Helena LaPorte-Burns is the Public Education Coordinator at The New York Botanical Garden.
“If everyone went bird watching, we would have a more peaceful and united world,” claims NYBG’s long-time birdwalk guide Debbie Becker. Besides leading bird walks around New York City, Becker is also a professional nature photographer and essayist, capturing in both image and prose her beloved birds and their relationship to nature and mankind. With over thirty years of experience, Becker inspects the relationship of birds to native plants in her video Birds & Plants, produced earlier this year for the Garden.
Following the video, we asked Becker to share what the act of birding has afforded her, and the role NYBG has played.
What attracted you most to birding?
DB: I have always been attracted to nature. I was looking for a way to explore nature while living in New York City. I began to wonder what wild birds and animals live in the Metropolitan area, and then I began to notice birds. I liked the idea of searching for the birds and marking them down on a life list or observing their behavior. In a way, it’s a lot like a treasure hunt. I’ve always been a photographer and this was a new way for me to explore photography through photographing birds.
From backyard birding to wilderness birding, what is your favorite species you have spotted so far?
DB: Hands-down the bird that gave me the most thrill is the Pileated Woodpecker.
What is the rarest or most unusual bird you have spotted at NYBG through the years?
DB: I have seen two very rare birds on Garden grounds; one was an immature Golden Eagle, and the other was a Henslow Sparrow.
For you, what has been the most memorable birding experience at NYBG?
DB: For almost 25 years a pair of Great Horned Owls resided at NYBG, and I would say I felt like they were a part of me and my life. I could always take people to see them. They were always in the same area and I was always able to find them. They also helped me rise to some notoriety in the birding community because people knew they could come to the Garden and I would be able to show them their first owl.
How has NYBG’s bird population changed over the years?
DB: The bird population throughout the nation and the world has steadily been declining due to climate change and habitat destruction. The Garden would be no exception to the rule. Birds that once called the Garden home no longer live here, and many of the migratory birds that used to pass through the Atlantic flyway which is right over NYBG have also had their numbers decline. For the 35 years that I’ve been birding at the Garden, I have noticed a very sharp decline in bird populations and it is very alarming. I have also noticed a change in bird migration due to climate change. More and more birds that used to leave our area during our winter are staying.
I believe you have kept records for years of bird migration patterns and sightings. What has been the most interesting discovery from your nature journaling?
DB: Nature journaling provides you with a history so you can look back and make assumptions about climate, time of year, weather patterns, wind changes and environment. This history will help you birdwatching to find birds in certain areas that we know a certain bird has frequented. You know to go back to the spot and look for the bird, and it will give you an idea that certain winds bring certain birds at certain times. For instance, Broad-winged Hawks migrate on north northeast winds during the month of September usually around the 15th to the 20th. Through nature journaling, you would be able to understand that every year this phenomenon happens. In addition, you would know the sparrows come through the Garden usually around October 15 through October 30. Nature journaling is a digest of data and, if used correctly, can serve as a reference for years.
Is it more difficult to spot birds during the fall migration as opposed to spring (due to changes in plumage, song patterns, etc)?
DB: Both seasons are extremely exciting. I would say it’s harder to spot birds in the spring due to the newly emerging leaves.
Do you have any tips for becoming a more active, astute observer?
DB: Sit quietly in nature and observe bird behavior. Once you begin to understand how a species behaves, you’ll understand more about the species: where to find it, how to observe it, how to photograph it, and you’ll become more in tune with nature and birdwatching.
How has the pandemic affected your birding?
DB: The pandemic has affected the bird walks at the Garden that I’ve been leading every weekend since 1985. I looked forward to going on my birdwalks, and taking the birders who joined me through the woods and into the Thain Family Forest. In order to make up for the absence of birwalks, I have been hosting online classes in different areas of birdwatching, including one titled BirdingAroundNYC through the MEETUP App. Every weekend I have about 25 people join me for a discussion accompanied by photographs and video of our feathered friends. There is a new theme every week.
What are some species that people should be on the lookout for at NYBG this fall and winter?
DB: During the months of September and October Sparrows will come into the New York City area. Along with thrushes, kinglets, Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers, and other fall migrants. In the winter you will want to search for owls and ducks.
Anything else you’d like to share about your birding experiences at NYBG? Or about birding in general?
DB: Birding is a great hobby or, in my case, passion. You are never alone when it comes to birding. There are other birders you can meet in the woods, and there are the birds themselves. You’d be surprised at how close and familiar you can become with a species of bird. For instance, the Cardinal delights everyone with its song and vibrant colors. It is a treat to people from other countries to see this vibrant red bird hopping about. Strangers will come up to me when I’m photographing a bird and ask what is it that I see? It automatically starts a conversation. You’re out in the fresh air, walking, talking, getting exercise, meeting new people and enjoying life! If everyone went bird watching, we would have a more peaceful and united world.
Should you feel so inspired, we encourage you to join in this year’s Big Day on October 17th sponsored by the Cornell Lab. 2020 will be the first year that Big Day coincides with Global Bird Weekend, an effort to count, observe, and appreciate the birds of our natural world. Learn more and participate, and happy birding!
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