If you possess a deep appreciation for natural beauty, a pair of binoculars and patience, or the desire to learn it, birding may be just the hobby for you.
And though it’s an avocation that can take you around the world, you can have fun and learn a great deal doing it right here in Queens.
Birding can be done alone or in pairs, with the entire family or in a club outing. You can seek out shorebirds on Jamaica Bay, warblers in Forest Park, owls in Alley Pond Park and much more. You can see and hear birds that are returning from southern climes to nest here or get a glimpse of non-natives passing through on their way back north. And each one is more exotic, and generally prettier, than the rock doves you see every day — the birds we call pigeons.
“At this time of year, in March, in April, things are moving,” said John Collins, a member of the Queens County Bird Club. “It’s a very exciting time of year, the beginning of the migration season.”
Waterfowl such as herons and egrets are returning to the region. Wood ducks and mallard ducks are already nesting. Eastern phoebes, the first of the flycatchers to return to Queens and Long Island in the spring, are starting to show up.
In Alley Pond Park, where the bird club is based, great horned owls have been nesting since January. They’re in the forested part of the park, accessed from what’s known as the Upper Alley parking lot, off the Douglaston Parkway. “Alley Pond Park is a really great place to see local birds this time of year,” Collins said.
One entertaining avian to see is the American woodcock, which has just begun its evening courtship display. They can be found in various parts of Alley Pond, including the area behind the environmental center where the bird club meets. The males do their courtship show just after sundown, so watchers need a cloudless night with a good-sized moon to see them.
“The male goes up in the air and twitters seemingly endlessly back to earth,” Collins said. “That’s fun to see. If it’s a clear night and there’s plenty of moonlight, it’s an almost indescribable thing to see.”
A Whitestone native, Collins has been watching birds his entire life, and seriously pursuing them for the last 35 years or so. The hobby opened up a whole new world to him, and he travels the globe to exotic locales from Alaska to Africa seeking new finds. He’s been to every continent on those quests, including Antartica.
At the bird club, Collins guides many of the trips members take upstate or to nearby states like New Jersey. “The Queens County Bird Club will have lots and lots of field trips in the spring, because that’s one of the best times of the year,” Collins said.
Among the most notable trips are an April 18 excursion to the Garret Mountain Reservation in West Patterson, N.J. Attendees will have a decent shot at spotting lingering pine warblers soon to move north, early arrivals from the south like brown thrashers and Eastern towhees, and ravens that nest right in the park.
Another trip to New Jersey follows less than a week later, on April 26, when the QCBC will go to Lord Stirling Park in Basking Ridge and, just over the Passaic River, the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Between the two sites attendees may spot Baltimore orioles, tree swallows, Eastern bluebirds — New York’s state bird — and several types of sparrows. And they’ll visit a rehabilitation center for injured raptors like hawks and eagles.
Many other trips are planned throughout spring and summer, including one overnighter to destinations upstate.
Those who want to study birds without leaving Queens have plenty of options too. Alley Pond and Jamaica Bay are among the best locations. Birders going to the latter should park in either lot just south of the Joseph P. Addabbo Memorial Bridge and walk to the entrance road on the east side; or park farther south at the visitors’ center and go to the West Pond to enjoy not just birds but wildflower-rich gardens the city planted years ago. Later in the year, go to the East Pond to see birds that visit after the water level is reduced in August — including the American avicet and even the majestic bald eagle.
Other good bird-watching spots include:• Ridgewood Reservoir on the Brooklyn-Queens border, which Collins called “species-rich” and is where the club starts its annual “Big Day” bird census in May;• Forest Park, where an ephemeral pond called “the water hole” near the junction of Myrtle Avenue and Park Lane South in Kew Gardens draws what Collins deems “some incredibly rare birds” for the area, such as Swainson’s warbler, the prothonotary warbler and the summer tanager; and• Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows, where you’re likely to find the wood thrush, which Collins deems “a wonderful bird to hear, a wonderful songster.”
For much more about birding in the borough, visit queenscountybirdclub.org or go to a club meeting; beginners are always welcome. Don’t be surprised if you get hooked, and if you end up interested in more than birds.
“Although we focus on birds we do try to get people interested in everything that has to do with nature and the environment,” noted Collins, who added that his mother instilled in him an “invaluable” interest in nature. His current chief study is dragonflies.