Insights on urban nature: Finding, understanding, and appreciating our birds
Whether you’re a serious bird watcher, stalking through the wetlands of Brooklyn, or sitting at home scrolling through your computer, birds offer insightful and inspirational images.
Every day on social media, we see unbelievable photos — from majestic hawks to woodpeckers with impressive carpentry skills to brilliantly colored wood warblers feasting on wiggling caterpillars. One may wonder: How best can I track these birds in person? What unexpected treasures will I see in the urban wilds near my neighborhood?
Heather Wolf’s new book “Find More Birds” is here to help. This photo-filled trove of practical tips and tricks — like listening for drumming or whining and focusing on red flowers to spot hummingbirds — ensures you’ll see more birds wherever you look, whether you’re searching for crowd favorites (such as hummingbirds, owls, eagles, hawks, and baby birds) or a species you’ve never spotted before.
In “Find More Birds,” every technique is photo-illustrated to help you follow a secret layer of clues and signs hiding in plain sight in the natural world. You’ll not only discover more birds, you’ll experience their fascinating behaviors and drama for a lifetime.
Heather Wolf’s love of birds was sparked while living on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where she participated in the Florida Master Naturalist program and led walks for the Florida Trail Association. She currently lives in Brooklyn and works as a web developer for Cornell Lab of Ornithology and its eBird project. Her first book, “Birding at the Bridge,” and her blog, brooklynbridgebirds.com, document the birds of Brooklyn Bridge Park, where she has recorded over 30,000 bird sightings of more than 130 species.
Q&A with Heather Wolf
EAGLE: “Find More Birds” seems more ‘actionable’ as a guide than most other birding guides we’ve seen. Has your fieldwork in Brooklyn inspired this ‘boots on the ground, eyes in the air’ approach?
WOLF: There are many books on learning about and identifying birds, but very few are focused on how to find them. “Find More Birds” takes the years of experience and knowledge I have and distills it into simple tips and tricks to get people on the fast track to experiencing the world of birds. For those of us that bird already, we understand that it’s not just a hobby. It’s an integrated part of our day-to-day lives. Through this book, I hope to not only help people find more birds, but to let them know they don’t need to travel or have expensive equipment to witness the amazing nature show happening all around them. Many have told me that birding has changed their life. It has certainly changed mine. My hope is that more and more people can experience this amazing and curious thing we call birding.
EAGLE: How did you make the jump to professional birding and book writing?
WOLF: After living in Brooklyn for five years and working as a software developer in midtown Manhattan, I took a break from the city and moved to Pensacola Beach, a gorgeous strip of sugar white sand on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It was there that I really started to notice birds. There were nesting colonies of birds, some endangered, and sections of the beach were roped off to protect their nests. What’s wild is that I didn’t really become a birder until I made a visit back to Brooklyn and found this little “Birder’s Life List & Diary” from Cornell Lab of Ornithology in a used bookstore. I was fascinated that people kept lists of the birds they saw, and I thought this would be pretty cool. The book was waiting to be filled in with my bird sightings and observations. I took it back down to Florida and eventually — it took a while — I went birding (without binoculars!) and identified a Belted Kingfisher. Once we entered it into the book, I was hooked and joined the local chapter of the Audubon Society.
EAGLE: When did photography become a big part of your life?
WOLF: I once said I would never photograph birds! There were thousands of beautiful bird photos taken daily by professionals and I didn’t feel I had anything to contribute in that respect. I was so wrong. What prompted me to start in 2012 was the desire to share birds with my community in Brooklyn, and it grew from there into a blog, a book, and these days, my camera is basically glued to my hip when I go birding. Hearing from people that my photos bring them joy touches my heart.
EAGLE: You sit in an important seat as a web developer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, overseeing its eBird.org project. So, whether you’re walking, stalking, or even sitting, it’s always birds. You must love your work completely, yes?
WOLF: It’s the best! I am so fortunate. Being able to work alongside some of the most talented birders and ornithologists in the world is exciting and humbling. I was using eBird well before I started working there, and now I get to be involved in all of my favorite features of the website. I am fascinated by and interested in bird migration, so it’s very exciting for me to work on projects like eBird Status & Trends, which models bird movements through interactive maps, andBirdCast, which forecasts bird migration.
EAGLE: What do birds tell us about evolution?
WOLF: There is always something new to discover. I think of it as a real-world drama unfolding outside that I don’t want to miss. I am also fascinated by the struggles birds go through, whether it’s migrating thousands of miles between North and South America, finding enough worms to feed their young, or weathering storms. There are so many things. When I look at a bird through my binoculars, I’m not just admiring and studying its physical characteristics and behaviors; I’m thinking about the life of this bird and how, each day, it manages to gather food, evade predators(hopefully), and continue on to the next day.
EAGLE: Have you isolated a bird you would call your favorite?
WOLF: The White-throated Sparrow is my favorite. Many people are surprised when they hear this because it’s a common and seemingly nondescript bird. I love it because it is in my area most of the year, is easy to find foraging in leaf litter, has tiny patches of beautiful yellow plumage near its eyes, and sings a beautiful melody even in winter. The fact that it flies up to the boreal forest to breed in summer makes it even more fascinating!
EAGLE: Among the myths of birding are (a) the necessity to wake up early or (b) the need to travel far to spot new birds. Is this true if you wish to incorporate birding into everyday life?
WOLF: You do not by any means need to be a morning person to find or enjoy birds. I do sometimes get up very early to spend time with birds, but I also bird in the afternoon and evenings. While it is true that birds are generally less active at midday, during spring and fall migration, many are still foraging at high noon.
The best place to look for birds is in your own neighborhood! It is where you will build your bird-finding skills by getting to know the “regulars,” the birds that live near you for the full year or certain parts of it. You’ll be able to look for birds as part of your day-to-day routine without special or expensive trips. Looking for birds in a place close to home frequently is called “patch birding.” I am a patch birder, and my patch is Brooklyn Bridge Park. It’s been my classroom and lab for over 10 years.
EAGLE: In addition to learning to identify different bird species and behaviors, are there other benefits to birding that you think readers will enjoy?
WOLF: Detecting birds draws you into the present moment and is a great way to practice mindfulness. The most mundane tasks can become exciting if you add birds into the mix. As you hone bird detection abilities through this book, you’ll start to approach standing in a line or huddling under an awning during a storm as an opportunity to be present and catch some bird drama. It could be crows chasing the neighborhood hawk, a pigeon making 360 turns as it does a dance, or a bird nesting between spikes on a building ledge.
As you apply the tips in “Find More Birds,” you will deepen your connection with nature and start to experience it on a whole new level. There’s more to the story than finding more birds. It’s also about tuning into the many fascinating aspects of the natural world that exist even in crowded cities, superstore parking lots, at the beach, or at a beautified dump.
EAGLE: Finally, can birding change a person’s perspective on nature and life? Has it changed you?
WOLF: It has made me a more patient and easygoing person. Things don’t bother me as much as they used to after seeing the struggles that birds go through just to survive and raise their young. I was always fascinated by the natural world but had no concept of what it meant to truly experience it. Now I do! Not only can I experience it daily, but I am a part of it.
Praise for “Find More Birds”
“Heather Wolf is the perfect birding buddy: enthusiastic, experienced, and happy to share her hard-won wisdom for getting the most out of a day spent birding (or getting the most birds out of a day doing something else). Whether you’re a novice or veteran, her 111 field-tested tips will make you a better, more successful birder.”
— Scott Weidensaul, author of “A World on the Wing”
“Packed with excellent photos and tips, deeply relatable anecdotes, and a palpable sense of joy, this gem of a book will make you a better birder. If you’re new to birding, let Heather welcome you into this hobby with open arms and set you up for success.”
— Rosemary Mosco, author of “A Pocket Guide to Pigeon Watching”
“FindMoreBirdsis a book I will turn to often for its great tips on finding birds, not in remote forests but right at home, at a melting drip from a snow bank or where mowed grass meets the forest. Look at a quivering bit of bark. Find the local dump, or children’s playground. Don’t forget to look up. Stay still and stay patient. Help others and ask for help yourself. It could be a guide for life, not just for seeing the birds that are all around us. Heather Wolf will be out birding in the rain but I might stay home and simply enjoy the wonderful photos in this book.”
— Joan Strassmann, author of “Slow Birding”
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