An American Robin gathers materials to build its nest. Photo: Dave Ostapiuk
An American Robin gathers materials to build its nest. Photo: Dave Ostapiuk

Birding 101

Whether you are a lifelong birder, an occasional birdwatcher, or have just discovered birds, you will probably agree: Birds are wondrous, mysterious creatures. For as long as we humans have existed, we have likely marveled at birds—their striking colors, beautiful and varied song, and perhaps most of all, their ability to fly. Birds soar high above us, and accomplish amazing feats of migration. Scientists are still learning about migration and bird ecology, but today we understand that some migration “champions” travel as far as 7,500 miles at one stretch*, from one end of the earth to the other. We also now understand that birds are ancient. They are the last of the dinosaurs, “avian” dinosaurs living right here among us. 
 
A large appeal of birds and birding is that it is so accessible: birds are all around us, and all we need to do is pay attention to be drawn into their world. However, birding is also so rewarding because like learning a language or any new complex subject, there is never a shortage of new birds to see, new things to learn about the birds we already know, and fascinating places to visit. Birding opens up a world that connects us to birds, to nature, and to one another (if you choose; you can bird solo or in a group, another plus!). 
 
To help you get the most out of your birding experiences, whether you’re a new or longtime birder, we’ve shared some tips below: the basics you need to bird in the field, a rundown of the best times to bird in New York City, and links to checklists and eBird. (Want to learn more? In addition to a regular schedule of bird walks and trips, NYC Audubon offers a Beginning Birding course twice a year, spring and fall, consisting of three in-class sessions and two field trips. Visit our Local Trips & Classes page for information on upcoming classes led by NYC Audubon.)
The Yellow Warbler is a common bird both during migration and during nesting season in wilder New York City parks. Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/120553232@N02/" target="_blank">Isaac Grant</a>
The Yellow Warbler is a common bird both during migration and during nesting season in wilder New York City parks. Photo: Isaac Grant
The Black-crowned Night-Heron is the most abundant wading bird nesting on the City's Harbor Heron Islands. Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/51819896@N04/" target="_blank">Lawrence Pugliares</a>
The Black-crowned Night-Heron is the most abundant wading bird nesting on the City's Harbor Heron Islands. Photo: Lawrence Pugliares
The Osprey, a fish-eating bird of prey, has made a great recovery in recent decades. The species nests in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Over two dozen pairs nest in Jamaica Bay alone. Photo: <a href="https://www.fotoportmann.com/" target="_blank">François Portmann</a>
The Osprey, a fish-eating bird of prey, has made a great recovery in recent decades. The species nests in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Over two dozen pairs nest in Jamaica Bay alone. Photo: François Portmann
Birders are easily recognized by their equipment. Photo: Camilla Cerea/National Audubon
Birders are easily recognized by their equipment. Photo: Camilla Cerea/National Audubon
Binocular Basics
Birding binoculars are your basic tool, your window into the wonderful world of birds. Really, all you need to become an expert birder are your "bins" and a field guide (though birding with buddies can be fun, too!). Picking binoculars can be a bit daunting, however, and it's worth it to choose well: binoculars are an investment that will bring you pleasure for many years. Here's a quick binocular orientation:


  • Binocular Size: Go for a full-size pair. Mini-binoculars or opera glass-type binoculars are tempting, but generally do not provide enough light or power for a good birding experience. 
  • Power and Field of View: 7x35 or 8x42 binoculars are best. All binoculars are described by these two numbers. The first number gives you power of magnification; for instance, “8” means that you will see the bird 8 times larger than with your naked eye. The second number is the diameter of the distant (objective) lens in millimeters, which determines the size of your field of view. The greater the number, the more light comes in, and the more context you can see around the bird, which helps to find it! (Some birders who find full-sized binoculars too heavy are happy with a compromise of a good-quality 8x32 binocular.)
  • Lens Quality: Make sure the binoculars have fully coated lenses (best, “fully multicoated”).
  • Focusing: Make sure there is one central knob for focusing and that you can focus on objects within 15 feet. (Very high-quality binoculars sometimes offer extremely close focus.) 
  • Brands: While brands like Zeiss and Swarovski are top of the line, other brands such as Nikon make very good birding binoculars at a lower price point. (Many birders like the Nikon Monarch and Prostaff lines.)
  • Buying Your Pair: Some retail and online shops let you try out binoculars before you make a purchase. It's good to see how they fit your facial structure, and make sure you are comfortable using the focus wheel, etc., before purchasing. We have no affiliation, but recommend B&H Photo Video in Manhattan at 34th Street and Ninth Avenue. The B&H staff is knowledgeable and you can try out the binoculars in the store. 
 
To learn more, see this very thorough Cornell Lab of Ornithology run-down of binoculars or this excellent birding binoculars guide created by B&H Photo Video with input from many experienced birders in the NYC birding community and across the country.
 
(Note that a spotting telescope, though a more expensive purchase, is needed for observing waterfowl and shorebirds at great distances. 20x to 30x is the most useful power range. A sturdy tripod is a must for supporting your "scope" also. Talk to other birders and do some research before investing in a scope.) 
An aspiring field guide creator at work. Photo: Camilla Cerea/National Audubon
An aspiring field guide creator at work. Photo: Camilla Cerea/National Audubon
Field Guides and Apps
For birding in the field, a field guide is indispensable. It will quickly become your close companion as you bird, allowing you to puzzle out difficult birds, easily compare similar species, and consult with birding friends. We recommend a field guide with painted illustrations as your principal guide; illustrations remove uncertainty present in even the best photos regarding color and value (dark vs. light) in different lighting conditions. Photo guides can be an excellent supplement, however, as can the growing variety of apps for your phone or other digital device. 
 
Make sure that your field guide is light and small enough to actually use in the field! Many guides to all of North America are too big. And whichever guide you choose, don’t overlook the introduction, which gives important information on habitat, identification clues of size, shape, behavior, and plumage. 
 

Recommended Field Guides

 

Recommended Birding Apps

Tree Swallows gather during migration. Photo: Wendy Miller/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/" target="_blank" >CC BY-ND 2.0</a>
Tree Swallows gather during migration. Photo: Wendy Miller/CC BY-ND 2.0

When To Bird


In New York City, spring and fall migration are perhaps the hottest birding times, as millions of migrants of hundreds of species pass through our parks. Summer however holds excitement in the form of breeding birds in our larger parks, while winter offers the possibility of visiting owls as well as occasional visitor from the far north. Each group of birds follow their own rhythms, and the availability of eBird data today (see below for more info on eBird) allows one to see exactly when birds are seen in a particular area or hotspot. These eBird bar charts for the last 20 years in New York City are worth exploring. 
 
Birds do follow some broad patterns that repeat every year, however, with some variation. Here are simple guidelines to help you plan your birding in NYC.
 

Time of Day

The best birding is often between dawn and 11am, when birds are most active. This is particularly the case in the spring and early summer, when birds sing in the early morning. (On cloudy days, birds sometimes remain active, and singing, longer.) Often by the late morning, birds retire to shady spots with water to rest, and patient birders are often rewarded with close views. A second burst of activity (and singing, in the spring) occurs from the late afternoon until sunset.

Season

The birds we see in New York City change throughout the year. Some species just stop by during migration, some stay to nest, some come from the far north to spend the winter here, and some stay year round. Greeting the birds of each season is one of the repeating pleasures of birding.

  • March-May

Songbird/land bird migration ranges from early March through the end of May, with peak warbler migration in late April though mid May. 
Red-tailed Hawks begin nesting.
Shorebird migration runs from late April through early June, with the peak for many species in mid-May, timed with the spawning of horseshoe crabs. (Bring a spotting scope.)
 


  • June-August

Nesting birds are a main highlight of the summer. (Go early, before it gets hot!). Our larger woodland parks host nesting songbirds, woodpeckers, and flycatchers, while wetland areas host Osprey and marsh birds, and wading birds come to forage from the Harbor Heron islands. The Queens beaches host nesting birds like Common Terns, American Oystercatchers, and Piping Plovers, while grassland areas including the City’s capped landfills host Grasshopper Sparrow and Blue Grosbeak.
"Fall" shorebird migration stretches from July into October, peaking in mid-August. (Bring a spotting scope.)
 


  • September-November

Songbird/land bird migration begins as early as mid-August and lasts through October, with peak numbers in mid-September to mid-October. Sparrows peak a bit later, from October to early November.
Raptor migration runs from September through mid-November, bringing falcons, eagles, accipiters, and buteos, with the peak for Broad-winged Hawk in mid-September. Hawk-watching is best started at 10am and can continue until 4pm. It is best conducted from hawk watch sites such as Fort Tilden in Queens.
 


  • December-February

Wintering waterfowl such as ducks, geese, mergansers, and loons winter in the fresh and salt waters of New York City, arriving in late October and staying through March, with peak numbers December through February. (Bring a spotting scope.)
Regularly wintering owls found in New York City during the colder months including Barred, Northern Saw-whet, Long-eared Owls. Great Horned Owl nest from late January to mid-March in several of our larger parks. (Please keep your distance and avoid disturbing roosting owls. Read more on our Birding Law & Ethics page.)
Irruptive species, which wander south from their northern ranges (or "irrupt") in numbers that vary from year to year, include Snowy Owls, alcids, and winter finches such as crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks.
 

Optimal Weather Conditions

In spring, particularly April and May, warbler and songbird “fallout” can be impressive, especially on the first clear day following a few days of inclement weather, with southerly winds. In general, warm and sunny days are good throughout spring migration and on into the breeding season, but overcast or slightly rain days can actually bring good birding, as birds stay relatively low in the forest and continue active and singing later in the day. 
 
During fall hawk and songbird migration, look for a day with northwesterly winds, between 5 and 15 mph. To see hawks distinctly, wait for a day with cumulus and cirrus clouds to act as a backdrop, although they can also be seen against clear, blue skies. In winter, reliable days for birding are sunny and windless.
 
BirdCast is an excellent source of radar-based migration predictions. You can also check wind direction on this live wind map.
An eBird “hotspot” map indicates the most popular birding locations in New York City; the spots with the highest number of reported bird species are dark red, including Jamaica Bay Widlife Refuge, in Queens. Graphic: eBird
An eBird “hotspot” map indicates the most popular birding locations in New York City; the spots with the highest number of reported bird species are dark red, including Jamaica Bay Widlife Refuge, in Queens. Graphic: eBird
Checklists and eBird
Many birders like to keep records of their sightings, or a "life list." Traditionally, many have kept a notebook of birding trips and/or filled out paper checklists. (You still can: view and print out a checklist of birds found in New York City (PDF).) Today, however, many also enter their sightings on ebird.org or via the eBird app. Created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird is a worldwide database of crowd-sourced bird observations created by birders across the globe. Not only is eBird a very handy way to keep records of your birding experiences, it is also an important conservation tool. eBird data is analyzed by a global community of educators, land managers, ornithologists, and conservation biologists to better understand and protect bird populations. Learn more about eBird
NYC Audubon leads our annual Pride Week bird walk in Central Park. Photo: NYC Audubon
NYC Audubon leads our annual Pride Week bird walk in Central Park. Photo: NYC Audubon
Join Us!
Birding can certainly be fun and interesting by yourself or with a friend, but with one of our knowledgeable guides and a group of friendly fellow birders, it’s that much better! Visit our Local Trips page for information on upcoming walks led by NYC Audubon. Join our flock as a NYC Audubon member and receive 30% of most local trips and classes.  
 

Learn More

We recommend the references below to learn more about birding in New York City, sharpen your birding skills, and deepen your knowledge of bird ecology.
 


NYC Birding Guides

Birdwatching in New York City and on Long Island, by Deborah Rivel and Kellye Rosenheim, UPNE, 2016
 
The New York City Audubon Society Guide to Finding Birds in the Metropolitan Area, by Marcia T. Fowle and Paul Kehrlinger, Comstock Publishing Associates, 2001
 

Birding Basics

Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley, Knopf, 2002
 
  

Online Sources of Information

 
 

Citations