How to spot birds in NYC during the spring migration

Eastern Phoebes are among the more than 100 species of birds expected to pass through New York City during spring migration, which is already underway.
Eastern Phoebes are among the more than 100 species of birds expected to pass through New York City during spring migration, which is already underway. Photo Credit: NBC / Peter Kramer

Pigeons aren’t the only birds that call New York home and, for a short time, more than 100 species of birds will fly through the city as part of a yearly migration.

David Barrett, the creator of Manhattan Bird Alert, which shares news of rare birds (and, of course, the popular Mandarin duck in Central Park) on Twitter, said spring migration is a great opportunity to see a variety of fowl. Spring migration peaks around the first or second week of May then slows down until its end in early June, Barrett said. Migration picks up again in the summer when shore birds return.

Barrett credited the Mandarin duck with sparking interest in bird watching in general.

“They start out by looking at the Mandarin duck but then they … get hooked on seeing these beautiful birds,” Barrett said. “We see many more people chiming in on Twitter about not just the Mandarin duck, but birds in general. We see more people going on birding walks in Central Park.”

Here are some of Barrett’s best tips for novice bird-watchers:

What birds are in New York City right now?

We have a mix of birds right now. We have ducks that have been lingering in the area most of the winter — they’re some of the most colorful birds right now. They’re abundant and they’re easy to see. They’re in water bodies, like the Central Park Reservoir. The pond is very interesting because that has the Mandarin duck and there are other ducks there too. Watching ducks are fun and easy because ducks are big. You can use binoculars, but you might not need to. Birds that [are] around all year are like American Robins, Blue Jays. … They’re always around.

What birds specifically come around in the spring?

The birds that really get birders excited are migrants, the birds that come through New York only in migration, they do not live here. In fact, they stay here maybe for only a day or two, or three days at a time. … We’ve already had a few species of migrant birds pass through, most popular the American Woodcocks. They’re fun to see, they look different from other birds: they’re small, rotund, and on the ground. They walk around the hedges, they probe for earthworms, it’s fun to see. Those are really popular because they fly all over the city. Another bird that is showing up right now is the Eastern Phoebe, it’s a small fly catcher so you see it in parks. Over the next two weeks there will be more of them.

What can a bird watching novice do to prepare?

There’s a lot to learn about it. The first tip is get binoculars. Birds are small, and even the large ones tend to be further away sometimes. … The perching birds, they’re smaller, they’re harder to see and you definitely want binoculars to see those. To get a good look at those, you want to go into the more forested areas of Central Park, like the North Woods, the Great Hill, the Central Park Ramble. There’s so much to learn because we will get a lot of species coming through — we’ll get over 100 new species coming through between now and the beginning of June.

What about research?

You need to arm yourself with some knowledge to enjoy this completely. There are many guidebooks to birds, … [but] you want something that narrows down the selection. For that purpose, there is an app that is really good: the Merlin [Bird ID] app. … It will narrow down the selection of birds that are likely based on the location you give it, and it can show them by abundance. That’s really helpful.

The Mandarin duck sparked a lot of curiosity in bird-watching. How is the duck doing?

The Mandarin duck is doing great, he has been there nearly every day so far this year. He looks great, he looks the same as always. He has a personality, he’s very feisty, he doesn’t let the other ducks push him around. He likes to guard his territory. Ducks have a lot of time to play, so they’re fun to watch. … The mystery behind the Mandarin duck that got people excited [is] because they didn’t know where he came from. There’s also his beauty, it’s just a striking duck that looks different from all the other ducks on the pond. The third thing that’s kept the interest going is the Mandarin duck’s personality. He embodies the free spirit that people admire about him.