Birding Brothers of the Bronx
When Jason Ward was fourteen, he spotted a peregrine falcon devouring a pigeon on the windowsill of the South Bronx homeless shelter where his family was living. “I was literally witnessing a nature documentary unfold,” he recalled, adding, “That was definitely my spark bird.” Ward, now thirty-two, has five siblings, but only he and his younger brother Jeffrey are birders. (Jeffrey’s spark bird was a barn owl, which he saw in Central Park.) “These peregrines are really powerful fliers,” Jason said. “They have the ability to just change their immediate surroundings. Growing up in the Bronx, that was something that I admired, and wanted to be able to do myself.”
Last week, Jason, who has lived in Atlanta for more than a decade, was back in the Bronx for a birding trip with Jeffrey. A documentary series, “Birds of North America,” starring Jason, with occasional appearances by Jeffrey, had just premièred on topic.com. The brothers met in the Orchard Beach parking lot, in Pelham Bay Park, at the end of the 6 train. Jason wore a puffy jacket, hiking boots, and an Osprey backpack full of gear; Jeffrey had on a red Adidas cap, spotless white Nikes, and a sweatshirt that read “Thebronx.”
In “Birds of North America,” Jason and Jeffrey, who are black, spend time with groups, such as the Feminist Bird Club, whose members don’t resemble that most common varietal of birder: the mature white male. “That’s the vast majority of the makeup, but I don’t think it will be going forward,” Jason said. “Birding is going to become more colorful.” Like most serious birders, they track their findings on the app eBird. They also compete on Twitter to see who can spot the most species in a year. Last year, Jason won, two hundred and seventy-nine to two hundred and thirty-nine. This year, after a trip to the Bahamas, Jeffrey, who still lives in the Bronx and works for New York City Audubon (and a juice place downtown), was ahead by twenty birds.
“I look at twenty birds as a nice, comfortable lead,” Jason said.
“Was twenty a comfortable lead last year?” Jeffrey asked.
“Migration is about to start,” Jason added, kindly.
“Red tail,” Jeffrey said, noting a passing red-tailed hawk.
“Red tail,” Jason said.
They set off toward the beach. On the boardwalk, past a shuttered snack bar and a fenced-in pen with an ominous N.Y.C. Parks Department sign that read “Lost Children,” Jeffrey set up a scope on a tripod. Jason peered through his binoculars. “What’s that raft out there? Cormorants?” They were surf scoters. “Scoters?” he said. “Man.”
An airplane passed overhead. Jason turned. “What was that? Finch?”
“House sparrow,” Jeffrey said, deflated. “This is why I hate the house sparrow.”
Jason said that a recent post on the Birdist about underappreciated birds had named crows, starlings, and pigeons. “Pigeons are amazing fliers,” Jeffrey said. “I’ve seen a video of pigeons doing backflips in flight. They’re tough.”
“They’re like the Impala of the sky,” Jason said.
The birding community has welcomed the brothers, although there have been odd moments of tension. “Like when they meet us in the park and they walk right past me to try to find the leader. I’m, like, ‘Hey, I’m Jason!’ ” In Crotona Park, at the edge of a pond, Jeffrey was once questioned by the police.
Near an inlet, they logged mute swans (“killers”), buffleheads, red-breasted mergansers, and more surf scoters, whose heads resemble a clown in full makeup. At the end of the boardwalk, they spotted an osprey gliding on an air current. “First of the year!” Jeffrey said. “That’s a hundred and twenty-eight.”
“Damn it,” Jason said.
They decided to look for a horned owl that Jeffrey had seen in a tree hollow the previous year, up a muddy path. Jeffrey stepped carefully over a log, wary of dirtying his sneakers. At the tree, he stopped and listened: “Nothing.”
Near the parking lot, they passed a man letting his dog chase a flock of geese. “That’s just obnoxious,” Jason said. Cats are another menace. (Jonathan Franzen, an avid birder, has summarized the community’s position as “cats must die.”) “To allow cats to roam freely is completely irresponsible,” Jason said.
In the car, Jason took out his phone and logged his stats. Twenty-six species, including ring-billed gulls, common loons, and a long-tailed duck. (“Late, but not unexpected,” he wrote.) On Instagram, he scrolled until he landed on a chart of fourteen types of sparrows. “Ha!” he said, and showed it to Jeffrey, who laughed. The image of the house sparrow had been scribbled over in red letters: “Trash,” it read. ♦