In Brooklyn Bridge Park, there is a bird patch where a wolf lurks.
This wolf is a birder named Heather Wolf, whose enthusiasm, passion and love for birds is so infectious the only way to capture Heather’s thrill of birding is to experience it with her.
We ventured down to Brooklyn Bridge Park in June to meet Heather, birder extraordinaire and the incredible talent behind the book, Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront.
And to “hunt” with her for birds in Heather’s magical bird patch.
Birds in Brooklyn
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.
And Heather’s book brought to light just how many birds are at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
To date, she’s seen 156 species and counting.
Meeting the Wolf
Once we met at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, the magic began.
Heather is an extraordinary woman inspired by birds.
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 of our walk and every corner turned, Heather was beaming with excitement to talk about what was happening at the moment before our very eyes while sharing past experiences.
We stopped every few steps as she hears a rustle, sounds of a bird call and what sounds like a bird being fed.
“Look, a young robin is feeding over here, and there’s a cute fledgling grackle over here.”
Heather’s entirely in tune to all the bird species in her bird patch.
This wolf is in her real element.
Sights and Sounds of Brooklyn Bridge Park
She responds to movements and birdsong knowing where each sound will lead us.
“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, birdsong can be heard 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.
She says the key is listening for something different.
“A Blackpoll Warbler makes a very high-pitched sound, so it stands out,” she says.
She’s so in tune with sounds that she hears someone’s shoes making a squeak and thinks it’s a bird.
Heather’s quick to point out one of her favorite sections of the park in her bird patch.
“I had a Green Heron here for a week or two in the marsh over here.”
As we get closer to Pier 1, Heather points out a window across the river on one of the buildings with a Peregrine Falcon nest and three young falcons are getting ready to fledge.
Her eyes light up as he tells us the building set up a webcam capturing all the excitement surrounding the fledglings.
“I hope when the peregrines launch we get to see them flying over the park.”
Heather’s energy, enthusiasm, love, and passion for birds is captivating.
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 teaches beginning birding classes at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Brainery, leads bird walks in Prospect Park for the NYC Audubon Society and in Brooklyn Bridge Park and 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 quite a variety of 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 in proximity 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
In the very beginning of her book, Heather talks about never being a morning person.
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 and flew to an unfamiliar location in Texas, rented a car and set out on a 2-hour drive to arrive 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
When we asked Heather about the best bird she’s ever seen at Brooklyn Bridge Park, she’s quick not commit to one specific bird species.
She’s a woman who gets enjoyment out of every bird she sees in the park.
“The best bird for me is a bird that took me so long to see it in the park, and that would be the Black-billed Cuckoo.”
Heather says the bird was in the park 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 wasn’t able to 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 I reported it to eBird, even birders from 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, who was 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 was just out of college, played the bass guitar and decided to play music as a career.
Heather saw an ad in a music school she was attending in Hollywood, California: Tour with the circus and live on a train.
So, she toured with the circus for six years.
Heather wasn’t a birder then.
But wishes she were because they traveled to every state.
“I left the circus just before turning 30. I knew if I didn’t leave then, I might never leave because I was having too much fun! There were others things I wanted to do with my life, even if I didn’t know exactly what they were yet.”
Heather Gets Into Birds
She left the circus, moved to Brooklyn and worked as a software developer.
Heather wasn’t into birds at that time but after a few years decided she needed a break from the fast-paced city lifestyle and moved to Pensacola, Florida in 2006 where she discovered beautiful Pensacola Beach.
One day while walking on a paved path surrounded by sand dunes, she noticed a bird flying aggressively towards her.
“It looked like it was going to attack me and it started to dive bomb at me. I ran waving my water bottle so it wouldn’t come at me.”
When she got home, she Googled, bird + black cap + attacking me on a beach.
She discovered 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 that nest 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 published by Cornell Lab of Ornithology from 1986 at a used bookstore.
It was a journal for birders to record bird sightings and their life list.
“I was shocked that people did this.”
She brought the book back home with her to Florida.
After seeing the book sitting on her coffee table for months, Heather finally opened the pages, began recording her daily sightings and unleashed a lifelong passion.
She joined the local Audubon Chapter, became hooked, and this amazing birder was born.
Brooklyn and Birding
After a few years in Florida, Heather grew to miss Brooklyn, and she and her boyfriend Connor moved back to New York in 2012.
“After birding in Florida for two years, I was worried about what I would 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 Brooklyn, Brooklyn Bridge Park was an under-birded location, with very few records in eBird compared to other parks of its size.
“I didn’t want to travel too far to go birding, and I wanted to see what I could find right outside my door.”
And she found plenty and began documenting.
“First I documented the sighting, and then I wanted to see how many birds I could 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 a great deal about her local habitat and trees because they tie in with patch birding.
“Even if you start off with just looking at birds, you end up learning about everything else.”
Heather has seen 156 bird species to date, and when posed with the question 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
I wasn’t really a patient person until I started birding,” she says.
Now she tells people when she’s leading bird walks that a bird will fly, but if you spend ten minutes at a spot, they’ll often come back.
“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 of it.”
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, to record their sightings so that it can become a hotspot.
“There’s a small park on my way to my coffee place called Cobble Hill Park. It’s tiny, but I’ve seen 40 bird species there. If I spent more time there, I could get more. And people who live near the park probably don’t even realize how many bird species are touching down just steps from their front door.”
She recently held an event there this fall called ‘Get to Known Birds.’
Heather made mini fields guide of the park’s birds and handed them out.
“We circled the tiny park and spotted 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 is used to identify species declines and important stopover sites for migrating birds, and it also helps inform conservation efforts,” she says.
Birding at the Bridge – The Book
Heather’s book began when she was blogging photos of the birds she saw at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
“I thought the way to reach even more people was with a book. I wanted to inspire people to take a closer look at nature on their block and in their local park,” she says.
“I love that people are using the book as a field guide. But it’s really intended for people everywhere. It’s a patch field diary meant to inspire others to experience birding and other aspects of the natural world, no matter where they live,” she adds.
“There are photos and accounts of the bird sightings as well as 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 where you can see the Brooklyn Bridge with birds in the background that’s perfect 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 when 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 not only to share her journey with birds at Brooklyn Bridge Park but 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 experience and get in tune 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 her other passion – juggling. She teaches juggling throughout the year and says it’s easier to get people to look at birds than learning how to juggle.