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On Saturday mornings, Van Cortlandt Park is for the birds

By: Michelle Bialeck

It is 8 a.m. in Van Cortlandt Park, and a sheet of ice covers a foot of snow. Walking on the surface feels like walking on a giant apple pie, breaking the crust with every step, the landscape ahead resembles a balding scalp, the few thinning hairs, the leafless trees on the bed of snow.

But in the midst of the desolate winter scene, a group of birders is getting ready for business.

Group of Birders

A group of birders gather Saturday morning at Van Cortlandt Park (Photo Credit: Muhammad, Umar)

“Its good to bring binoculars, that’s just basic knowledge,” says Jerry Rosen, as if to say, “duh.”  A physician and bird enthusiast, Rosen  is not a first-timer, like Malinda Foy, who just moved to the Bronx.  Dee Nathans, a retired clinical social worker is also better-prepared with her thick socks on, and her binoculars and bird books in hand.

Birders meet every Saturday throughout the year, in the heat and in the frigid cold, to catch a glimpse of the Bronx’s vast array of winged wildlife. A city park ranger or an expert from the Audubon society leads a bird walk through Van Cortlandt Park, rain or shine, or snow.

On this blistery cold Saturday morning, the group is only about six people. But what the crowd lacks in size, it makes up for in palpable enthusiasm for nature and its uncertainty.

A burst of excitement erupts when a small pile of fur and rat bones is spotted, an owl pellet to be exact.  Ranger Owls swallow their food whole and leave behind pellets of undigested material from the hapless rodents who meet their path.

Yes, there are owls in the Bronx.  There are hawks, and an occasional eagle, and hundreds of species of smaller birds and waterfowl, like the mallards who look just like little golfers, floating in the icy ponds.

Andrew Baksh aka Birding Dude

Andrew Baksh, "The Birding Dude" leads a group of bird watchers at Van Cortlandt (Photo Credit: Muhammad, Umar)

The birding community also has its own local celebrities of the human variety, among them Andrew Baksh. An occasional leader of the Van Cortlandt bird walks, he is also known as “The Birding Dude.”

An IT specialist, Baksh is a world-class birder who only got into birding a few years ago. The two disciplines meld in his mind as he uses technology to document his sightings, part of the new wave of birding.  Baksh likes to speak of his “spiritual connection” with birds, a connection that is no secret from the very beginning of the bird walk.  A birder needs a certain type of patience for his pastime, an endeavor that can keep him for hours at a time, waiting, scanning the landscape, and listening.

The process seems serene, not chatty or touristy, but a true exercise in fitting in with nature and  blending into the landscape of Van Cortland Park in the winter– a painting that is all white snow, the red dots that are the cardinals, and you.

That is, until Baksh spots a bird he hasn’t “gotten” yet.

“We have not had a northern harrier here this year!  This is crazy. That is excellent,” Baksh says, in a voice like a stage whisper. The group looked up to see Northern Harrier, the day’s first bird of prey, gliding across the morning sky.

Every time Baksh sees a bird he’s been waiting for, he  says “thank you” before he goes or the bird flies away.

Baksh has said a lot of “thank you’s.” A few years ago, he began building a natural habitat in his backyard, and since then he says he’s been overwhelmed with the turnout. And when he is not in scouting nature in his own backyard, he is…well, a birder never reveals his hide-out secrets.


Cardinal is spotted resting on a tree branch (Photo Credit: Muhammad, Umar)

There are, of course, different types of birders, people who go out occasionally and people who are camped out from dawn until dusk (and sometimes, past dusk, if owls are in the picture), and there is everything in between.  In this universe, “getting the bird” calls for a quick eye, the curiosity and homework to figure out what kind sparrow is darting around in front of you — the common house sparrow, the song sparrow, tree sparrow, white-throated sparrow, even the chunky, red fox sparrow– or whether that blue jay perched on a branch is a male or female.

For these birders, the treasures are endless. They will continue to search for the coots who wobble around the pond like miniature Charlie Chaplins or the chickadees, like little dominos, who will fly into your hands, or the rusty blackbirds, who after a long winter, really do like they’ve rusted from the melting snow.

James T. Harris, a fellow birder and a retiree who worked in the auto industry for 40 years relishes the discoveries he has made.

“You can grow up your whole life with this stuff,’’ he says, “and not know it’s there.”

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