age 46, showed me around The Ramble in Central Park, where he
introduced me to the tufted titmouse and I spotted the first red
tail hawk I've ever seen in person. Be sure to check out his wonderful website that details his naturalist obseravtions, MatthewWills.com.
mother became a bird watcher when she and my father moved to
Nantucket. This was in '79. So I finished high school there,
and went off to college, and I would hear reports about how
she was taking a class with some local naturalists and learning
a lot about the island.
One of the things they did was assign her a length of beach
to patrol to find and collect dead birds, to identify them and
help figure out what had killed them.
In the fall of 2001, I quit my job. I worked for a dot com,
so I made some money but I thought the job was completely soulless
and horrible, and I quit before they fired me, because they
were going through waves of layoffs.
So that fall I had a lot of time. I lived in Park Slope, just
a few blocks from Prospect Park, and I spent a lot of time in
the park. I don't know if you remember, but it was a disturbingly,
hauntingly beautiful fall that year, and I was seeing great
blue herons in there and getting quite close.
When I went home to visit my parents in Christmas of 2001, it
turned out my mom had pancreatic cancer, which is one of the
worst because it really lurks in there and you can't find it.
So bird watching became a way to connect with my mom; I would
tell her all about the red tail hawks I'd see in Prospect Park.
That year they nested out in the open and when the young ones
were out, they were just like everywhere! They were buzzing
over the heads of people, chasing each other, totally freaking
out the nannies. They were so close when they flew by that you
could see the little mouse in their claws. It was pretty spectacular.
I started to read a little more about birds and trying to learn
more about these hawks, and I went up to Nantucket in the spring,
and while I was there a box came in the mail and my mom had
bought me a pair of binoculars. I hadn't used them before that
... I was just eyeballing.
Bird watching has made me interested in other things around
me as well; I'm sort of an amateur naturalist now. When I'm
in the park and I see a fungus, I wonder, what kind of mushroom
is that? And what kind of insect is that? And what kind of plant
Part of the appeal is also that you're in the woods here, but
you look over and, yeah, we're still in New York. Even though
obviously I love New York -- after all, I live here -- still,
it wears you down sometimes and bird watching is a great refresher.
It's also a way of using senses that you don't normally use,
or use them in a different way. I mean, we're all about talking
really fast in the city and trying to make our point and here
in the park it's much quieter and you're listening for birds
because each species sings in a different way. And there are
all kinds of birds on the ground, and you can hear them rustling
in the leaves, looking for grubs and other yummies to eat.
I suppose some people get jaded, but I find it wonderful, entering
this whole different world, turning on these different senses
or expanding them or whatever I'm doing. There's a great sense
of achievement when I see something that I haven't seen before,
but just seeing the old familiar ones, that's still wonderful,
too, because as you observe them more, you learn new things:
like that little downy woodpecker over there, which is pretty
small, but nonetheless very bold: they'll land on a tree this
close to us!
Even the city is a natural world and it's full of life. And
that's another thing, people are like, what are you looking
at in the park? And I say, if you just look a little closer,
you'll see the most amazing things.