
The love of birds and their habitats has united a community of birders from all over Queens. While some are binocular-touting lifelong enthusiasts who get excited about rare appearances of the Bicknell’s thrush, many are casual observers looking to expand their repertoire of outdoor activities and learn new things.
“On our field trips, many people know about all sorts of things, it’s not just only about the birds,” Gilbert said. “New members are often surprised. They get a kick out of the way we explore everything.”
The QCBC appeals to people young and old, Gilbert noted, and many members are also interested in butterflies, dragonflies, wildflowers and trees.
The club, which welcomes the public to its meetings, gathers at Alley Pond Park on the third Wednesday of the month, 10 months out of the year. Often, members or guest speakers discuss topics such as why bird eggs are different colors, or how to identify different species of warblers. The club organizes trips to parks in New Jersey, Long Island and upstate, as well as excursions here in Queens. Not all of the Big Apple is a concrete jungle — and the city sits on the Atlantic Flyway, one of four major bird migration routes that cross the United States.
“New York City has quite a lot of nature, and it’s quite important nature,” said Glenn Phillips, the executive director of the New York City Audubon Society, an independent conservation group whose mission is to protect birds.
The society uses birding to engage the public and offers free weekly birdwatching walks in Forest Park.
Jamaica Bay and the beaches of the Rockaway Peninsula are critical bird areas, Phillips noted, as they are the home to many endangered species and a stopover for significant aggregations of migrating birds, some of which fly as far as Alaska.
The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is full of wading birds, such as egrets, herons and ibises, and shorebirds, which fly back in April and May, as well as ducks and geese. The ospreys, which nest on platforms near the water, are already back.
Some species are declining due to habitat loss and development, while others that are more adaptable to urban environments — including the familiar redtail hawks, Canada geese, robins and cardinals — are doing better, according to Don Riepe of Broad Channel, president of the Northeast Chapter of the American Littoral Society. The coastal conservation group performs beach cleanups and offers birding tours and sunset ecology cruises on the bay.
All Queens parks, including Alley Pond, Cunningham and Forest, are stopovers for migrating songbirds, Phillips said. The black-throated blue warbler winters in Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic and flies through Queens on its way to Canada and the far northeastern United States. Another tropical migrant is the wood thrush, which makes its return from Central America, but its numbers are declining dramatically due to disturbances to its foresting grounds and problems with migrations. The Bicknell’s thrush, an even more unusual sight, passes through on its return to roost in the highest peaks of the Adirondacks and the White Mountains.
The corridor of green that cuts across Queens, surrounded by so much development, concentrates the birds, Gilbert noted, which makes it easier to see more of them.
According to Gilbert, birders have spotted many rarities in Queens, including the first recorded East Coast sighting of a broadbilled sandpiper. Last November, a club member located and identified a Virginia’s warbler, which despite its name is a western bird, in Alley Pond Park.
“Rarities end up here because of circumstances,” Gilbert said. Sometimes birds get caught in storms or migrate the wrong way. Birders document rarities and report them to the state Ornithological Association.
Hurricane Sandy, the great destroyer of the Northeast, also made a lot of changes to the landscape that affected avian life. Thousands of trees toppled over in the parks, destroying a lot of the birds’ habitats.
“Time will tell,” Gilbert said of the storm’s full impact. “Sometimes when environments change it’s better for birding, but not for the birds.”
Hurricane Sandy reshaped the coastal landscape and the ponds on Broad Channel were breached. While the East Pond was repaired by MTA crews working to restore A train service, the West Pond is still infiltrated by saltwater. The main trail, which once looped all the way around, no longer connects. But the hurricane did not damage the marshes, according to Riepe.
Some changes to the beaches of the Rockaways are good for birds, Phillips said. For example, the piping plover, a small, endangered shorebird (there are only 8,000 left) nests on the beaches. When the birds return from the Bahamas in March, the beaches are empty, but before the young have fledged, beach season hits. The crowds and trucks harm the birds. The piping plover thrives on wide beaches, where there is more distance between the high tide line and the first dunes. While the amount of foredune had declined in the last decade, Sandy increased it, which bodes well for the birds.
“The habitat has been altered,” Phillips said. “Hurricanes are part of the natural cycle. That’s why we don’t have 3,000-year-old trees in the northeast.”
Phillips noted that most spots on the bay are open to the public, but that people should check with the National Park Service to be sure their destination is open before setting out.
One way to be sure is to go with an organized group. Below are just a few of the birding events that are coming up soon. Many more, in Queens and beyond, are listed on the sponsoring organizations’ websites, along with information for nonorganized birdwatching.
Spring migration workshop
Sunday, April 28, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Slideshow and hike to view spring migrants. Meet at Jamaica Bay Ecology Center. Information: Don Riepe, American Littoral Society — (917) 371-8577, alsnyc.org/trips.html.
Forest Park trip
Sunday, May 5, all day. Called the best spot in Queens to see spring migrants. Information: Jean Loscalzo, Queens County Bird Club — (917) 575-6824, qcbirdclub.org.
Queens Big Day
Saturday, May 11, all day. Birders try to amass the biggest list of species seen across the borough. Followed by a compilation dinner. Information: Queens County Bird Club — (718) 229-4000, qcbirdclub.org.