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The Cardinal Rules of Birdwatching

Even for the most staunch urbanite, now is a perfect time to spot exotic feathered visitors.

Recently, I was hurrying through New York City's Central Park when over the dull roar of traffic I heard a flapping of wings.

I turned my head just in time to see an enormous white bird, as tall as a child, splash down in a fountain and dip its long yellow beak in the water. Nobody around me seemed to pay any attention, though. Was I seeing things? Had this animal escaped from the zoo?

Later, I learned that the bird was a great egret, one of hundreds of species that stop off in New York City's parks during their yearly migration from the jungles of South America to the forests of Canada.

Within days of the encounter, I was back in Central Park armed with a guidebook and a pair of binoculars. Since then, I have not missed the spectacle of the fall and spring migrations, and I have discovered that birds aren't the only creatures to flock to America's urban parks twice a year.

Exploring the Concrete Jungle

More than 17 million Americans call themselves birders, according to a 2002 Stanford University report. "It's one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country," says Noreen Weeden, a member of the

Golden Gate Audubon Society. "It's something you can do anywhere. You can be standing and looking out your window, and if you notice a bird, suddenly you're engrossed. No other hobby works like that."

For city dwellers, a pair of binoculars and a walk to the local park can open up a whole new world. "People assume that their local birds will be boring; they have no concept of the diversity of birds that are out there. There's so much, if you learn how to look," says Tom Kelly of the

Chicago Ornithological Society.

To an urban birder, a mundane cityscape of trees, buildings and sidewalks is transformed into a patchwork of habitats, hunting grounds and hiding places.

"Back when I was getting interested in birds, I discovered that there was this snowy owl right in Montrose Park, which is right in the middle of Chicago. It looked so wild to me, so arctic and foreign. After that, I was hooked," says Kelly.

For many birders, the fun comes from spotting new birds to add to their "life list," a record of all the species a birdwatcher has seen. Life lists range from one-line entries for each type of bird to detailed descriptions of every new sighting, noting the date, time, location and weather conditions.

Not surprisingly, the level of commitment in the birdwatching community is as diverse as the birds themselves. Avid birders have been known to wade into ponds, stop traffic, travel thousands of miles or even risk their lives for a glimpse of a new species.

Kelly is quick to point out that every level of involvement, though, has its rewards. "Most birders are from a wide cross-section of society, from lots of different professions, a down-to-earth group." He adds, with a chuckle, "I suppose it can appeal to people with addictive personalities, though."

Stanley Greenberg, a birder and photographer who has lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., since childhood, remarks that "even if you don't see any of the birds you're out looking for on a given day, it's still a great excuse to be alone in nature, and there isn't a lot of nature in a city. Birdwatching makes you seek that little bit out and enjoy it."

Taking Flight

Getting a good start doesn't require a lot of money or time. As enthusiasts will tell you, all that's necessary is a pair of binoculars, a bird guide and a little patience.

The binoculars don't have to be expensive -- good quality compact pairs retail for as little as $20 -- though some birders spend thousands of dollars on equipment.

Standard field guides, such as

Sibley or

Audubon, can overwhelm novices with detailed listings of hundreds of species.

A better choice for beginning urban birders, then, are regional and city-specific guides, like the ones published in the

U. S. City Bird Guides series. These focused guides list only the birds found within a particular urban area, and also recommend the best local birding destinations. Regardless of which book you start with, though, all field guides have tips on species identification, a challenging and rewarding part of the hobby that can be tricky for beginners.

"If you're just starting, don't be afraid to go with a group. You'll learn faster and learn more than you would on your own, and that makes it more fun," adds Greenberg. Most parks in major cities offer free birding walks led by a member of the local

Audubon Society, and some places, like New York City's Prospect Park, even have free, publicly accessible libraries of field guides.

Though birdwatching is rewarding at any time of the year, the most variety can be seen in the fall and spring, when mass migrations funnel millions of birds through parks in America's cities. The peak time varies by species and location, but in general the most active periods are from late August to mid-October for the fall migration, and late April to early June for the spring migration.

Other rewards, both intangible and immediate, come with the hobby as well. "Being a birdwatcher really connects you to the cycle of the seasons," says Weeden, who heads the Conservation Committee of the Golden Gate Audubon Society -- something many city dwellers can appreciate.

And for those like Weeden, birding can even turn from a hobby into an opportunity to improve the urban community. This past year, she and other Audubon Society members cleaned up

Pier 94, a restored San Francisco salt marsh frequented by migrating birds. "It went from a dump to a really beautiful place, both for the birds and the people. That made us all feel good, and the awareness to make that change came from birding."

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Evan Leatherwood is a freelance writer living in New York City.