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Brooklyn’s hottest male celebrity right now is a pocket-size show-off known as a painted bunting. The Technicolor little bird, who was first spotted in Prospect Park last week, looks like a toy come to life.
Painted buntings are mostly found in the southeastern part of the United Sates, so this stopover in Brooklyn truly is unusual. “He’s Mick Jagger. He’s Bob Dylan,” says Rob Bate, the president of the Brooklyn Bird Club. “He’s Adele. He’s a very big deal.” Bate said there have been records of painted buntings showing up in the park, but they’ve been female, who, Bate says, “are pretty drab-looking.” He predicts the little guy got blown off course by a westerly wind and will probably stick around through the weekend.
But as much as bird watchers and the general public are giving this painted bunting the red-carpet treatment, New York City’s acres of parks and green spaces are filled with birds both beautiful and ferocious. Some arrive fleetingly, as the city lies along the Atlantic Flyway migration route, an avian superhighway between Canada and points south. Others are native to New York and easier to spot, but they’re still jaw-dropping once you do. Daily Intelligencer talked with some bird experts and enthusiasts about the most prized local sightings in recent years. Here are a few of those you can find across the five boroughs if you look closely — and ignore the pigeons.
1. Peregrine Falcon
New York City has more peregrine falcons than any other urban area in the world, says Leslie Day, author of Field Guide to Neighborhood Birds of New York City. “When they rocket out of the sky they can go up to 200 miles per hour,” Day says, making them one of the speediest animals on Earth. Peregrines nest on high, rocky ledges, which makes New York, with its skyscrapers and bridges, prime real estate. Plus, the baby chicks are pretty cute.
2. Great Horned Owl
If you hear hooting in Central Park, it might be these guys. Kellye Rosenheim, the director of development for the New York Audubon Society, says these enormous owls, though nocturnal, are easier to spot in the winter months. But they’ve been seen in Central Park, and there’s a nesting pair in the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
3. Monk Parakeets
Monk parakeets began showing up in New York City in the 1970s. Legend has it a crate exploded at Kennedy Airport, and out they flew — though a few freed pets may have added to their numbers through the years, says Steve Baldwin, who runs the Brooklyn Parrot Society. They are native to South America, and Baldwin says it’s likely most of New York’s parakeets are from Argentina. The birds aren’t particularly hard to spot — they are bright, almost neon green — but Baldwin says Greenwood Cemetery is the best place to observe them, where they’ve built a gigantic nest right above the entry gates.
4. Red-Tailed Hawk
Pale Male has achieved celebrity status, and another hawk made headlines this week after authorities twice had to rescue one from the Brooklyn Bridge and World Trade Center. Day says there about 40 nesting pairs of these fierce, soaring predators in the city. Sometimes they’re easiest to spot in the sky as they swoop in big, looping circles.
5. White Pelican
These birds live across North America but are most commonly found in the United States out West and down South. “They’re very unusual in New York,” says Rosenheim. But she says they’ve been spotted a few times this fall — most recently last Sunday — in Jamaica Bay. This fall’s sighting was the first since about December 2012.
6. Snowy Owl
Male snowy oils can be pure, ice white, while the females often have smatterings of gray and black. These birds, which breed in the Arctic and more commonly stick to the northernmost parts of North America, are pretty rare in the New York area, but watchers have spotted them on the outskirts on the shorelines of Brooklyn and Queens. Winter is the time to see them, if they’re here; there were many sightings last year, helped perhaps by the interminable polar vortex. Bate said watchers spied them at Breezy Point, Jamaica Bay, and Floyd Bennett Field.
7. Hooded Merganser
These ducks hang out in the city’s ponds, so Central and Prospect parks are great places to spot them. “It’s not a rare bird,” Rosenheim says, “but it’s a lot of people’s favorite duck.” The males get most of the gawks; the have hypnotic yellow eyes and a large black-and-white crest and the same coloring on the feathers that almost look like zebra stripes.