Isaac Grant's 2013 New York City Big Year
With 307 Species
Article and Interview by Lynne Hertzog
If you've already read this article in the spring 2014 Urban Audubon and would like to go to directly to Lynne Hertzog's interview with Isaac, click here.
At the start of 2013, NYC Audubon member and Staten Islander Isaac Grant was on a mission— a New York City Big Year. In birding, that means seeing as many species as possible within a calendar year and within a certain area. In Isaac’s case, he chose the five boroughs of New York City. Birders do all kinds of Big Years—one could choose Central Park or New York State or even the whole United States (as seen in the Hollywood movie, “The Big Year”). This competition means a lot of time spent birding. Isaac calculates he has spent about 600 hours in the field—that’s 10-12 hours per week, every week. He felt hopeful about seeing as many as 300 species, which for anyone who has kept records of birds in New York City is an awesome number. Through unflagging persistence, he ended up with 307 species!
Birding in Brooklyn since he was five years old, Isaac learned early where to find birds. In summer, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge’s East Pond is one of his favorite birding spots. In the fall, Isaac hunkers down at the Fort Tilden hawk watch platform in Queens. With a good northwest wind, Isaac has seen tens of thousands of migrating land birds, along with raptors.
These days, doing a Big Year means more than knowing the best birding spots; you also have to get instantaneous “intel,” key information about rarity sightings posted on the internet by experienced birders. Then you make a mad dash to that location to view the bird. Sometimes you score, as Isaac did when tracking down a grasshopper sparrow in Central Park. Sometimes you don’t. Multiple trips to various parks never brought him a golden-winged warbler. Not the internet, but knowing good raptor weather and some luck, led Isaac to Moses Mountain in Staten Island’s Greenbelt on just the right day and time to see not one, but two golden eagles. A great sighting for New York City!
Congratulations, Isaac, on a great birding year!
Isaac Grant’s New York City Big Year Statistics
Species by Borough
The Bronx: 8
Staten Island: 169
Hardest-to-Find Bird: parasitic jaeger
The Birds that Got Away: Wilson’s storm petrel, golden-winged warbler
Sea Watches from Borough Sites: over 30
Miles Driven: an extra 2,000
Interview with Isaac Grant
What gave you the idea to do a Big Year? And when did you make the decision to do it?
My friends Seth Wollney and Mike Shanley decided to try and do a Staten Island big year to see if they could break their own personal records for Staten Island. I thought it sounded like fun and really have not been able to get out that much since my kids are still young. As it was only one borough, it seemed like something I could handle, along with my two jobs and being a husband and a father and of course a handy man at home as well. The Staten Island Big Year lasted 14 days. There were just too many cool birds that I would miss over the year in the rest of the City if I limited myself to Staten Island. So I decided to do the whole City. No way do I have the time or resources to do anything more than that. To do a state big year like Anthony Collerton did last year is a massive undertaking. So on January 14th I decided to do the whole City, all the boroughs. I know this because I went to Van Cortlandt Park on January 15th to search for the cackling goose and the barnacle goose that were reported in that park. As luck would have it, January 14th was the last day that the barnacle goose was seen.
How do you keep track?
I enter new species into AviSys; that's a computer program designed specifically for bird listing.
Grabbing any opportunity to see birds in NYC this year must have been both fun and quite challenging. What are a couple of your memorable experiences?
I probably spent more time trying to figure out how to see golden eagle than any other bird. Do I go to Fort Tryon and scan over the Hudson or, do I go to Green-Wood Cemetery, or do I go to one of the hawk watch spots on Staten Island? This is a bird that I have never before seen in the City as it usually stays further west and follows the ridges south. We had a couple days of warm weather. Then on November 2nd a cold front started coming through. November 3rd was a light west wind that changed northwest by the early evening. So the 4th seemed like the best day to see a golden eagle in the City. I made my way up to Moses Mountain on Staten Island. It is in the Greenbelt and is one of many places that I went this year that I had never been before. I was not sure exactly where to go as I just had general directions. I parked close to where I thought it was and then called one then two then three of my friends to try and get specific directions. Just when the third person that I called answered my call, I saw a man walk past me with binoculars. I asked him if he was going to Moses Mountain. He said yes. So we walked up to the top of the mountain together. We had never met and I explained to him how I was there to try and find a golden eagle. He was elderly and apologized that he was walking slow and that he was taking the long way up. I did not mind one bit. We got to the top and he pointed to the south and said that the hawks came from there. I asked if he had ever been there in the fall and he said no, only the spring. I explained that in the fall the raptors would be coming from the north and flying south. As we turned around to face north, almost immediately I saw two large birds coming over our heads that I knew right away were eagles. I got the binoculars up quickly and there they were, two golden eagles! Seen within one minute of looking for them! If events had been slightly different—had gone any other way or gotten to the spot one minute later—then I would have missed them. If the nice man had not led me to the top at exactly that moment, then I would have missed them. So 11 months of planning and about 1 minute to find them. Talk about luck!
I had a crazy time with the red-necked phalarope that was reported in the Hudson River in lower Manhattan on August 18th. I had spent the morning birding at Riis and Tilden [Jacob Riis Park and Fort Tilden] and then went to meet my wife and kids at her mother's house near the King's Plaza Mall in Brooklyn. I got the email alert that the bird was seen just as I was about to walk through the front door. I decided to go for it. I got back in the car and drove up Flatbush, across the Manhattan Bridge, parked the car by the reported place near the lower Hudson River, looked all over but could not find the bird. Then, I drove back to my mother-in-law's. Literally while I was walking through her front door for the second time, I got another email alert that the bird had been re-found a half a block from where I stopped looking. As luck would have it, the kids had just laid down to take a nap so it was back to the City for me. But this time the Brooklyn Bridge was closed and all traffic was being diverted to the Manhattan Bridge. It took me an extremely tense hour getting over the bridge and finding a parking spot. Got there and found the bird immediately. Spent some time watching it and even got some nice pictures. Then is was back to my mother-in-law's again for the third time. I finally got through the front door!
What surprised you about doing a Big Year in NYC?
The main reason that I decided to do a big year was because I spent limited time in the field the past 7.5 years since the birth of my two boys. In the past, I spent most of my birding time looking for rarities, or chasing vagrants. I think I spent too much time doing that and not enough time enjoying the common birds. The thing with a big year is that each bird, no matter how rare it is, it only counts once. So I needed to spend time looking for everything, no matter how common.
Being that I have been birding since I was a kid in the state, I know many people who bird. But still, I made some new friends this year. I think it has been the best surprise.
You are a family guy with two young kids. What did they think of your Big Year?
My kids ask me all the time how many birds I have seen. Its been fun to have them ask questions about birds. They humor me from time to time and show a modest amount of interest in birds but mostly they don't care. But they know that I do and have been very supportive. While we're on family, I must mention my beautiful wife, Roxanne. She has given me an amazing amount of freedom this year and has been supportive of this crazy quest 100% of the time. She definitely picked up the slack at home and with the kids while I was out birding. No way that I would have been nearly as successful as I was without her love and hard work.
Can you calculate time spent? Or miles driven?
I would say that I spent at least 500 hours birding this year. Mileage has not been that much as I would often take an hour here or there before or after work. For instance, if I needed to be in the Bronx, I would leave early and stop at the beach or at Jamaica Bay on my way. I spent lots of time at Clove Lakes Park in the spring which is only a few miles from my house. So total mileage is about 2,000 miles more than what I would normally drive.
Was there a nemesis bird? Along the same lines, what was the toughest bird that you finally saw?
This is a very difficult question to answer. Nemesis bird would have to be golden-winged warbler. I had great success finding the rest of the regular NYC warblers and was on a mission to find a golden-winged. There was only one report in the City in the spring. It was seen in Prospect Park and only for a few minutes. In the fall, there were two reports early on from Prospect Park that I chased but I could not relocate. Then there was a report from Alley Pond that I could not chase but others did and it was not re-found. Next, I got a text from Corey Finger about a golden-winged in Forest Park. I called some others while chasing it and when I arrived, we all set out to find the bird. After a few hours, Eric Miller and Andrew Baksh spotted the bird. They called me and within about 20 seconds I was at the spot. Unfortunately the bird already left! I spent an additional 6 hours searching with no luck. So that was that.
Toughest bird is a matter of perspective. Most hours in the field looking for and finally found was parasitic jaeger for sure. I did roughly 30 seawatches, maybe more and finally spotted one on November 17th.
Toughest one that I should have seen but didn't was Wilson's storm petrel. Again over 30 sea watches and no luck. This is a species that is regularly seen in the City. It is a bird that I never missed in prior years. But this year, despite all of the time I spend scanning the ocean, I did not see any.
What one birding spot is your favorite?
I have two favorites. One in the summer and one in the fall. I love being in the East Pond at Jamaica Bay. There is just something special about being on the ground and in the habitat with the shorebirds. If you stand in one place, quietly and let the birds get used to your presence, they eventually walk right up to you while they are feeding. The hawk watch platform at Fort Tilden is by far the best place to observe fall migration in NYC. If you have not been up there on a late fall day with northwest winds then you are really missing something special. Tens of thousands of birds migrate over the hawk watch platform. Flock after flock of blackbirds, robins, waxwings, finches, pipits, bluebirds, swallows, hawks, falcons.
When did you start birding? Mentors?
My dad took me birding when I was five. I can't say I had a mentor, but I have spent more time in the field with my best friend, Gene Herskovics, than anyone else.
What new birds did you add to your New York City list?
This year has brought a lot of NYC firsts for me. Besides golden eagle, there was dovekie, sedge wren, yellow-headed blackbird, Barrows goldeneye, Cory's shearwater, Mississippi kite, upland sandpiper, eastern whip-poor-will, Say's phoebe. The variety of species one can see in our city, if you invest the time, is quite astounding.