A wolf is lurking in a bird patch at Brooklyn Bridge Park that everyone needs to know. This wolf is a birder named Heather Wolf.
Heather’s enthusiasm, passion, and love for birds are infectious. The only way to capture the thrill she gets from birding is to experience it with her.
So we ventured down to Brooklyn Bridge Park to meet Heather. And to “hunt” with her for birds in her magical bird patch.
Heather is a birder extraordinaire and the incredible talent behind the book, Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront.
Birds in Brooklyn Bridge Park
Before reading Heather’s book, we questioned how many birds we could find in her Brooklyn bird patch.
Brooklyn evokes images of the bright lights and the big city just across the river.
But not birds.
Heather’s book brings to light just how many birds are at Brooklyn Bridge Park. To date, she’s seen 156 species and counting.
Meeting the Wolf of Brooklyn Bridge Park
Once we met at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, the magic begins.
She’s a walking field guide for Brooklyn Bridge Park and is well-versed in the trees and vegetation. And she has a story to tell about every bird she’s seen in the park.
With each step and every corner we turn, Heather is beaming with excitement. She talks about what’s happening at the moment and shares past birding experiences.
Stopping every few steps as she hears a rustle and sees a bird being fed.
“Look, a young robin is feeding over here, and there’s a cute fledgling grackle.”
Sights and Sounds of Brooklyn Bridge Park
Heather’s perfectly in tune with all the bird species in her bird patch. She responds to movements and birdsong, knowing where each sound will lead.
“This spring, I saw a Worm-eating Warbler here and a Black-billed Cuckoo there. We’ve had Black-crowned Night Heron in this tree, and there’s a grackle’s nest over there.”
She points out the Dark Forest.
“The dense tree canopy is perfect for warblers, thrushes, and Ovenbirds during migration.”
As we walk through the park, we hear birdsong everywhere.
It’s challenging to focus on just one song.
Heather focuses on a Gray Catbird low in the shrubs, singing one of its quirky, incomplete songs reminiscent of jazz.
Her ears are trained to hear all the birds and their songs. But, she says the key is listening for something different.
“A Blackpoll Warbler makes a very high-pitched sound, so it stands out.”
Heather’s so in tune with sounds that she knows it’s not a bird when she hears someone’s shoes making a squeak.
Favorite Places in Her Bird Patch
Heather’s quick to point out one of her favorite sections of the park in her bird patch.
“I had a Green Heron for a week or two in the marsh.”
As we get closer to Pier 1, Heather points out a window across the river on one of the buildings. You can see a Peregrine Falcon nest and three young falcons getting ready to fledge.
Her eyes light up as he tells us the building set up a webcam capturing all the excitement of the fledglings.
She hopes to see the peregrine flying over the park when they launch.
A Bird’s Eye View of Life
Birds are a significant part of Heather’s life. She works as a web developer for Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its eBird application.
And she teaches beginning birding classes at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Brainery.
Heather also makes time for leading bird walks in Prospect Park for the NYC Audubon Society and Brooklyn Bridge Park.
And she goes birding most days of the week.
“I want to inspire people to get into bird watching. Especially people in the city because they don’t know that there’s anything here,” she says.
Heather points out that the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront doesn’t get as many birds as Central Park and Prospect Park.
“But that’s the beauty in this. It can be difficult to find birds here, but to find them is so much more exciting.”
And she’s up to the challenge every day.
Favorite Pier for Birding
Brooklyn Bridge Park is comprised of six piers. Pier 1 is Heather’s favorite place to go birdwatching.
The park opened in 2010, and Pier 1 has the oldest habitat with the most mature trees.
It has a salt marsh, large lawns, and a spacious waterfront to attract various birds.
“Of the 156 species of birds I’ve seen at the park, at least 90 percent have been sighted here,” she says.
Pier 1 straddles Furman Street and is closest to the Brooklyn Bridge with a backdrop of lower Manhattan.
Key points of interest at Pier 1 include the Bridge View Lawn, Dark Forest, Long Pond, the Little Shrub Stand, Harbor View Lawn, Vale Lawn, and the Magical Knoll.
Heather’s book details what birds she observes in these locations, and she injects personal narratives about her sightings.
Birds Get Her Out of Bed
Heather talks about never being a morning person at the very beginning of her book.
A key attribute for being a successful birder. And she says birds are the only reason she gets out of bed before sunrise. (Or an emergency).
Heather once braved freezing temperatures flying to an unfamiliar location in Texas, renting a car, and setting out on a 2-hour drive arriving at a destination by sunrise.
Her journey was stifled when she was pulled over for speeding going 27 MPH in a 25 MPH zone.
The punch line to this story was explaining to the police officer she was on her way to see a Scaled Quail.
Best Birds Spotted at Brooklyn Bridge Park
When asked Heather about the best bird she’s ever seen at Brooklyn Bridge Park, she’s quick not to commit to one specific bird species. “The best bird for me is a bird that took me so long to see in the park. The Black-billed Cuckoo.”
Heather says the bird was in the park for a few days and was a life bird for her.
“As a beginning birder, I caught a glimpse of a Black-billed Cuckoo pointed out by a guide in Florida, but I didn’t count it since I couldn’t identify it.”
She was the first to spot the Black-billed Cuckoo at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The bird wasn’t rare enough to excite people, but people who go birding at the park did come out to see it.
Heather has seen three other birds that were of keen interest to birders.
Sora at Pier 1
“I spotted a Sora in the Vale Lawn at Pier 1. It’s the most common rail in North America, but the bird was considered a rare sighting for the area.”
Once she reported it to eBird, birders outside the Tri-state area came to see it.
Other rare birds Heather has seen in the park include a Tundra Swan at Pier 5 and a Vesper Sparrow at Pier 6.
You’d think someone like Heather, born and raised in California, has been a birder her entire life.
But that isn’t the case.
Before she became an avid birder, Heather was in the circus. She chose to play music as a career just out of college and mastered the bass guitar.
After seeing an ad: Tour with the circus and live on a train, she toured with the circus for six years.
Heather wasn’t a birder then but wishes she was because they travel to every state.
Heather Gets Into Birds
She left the circus, moving to Brooklyn and working as a software developer. Heather wasn’t into birds at that time, but she needed a break from the fast-paced city lifestyle after a few years.
After moving to Pensacola, Florida, she discovered the beautiful Pensacola Beach. And birds.
One day while walking on a paved path surrounded by sand dunes, she notices a bird flying aggressively toward her.
“It looked like it was going to attack me, and it started to dive bomb at me. So I ran, waving my water bottle so it wouldn’t come at me.”
When she got home, she Googles, bird + black cap + attacking me on a beach and discovers it was a Least Tern. The tern’s nest was in the sand, and the bird was protecting its nest.
“I was both intrigued and amazed. The incident opened my eyes to all the birds nesting at the beach. Birds like Piping Plovers and Black Skimmers.”
And this is when Heather fell in love with birds.
A Birder is Born
During a visit to Brooklyn in 2010, Heather found a copy of Birder’s Life List and Diary by Cornell Lab of Ornithology from 1986 at a used bookstore. “I was shocked that people did this.”
She brings the book back home with her to Florida. After seeing the book sitting on her coffee table for months, Heather finally opens the pages, begins recording her daily sightings, and unleashes a lifelong passion.
She joins the local Audubon Chapter, becomes hooked, and this amazing birder was born.
Brooklyn and Birding
After birding in Florida for two years, she moves back to Brooklyn with her boyfriend Connor but worries about the birds she can see in Brooklyn.
“I knew that Central Park was one of the best bird spots in the U.S. I wondered if I’d see anything in my neck of the woods except pigeons and gulls.”
Heather’s fears were quickly put to rest.
Brooklyn Bridge Park Bird Patch
When Heather moved back to New York, Brooklyn Bridge Park was an under-birded location, with very few records in eBird in comparison to other parks of its size.
“I didn’t want to see what I could find right outside my door.”
Much to her surprise, she finds plenty of birds and begins documenting.
“First, I document the sighting and then focus on seeing as many birds as I can find. I never wanted to take photos but did, and that’s how this whole thing started.”
Now she encourages people to find a place near them where they can look at birds regularly. Or, as birders call it, ‘patch birding.’
Heather is an expert in patch birding and encourages people to look in local neighborhood parks for birds and to take part in citizen science by reporting their sightings to eBird.
She’s learned everything about her local habitat and trees because they tie in with patch birding. “Even if you start off with just looking at birds, you learn about everything else.”
Heather has seen 156 bird species to date, and when asked about her favorite bird, she didn’t have to stop and think.
“My favorite bird is the White-throated Sparrow. I love them because they have the most beautiful song, they’re easy to recognize, and they get me through the winter here.”
Magic of Birdwatching
Heather says she was never a patient person until she started birding. Now she tells people when she’s leading bird walks that a bird will fly, but they’ll often come back if you spend ten minutes at a spot.
“That’s what’s great about having a patch. You learn the behavior of the birds and know it doesn’t mean they’re really gone. They might be here tomorrow or in a week, and that’s the fun part.”
She says the best part of birding is not knowing what you might see on any given day.
Creating eBird Hot Spots
Heather’s goal is to get people out to their local parks. Even if it’s not an eBird hotspot, it’s important to record their sightings so that it becomes a hotspot.
For example, she says there’s a small park on the way to her coffee place called Cobble Hill Park.
It’s tiny, but she’s seen 40 bird species there. She says if she spends more time there, she can get more.
“People who live near the park probably don’t realize how many bird species are touching down just steps from their front door.”
Get to Know Birds
She recently held an event at Cobble Hill Park called ‘Get to Know Birds.’
Heather makes mini fields guide of the park’s birds and hands them out.
“We circle the tiny park and spot a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. People were thrilled.”
Heather says many people don’t realize they can make an important contribution to citizen science by documenting birds they see in an area.
“This data identifies species declines and important stopover sites for migrating birds. It also helps inform conservation efforts.”
Birding at the Bridge – The Book
Heather’s book began when she blogged photos of the birds she saw at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
“I thought the way to reach even more people was with a book to inspire people to take a closer look at nature on their block, and in their local park.”
“I love that people are using the book as a field guide. But it’s intended for people everywhere.”
Heather says it’s a patch field diary to inspire others to experience birding and other aspects of the natural world, no matter where they live.
“There are photos and accounts of the bird sightings and tips for getting started with birding.”
Special Place for Birds
Heather says her bird patch at Brooklyn Bridge Park is a special place.
“This park is unique because it provides wilderness in the city against a backdrop of some of the world’s most historic landmarks, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and Lower Manhattan.”
She takes us to a breathtaking spot in the park to see the Brooklyn Bridge.
It’s the perfect spot for getting engaged or married, with a view of the harbor set against a soundtrack of birdsong.
Magic Happens When Birdwatching
Heather says you make magic happen wherever you go birdwatching.
“I encourage people to find a patch near them to observe birds regularly and experience the beauty of urban nature.”
She wrote her book to share her journey with birds at Brooklyn Bridge Park. And to inspire others to take a closer look at nature that exists outside of their home, office, or nearest window.
“You’ll be delighted at what you find when you take a closer look. Birdwatching is a magical way to connect with nature.”
Pick up a copy of Heather’s book, Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront here. When Heather is not writing about birds or leading bird walks, she enjoys juggling her other passion. She teaches juggling throughout the year and says it’s easier to get people to look at birds than to learn how to juggle.