Pit-stop in the Big Apple: Life in a wing beat

Picture 1: View of New York City from Rockefeller Center. Upper part looking to the south, Empire State Building in the foreground. Lower part looking to the north, Central Park in the middle. (Picture: hella Wittmeier)

Picture 1: View of New York City from Rockefeller Center. Upper part looking to the south, Empire State Building in the foreground. Lower part looking to the north, Central Park in the middle. (Picture: Hella Wittmeier)

Nobody moves to New York City because of the climate. Bitterly cold winters and burning hot summers leave only the transition seasons of spring and autumn comfortable. But the weather certainly isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when we think of the city that never sleeps, is it??

More than 1.5 million people live in Manhattan (Picture 1) on less than 60 km2, no matter how hot, cold, wet or windy. It is one of the most densely populated areas worldwide. Taking a walk through the streets of Manhattan with its tall buildings that shield the ground from direct sunlight gives you an intense, but colorful feeling of smallness. And yet when you climb a little higher and glimpse the overwhelming city from above, you feel like you can reach the sky. The distant horizon swims in the ocean, emphasizing the majestic skyline of Manhattan in front, solid as a rock. Looking around for a piece of nature within that urban hot spot, you come across several scattered green parks, which are highly frequented on sunny days. So, even taking vast Central Park into account, there is no piece of Manhattan Island that is not entirely occupied by humans… Or so you think!

During the spring, the US East Coast is an important route for migratory birds on their journey to breeding grounds in the far north. Following the route of their ancestors, they have to fly via the United States’ most densely populated city. In this urban agglomeration, the lack of green rest areas forces them to stick to the parks, which in turn feature a remarkably high diversity and quantity of birds.

Picture 1: Saw-Whet Owl in Central Park, April 2013. (Picture: Hella Wittmeier)

Picture 2: Saw-Whet Owl in Central Park, March 2013. (Picture: Hella Wittmeier)

A walk in any New York City park reveals much pleasure by rewarding even the smallest birding efforts – and you don’t have to look twice! Central Park is the most prominent example, but this applies to all parks, such as the Botanical Garden in the Bronx or Prospect Park in Brooklyn. It is amazing how many birds cavort on these relatively small green areas. We have seen opalescent Blue Jays, extravagantly colorful Northern Cardinals, lemon-colored American Goldfinches, cute Fox Sparrows, hunting Red-tailed Hawks, tweeting Tufted Titmice, twirling Black-capped Chickadees, tree-climbing White-breasted Nuthatches, nonstop knocking Downy and even Hairy Woodpeckers, the ever present American Robin, and many more just on a single morning walk. Also, water birds such as beautiful Wood Ducks, marvelous Hooded Mergansers, and of course, Mallards and Canada Geese are common sights. While interested people in other nature reserves carry binoculars to catch glimpses of birds flying by, birding in Central Park is much easier. The birds sit just meters away and are used to people watching and admiring. Our highlight that morning was a Saw-Whet Owl, sleeping peacefully in a little tree not more than two meters above the ground, just next to a footpath and close to a busy road! (Picture 2) The park’s characteristic as a green island within the surrounding urban ocean of buildings makes it a unique birding spot. You just need to know where to look.

Picture 2: A Great Egret in Cape May, New Jersey, May 2013 (Picture: Sebastian Ludwig)

Picture 3: A Great Egret in Cape May, New Jersey, April 2013. (Picture: Sebastian Ludwig)

Captivated by the birds, we took a trip to Cape May. This southern tip of New Jersey is a migratory hot spot on the Atlantic Flyway, owing to its exceptional variety of habitats including pine forests, grasslands, swamps, wet woods, salt and fresh water marshes, shores and ponds. The variety of birds in Cape May is tremendous, especially during the migratory seasons of spring and autumn. We have seen wonderfully white Great Egrets (Picture 3), beautifully feathered Great Blue Herons, hovering Northern Harriers, hunting Ospreys, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, stalking Greater Yellowlegs, adorable Eastern Phoebes, shiny yellow Pine Warblers, proud American Kestrels, nicely-feathered Killdeer (whose call literally sounds like them saying “Kill deer! Kill deer!” with high voices), prancing Red-winged Blackbirds, three-colored Eastern Towhees, endangered Piping Plovers, lovely American Oystercatchers, Wild Turkeys, Blue-winged Teals, and last but not least the dignified Bald Eagle.

Picture 3: NOAA's GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of the massive Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 28 at 1302 UTC (Picture from www.nasa.gov)

Picture 4: NOAA’s GOES-13 satellite captured this visible image of the massive Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 28 at 1302 UTC. (Picture from www.nasa.gov)

We also got a short glimpse of a Great Horned Owl flying in the warm late afternoon sunlight. These birds are a rare sight, and more so this year. Hurricane Sandy (Picture 4) raged over the US East Coast in October 2012, with a devastating impact on large parts of these sensitive ecosystems. Owls in Cape May mainly live in marshlands, where they hunt rodents that bestow them rich menus. But the marshlands at Jake’s Landing for example, in normal years a famous spotting area for owls, were completely flooded by salty ocean water carried inland by the strong winds of Sandy. Hardly any animal not adapted to meter-high sea water survived this event, and now the lack of food forces our feathered friends to find new hunting grounds, at least until the rodent population has recovered, which might take some years.

The climate on the US East Coast has never ever prevented anyone from coming and staying, even if just for a while. There is hope we may see the Great Horned Owl soon again, in addition to many other bird species that enjoy the natural habitats of Cape May. In the meantime, there are still those that peacefully live in the very center of New York City, shoulder to shoulder with one and a half million people.


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Hella Wittmeier

I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Earth Science, University of Bergen, and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. I work with glacier and climate reconstructions of the Northern Polar Region, as part of the SHIFTS project.
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