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Bird-watching on Long Island takes flight during the pandemic

Bird-watching has proved to be very popular among the 50-plus crowd on Long Island during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Corey Sipkin

On a recent Sunday morning, time briefly stood still at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary near Tobay Beach. Richard Haimes of West Islip stood still as he peered through binoculars.

"That’s a great blue heron," he said.

"Flying south," added Robert Paxton, 88 of Manhattan and Gilgo Beach, as a half dozen bird-watchers looked up.

To many Long Islanders, birds are the all but overlooked brush strokes against the sky. To bird-watchers, they are the stars of the sky, objects to be observed and appreciated.

During the pandemic, as outdoor hobbies attracted more attention, more bird-watchers have been spotting and photographing birds everywhere from backyards to beaches and parks.

"Whenever there’s a rare bird, I chase," said Haimes, 71, who recorded 303 species of birds this year, ranking 12th statewide on eBird.org, where the top birder was at 325. "If there’s a bird I haven’t seen this year, I go for it."

Fredy Palma, who joined Haimes that morning, said he’s always at the ready for a bird worth watching, or identifying, to wing its way overhead. "I always have binoculars in my car," said Palma, 43, of Massapequa.

Some birders like watching the beauty or balletic grace of flight, an audience to birds’ airborne performances. Others photograph, freezing time; still others track the species they spot in a "life list," a running compilation of the different birds they’ve seen over their lifetimes.

"Birds are not only beautiful, but have fascinating behaviors," said Jennifer Wilson-Pines, 65, of Port Washington, North Shore Audubon Society’s conservation chair. "Like the canaries taken into the coal mines because they responded to the presence of coal gas much sooner than humans could detect it, birds respond quickly to changes in the environment … Bird populations, for instance, can be a barometer of change to a region, being impacted as open land shrinks or temperatures change."

Many avid birders like Paul Israelson, 64, of Woodbury, focus on capturing plumage in photographs, like those he took seated by the water at the Wertheim National Wildlife Preserve in Shirley. "I simply love photographing wildlife," he said.

Big and getting bigger

Bird-watching is big nationwide, with an estimated 45 million enthusiasts, according to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"Bird-watching is the No. 2 hobby in the U.S., following gardening," said Four Harbors Audubon Society president Joyann Cirigliano, of Kings Park. "Because of COVID, bird-watching is more popular because people are looking for things to do alone and outdoors." She said Long Island’s "diverse habitats" make the region ideal for watching native birds and those passing through the Atlantic Flyway.

"You can see forest birds, shorebirds on the beach and different species on the wetlands, estuaries, fields and urban species," she said. "Long Island also sees a great amount of migratory birds during spring and fall that are passing through along the coast."

Long Island includes 27 IBAs, or Important Bird Areas, from Jamaica Bay in the west to Orient Point in the east, making it a prime bird-watching place.

"Long Island, in general, is a paradise for beginner and experienced bird-watchers," said Sharon Bruce, a National Audubon Society spokeswoman.

Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center was the nation’s first songbird sanctuary and Oyster Bay is important for such wintering waterfowl as ducks, Bruce added. New York's main breeding populations of osprey are on Long Island and in the Adirondack mountains, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Fall migration," she said, "offers an incredible opportunity to see that Long Island is among the richest areas around for birds."

Birding by the numbers

In one sign of local popularity, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird.org, where birders post sightings, has recorded about 5.5 million bird observations on Long Island (out of some 864 million worldwide). On Long Island, 453 bird species have been spotted, compared to 502 statewide. Overall, Long Island has 394,414 total checklists from 9,396 individual eBirders, nearly one in five in New York State.

And such digital birding is growing. Since eBird began in 2002, checklist submissions from Long Island have grown by about 20% year over year. In Suffolk County, 429 species have been spotted and recorded on eBird.org, the most in the state, followed by 375 in Nassau.

"Starting in April, we saw a notable increase across the world," Jenna Curtis, eBird project leader, said, noting sightings in April were up 40% from a year ago. "We saw huge growth."

Merlin, an app that identifies birds via cellphone, saw downloads double in May, she said. "People were so interested in identifying birds," Curtis said. "Not only were people discovering birds, people were taking the time to digitize their old notebooks and photos."

The region is rich with bird-watchers, like Harvey Farber, 79, of Melville, a master bander certified by the Fish and Wildlife Service who places bands on birds’ legs to track them. Farber said he has seen 1,900 species of birds worldwide.

"It’s great when one sees a rare bird such as a Connecticut warbler that we saw this year," Farber said. "This week birders went looking for a white pelican seen on Long Island."

Older people, in particular, have been embracing birding and its benefits, said Wilson-Pines. "It gets you outdoors, is easy exercise, sharpens your observation skills and group walks can be very social," she said. "Many avid birders are retired and can now do what they love as many days as possible."

Added Cirigliano, 56, "It’s an activity you can take at your own pace or even just sitting in your own backyard if you aren’t very mobile."

Peggy Maslow, 73, of Port Washington, said she has been busier birding since retiring in 2002 as a journalism teacher at Franklin K. Lane High School on the Brooklyn/Queens border. "After I retired I had a lot more time to go birding," said Maslow, education chair of the North Shore Audubon Society. "I got hearing aids nine years ago just to hear bird calls, to hear the high pitch."

She saw a Connecticut warbler on Long Island in September and last year on a trip to Alaska "saw many birds rare for a person from New York such as jaegers."

"I have a life list of 570 North American birds and I would like to get to 600," she added.

Technology, of course, has made it easier to identify and learn about birds through a cellphone, rather than paging through bird-watching "bibles."

"Bird-watching has changed because now we have better optics and apps like iNaturalist, eBird and the Audubon app," Cirigliano said. "You can find out more info quickly in the field. You can also find … rare bird alerts."

The flight online

Some aspects of birding, like Audubon-sponsored bird walks, have taken a hit during the pandemic, while virtual meetings took flight.

"We have seen incredible success shifting our in-person experiences online," Bruce said.

Each National Audubon Society livestreamed webinar has averaged 20,000 views during the pandemic, she said. Viewers tuned in live from all 50 states, Canada, Australia/New Zealand and other countries. "We know people are seeking joy and comfort in the outdoors, even from indoors," Bruce said. Downloads of the National Audubon Society's bird identification app in March and April doubled from the prior year and unique visits to its website rose by a half-million.

"In New York, we saw website visits in spring and early summer spike by 50% compared to that time last year, although those numbers are now leveling out," Bruce said.

Many chapters have resumed walks with social distancing, limited participation, required masks and without sharing binoculars. North Shore Audubon Society, for instance, led a bird walk at Valley Stream State Park on a recent Saturday.

"We’re using iPads on our spotting scopes so people don’t have to share or gather too close," Cirigliano said.

Although birding has gained during the pandemic, many Long Islanders have been at it for decades.

Palma said he started birding after becoming interested while hiking in 2004 in upstate New Paltz. "Something got into me," he said. "Instead of saying ‘that bird,’ I wanted to know what that bird was." Palma took a picture of a blue speck in green trees that turned out to be a blue bunting — that was his "spark bird," the one that got him started.

Paxton, who retired in 1997 after 38 years teaching modern European history at Columbia University, started when he was 9. "I wasn’t satisfied until I found out what it was," he said of the birds he saw.

Sarah Plimpton, 84, Paxton’s wife, started birding at age 10 in and around Huntington — and later met Paxton on a birding trip in Mexico.

"We function as a team, looking for things, hoping to find a rare bird or something spectacular," Paxton said. "Sarah sees better than I do. She usually finds them, but she doesn’t always know what they are. I usually can figure out what they are."

Haimes, a retired oral surgeon, said initially his son was interested in birding while he preferred fly fishing. "He would fish with me. About 10 years ago he said, ‘Why don’t you try birding?’" Haimes said. "I tried birding and I liked it."

Haimes favors Montauk for winter birding, though he is likely to "freeze my butt off." There has been "excellent migration this year of purple finches and pine siskins," he said. Winter birders, he said, can sometimes spot scoters, northern gannets, razorbills, "an occasional dovekie" and such rarities as Iceland and glaucous gulls.

Indeed, said Maslow, "Migration is in full swing with nonresident warblers and shore birds stopping in our parks, preserves and beaches to refuel before continuing on to the southern U.S., the Caribbean, Central and South America for the winter." This winter, she hopes to spot a saw-whet owl and a northern shrike, "two birds I have never seen."

How to join the flock

If you’re interested in birds, the sky may literally be the limit, but where do you start? Here are some tips.

  • Find birds of a feather. Long Island has seven Audubon groups that promote education and conservation. Visit ny.audubon.org/about-us/chapters to find a chapter near you.
  • There are many websites for beginning birders. Start with New York State’s “I Bird NY” website, dec.ny.gov/animals/109900.html, which has activities and links.
  • Bring birds to you. “It helps to have a feeder outside where you can watch birds,” said Peggy Maslow, North Shore Audubon Society education chair. “Then you get very used to the common birds — although uncommon ones can show up.” You can also find out which plants attract native birds, said Four Harbors Audubon Society President Joyann Cirigliano. Visit Audubon.org/plantsforbirds, “simply put your ZIP code in and it gives you a list of native plants for your area that will attract and support birds.”
  • A good “bird book” can come in handy. Among them are “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds”; get the guide to Eastern North America.
  • Such apps as Merlin can make it easier to identify birds with your cellphone.
  • Increase your visual range. “You need a good pair of binoculars 8X45, or a 10x40,” said Harvey Farber, an avid birder. “Later on, when a person gets real good, you should get a scope and tripod for looking long distances at a lake or looking out in the ocean.”
— Claude Solnik

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