–By Keith Michael
Little did I know I was about to stumble down a rabbit hole that would up-end my life. It was the summer of 2006 and I was on an Audubon boat tour heading up the East River to see nesting colonies of herons and egrets on the Brother Islands. Really? At the time, that sentence was surprising to me! There are NYC birding boat tours? I’m on one of them? There are East River nesting colonies of herons and egrets? Where are the Brother Islands?
Obviously, New York City has “water, water everywhere” with 36 to 42 islands, depending on how you count them, the most famous, of course, being Manhattan and Staten. In fact, NYC has 520 miles of coastline, making the abundance of water and the abundance of birds a productive combination for exploring its many waterways by boat to see birds. The companion islands of North and South Brother are in the East River between the Bronx and Riker’s Island on the way to Long Island Sound. Neither are inhabited and both are now designated bird sanctuaries. In the 19th century, there was a quarantine hospital on North Brother Island, though all its structures are now ruins. In the early 2000s these islands were home to breeding colonies of long-legged wading birds like Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Black-crowned Night Herons. Who knew? I didn’t.
It was a balmy, clear evening on the boat’s upper deck as the sights of the city streamed by accompanied by tales of its multitudes of avian visitors and residents. We had already glided under all of the iconic East River bridges—the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg—continued on to the Queensboro/59th Street/“Feelin’ Groovy”/now Ed Koch, Triborough/now RFK, and Hell’s Gate bridges. This boat-level view of these great bridges was more than enough reason to have boarded a boat that night. As we finally circled the Brother Islands, the onboard naturalist began pointing out white-plumed egrets preening before roosting for the evening, gulls lolling on the shoreline and on derelict pilings, gnome-like night herons inching out downed tree limbs along the river, and black, slim-necked birds called Double-crested Cormorants festooning the trees above their stick nests, seemingly hanging their wings out to dry. Birds were flying in from every direction. Other than the sound of the boat’s motor and the changing tide rushing past in the river, the rest of the night seemed silent and in slow motion.
I felt like I had just visited some magical Narnia world as we headed back down the East River with our famous skyline unfolding. That 2006 skyline now seems from a distant past, before the new World Trade Center, before Hudson Yards, before the super-talls of 57thth Street, and before the skyward climb of both Brooklyn and Queens transformed the view floor-by-floor. Maybe there were more spaces along the horizon then, but that night, as the sun made its precipitous descent, a Glossy Ibis flock (the naturalist explained) crossed in front of the boat silhouetted against an orange sky. Ibises in New York City? These gangly yet graceful birds with their deeply curved bills seemed decidedly tropical. To find out that they were common summer birds in New York, even raising families here, was a revelation. I couldn’t wait to pull out a map to find out where else in the city they might live.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these Ibises flying across the sunset skyline were my “spark birds”—the birds that burned a fascination into me that would little by little become a daily quest. Birds would lead me to visiting so many places I’d never been to before, and seeing more birds, and meeting new people, and photography, and writing, and book-making, and seeing more birds, and reading about birds, and travelling to see birds, and studying birds, and leading groups to see birds, and meeting more people, and seeing more birds!
If you think that you may have caught the birding spark, follow it—you’ll be glad you did.
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Photo Credit: A 2022 Glossy Ibis flock rekindles the flame of the writer’s 2006 “spark birds.”
Image by Keith Michael