NEW YORK — Not far from where artist and naturalist John James Audubon is buried, birders tweet round-the-clock. “Brewster’s warbler still at upper lobe,” alerted one tweeter this September. “Philadelphia vireo at Maintenance Meadow,” chirped another.
Such tweets emanate from Central Park on a daily basis. Audubon lies in repose in Trinity Church Cemetery on 155th Street, just four miles away. His grave, marked by a tall Runic cross, is close to where the Audubons’ home once stood and where, on the banks of the Hudson, Audubon died, in 1851 at 65.
Today, Audubon is more popular than ever. So, too, New York’s birding activities, which isn’t so strange for a metropolis that lies smack within the Atlantic Flyway. Last spring, the New-York Historical Society launched Part I of the first complete showing of its 474 Audubon avian watercolors, among them the 435 that served as the original works for Audubon’s renowned double-elephant-folio print edition of “The Birds of America.” Part II will run next spring, March 21-May 26, with Part III following in spring 2015. Since purchasing 434 of the masterworks for “The Birds” from the artist’s widow in 1863, the society has exhibited them only in small groups.
Unlike previous ornithological illustrators, Audubon made his birds life-sized, posed them realistically in their habitat, and set out to replicate every bird in North America. Each preparatory watercolor constitutes a one-of-a-kind work from which a copperplate was made that served as an impression for ensuing prints.
The originals, their colors extraordinarily crisp and bright considering the passage of time, show Audubon not only experimenting with watercolor, but also combining it with graphite, pastel, chalk, gouache, glazing, oil paint, and metallic pigments. Part II will present the original watercolors for plates number 176-305 and feature Audubon’s alluring water birds.
The American Museum of Natural History, next door to the Historical Society, has the largest collection of bird specimens in the world, and even though most are tucked away for researchers, the museum’s Bird Halls — Birds of the World, North American Birds, New York City Birds — and their dioramas and display cases make it possible to view a spectacular pageant of avians.
“In this age of electronic screens, the museum’s dioramas are valuable slivers of natural history,” said Alan Poole, who heads Cornell University’s Birds of North America Online. “They aren’t just dead birds standing in a box; they show a bird fitted seamlessly into its habitat thanks to splendid background painting by some of the landscape masters of the 20th century.”
The dioramas have quite a story to tell. Frank Chapman, the museum’s first ornithologist, was responsible for developing habitat alcoves, and he used them to call attention to endangered species. Chapman’s diorama of Florida’s Pelican Island avians helped persuade Theodore Roosevelt, whose father was a founding trustee of the museum, to make the island the first-ever US wildlife preserve in 1903.
It was shortly after he got his first pair of spectacles that Roosevelt became infatuated with birds. The Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, which includes bird specimens from young Roosevelt’s collection, examines the forces that turned the future president into an ardent conservationist.
Across the street is The Ramble, one of Central Park’s most popular birding sites. Over 250 avian species have been seen in the park, many in these 38 acres.
“Most of the migrants that fly over New York are nocturnal, and when dawn breaks, they see this little green rectangle, and down they go, into the woodsiness of The Ramble and other leafy patches of Central Park,” said Paul Sweet, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
As the park’s reputation as a birding destination has grown, so have the number of groups conducting bird-watching tours. NYC Audubon and the Central Park Conservancy offer beginning birding classes and family outings, especially during the fall and spring migration.
The Linnaean Society of New York’s calendar is busy with field trips year-round, whether to city parks or north to Shawangunk Grasslands to spot hawks in winter, for instance. The natural history museum and The Nature Conservancy also conduct bird walks, as do solo acts such as Birding Bob.
Should you want to go birding on your own, Central Park’s Belvedere Castle provides free loan of binoculars and birding kits for children. Assorted websites provide useful maps and self-guided tours.
NYC Audubon invites anyone stalwart enough to withstand the cold to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, Dec. 14-Jan. 5. The tradition, now carried on by the National Audubon Society throughout the Americas, started here in 1900; it was Chapman’s idea, in the face of a different tradition, the Christmas “Side Hunt,” a hunting competition that felled a large number of birds.
(To participate, go to http://birds.audubon.org/get-involved-christmas-bird-count.)
Ann Parson can be reached at email@example.com.