Apartment Birding and Fire Escapism

When I first moved into my Astoria apartment in early December, I immediately began keeping a “yard list” of birds seen around my new home. My expectations for the potential of this urbanized neighborhood weren’t particularly high, but I reasoned that watching for birds of note outside my window would be a fun way to pass the time between proper birding outings. Now, of course, the current state of the world is rather different than it was at the start of 2020. I wouldn’t have guessed that apartment birding would swiftly become the only kind of birding I could regularly partake in. 

When New York first implemented social distancing regulations, I was concerned that the struggles and stresses of this challenging new reality would be amplified by a lack of access to nature. Birding is a crucial constant in my life, providing frequent opportunities for exploration, relaxation, and unexpected surprises that brighten my daily routine. To an extroverted nature-lover, the thought of being cooped up and cut off from both friends and the outdoors for an indeterminate amount of time was certainly an unsavory idea. As my students will tell you, however, humanity’s superpower is adaptability. Just as we’ve attempted to make the most of our situation with remote work and digital hangouts, I’ve found solace in turning my observational focus to my immediate surroundings. Fortunately, birds are among the most conspicuous and omnipresent creatures on Earth. It’s one of the major reasons this hobby has such universal appeal.

The First Few Months

As one might expect, my apartment list was slow to grow over the course of the winter. My very first eBird checklist from the property on December 7th featured just 4 species: Herring Gull and the introduced trifecta of House Sparrow, European Starling, and Rock Pigeon. I picked up a handful of other birds over the next few weeks, including Canada Goose, Blue Jay, and Northern Cardinal, but the holiday season saw me spending most of my free time back with the family back in Lynbrook. It took me until January 2nd to record my 10th species, with a Mourning Dove spotted as I headed out the front door towards the subway station. I was much more focused on traveling around the City and the Island to build my new year list during this time frame, but I did get my first surprise visitor: a Common Raven croaking outside my bedroom window early one morning. February brought some raptors to the tally with appearances by American Kestrel and Red-tailed Hawk, and early movers like White-throated Sparrow, American Robin, and Downy Woodpecker soon followed.

By the beginning of March, the species total at Astoria Park, my newly adopted personal patch, held clear priority over my paltry yard list. Of the 40 birds I’d observed there since the start of 2020, I’d even added some new species to the cumulative hotspot list: Greater Scaup, Merlin, and Wood Duck. When online instruction and stay-at-home orders finally became a reality, I thought I’d be able to continue visiting the park with some regularity. However, this already popular greenspace grew even more crowded once everything else started to shut down. Astoria Park was literally being used as the example of “what not to do” during safety press conferences. Continuing to bird there amidst the throngs of visitors didn’t seem like the wisest move, and it probably wouldn’t be all that productive anyway. Thus, I decided to begin dedicated fire escape stakeouts.

Watching From the Windowsill

I first scrambled out onto my fire escape with binoculars in hand on the morning of March 27th. With no access to the roof of the building, this was the highest perch I was able to reach. As I scanned up and down the block, I realized that the setup wasn’t as bad as I initially thought. Though half of the sky was obscured by my own building, the open schoolyard across the street meant that the view ahead of me was largely unobstructed. There were also plenty of ornamental plants lining the street and the edges of the school’s track, and the next door beer garden contained a handful of especially tall trees. All things considered, I had a decent vantage point to scan for flyby migrants, and the vegetation certainly had potential to draw in tired travelers. I was feeling much more optimistic about my chances of spotting some surprises.

A few minutes into that initial watch, I recorded my 20th apartment bird: Eastern Phoebe. That day alone, I saw more species than I’d seen in all the months prior, including 6 that were new for the cumulative total. A pair of Great Blue Herons and a Turkey Vulture were easy to pick out due to their size, while smaller birds like Monk Parakeet and Dark-eyed Junco made their presence known by vocalizing loudly. April began a few days later, and the hits kept on coming. I kicked off the month with sightings of Osprey and Tree Swallows, and my 30th species arrived on April 4th in the form of a passing Barn Swallow. April 5th was my first opportunity to conduct an all-day watch after a night of favorable winds, and it delivered 35 different species observed between dawn and dusk. Common Loon and Cooper’s Hawk were among the larger birds on the move, and I unexpectedly scored all of the common woodpeckers that day, including Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

My 40th species was documented on April 7th: a male Pine Warbler foraging in the trees near the beer garden. An even bigger surprise turned up the following day when a Black Vulture circled low over my block. This was my first sighting of this regional rarity in Queens County, and I documented another individual a week later! Bald Eagles have proven to be consistent and conspicuous visitors, a testament to their remarkable recovery in recent years. As of this writing I’ve had limited success listening for nocturnal flight calls, but I did detect my first Hermit Thrush during an after-hours session, as well as Chipping Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Other migrants of note so far have included Brown-headed Cowbird, Merlin, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. On April 16th, I finally recorded my 50th apartment species, and it was a great one: a northbound Northern Harrier cruising by in the distance.

There are several local birds that I have come to know well in these past few weeks, and they help me pass the time whenever the winds aren’t suitable for migrant activity. A pair of House Sparrows nesting in the next-door AC unit were initially too scared to approach while I was out on the fire escape, but now they’ve grown accustomed to my presence and often lounge about in the sun with me. I’ve also had regular visits from the American Kestrels that nest by the elevated rail line and the Red-tailed Hawk pair from the RFK Bridge. Best of all, I’m treated to more or less daily sightings of the Common Raven dad making foraging flights to and from the Hell Gate Bridge nest site. With my birding options as limited as they are under social distancing, I consider myself incredibly lucky that one of my favorite birds in the world is a reliable and readily visible neighbor. Whether they’re snatching food from pigeons or performing loops and barrel rolls high overhead, these shaggy corvids are a constant source of entertainment.

The Fun is Just Beginning!

Every day of birding brings something new, and this rule still applies when you’re limited to the view from your fire escape. There have been plenty of noteworthy highlights since my milestone harrier last week. I finally pulled out a distant Sharp-shinned Hawk, the last of the expected common raptors to round out my list. I also added another county bird to follow up my Black Vultures when a Bank Swallow fluttered past early one morning, bringing my Queens life list to 218. A stakeout ahead of an approaching storm from the south brought a strong flight of waterbirds, including a Great Egret, 18 Common Loons, and a Great Cormorant mixed in with the dozens of flyover Double-crests. I finally locked down Palm Warbler a few days ago, the third of hopefully many parulids still to come. With the recent addition of a pair of Chimney Swifts, my yard list currently stands at 56 species.

Peak migration has not yet arrived in coastal New York, which means there are plenty of easy potential adds on the horizon. I may not be able to explore and chase as freely as I usually do during May, but there’s no doubt that I have plenty of extra time on my hands to watch and listen. It seems like a fair trade-off to me, and it’s important to maintain some perspective during these trying times. All things considered, I’m incredibly thankful that birding continues to bring a bit of color and excitement to my world. It has made the past month or so that much more bearable, and the next month is my absolute favorite of the year. Bring on the Neotropical migrants!