For Actor Lili Taylor, Birding Is Full of Thrills

On a recent Christmas Bird Count, we go on a 4 a.m. owl chase and witness a diving hawk with the veteran star and activist.

It’s a cold and damp December morning in the parking lot of the Kingston Point Rotary Park, a spit of land jutting out into the Hudson River in upstate New York. It’s also 4 a.m., a waking hour usually reserved for long-haul truckers and graveyard-shift cops. Nevertheless, here stands Lili Taylor, the Emmy Award–nominated and critically acclaimed actor who, just a few days ago in Los Angeles, finished filming the third season of ABC’s American Crime. A member of the National Audubon Society’s Board of Directors since last June, Taylor may be jet-lagged—puffy eyes and a nagging cough betray her. But she still chose the early shift on the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for New York’s Ulster and Dutchess counties, driving from her country home about 15 miles away, lured by the opportunity to find owls.

“Owling overwhelms me,” Taylor, 49, whispers. “It’s a needle in the haystack.”

As she will reveal during the next eight hours, Taylor has the keen eye of a birder. As a kid growing up in a Chicago suburb, she had the practice instilled in her by her nature-loving mother, and she’s been honing her skill in earnest for the past seven years. Taylor’s interest in what she sees through her binoculars spills over to related issues, such as the effects of climate change and urban sprawl on birds. Recently, she helped to research, design, and plant a bird-friendly garden at her 8-year-old daughter’s school, so that all the students there could learn why their feathered friends matter.

Today she’s on one of 13 teams in the area that have mobilized for the CBC, a century-old, volunteer-run census that measures the health of birds across the Western Hemisphere. Some people participate in the count purely for recreational purposes, but many take part because the population data is valuable to scientific research and conservation work. Taylor seems to be motivated by the latter. She sticks close to her guide, Mark DeDea, peppering him with questions about certain species’ behavior and habitat. She’s a quick draw with her binoculars, too. Taylor has decided to stick it out until noon, halfway through the predawn-to-dusk endeavor. In total, the 13 squads will net 16,076 birds and 80 different species—some of the lowest numbers on record for this CBC region. 

But at the moment, she's fixated on seeing an owl, or at least, the haunting glint of one’s eye. She stands a good chance with DeDea running point: He’s a birder of 20 years, caretaker of a nature center, and a vault of knowledge about the local birds and where to best look for them. He sweeps his flashlight beam along a stand of cedars and other conifers about 30 yards away, hoping to detect a reflection. In the inky darkness, Taylor plants a boot on a crusty snow bank and cocks her head, listening intently. DeDea directs a small speaker wired to his cell phone at the copse of trees. The trill of an Eastern Screech-Owl  slices through the wintry air. 

But that’s not the species that answers the call.

“Great Horned!” Taylor whispers excitedly.

“Yup,” says DeDea, pointing to his left. “Her nest is about a mile and a quarter in that direction.”

Seconds later, as DeDea waves his flashlight again, a screech-owl wails out. Both he and Taylor say they also detect the faint rustling of the birds flitting among the branches. “I’m kind of surprised they vocalized,” DeDea says. “The sound of a Great Horned is enough to silence any bird that doesn’t want to become a meal.”

“Wait—what’s that sound?” Taylor says, directing her gaze to the right just as DeDea points his flashlight there. “Oh, a deer,” she says, sounding disappointed.

“Good ear, though,” DeDea says.

The game’s only just begun.

Video: Mike Fernandez/Audubon

The approaching sunrise adds a touch of color to the gray sky. Taylor and DeDea—joined at 7 a.m. by two other birders to comprise the full “Sector I” team—visit about a dozen sites in and around Kingston over the next few hours. The habitats range from the Hudson River and its banks, where they count Buffleheads (3), American Black Ducks (9), Ring-billed Gulls (206), and Canada Geese (498, shocker), among others. In other areas—woods with rocky trails, wetlands, scrubland abutting big-box-store parking lots, open fields with heavy clouds overhead—they spot and record Red-tailed Hawks (9), Cooper’s Hawks (2), Downy, Red-bellied, and Hairy Woodpeckers (19, 16, and 3, respectively), Eastern Bluebirds (13), Yellow-rumped Warblers (2), American Goldfinches (12), and the somewhat rare Merlin (3).

DeDea admits to being slightly star-struck by Taylor, who has 30 years of professional acting credits, mostly in indie films (Mystic Pizza, 1988; I Shot Andy Warhol, 1996; The Notorious Bettie Page, 2005), as well as Broadway and television. In addition to her Emmy-winning role on American Crime, she has appeared in Gotham, Almost Human, and Six Feet Under.

DeDea and Taylor chat as they warm up in the car. “We bird nerds crave to have someone of status we can point to and say, ‘She’s a birder!’ ” he says.

“Awww, really?” she replies. “That’s nice of you to say. I hope so.”

“I love it and want to get the word out—anything to get the word out,” Taylor, who’s also on the board of the American Birding Association, goes on to say. “I’m into it. Birds are right in front of you. They’re important. You just have to open your eyes to see it.” 

Once we arrive at the next stop, Taylor takes up her stance, binoculars at the ready. Her birding strategy starts with a kind of trance-like state. “You just chill and look around,” she says. “You’re not lasered-in. It’s like a wide-angle view but with soft focus. The more relaxed the wide-angle is, the better. And then, if I detect any motion, I laser in and focus with my binoculars.”  

It’s a craft that overlaps with another one of Taylor’s niche interests: trapeze.

“Both require proprioperception,” she says. “The first time you do trapeze, you have no idea what’s happening. You don’t know where you are in space. The instructors are telling you to do things that are crazy. ‘Let go? Of the bar? No, that’s crazy.’ ”

“But as time goes by, you start to develop a different way of perceiving things. Now, I’m starting to see things—an experienced flier sees everything in the eight seconds between leaving the board, performing an aerial maneuver, and landing. I can understand it now. Same with birding. My sound and visuals, through experience, have developed to the point where they work together in a new way.”

Stimuli aside, there's a more physical parallel between the two, a sensation that humans rarely get to experience: flying. 

“At first I didn’t see a connection between birding and trapeze,” Taylor continues. “But I’ve been working on what are called round-trips. You fly out, you get caught, you get the bar off of the catcher, and then you fly back to the board, so you never have to come down. It isn’t such a mystery that I like birds and I like trapeze.”

Just before noon, Taylor sits in the back of DeDea’s Subaru, gazing skyward through the window. She may be quiet and tired, but she’s still alert.

“Raptor!” she says, rupturing the silence.

DeDea pulls over hastily and parks on the shoulder. He and Taylor climb out of the car and point their binoculars skyward.

“Is it a falcon?” Taylor asks DeDea.

“Nope,” he says. “A Cooper’s Hawk.”

“And there are vultures up there, too,” Taylor says.

“Good eye, Lili,” DeDea says. “Four Black Vultures, to be precise. Those are really good for our count.”

Taylor and DeDea crane their necks and train their sights on the hawk. It’s circling slowly, elegantly, 200 or 300 feet aloft.

In an instant the bird breaks into a blazing-fast free fall.

“Oh, my, God,” Taylor says.

The little missile disappears below the treeline, presumably pouncing on something edible—a rodent, perhaps—in the heavy underbrush.

“Well, that was certainly something,” Taylor says wryly. “That’s it. That’s f-ing nature right there. I love it.”

Of course, DeDea loves it, too. But he uses one word to describe what just happened: “Lunch.”


Correction: Taylor has been nominated for multiple Emmys, but hasn't won (yet). Her daughter is 8, not 13.