Wingin’ It: Bird Watching in CNY

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A juvenile American bald eagle perched in a tree at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge.

Wingin' It

Bird watching in CNY is soaring in popularity. Luckily for us, Central New York is a birding paradise.

By MJ Kravec

Here you are. Working from home. Still. You’re staring out over your laptop, through your backyard window — watching birds. You might not admit this to anyone, but you’ve been doing it for quite some time. You wish for binoculars. You’re not alone.

The New York Times, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times and USA Today report an increased interest in bird watching during the pandemic. Just like sourdough bread baking, bird watching has experienced a surge. According to USA Today, Google searches for birds spiked last spring and downloads of an app from Cornell Lab of Ornithology that identifies birds were up 133 percent in May from the previous year.

“It’s one of those nerdy cool things,” says Matt Kosty, president of the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise in Fayetteville Town Center. Kosty says he’s seen a “giant surge” of interest in bird watching in CNY and is opening a second location in Camillus this spring. “People that are looking for some kind of grounding are looking for it in nature,” Kosty says. “What else brings song and color to your day? And I think that’s why people are fascinated by birds… They are stress relievers. It calms people. If you’re watching a bird, it lowers your blood pressure.”

As Central New Yorkers, we’re lucky to live in a location that’s ideal for watching birds. Alison Kocek, vice president of Onondaga Audubon says CNY is located along the Atlantic Flyway where about 500 bird species travel between northern nesting sites and southern wintering locations. “This means that while many species may not stay in CNY year-round, there are great opportunities to see a wide variety of bird species as they stop over to refuel during spring and fall migration,” she says. Along with migrating, there’s plenty happening in the bird world in spring — from nest building to singing to color changing. 

Male Cardinal at Beaver Lake Nature Center.
Male Cardinal at Beaver Lake Nature Center.
A tufted titmouse feeds at Beaver Lake Nature Center.
A tufted titmouse feeds at Beaver Lake Nature Center.

“Spring is always exciting if you’re in Central New York,” says Kevin McGowan, senior course developer/instructor at Bird Academy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It’s kind of bleak in winter — the birds have duller plumage, they’re not singing.” But once the days start getting longer — right after the winter solstice — birds take the cue to start singing again. “The singing starts [in early winter]. Birds are sensitive to the changes in day length — their hormones start flowing,” says McGowan. It’s also an ideal time to not only watch birds since trees are still bare, but to listen to individual birdsongs, says Kocek.

“This increased activity and vocalization make birds much easier to find and identify in the spring than in other seasons, especially in the early spring when the trees have not yet leafed out. Most bird species can be identified by song alone, which makes the spring, when birds are calling most regularly, a prime time to find even elusive bird species that may be incredibly difficult to find when they aren’t vocalizing.”

If you’re new to birding, getting started is easy. It’s free and requires little more than going outside. “Birds are everywhere and you just need to pay attention and look around a bit,” McGowan says. “Binoculars aren’t necessary, but they make it a whole lot more fun. You can put up a feeder, you can take a walk in the woods and look for movement and listen for sound. Sooner or later, you’re going to bump into birds,” he says.

Kocek recommends a good pair of binoculars, a notebook, smartphone and a bird guide. “While birds are generally big enough to see with the naked eye, to really observe the details of a birds’ shape and plumage, binoculars are required. Even a $20 pair of binoculars will help when you’re just starting out, but you may want to upgrade over time.” Kocek recommends consulting the Audubon’s guide to binoculars at audubon.org/gear/binocular-guide. For bird guides, Kocek likes The Sibley Guide to Birds as well as Peterson and National Geographic field guides.

Blue Jay at Beaver Lake Nature Center.
Blue Jay at Beaver Lake Nature Center.

Bird tech

Once you’re equipped, check out Cornell’s many birding apps and databases that take bird watching in CNY to the next level, helping watchers identify birds and their sounds. McGowan says Cornell’s Merlin Bird ID Wizard is a free app that helps users identify birds through a series of questions or photo uploads. “It narrows everything down based on a database,” McGowan says.

Another Cornell database, eBird, collects information from bird watchers all over the world, tracking birds in real time through what Kosty calls “citizen science.” Users can record sightings, share them with the birding community and scientists and find out what birds others are seeing locally.

To find out when large migrants of birds are passing through your area, check out Cornell’s BirdCast, says Kocek.

Getting in touch with nature

But along with alleviating stress and offering an opportunity to unplug, bird watching also puts us in touch with nature. For instance, you can find out which bird is singing that birdsong you identify with spring. “One of the first birds that sings is the northern cardinal. That’s a real spring sound,” McGowan says.

Don’t be afraid to tweet about your new activity — the stereotype of a bird watcher has flown the coop. Kosty says birding is ideal for the whole family and that even high school kids have come into his store.

“It’s a joyful hobby,” he says. “We really feel like we’re bringing people and nature together.”

 

A downy woodpecker (left) and a red bellied woodpecker at a feeder at Beaver Lake Nature Center.
A downy woodpecker (left) and a red bellied woodpecker at a feeder at Beaver Lake Nature Center.

What you can do to help birds

Feed the birds — especially during winter. “It’s heroes’ work trying to keep these birds alive,” says Kosty. “The survival rate of chickadees is 33 percent, but when given access to food, it goes up to 70 percent.” Be sure to put feeders where birds can find them, Kosty says. “Birds are visual eaters. They need to see the food to eat it.”

Add some variety to your feeders by providing halved oranges for orioles and nectar feeders for hummingbirds, says Kocek. Remember to clean feeders at least twice a week.

Put up birdhouses (also referred to as nesting boxes) so birds have a place to nest.

Avoid using pesticides. They can harm birds by infecting them directly or by contaminating their natural prey.

Keep cats indoors. Experts estimate that cats kill more than 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States. Keep cats inside or consider building a cat patio or “catio” consisting of a screened in porch where cats can be outside without endangering birds.

Make windows safer. Some estimates say as many as one billion birds die flying into windows each year. To make your windows safer for birds, apply decals that break up window reflections.

Buy bird-safe coffee. Most of the world’s coffee farms grow plants in the sun, which destroys the natural habitat of birds through deforestation and pesticide use. Coffee plants grown in shade provide shelter for birds migrating in winter. Find it at Gimme Coffee in Ithaca or Birds & Beans.

Plant native. Provide shelter for birds with native plants including boxwood, burning bush, holly and other berry bearing bushes, trees and shrubs, says Kosty.

 

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Central New York Magazine.