Birding in Bryant Park

April 11, 2013

J.M. Miller

I’ve always wanted to try birding, but I’ve also always been a little put off by birders. Specifically the birders you meet now and then in the Ramble of Central Park: pointy, creaky people, in my experience. So when I heard that the Audubon Society offers birding in Bryant Park, I sensed a good thing. Bryant Park is not a deliberate, artificial cradle of forest life: it’s a lawn on the very crotch of Midtown. It’s likely to attract a different sort, and there’s no better place to plumb the theme of Nature in Metropolis.

This turned out to be far better than I’d hoped. Partly due to this odd creature:

American woodcock by J.M. Miller

It’s an American woodcock, and to see one in Bryant Park is extremely rare. In every direction rise gleaming skyscrapers—and here’s this bird taking a breather during an epic migration north, blinking modestly in the shadow of a painted bench. The rabbity face is unique: the eyes are so far back on the head, this bird has overlapping fields of view—and as a result, depth perception—in the rear, where danger lurks, but not the front. The front hunts for worms, and it’s unique, too: the woodcock’s bill has nerves all the way to the tip so it can sense life underground, and the tip is prehensile: it can jab the dirt, and then grab the worm. The plumage is a confusion of dashes and flecks—the compelling ecological term is “cryptic coloring”—and this woodcock was so hard to see, even on a manicured patch of ground, our guide had to resort to an ingenious method to help one of the birders: “Do you see that bench?” he asks. Nod. “Okay, do you see that rock to the right under the bench?” Nod. “That’s the bird.”

The guide was this excellent person:

Gabriel Willow

His name is Gabriel Willow, and he has a trait that true masters often will: generosity. What he told me in interview after the tour so perfectly captures what I hope to transmit through writing about the city, the best I can do is quote him wholesale.
One of the beauties of being out in nature and exploring birds is it can take you out of your own city concerns sometimes, and transport you a bit into their world. So you just sort of lose track of time. You’re in a little reverie, watching the woodcock rooting around for worms or something, and it’s really interesting, trying to think how they experience this landscape. And you see a lot in Bryant Park. You just have to open your eyes and look carefully.

It’s the other lovely thing about this pastime: it enhances your powers of observation and your sense of the possible and the unlikely, because you never know what you’re going to find. We saw half a dozen people go by that woodcock, totally oblivious, walking to work. And if they were aware, how might it make their day a little more interesting, to see this incredibly improbable bird? And the more you know about the bird’s story, the more meaning it has.
More of Willow’s good work in tracking urban ecology here. Bryant Park birding schedule here. More than you maybe wanted to know about the woodcock’s scientific name here.