From House Finches to President Loki: The Surprises You Find When You Get Outside

How one afternoon of birdwatching for Gaby Sotelo turned into a weekend—and perhaps a lifetime—full of birds.
A group of people, all wearing gold curling horns on their heads, poses for the camera. The author holds a glowing blue cube in her hand.

Before I starting working at Audubon, I knew absolutely nothing about birding. I certainly had never heard of “October Big Day.” But after I suggested to my editor that I wanted to write about birding, here’s what I learned: It’s a 24-hour period in early October when birders, expert or not, collectively go out, then report all of the birds they see or hear during that time to eBird. What better time, then, for me to expand my horizons and try out this birding thing for myself?

In the run up to this year’s October Big Day, I suspected that most birders were likely out there searching for the best spots to go birding. I, however, was frantically searching on Google “what to take when bird watching,” “best nature reserves around me for birding,” and, uh, “where to buy Loki horns,” because New York Comic Con happened to fall on the same weekend as October Big Day, and there was no way I was missing my chance for some quality cosplay.

Even with all of my research, I still had no idea what I would be doing. Who would be driving to the sanctuary? What should I bring? How early do I have to leave? How am I meeting my friends?

But at least I did know which basic equipment I needed: a field guide, binoculars, and a checklist of birds in the particular area. What I actually took on my adventure: a mesh bag, my wallet, a notebook, and a water bottle.

Day 1Saturday

At least one decision was made for me: One of my amazing friends helped me with the location scouting and picked Lorrimer Sanctuary because it’s pretty close to where we live and it’s run by New Jersey Audubon. [Editor note: New Jersey Audubon is an excellent independent conservation organization, separate from National Audubon Society.] Lorrimer Sanctuary, in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, is a 14-acre site with an old house, hiking trails, picnic areas, and a butterfly garden.

We decided to explore the house, which also serves as the sanctuary visitor’s center, before meeting up with Martha Harbison, my colleague and senior network content editor for National Audubon Society. The house was quaint and smelled of old books, and we learned parts of the house date back to the 1700s. One room was hosting a book sale where each book was $1. I took advantage and am now the proud owner of the Audubon Land Bird Guide.

After my friends and I gathered up our new nature books, Martha arrived with binoculars and tips about birdwatching—both things I desperately needed. We learned how to use the binoculars. But more importantly, we learned where and how to spot birds with them. I learned that patience is key in spotting birds, as walking throughout the sanctuary we would have to keep our eyes and ears open for movement or bird song, and slowly guide our binoculars to where the bird may have landed. While Martha helped us spot a number of birds, as soon as they left my friends and I were left with a game of ‘is it a bird or leaf?’

The two of us with binoculars kept losing that game, yet somehow my friend who was trying out her new camera managed to spot the birds before us. In all, we managed to find a House Wren, a House Sparrow, and if we identified correctly, a White-breasted Nuthatch. The checklist provided by the sanctuary helped, as we quickly started to identify shapes, colors, and patterns on birds. Later I learned that we might have gone bird watching at the wrong time, as the best time to spot birds is often early in the morning. My birding adventure was originally supposed to end here, but I soon found out the concept of bird watching follows you everywhere you go.

Day 2Sunday

I did not find Loki horns in time.

After a horrible bus ride to New York City where the motion sickness was getting to me and I was desperate for some fresh air, I finally made it to New York Comic Con. This would be my second time attending.

Even though I wasn’t able to buy new Loki horns, I managed to create some with a crown and an old set of Maleficent horns that I repurposed and painted gold. I paired them with a suit and tie to complete my “President Loki” look, then met my friend who cosplayed as Spider-Man at the convention. As usual, I attended some panels, bought comics, posed for photos, and attended a Marvel meetup where we found ourselves surrounded by other Spider-Mans and Lokis.

Even in the midst of so much action, throughout the day I found myself noticing just how many birds were around us. Around the Javits Center—the site of New York Comic Con—I became aware of every pigeon I passed; one pigeon even joined us inside the Javits Center. 

However, the highlight of this accidental bird watching was when I spotted the Javits Center green roof. At 6.75-acres, the Javits Center green roof is home to 29 bird species, and in the summer hosts a colony of nesting Herring Gulls. In 2019, the Javits Center roof had almost 150 gull nests, according to Richard Brown, the chief engineer of the Javits Center, the last year for which I was able to find information. I didn’t get to see any of the Herring Gulls during Comic Con—they tend to head to the coast after breeding season—my adventure birdwatching would not end here.

Day 3Monday

When I started this story, I thought I’d go birdwatching for a day and be done with it. But on day three, as I went on a run before work, I decided to take the binoculars with me. I had become hyper-aware of the birds around me. With my checklist and bird guide on my phone, and my binoculars out, I was soon walking instead of running in an effort to recognize birds.

That early in the morning, I knew one bird that I was sure to spot: the Canada Goose. But I was determined to find at least one new bird. The park was empty when I started, but as my walk continued, I saw families on the swing set and other people starting their runs. As I walked circles around the pond—completing laps passing the same faces—it finally happened! A new bird! After much consultation with my bird guide apps, I decided it was a Lincoln’s Sparrow.

I know that longtime birders will have seen this coming from the beginning, but three days of looking at birds left me wanting to do it more. Now that I have the binoculars and handbooks, my online searches are no longer focused on what to bring, but rather on new areas I should explore. And although day two was fun as I was able to see an old friend and even spot a celebrity, days one and three were peaceful and gave me another reason to be out in nature more. I now have become that person to spot a bird, and then attempt to search for the name, something which really clears a busy brain. Maybe I will incorporate birdwatching into my morning run, or maybe I will start a monthly gathering with my friends? All I do know is that from now on, I will look at every pigeon and goose differently.

Coda—February 28, 2022 

In the months since the events of this article have passed, I joined a local Christmas Bird Count,  have slightly gotten better at identifying birds, and have been noticing way more birds than usual. (I also now have Loki horns, and completed a Winter Soldier cosplay!)