One of New York City’s preeminent birders, David Barrett is the founder of the famous Manhattan Bird Alert and author of the widely acclaimed, A Big Manhattan Year.
David Barrett’s Impact on Birding
The Manhattan Bird Alert: Followed by nearly 3,000 people, the Manhattan Bird Alert (@BirdCentralPark) is a “Twitter-based system for quickly sharing information about birding in Manhattan.” Followers are notified anytime there is a bird sighting of note or important birding news in Manhattan. The account was the first to publicly announce what was arguably one of the biggest birding stories (picked up by the New York Times and New York Post) of 2018 – the May 11th sighting of a Kirtland’s Warbler in Central Park. Barrett has also created Alerts for other New York City boroughs (Bronx Bird Alert, Queens Bird Alert, and Brooklyn Bird Alert). Following these accounts is highly recommended to anyone who birds or plans to bird in NYC.
A Big Manhattan Year: A widely acclaimed book that details Barrett’s fascinating attempt at a Manhattan Big Year (an attempt to observe as many species of birds in one year, in Manhattan, as possible). This includes his competition with top ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth and an exploration into Manhattan’s top birding locations, including an in-depth look into birding at Central Park (one of the top migratory birdwatching locations in America). A Big Manhattan Year also covers how Barrett learned to bird and how he became a competitive birder. Full book description is included below.
www.bigmanhattanyear.com: More information on the NYC Bird Alerts and A Big Manhattan Year can be found on Barrett’s website and blog. Blog posts contain news relevant to NYC birding, especially as it pertains to sightings of rare/notable birds in the area (in many ways the blog is a supplement to the NYC Bird Alerts). Also found on www.bigmanhattanyear.com is Barrett’s Google Map’s masterpiece; Central Park Birding Locations – which is a map with pins to all the different bird hotspots within Central Park – this free map is a must for anyone who intends to bird the park without prior experience – it can seriously be the difference between a mediocre Central Park birding trip and a highly productive one.
Interview with David Barrett
Kirtlandii: How did you get into birding?
David Barrett: I was a long-time competitive middle-distance runner, looking for ways to improve my racing. I already was running as much as I could. Walking builds mitochondria without requiring extra recovery time, so I decided to walk more. To make my walks interesting, I began observing birds while doing them, and I kept track of what I saw. As my Central Park list grew, I quickly became interested in birding for its own sake, and I challenged myself to keep the list growing. Once I found out about eBird and its “Top Birders” ranking (of species observed for the year in one’s county), my competitive instincts kicked in and I worked on moving up the ranks.
Kirtlandii: As a Harvard/MIT/U. Chicago-educated computer scientist, have science and analytics ever impacted how you bird?
David Barrett: I rely heavily on weather forecasts and eBird analytics in planning my birding. As a big-year birder, every day involves solving logistical problems: how do I allocate my time and choose where to bird? Which species do I pursue? eBird’s historical and real-time reports provide the data I need to plan wisely.
I used my coding skills to develop cloud-based software that drives my alert systems. My software gathers birding data, presents it to me, and automates hashtag-based retweeting.
Kirtlandii: What inspired you to create the Manhattan Bird Alert?
David Barrett: I saw that Twitter had built a powerful, widely-used, free system for rapidly sharing information, and that it could be employed to improve upon what Manhattan already was using for bird alerts.
Kirtlandii: Did you ever think the Manhattan Bird Alert would become as popular as it has?
David Barrett: I am delighted with the wide following it has attracted, which has far exceeded my expectations, and with its successful expansion to similar alert systems for the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens. Now, birding finds are being shared across New York City faster and in greater numbers than ever before. We also showcase the best birding photographs and videos from our followers, a feature that was not around in the beginning when most users chose to receive the alerts simply as text messages.
Kirtlandii: What was the most challenging aspect of the 2012 Manhattan Big Year featured in your book? And what was the most challenging bird to find?
David Barrett: The most challenging aspect of my 2012 big year — as with every one of my big years — was the need to bird early, for many hours a day or even all day, and to chase reports on a moment’s notice. All three of these demands peak during spring migration. The rest of the year is relaxing by comparison.
One of the most challenging birds of 2012 was Green-winged Teal, as I never actually found it! It also was the most common bird I missed (as did nearly everyone else). I ran to the Reservoir and the Meer many times looking for it. Of course, as soon as 2012 was over it showed up on the Reservoir, in January 2013.
Kirtlandii: Would you say your Big Manhattan Year was more exciting that stressful, or the other way around?
David Barrett: It was more exciting than stressful, as a great many of my year-birds also were life-birds — I still was relatively new to birding. But stress also was present throughout the year, as I battled back from an early deficit to Andrew Farnsworth, sought to maintain a large lead, and then saw that lead dwindle by the end of October.
Kirtlandii: Your Google Map of Central Park features all the different birding hotspots within the park – what are your top 3?
David Barrett: Most of my Central Park birds come from the Ramble. It helps that I live right by it, and that it is the most heavily-birded section of the park — maybe one of the most heavily-birded places in the nation — so rarities there have a good chance of being found and reported.
In the North End of the park, the Great Hill and the Loch are productive. But rarities can show up almost anywhere, so checking less-birded areas can bring rewards.
David Barrett: That’s easy: Snowy Owl! I found the first confirmed Snowy Owl in perhaps two decades for Manhattan, which was also the first-ever for Randall’s Island, in January 2014 — an amazing and unexpected sight.
David Barrett: My own excitement level was mild to nonexistent until the photo came out, because the chances of a Kirtland’s Warbler being there, in general, were infinitesimal. I passed the alert along right away, as “possible,” but I was not expecting much. Then the finder posted a photo and I realized that it probably was a Kirtland’s! This is when it got exciting, and I started running much faster.
When I arrived, the bird was not being seen, and it had not been seen for at least five minutes, so the fear of missing it set in. Soon enough, though, a small group of us, the finder and a few others, were on the bird. I confirmed it and issued a definitive Kirtland’s Warbler alert.
Birders began streaming in. Within an hour over a hundred were on the scene, and they stayed until dark as the crowd grew large enough to draw police attention. Even the birders who usually don’t bother to chase alerts chased this one. Kirtland’s Warbler was a first for Central Park, Manhattan, and even all New York City. For Central Park it was the most improbable bird of the decade. It was history in the making. Birders felt euphoric to have witnessed this once-in-a-lifetime event.
The following day drew multiple hundreds of birders from New York and surrounding states, and the Kirtland’s Warbler was seen almost continuously. It even was observed for part of the following morning, and then suddenly it was gone, and never re-found — as mysterious in its departure as it was in its arrival.
David Barrett: For experienced birders trying Central Park for the first time: see my map of Central Park birding locations and study them before arriving; follow the Manhattan alerts (@BirdCentralPark) on Twitter; look at eBird lists submitted for Central Park in recent days and you will know what birds to expect.
If you are a beginning birder, join a guided group. You will learn where to bird, and experts will tell you what you are seeing.
Download the free Merlin birding app (Android and iOS). It is loaded with bird photos and sound files. Use it both for learning bird ID and as a handy reference in the field.
David Barrett: Inwood Hill Park, Sherman Creek (in the Inwood neighborhood), Randall’s Island, and Governors Island are excellent places to bird. If you want to observe all the good birds in Manhattan, you will need to visit each of these places often. They also offer beautiful scenery and are generally less crowded than Central Park.
David Barrett: In a big city, all areas have multiple uses, including parks, and often these uses conflict with birding. For example, people bring their dogs to Central Park, and that’s great — both have fun and get their exercise. But dogs scare ground-dwelling birds away (so do people). In general, birding early helps you avoid disturbance from other park-goers.
Birding a big city also requires knowing how to pick the fastest transportation options. When I need to get around Manhattan quickly, some combination of running and taking the subway usually proves best.
David Barrett: Once you have binoculars, birding is almost no-cost. You can get as much exercise as you want, keep your mind and senses sharp, and enjoy the beauty of nature.
David Barrett: Mainly for the challenge. But even when I am not being competitive, it is a healthful and absorbing thing to do.
Description of A Big Manhattan Year