Suspended above the metropolis, everyone in the enclosed observation space atop the Empire State Building is competing for a sunset view of the concrete jungle that lies 1,000 feet and 86 stories below; everyone except for Robert DeCandido, AKA ‘Birding Bob.’ On a Friday night, as the pinkish hue is shoved aside by the encroaching faint black of a light polluted night sky, Bob holds binoculars to his eyes and looks up.
“Winds are northwest now,” he says, “not so good.”
A born and raised New Yorker with a PhD in Evolutionary Ecology, Bob is a fixture of the New York City birding scene. Aside from studying night migrations, Bob regularly leads bird watching tours throughout the city, and thanks to a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, is amidst an urban nesting study of American Kestrels for which he has recruited over a hundred New Yorkers to spy on the sky and report their findings to him. Despite the crowds, Bob makes it to the roof quickly, slithering past sluggish tourists like a worm on speed.
Robert DeCandido first came up to NYC's monadnock in 2004 to investigate whether or notbirds were crashing into the illuminated needle. Instead of dead birds, however, Bob found one of the few places in the world where the intersection of natural flyways and modern man—
providing the necessary height and light—made conditions ripefor studying bird migrations at night. He spent almost every non-winter evening of the following two years on the top of the Empire State Building.
“I like to think of [The Empire State Building] as a great big island in the sky,” an animated Bob says, as he loses his bright yellow hat to the wind. After retrieving it, he elaborates.
“I’ve seen birds just stop up here and rest before continuing on their way.”
Tonight Bob is accompanied by three other fellow birdwatchers, Jack and Jane Rothmane and Carol Wood, and he feels sorry about the birds' weak showing.
“Is that a bird”? Asks Jack.
“No, that’s a moth,” Bob replies.
“Oh, there’s one I think,” says Carol.
“That’s a bat,” says Bob, “and those over there are balloons.”
This was Bob’s last chance to watch the night migration until next spring. By now he is in the sky flying to Thailand to continue his study of migration patterns in Southeast Asia.
As a veteran of the observation deck, 'Birding Bob' is desensitized to both the view and the commotion, but not the migration. He is slouched over digging through his backpack. The tourists might as well be invisible, however, to see the birds he'll need his binoculars. Tonight though, will be a disappointment. "It's very hit or miss up here," he says. Tonight will be a miss.
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