The Migrants Are Coming: Tips for Spring Birding

The Hooded Warbler is an exciting springtime find in New York City. Photo: François Portmann


This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of The Urban Audubon.

By Ned Boyajian

New Yorkers have been finding a new or renewed love of birding: solace and joy during troubled times. We are lucky to live in one of the world’s premiere birding locales: during the year, over 350 species—almost a third of all the bird species in North America—can be found along the City’s 578 miles of waterfront and in its 30,000 acres of wetlands, forests, and grasslands.

If you’re new to birding, or just in need of a refresher, here are some tips from experienced local birders to help you get the most out of spring migration, which in New York City is at its peak from late April through mid-May. Come on out and get to know the birds!

  • Prioritize Learning the Locals. Thumbing through a Sibley or Peterson guide can be daunting: there are a lot of birds. Start by “learning your locals,” advises Jeffrey Ward, birder, science communicator, and Bronx native. Use to get a sense of what species you can expect in a specific place, in a particular season, adds Jeffrey Kimball, NYC Audubon’s past president. 
  • Look Beyond Feather Color. Colors are important, yet can be deceptive, Kimball warns. Take families of birds together, learn their overall shapes and forms—and the sizes and shapes of their bills. Understanding how birds think—their preferred habitat and behavior—helps in finding and identifying them, points out Donna Schulman, who moderates the New York Birders Facebook group. “Luckily, 2020 has been a banner year for bird behavior books. There’s David Sibley’s What It’s Like To Be A Bird, the Peterson Reference Guide to Bird Behavior by John Kricher, and How Birds Work by Marianne Taylor.” 
  • Make Up Mnemonics. “Songs get easier when you turn a song into English, like “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meet you” from the Chestnut-sided Warbler,” says Ward. “What also helps is learning the local bird calls so you’re able to tell which are the ‘different’ ones.” 
  • Book Birding Time. Schulman says, “I clear my calendar for the first two weeks of May, sometimes the last few days of April too. I start dropping hints to my family and non-birding friends, such as, ‘I believe Mother’s Day is best celebrated on the first rainy day of May.’”
  • Scout a Route. “Walk around your neighborhood with new eyes and find your own local birding patches,” says Schulman. In New York City, even the smallest parks can hold great surprises during migration season.
  • Bolster Your “Bins.” Picking the right binoculars can be confusing. “Look for 7x42 or 8x42,” Kimball advises. (The first number refers to magnification, the second to lens diameter.) “You want the 42 so the bird you’re looking at is less likely to hop out of view,” he explains. “You won’t necessarily get more value from higher magnification than 8, since bigger, heavier binoculars tend to shake more.” 
  • Expect to Make Mistakes. All birders, even experts, misidentify birds. Consider a mistake a chance to learn, say Ward and Kimball.
  • Go Out! “No matter how helpful apps and websites can be, learning in the field is the best option, says Ward. “Seeing the bird make the song just sticks that song with that bird forever! Mix in some online practice along with some field practice and you’ll become a migrant pro in no time.”

Find many more birding resources in our new Birding 101 and Birding in NYC pages.

An Eastern Screech-Owl Needs His or Her Rest. Photo: David Speiser


NYC Audubon recommends adherence to the American Birding Association's Code of Birding Ethics, which asks that you: 

  • Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger.
  • Be particularly cautious around active nests and nesting colonies, roosts, display sites, and feeding sites.
  • Limit the use of recordings and other audio methods of attracting birds, particularly in heavily birded areas. (This includes popular New York City parks, where out of both concern for the birds and mutual respect for fellow birders, we recommend you refrain from playing bird recordings.)
  • Always exercise caution and restraint when photographing, recording, or otherwise approaching birds.

Owls: Because these nocturnal birds are easily disturbed, we do not condone the public posting of owl locations, or the playing of recorded sounds to lure owls and other sensitive species into view.

Learn more on our new Birding Law & Ethics page.