New York Birders Make Winter Rounds

A winter bird-watching tour in the middle of New York harbor gives a hardy few a sense of how things must have looked to early settlers... and turns up numerous sightings of seabirds.

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DEBBIE ELLIOT, host: We leave you now with an audio postcard from NPR's Robert Smith about the high risk sport of bird-watching in winter. He recently took an eco-cruise around New York Harbor.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

If you think bird-watchers are wimps, then you try gripping a pair of binoculars on the deck of a boat on a windy, freezing day.

Mr. GABRIEL WILLOW (Guide, New York City Audubon Society): You are a brave bunch coming out here in February on New York Harbor on a water taxi, so you must all be bird-watchers.

SMITH: Or really desperate to see something, anything with feathers. The New York City Audubon Society has been commandeering the water taxis on Saturday mornings to cruise the shoreline for water birds. I asked our guide, Gabriel Willow, didn't the smart birds already fly south?

Mr. WILLOW: Of course we are south, for some birds. A lot of these birds nest above the Hudson Bay in the Arctic, so to them this is a nice warm wintering spot.

SMITH: I'm glad somebody thinks its warm. Bird-watcher Patrick Cousins doesn't seem to mind the arctic air either. He says that birding can be as extreme as you want it to be.

Mr. PATRICK COUSINS (Bird-Watcher): You know, you can sit in your back yard and watch birds eat and go climb a mountain or you can go down to the Andes or you can come out in the harbor in freezing winter. And we have to go to them. We have to go to the birds.

SMITH: Today, the birds are clustered on the shore of the East River, along the Brooklyn Waterfront and the Gowanus Canal. If you've ever watched a cop show set in New York, you know that these are also the places where bodies wash up, but that's more of a spring event. In winter, below the rusting warehouses and rotting piers, are water fowl.

Mr. WILLOW: Okay, here's another male red-breasted merganser. You can see that blue crane, the crane being the mechanical kind, not the bird, in the background. There's a large duck there, that's the red-breasted merganser.

SMITH: We see cormorants and more species of gull than I knew existed and I learned that there are other dangers of extreme bird-watching. With both hands clutching your binoculars, the waves can knock you off your feet.

Mr. WILLOW: And it's a little tippy here, so hold on.

SMITH: And whenever Willow spots a special crested something or other, everyone rushes to one side of the boat and the captain tries to turn it around.

Mr. WILLOW: Wow, it's getting wind as we turn the boat here.

SMITH: And then, it starts to snow. That fogs up the binoculars. And most of the bird-watchers move into the cabin below to warm up. But up on deck a strange thing happens. The skyscrapers of Manhattan and the warehouses of Brooklyn disappear in the snow. And all you can see are the vague outlines of islands in the harbor. Willow says you can almost feel what it must have looked like unspoiled.

Mr. WILLOW: And that's why, you know, Native Americans settled here. There was great fishing and just an abundance of life. And then the Europeans for the same reasons. That's why the city is really here, because it's such a natural wonder.

SMITH: When the snow clears, bird-watcher Patrick Cousins comes up to me on deck and confides a secret.

COUSINS: Even though it seems pretty hearty and rough and tough, I still feel pretty nerdy. It's kind of nerdy.

SMITH: Of course, the advantage of being nerdy in the middle of the harbor in the winter is that there isn't anyone around to laugh. Except the gulls.

(Soundbite of birds)

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of song, Rockin' Robin)

ELLIOT:

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. For NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliot.

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