Heather Wolf has written a love letter to the urban bird, quite literally. With her website and book, Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront , she presents beautiful portraits of everyday birds of her neighborhood Brooklyn Bridge Park.
But those everyday birds of her city park run some pretty wild ranges for species, and with her eye for composition, Wolf presents birds against unexpected, iconic urban backdrops. With the humble pigeon against the cookie cutter details of a Victorian bridge or a Catbird perched on directional signage, Wolf shows playfulness and humor in her bird portraits, while also cementing her location in one distinct (and never boring) urban patch.
Until recently, it wasn’t a thing among nature photographers to capture their subjects in the local setting against obvious urban structures. “There’s this idea that the bird has to be out on the end of a twig,” says the original urban birder David Lindo, when he described to me over Skype the challenges of finding photos for his book about urban birding. “Not many people take photos of birds in a city setting.”
So it’s apt that Lindo wrote the forward to Wolf’s book, two dedicated urban birders, intent on showing other city dwellers that birds are all around us.
Wolf has a day job with birds, too—she’s a web developer for the Cornell Lab’s citizen science database, eBird. And on the side she teaches juggling for fitness (complete with work out videos—look her up!). We talked via email during Spring 2019 and below is the result of our conversation.
How and when did you become a birder?
I started birding in 2010 on the Gulf Coast of Florida on Pensacola Beach (where I lived at the time). My interest in birds was sparked one afternoon while walking on a path along the beach dunes. A white bird with a black cap and a yellow bill dive-bombed me. I ran home to escape the bird, wanting to know more about it and its aggressive behavior.
It was Least Tern, a species which nests on open ground on the sands of Pensacola Beach. The "nest" of a Least Tern is just a scrape or small depression in the sand, highly vulnerable to predators and accidental destruction.
The bird's aggressive behavior was due to my, the human's, close proximity to its nest.
Living on Pensacola Beach not only opened my eyes to birds but also to marine mammals, mollusks, and more.
One day it appeared as though someone had discarded hundreds of water bottles on the beach. On closer inspection, I discovered these were actually hundreds of Portuguese Man-of-Wars (a.k.a. “bluebottles”) that had washed up on the shore. (Man-of-wars resemble jellyfish but are actually a species of siphonophore, and made up of a collection of organisms.)
What was the genesis of your Birds of Brooklyn Bridge Tumblr site? Why did you choose this location?
When I moved back to Brooklyn in 2012, I was worried that birding in a large city wouldn’t be as exciting as it had been in Florida. I thought I would have to visit hot spots like Central Park and Prospect Park to find good numbers of birds. While those locations were not too far from my apartment on the Brooklyn Waterfront, they were not close enough to visit often or daily.
Luckily, a new park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, had opened since I last lived in the neighborhood. Its south entrance was just one block from my apartment. I could tell from eBird that some people birded there, but not often; it was definitely an "under birded" location.
I was surprised to discover plenty of birds to observe at all times of the year. During migration, the park's varied habitats attracted warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles and more. In winter, colorful diving ducks like Buffleheads and mergansers frequented the water between the piers.
I had found my "patch!"
Once I started documenting species there (and submitting them to eBird), I wanted others to experience the magic. I wanted to share it with as many people as possible and let them know that, if they took a closer look at the trees and shrubs in their neighborhood, they too could discover colorful birds and witness their fascinating behaviors—even in a large city!
The best way to share the birds was through photos. I wasn't a photographer, but now I had an important reason to be. I started posting my photos on Tumblr in November, 2014. That is where my website Brooklyn Bridge Birds lives. But I also post the same photos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
What was your intent with your Tumblr project, and have you seen that realized?
My intent for the project was to let people know that amazingly beautiful birds, many that migrate long distances in spring and fall, can be found right in their neighborhood or local park.
Birding often seems like it requires planned field trips to certain locations known to be good for observing birds. This may hinder some people from pursuing the hobby, or cause them to put it off. Birding doesn't have to require blocking off a weekend or a huge time commitment—it can be much easier than that.
I have seen Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and more in trees along neighborhood streets during migration. If I didn’t know these birds visited here, I’m sure I would’ve walked right past them. And I’m certain this is what I did for the many years before I started birding. Who knows what I missed?
Furthermore, that ease of discovery and resulting spark of excitement can inspire people to pursue birding more seriously. After seeing that Chestnut-sided Warbler on their block, many will want to experience that excitement again and again and seek out new and interesting species.
How has your project changed the community around the park?
This project has definitely made me feel more like a contributing member of the community. There are so many people I see regularly in the park, and we exchange exciting bird stories, bird sightings and marvel at the urban nature that surrounds us there.
On my led bird walks, I have an amazing group of "regulars," many who were inspired by my blog and/or book. They tell their friends about the birds of the park and neighborhood, and share my blog or book, and the awareness of local birds continues to grow.
Local media reach out to hear more and inform the community of my project. Local organizations invite me to speak or teach. Through these channels, I meet members of the community who comment on how they never knew such birds existed here. Others mention how discovery of local birds has changed their life and opened up a new world and hobby.
People often ask me questions about dangers birds face-- tall city buildings, feral cats, and bright lights-- things that they might not have thought about before learning that so many bird species visit our community.
I also have a great dialog with the gardening staff at Brooklyn Bridge Park. I share data (types of trees and shrubs frequented by migrants, the importance of prairie grasses for rare sparrows, etc.) on how their habitat creation and maintenance is attracting birds, some rare, to the park.
How did the book come to life?
It grew out of the same goal for the blog, but with the aim to reach more people and to present the birds in a more tangible collection.
I sent out a book proposal to half a dozen publishers and was very fortunate to get a book deal with an independent publisher in New York City called The Experiment. They really cared that the final product was in line with my vision for the book, and I am ecstatic about how it turned out.
After signing with them, I had less than a year to get photos of at least 100 species (I believe I already had photos of about 70 at that point) and to raise my species count for my patch. Having a somewhat tight deadline made the project super exciting. Each time I headed into the park, I was determined to scour every inch of it for a new species or to obtain a book-worthy photo.
The format of the book, apart from the introductions and some birding tips and resources, is a 2 page layout for each species -- one page with a photo and the opposite page with my writing about the bird. I tried to convey the excitement of my quest to find and photograph more species, making it a sort of adventure in patch birding. The bird accounts also include information about identifying the species, migration patterns, behavior, and more.
What does the book accomplish that expands upon your Tumblr site?
The Tumblr site is essentially just photos, but the book expands on that, describing my "quest" to find and photograph as many species as possible in my birding patch, Brooklyn Bridge Park.
I describe the book as "my photos and words on urban birds." It could also be described as an adventure in urban patch birding.
The book is still somewhat "bloggy" in that I wrote about each species and you can view the photo and the writing on opposing pages. It’s easy to open to a page to pick a bird to read about at any given time.
I especially love hearing from parents who tell me their child chooses a bird to read about each night. Though it wasn’t intended as a field guide, I’m delighted that many people in Brooklyn are using it that way. Some have shown me how they write field notes in the book margins.
How do/did you market your book?
I gained a following and people spread the word about my book (the book is mentioned in my Twitter profile).
I rarely "advertise" my book on social media though. Providing quality content (photos) that also educates the community about birds is "indirect" marketing and better received.
I also send an email newsletter to invite people to my bird walks and events, and in it I often share a photo with information about where the bird has been spotted or its characteristic behaviors. I usually include a photo of the book cover and a link to purchase the book as well.
I also lead bird walks, teach birding classes, give book talks and lectures, and do media interviews, which serve a dual function of marketing the book. I am fortunate to have created a book that many say they love. Marketing can be difficult and never ends, but knowing that your book or product will make people smile makes it worth it.
I notice you work for Cornell Lab of Ornithology! Did your photo project lead you to this job?
In a way, yes. Once I submitted the completed manuscript to my publisher, that opened up a time slot for a new/next project or chapter in my life. I had noticed a job opening for a web developer with Cornell Lab of Ornithology's amazing eBird project.
I had been submitting all of my bird sightings to eBird and using the resources on the site daily. So I applied and got the job. My book was not out but it was completed. I did mention I had a book coming out in my interview! I work remotely for them.
What is your routine for photographing at the park? How often/what time of day/what gear/etc?
During the book project, I went out to the park for several hours a day, sometimes more.
Even if I had decent photos of a bird, as the light got better with sunset ("the golden hour") I would stick around try to get the best photos possible of species I knew were there that day.
These days, since I work during the week, I photograph in the park on weekends. I also visit the park several times a week before and/or after work. During migration, I may do that every day.
What's the most memorable bird experience you've had there?
Right now it is a very recent event. I had just spotted my first Laughing Gull of the season in the water next to Pier 5, so I stopped to take a few photos.
I noticed the bird has something in its bill, so I shot on high burst mode to capture whatever it might be...a crab, a fish, trash.
Once the gull had swallowed its prey, I looked at the photos on the camera and could not believe what I saw...a seahorse gazing up at the open bill of the Laughing Gull, as if to say "Please don't eat me."
The Lined Seahorse is native to NYC waters, but I had never seen one in the wild. And to be able to capture that moment when the two creatures met eyes was unbelievable.
What is next for you as far as your birding, photography and advocacy?
I’m super excited about being on of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Team Sapsucker” for Global Big Day (an annual bird census event on the first Saturday in May) We’ll be birding the Gulf Coast, submitting our sightings while other birders around the world do the same. Last year, eBirders across the globe documented over 7000 species in a single day!
I’m also teaching a beginning birding class again this summer at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and leading more bird walks for New York City Audubon and other organizations, including my own Meetup group.
My current dream is to lead bird walks in Spanish. I have been studying the language seriously for about a year now, and recently exercised my language skills on a birding trip to Colombia. It was so much fun!
Of course, I continue to document the birds of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and am looking forward to ticking my 162nd species.
Thank you, Heather!
This interview has been edited and condensed. It also contains an affiliate link to IndieBound for Heather’s book. If you purchase her book through this post you will support her and I will get a small commission. Thanks for considering!