48 Hours of Birding (and Other Things): New York City

There's nothing like spring migration in Manhattan and Queens.

New York City has always been well known for its migrants—human and avian. But the region’s urban sprawl has made the city’s green spaces more popular than ever with migrating birds. Right in the heart of Manhattan, Central Park is full of rarities and surprises: a Boreal Owl showed up a few winters ago; Red-tailed Hawks nest throughout the summer; American Redstarts flit through the fall foliage. Meanwhile, late April and May see millions of birds stopping and fueling up on their way to northern breeding grounds, causing New York City to be one of the nation’s best places to bird.

Day 1

Hudson School of Warblers; 7:00 a.m.

Riverside Park stretches for four miles along the Hudson River on the upper half of Manhattan, between West 72nd and 125th. Start at The Drip (a man-made water source), near 120th Street in the park’s wooded bird sanctuary, and head south. As morning breaks, migrating songbirds that arrived overnight call from the trees: double-digit varieties of warblers, fresh from the tropics. Few sights will wake you up like a blazing Yellow Warbler or Northern Parula.

Getting around the borough is easy with a subway pass, Citi Bike rental, or even a hop-on hop-off bus tour. Either way, breakfast is an easy affair, with a slew of famed delis offering bagels and blintzes in a casual, bustling atmosphere.

Inner City Adventures; 9 a.m.

On your way to Central Park you’ll pass the American Museum of Natural History, famous for its impressive fossils and live butterfly exhibit. But most birders make a beeline for The Ramble (between West 72nd and 79th). Frederick Law Olmstead designed these trails to be “wild,” complete with woods, a stream, and rocky outcroppings. Most of the wood warblers of the East have popped up in the Ramble. Scan the canopy for Yellow-throated Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, look eye-level for Black-throated Blue Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos, and find Ovenbirds and thrushes picking through the leaf litter. Work your way south toward the lake for Black-crowned Night-Herons and the odd Solitary Sandpiper.

You could spend all day in Central Park—grab lunch from a food cart, find more birds, nap in a meadow. But there is still so much to see.

Flying High; 1 p.m.

The best part about Roosevelt Island might be getting there. Board an aerial tram (2nd Ave. and East 60th Street) for $2.50 and soar through the Upper East Side, fifteen stories up, and out over the East River.

The tram sets you down near a visitor center kiosk in the middle of the island. While ambling southward, check the trees for warblers, vireos, and flycatchers, and the river for Brant and other waterfowl. Pass the ruins of the 1850s smallpox hospital, and take in the unrivaled views of Manhattan and the United Nations.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was designed in the 1970s by Louis Kahn but only recently built. The park’s highly formal design is unusual by today’s standards, and unusually striking. Step behind FDR’s huge floating head—seriously—and look for the cormorant rookery in the middle of the river.

The Green Scene; 4 p.m.

Hop on the F Train and land directly in Bryant Park. This grassy Midtown oasis is good for a drink, a snack, and, believe it or not, more birds. Sit, relax, and let the birds come to you: warblers, thrushes, and sparrows are all possible.

The Beaux-Arts building with its back to the park is the New York Public Library. Step inside and seek out the stunning reading room. For a more contemporary landmark, check out the Bank of America Tower (Avenue of the Americas and West 42nd), the world’s first LEED Platinum skyscraper. With a public Garden Room and a co-generation plant in the basement, the building is as innovative as it is beautiful, designed to cut 144,000 pounds of CO2 emissions each year.

Down By the River; 6 p.m.

The West Village is steeped in history, culture, and good food. For a NYC staple—the falafel—check out Taïm (222 Waverly Pl.), which many say makes the best in the city.

Meander into Chelsea and climb up to the High Line, a park built on an abandoned elevated train track. It stretches almost a mile and a half along the Hudson and is lined with native trees and plants.

Day 2

Queens-Bound Flyway; 9 a.m.

Jamaica Bay is a stopover magnet for birds, especially younger migrants who stick to the coastline while flying northward.  It’s also a bit of a trek from Manhattan—for humans anyway. The subway ride to Broad Channel Station is close to an hour long, plus there’s a 20-minute walk to cap it off. But you can skip the walk along the busy parkway by taking the A train to Rockaway Boulevard and jumping on to the Q52 or Q53 bus. That’ll take you right to the entrance of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge is a muddy, grassy tract of land that rests in the middle of a giant saltwater bay. It might not look too thrilling, yet there are swarms of birds waiting to be found there. Wander the trails along the water—you might see families of Ospreys, Brant, Black Skimmers, and terns. Other trails will lead you to East Pond and West Pond, brackish enclaves that host Buffleheads and Horned Grebes early in the season. Big John’s Pond, meanwhile, has freshwater that draws passerines and Glossy Ibises, along with a bird blind and Barn Owl nesting boxes.

Toward the end of May, when the horseshoe crabs lay their eggs, dowitchers, Dunlin, Red Knots, and Ruddy Turnstones will dot the shoreline. By then, many of the 72 species that nest in the area will have settled in. Jamaica Bay is also known for extremely atypical visitors: A Ruff—a Eurasian sandpiper—and a Cave Swallow have been spotted there before.

To make the most of your short visit, try and catch a tour or walk led by the American Littoral Society, NYC Audubon, and Gateway National Recreation Area.

Floating On; 5 p.m.

End the day at the southern tip of Manhattan. Visit Battery Park and gaze out on New York Harbor, looking for waterfowl and harbor seals. A few blocks north is a novel new dinner option—a high-end food court called Hudson Eats (200 Vesey St.), which has offerings from some of the city’s best restaurants, including farm-to-table fare.

Consider finishing your evening with a free ferry ride to Staten Island and back (Whitehall Terminal, at the east end of Battery Park). If you want to keep birding, catch an EcoCruise from Pier 16 at South Street Seaport. You might score views of Little Blue Herons and oystercatchers, all against the setting sun and a regal New York City skyline.