A review by Avery Scott
Birdwatching in New York City and on Long Island, by Deborah Rivel and Kellye Rosenheim
University Press of New England, 2016
320 pages, $24.95—softcover
The concept is simple: Why not assemble a list of the best places to see birds in the New York metropolitan area—the five boroughs and Long Island—and publish it as a book? Deborah Rivel and Kellye Rosenheim have done just that. The result, their new Birdwatching in New York City and on Long Island, is a comprehensive guide to some of the best places to find concentrations of birds around the largest city in the United States, equally essential to beginning birders who live in the area and to visiting birders with more experience. Distinctive for its focus on locations rather than species, Birdwatching in New York City and Long Island stands in a long tradition of birdfinding guides for this ornithologically rich region, their covers bearing such famous names as Chapman, Griscom, Cruikshank, Pettingill, and Bull; the present volume might be considered an updated version of Marcia T. Fowle and Paul Kerlinger’s already classic New York City Audubon Society Guide to Finding Birds in the Metropolitan Area.
The first thing one notices about Birdwatching in New York City and Long Island is the book’s durable and aesthetically pleasing construction. The paper has a heft to it that all too many books in this age of e-readers and audiobooks lack, and the binding feels like it is made to last. The book is of a size to fit perfectly in the hand—it’s portable, but not so small that it’s difficult to read comfortably.
That good first impression is only deepened on opening the book. The color photographs are intimate and sharp portraits of the birds that can be found at the location in question, often taken at the very hotspot being described. The images are not intended as identification photos, but instead lean more towards the artistic. The text is dark and large enough to read easily.
The information for each location is presented in a consistent format: a brief overview followed by the best spots for finding birds, directions by car and public transit (but no GPS coordinates), and website and contact information. The authors also provide easy-to-read maps highlighting the best spots within a locality to find birds.
Some may wonder about the advantage of printed information on birding hotspots in an era when so much is available on line. Online resources such as eBird can be overwhelming, especially to beginning birders. Birdwatching presents key information about birding locations in a way that is much more approachable for novice birders. The authors also include insider information that would be impossible to come by without being firmly entrenched in the New York birding community, such as precisely where a particular species is likely to be found in a given hotspot.
The authors offer advice on whether a scope is necessary at a given site, and they assess each location’s potential for bird photography. In a sensible sign of the times, they treat photography as an activity that goes hand in hand with birding, on the assumption that birders will want to carefully photograph birds in addition to observing them. Activities other than birding, such as swimming, surfing, kayaking, outdoor concerts and plays, fishing, and jogging are also listed.
Birdwatching in New York City and Long Island goes beyond simply tallying the birdiest spots. It includes precise information about the abundance of ticks, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. The authors also note which locations are less safely birded alone. More generally, they advise their readers to exercise good judgment and take the precautions that are prudent in any urban area.
The sites are clearly organized from west to east and categorized into two self-explanatory groups: “major hotspots” and “other places to find birds.” While this classification helps the reader who has limited time, it may fool beginners into thinking that the locations identified as “major” are superior to smaller parks for birding. In reality, small “pocket parks” are the perfect place to develop one’s birding skills, and from the conservation perspective, they can be just as important as larger, more well-known sites such as Jamaica Bay and Central Park—or more so.
For instance, the authors briefly mention Stehli Beach and the William Cullen Bryant Preserve, two under-birded areas on the North Shore of Long Island. While birders may not throng to these locations, the latter holds migrating songbirds each year in a safe place relatively untouched by humans, and the former provides a somewhat out-of-the-way place for Piping Plovers and Least Terns to breed.
The authors cover the entirety of Long Island and the five boroughs of New York City, although their treatment of each hotspot becomes less detailed as they work their way east (the total distance from the westernmost point to the easternmost point is 149 miles).
An appendix with handy bar charts indicates the abundance of each of the area’s species by season. Similar to those used in Whittle and Stephenson’s The Warbler Guide, these charts are exceptionally helpful and easy to use. The data found in these graphs are drawn from eBird, Kevin J. McGowan and Kimberly Corwin’s Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State, the AOU Check-list, and the annual reports of the New York State Avian Records Committee. Thus, the graphs present information from a wide range of sources in a simple format, making it easy for a novice birder unfamiliar with eBird to quickly get a feel for what birds are found where and when.
This material is what makes the book so useful to birders visiting New York briefly and wishing to make the most of their time, and to new birders who live in the area but are not yet familiar with the best birding spots. In addition, the book’s appendix includes a list of clubs and other resources in the area, such as New York City Audubon and the Linnaean Society of New York. It also includes links to blogs written by avid New York birders, but omits information about festivals and similar birding-related events.
Almost all of the information in the book is accurate, and more than one of the hotspot accounts called forth my own fond recollections of birds seen in the very locales being described. For example, reading the author’s description of the entrance to a heavily birded trail in Forest Park, Queens, brought back memories of the time I had a near collision with a Northern Parula in that same spot. Among the minor lapses in accuracy is the statement that the north end of the East Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is almost never visited due to the presence of dangerous quicksand. While there is mud that one can get mired in, there is no quicksand at the East Pond, and the north end of the pond is regularly visited by birders; in fact, the annual Jamaica Bay Shorebird Festival includes guided bird walks to this part of the pond.
The most outstanding part of Birdwatching in New York City and Long Island is the writing. Books like this can be dry and straightforward, but not this one. It is written in a conversational style that makes you feel as if the authors were right there with you, sharing the inside secrets that will open up a whole new New York. Reading this book is not a task, but it is best not to read it cover to cover. Instead, use it as a reference, dipping into it when information about a particular location is needed.
Birdwatching in New York City and Long Island is a comprehensive guide to some of the best places to find large concentrations of birds in New York City and Long Island. While it is most helpful for birders visiting New York, this guide makes a useful addition to any birder’s bookshelf.
– Avery Scott is the 2016 ABA Young Birder of the Year in the 10- to 13-year-old category. In addition to birding, he enjoys using his other passions, including writing and photography, to raise awareness of conservation. Scott hails from Long Island, New York, where he feels extremely fortunate to be able to see shorebirds.
Scott, A. 2016. How to Maximize a Bird-finding Guide [a review of Birdwatching in New York City and Long Island, by Deborah Rivel and Kellye Rosenheim]. Birding 48: 65-66.