New Yorkers stuck inside their apartments during lockdown have mentioned losing track of time. Without the usual diversions, the days seem to blend together. But there is one clock that hasn’t stopped: nature!
Here is one way to mark time: the magnolias were just beginning to bloom in Brooklyn when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the PAUSE, now the leaves are out.
And also, the birds.
I can hear them from my apartment in Brooklyn. In fact, I got so excited about the birds I was hearing, that I called the Parks Department.
I told urban park ranger Michelle Moshen that when I first wake up in the morning, I sometimes don’t hear anything except a few birds chirping
“That’s beautiful," she said.
I agree. I feel like I’m in a small town in some Jane Austen book.
It may have taken a lockdown for some of us to finally notice the birds singing, but New York City Urban Park Rangers are way ahead of us. “On our days off we will take binoculars and sit by the window and do a little bird count to see how many things we can see from our windows. This is even before COVID,” Moshen told me.
The Urban Park Rangers’ mission is to bring the natural world to New Yorkers, which hasn’t been so easy in recent months. Mayor Bill de Blasio first took down tennis and basketball nets and the nets in some parks, then closed down playgrounds, then the dog runs. But the city parks have remained open. And part of ranger Moshen’s job is to make sure people are following the rules and “enjoying nature safely,” she told me.
She added, “You have a sort of literal breath of fresh air when you’re surrounded by trees, when you’re surrounded by plants. You get to see the squirrels, you get to see all those migratory birds that are stopping by, you get to see that neighborhood pigeon.”
The Parks Department has even launched an online program — called Parks at Home — so that people trapped at home by the lockdown can join virtual tours of the parks. You can see park rangers on a hike in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. And a 400-year-old Tulip tree in Ally Pond Park in Queens.
Then there are the other New Yorkers — who don’t need any encouragement to commune with nature.
Like New York City nature observer Matthew Wills. At 6 a.m. on a blustery Saturday, Matt Wills and I are at our respective windows in Brooklyn, trying to hear some birds. “It feels like we’re on the North Sea,” Matt said of the wind. So we took turns trying out our favorite bird sounds. I did a northern cardinal: dooo, dooo, dooo! Matt said he thinks of it more like a phaser: cheer cheer cheer chew chew!
Matt lives in Sunset Park “on top of the Merain, which is part of the highest part of Brooklyn.” He spends a lot of time just looking out his window.
“Well I’m doing more of that now for obvious reasons,” he said, adding “this window is better than Netflix. He says he watches the sparrows building nests under air-conditioning units and sees the squirrels cavorting on his neighbors window screens. And then there are the kestrals.
“On a good day I can see one of the kestrels that nest on the corner. It’s a falcon about the size of a blue jay. The area in front of me is really their playground.”
I asked Matt why he became a naturalist.
“An existential question,” he answered. “You know, I started birding in another crisis, after 9/11. So birds were my gateway drug. You know they’re very colorful, very obvious. Then you're like, well, what is that tree? And if you start looking at the leaves of the tree, you know that waiting, waiting, waiting through winter and then suddenly, you see very subtle color changes and then it starts turning green, it’s been really good to see that.”
Ranger Moshen expressed a similar sentiment about being out in nature, even our urban nature. “It reminds me that things change.” She works at Fort Totten Park, in Bayside, right near where she grew up. “Yeah, we’re dealing with a crisis, yeah, we’re dealing with something scary but just like the seasons change, so does this thing and one day it will also be gone.”