Look! Over there. Two male Blackburnian warblers are up in the honeylocust,” says Birding Bob, aka Robert DeCandido, waving the green dot of the laser. It looks like Tinker Bell flitting among the leaves. “They’re chasing each other.”
A birdcall rings out from the phone in his hand. A bird answers.
“There’s your eastern wood pewee,” he says with excitement, steadying the laser on the tree trunk next to the sitting bird.
These are the rhythms and sounds of DeCandido, birdman of Central Park, as he roams less-traveled paths with birdwatchers in tow.
This quintessential New Yorker is an expert on flora, fauna and birds. Fast-talking, engaging, informed about all things nature-related, he has been leading groups nearly daily for 25 years across New York’s bucolic parklands to catch glimpses of birds as they soar and tumble in flight.
Mostly he traverses Central Park, but he’s no stranger in Prospect and Pelham Bay parks, as well as Inwood Hill, Fort Tryon and Van Cortlandt parks – plus places like the Brooklyn Bridge, where he will point to nesting peregrine falcons.
Under a blue sky with fluffy clouds and no wind, Central Park is remarkably populated early one Sunday. Dozens of dogs and their minders frolic on the grass. Strollers packed with babies careen on paved walks. Cyclists and joggers race on car-less Central Park drives.
DeCandido’s group gathers at the dock on Turtle Pond. A Chimney Swift herring gull, great egret and red-tailed hawk fly overhead, too many turtles to count swim below and Belvedere Castle frames the picture-postcard scene.
In his trademark cargo shorts with lots of pockets, a red cap, binoculars around his neck, a phone running the Sibley eGuide to Birds App in one hand and a laser pointer in the other, he’s fun to hang out with.
“The thing I really like is that he seems to attract a congenial group,” said Victor Lloyd, a New Yorker who has been going around with DeCandido for four years. “We bird until noon and then end up sitting at the boathouse over coffee and talk books and politics.”
Urban wildlife may conjure up images of detestable creatures such as roaches in the kitchen or deer eating your backyard flowers but there are also red fox, coyotes, owls, skunks, opossums, bullfrogs and salamanders.
“Many people think of New York City as a concrete jungle,” said Sarah Aucoin, chief of education and wildlife for the city’s parks department. “But the truth is, we’re home to over 600 species of native wildlife. You can even spot endangered species, like piping plovers, who nest on the Rockaway Beach shore every summer. And in Manhattan, there are many red-tailed hawk nests.”
The parks department encourages wildlife observations with care and respect. “We want people to celebrate and engage with the animals safely,” says Richard Simon, director of the department’s Urban Park Rangers Wildlife Unit. He recommends viewing from a distance, going on a tour and definitely not tossing food tidbits. Atop the Empire State Building, the mix of bats and birds on migration nights – at 1,050 feet – is a glorious sight starting in August and continuing through early November.
“The bats feed on insects, up there in the dark, along with the occasional chimney swift,” says DeCandido, who will lead a couple of trips this fall. He studies weather forecasts and selects nights with northwest winds.
Back in the woods, he climbs rocks to get closer to the tree canopy. “New York has a nice Manhattan schist bedrock that shows up as outcrops across the city,” he says. “I see an American redstart. No, it’s a bay-breasted warbler and there’s a summer tanager, a female because it’s yellow-orange.”
Heads tilt upward and binoculars grind into focus. “Most people sit at computers all day. We have the opposite problem. Your neck hurts and your head feels like it’ll fall off from looking up so long,” says Erica Dohring, a Brooklynite who is on her first bird walk.
Birding is a new hobby for New Yorker Erik Eckholm, who is enchanted by the peacefulness it inspires and has found acclaim for his pictures on Instagram (@eckholm).
“One of the fun things about birding is that it’s always a surprise. Year-round, you can see robins, woodpeckers, cardinals and blue jays but it’s the unusual that give the thrill,” he says. “It requires patience. You have to get in a different zone. Slow down and walk quietly. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a Baltimore oriole in front of you.”
DeCandido stops mid-step and squats to the ground. He points to a yellow lady’s slipper orchid. “It’s one of the 30-plus orchid species once found in New York City. This one was planted by the Central Park Conservancy,” he says.
He plays the red-eyed vireo and yellow warbler calls. “Always find the bird with your eyes,” he advises. “Look for movement. Then bring up the binoculars.”
“Birds are sensitive to sound,” says David Barrett, a New Yorker, competitive birder and author of “A Big Manhattan Year: Tales of Competitive Birding.”
“If you heard someone screaming in Times Square you’d ask, ‘What’s going on?’ Birds do the same thing. They recognise other birds’ calls and that brings them out of their resting spots and then we can see them,” he says. Birders have divergent views on using calls. Some consider it stressful to birds; others don’t think it harmful if ethical guidelines are followed.
Barrett created the Twitter feed Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark), which has 1,600 followers. “It’s useful,” Eckholm said. “If you’re birding and someone suddenly tweets ‘Kentucky warbler singing at Evodia Field,’ you might rush over to catch it if you’re nearby. That’s a nice aspect of the birding community.”
“New York is great for birding. I can roll out of bed and do my research,” DeCandido says, “and anyone visiting the city can join me.”