A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

eBirding!

An expert birder and naturalist, Gabriel Willow leads walks and excursions all over the world, yet he has an easygoing and accessible way of encouraging new birders without overwhelming them with information. His walks are a regular feature of each season at Wave Hill.

We recently reached an exciting milestone on our Wave Hill bird walks, when we recorded the 100th species of bird seen on Wave Hill’s grounds. There well may be additional historical sightings I’m not aware of; even I haven’t always been so good about tracking my own monthly sightings over the past 12 years that I’ve been leading the walks.Kingfisher-Andy-MorffewNot all of these species have been seen during monthly Birding here, but we did spot our100th: a beautiful belted kingfisher, who even celebrated with us by circling overhead while calling its distinctively loud, rattling call. Kingfishers are generally tied to water, so this bird presumably flew up from the bank of the Hudson, and was perhaps eyeing the water gardens hoping the resident goldfish were still around. To my knowledge, neither I nor anyone else has ever reported a kingfisher from Wave Hill!

This was, in other words, the first belted kingfisher recorded at Wave Hill. That’s not to say they haven’t stopped by before. In fact, they almost certainly have. It’s just that if they did, no one saw them, or the person who did wasn’t aware that this loud, crested bird was something unusual, or he or she kept quiet about the sighting, or jotted it in a notebook or field guide that I haven’t seen.

But now we have a better way of tracking our sightings. The burgeoning movement of Citizen Science  allows everyday folks to add their observations to a body of scientific data. There is a website created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society called eBird, where anyone can add their checklists of sightings of birds to a database.  Was the bird a male or female? You can add that info. Was it sitting on a nest?  Add that detail too!

eBird takes all of this data and collates it, creating graphs and charts and maps showing bird abundance by season, by location and many other variables.  Until now, many people felt that certain species were declining, or were showing up in new places or perhaps were impacted by climate change.  But without a robust data set, it’s hard to track these changes.  Now there are millions of sightings and observations from around the world, submitted by amateur bird watchers.

One of Gabriel Willow's winter Birding sessions, captured by photographer Joshua Bright

One of Gabriel Willow’s winter Birding sessions, captured by photographer Joshua Bright

Interestingly, 100 species is actually a somewhat low number for a parcel of forest, gardens and meadows the size of Wave Hill: little Bryant Park, in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, has 120 species recorded. And of course large parks, like Central Park, have even more: it has 252 at last count. Nonetheless, Wave Hill is an important nesting, resting and feeding oasis for many birds, and the eBird data reaffirms its importance.

How many more kinds of birds will be found in years to come?  Will Wave Hill prove to provide habitat for 120 species?  150?  Ultimately, of course, the number doesn’t matter.  But what we learn about the species’ numbers and movements, and the timing of their migration, could tell us a lot.  So keep your eyes on the skies, meadows and treetops, and report your sightings to eBird too.

Postscript:  You may notice the eBird page for Wave Hill now has 103 species listed. This is because when I checked some of my older sightings, I realized they’d been entered using GPS from my phone, which created locations based on nearby Riverdale addresses. But they had not merged with the Wave Hill “hotspot” site. Now I have done so, and retroactively increased the count to 103. If you have historical data or checklists for birding outings at Wave Hill, please add yours as well.

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