Bird-watching in Odd Places
Check out two unexpected U.S. birding sites
Some of the best opportunities to watch birds can occur in some highly unlikely places. Consider these two locations, one on the West Coast and the other on the East:
ALCATRAZ ISLAND, CALIFORNIA
The site of a former maximum-security prison, which once held the country’s most notorious criminals on a 19-acre island in San Francisco Bay, happens to be one of the nation’s premier locations for getting a close look at the breeding behavior of seven species of seabirds—species that elsewhere along the Pacific Coast often appear as distant dots on inaccessible rocks during the nesting season.
The site of a former maximum-security prison, which once held the country’s most notorious criminals on a 19-acre island in San Francisco Bay, happens to be one of the nation’s premier locations for getting a close look at the —species that elsewhere along the Pacific Coast often appear as distant dots on inaccessible rocks during the nesting season.
From early spring to late summer, thousands of birds gather on The Rock, as the island is known, to perform courtship rituals and rear their young.
For birders, the star attraction is probably Brandt’s cormorant, a species that ranges only along the West Coast, primarily in remote places where people can’t see them. Three mated pairs of the birds first appeared on Alcatraz in 1991; by last summer, nearly 2,000 pairs were nesting on the cliffs there. Visiting the island provides people with a front-row-center view of these birds, as well as great opportunities to see pigeon guillemots, black-crowned night-herons, pelagic cormorants, snowy egrets, and western and California gulls.
Alcatraz is accessible from San Francisco year-round by ferry. For information, visit www.alcatrazcruises.com or call 415-981-7625. The best time to view breeding seabirds on the island is from March through August.
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, NEW YORK CITY
Each spring and fall, tens of thousands of migrating birds of more than 100 species fly above New York City at about the same height as the Empire State Building’s 86th-floor observation deck. With lights illuminating them from below, most of the migrants look like “small shooting stars,” says Robert DeCandido, an urban ecologist and native New Yorker who leads nocturnal bird tours to the outdoor observatory during migration seasons.
Prompted by concerns that migrating birds were being attracted to the building’s bright lights—then crashing into it and dying—DeCandido led a two-year-long study to record mortalities. After observing more than 30,000 migrants pass by, “I’ve yet to see one smack into the building” he says. “Instead, my colleagues and I have enjoyed some of the most thrilling birding I’ve experienced anywhere.”
On one October night, the researchers spotted 3,387 small birds such as warblers, woodpeckers and sparrows between 7 p.m. and midnight. From 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. alone, they tallied one migrant every 4 seconds.
Other highlights included watching weary birds—including northern flickers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, common yellowthroats and black-throated blue warblers—land on the deck to rest, sometimes for an hour or more. Once, an eastern phoebe perched on the railing just above DeCandido’s head, sallying forth to catch insects attracted to the lights for a full 10 minutes.
On another night, the group watched in amazement as a peregrine falcon made 25 dives after migrants, catching 7 of them. Peregrine hunting turned out to be a regular occurrence; that fall, the researchers saw the raptors pursue migrants 111 times and make 37 captures.
The best time to spot nocturnal migrants from the top of the Empire State Building is fall, especially the first half of October when winds are from the northwest. Plan to arrive on the observation deck by dusk. To save time, order tickets beforehand at www.esbnyc.com. For a guided tour with DeCandido or one of his colleagues, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adapted from "Unexpected Wildlife" by Mark Wexler and Laura Tangley, National Wildlife, June/July 2008.