The Early Bird
A quest to chronicle New York City’s avian community
On a fresh spring morning, David Barrett ’86, armed with his super-zoom camera and Zhumell binoculars, left his Upper East Side apartment and ran the few blocks to Central Park, where, his database reveals, he’s spent at least 3,000 hours since 2010 looking at birds.
The coronavirus pandemic had kept away the usual crowds of tourists and joggers, and the peak-season May migrants, with their skyward-gazing human followers, were yet to come. In narrating his day out, Barrett reported that he darted over to Tupelo Meadow, in Frederick Law Olmsted’s wild-garden Ramble, looking for newly arrived eastern phoebes. He had already relayed a Twitter report of the small, brownish-gray birds with a raspy peep via his popular online Manhattan Bird Alert account (@BirdCentralPark), but even after nine years of competitive Big Year birding, he noted, in unmistakable British tones, “It’s fun to watch them sally off their perches to catch insects in flight.”
He then trotted north, following the melodious notes of pine warblers near the Shakespeare Garden, and filmed the pert, bright-yellow birds flitting among dark conifers. Then he ran—“Nothing much to see in the interim”—to the reservoir for views of waterfowl, and happily documented the pied-billed grebe, with its “cute face,” and “the lone representative of its species that spent the entire winter there.” An excellent morning’s work, with plenty of field recordings to post for his 21,600 followers.
Barrett makes no money from his aggregating, crowd-sourced Manhattan Bird Alert and the others he has created for Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. He does it to be “useful and active,” sharing his passion simply to “bring people joy. Birding is a healthful thing to do. It engages the mind, gets you outside, and gives you a workout, to the extent that you want it to. People seem to find looking at birds soothing during times of turmoil,” he adds, and he strives to keep the posts “positive, entertaining, and educational”: “Northern cardinal male singing from a sunlit perch”; “Great egret in hunting mode, Central Park’s Turtle Pond now”; “Fort Greene Red-tailed Hawks are building a nest on the Brooklyn Tech radio tower.” In late January, he publicized a bald eagle in a Riverside Park tree: “They do frequently perch in a tree to rest, although not, historically, in Manhattan.”
Keeping up with the birds takes near-constant effort. The Manhattan account alone typically issues 30 posts a day, and close to 100 during busy migration seasons. Barrett built some of the software that drives his alerts (having studied math and computer science at Harvard and MIT, before earning an M.B.A at the University of Chicago), and devised the system to gather sightings and data from many sources, including Twitter, typically editing and re-posting the best ones.
Increasingly, though, he also features his own skillful photography and field videos, with funny or savvy one-liners. Barrett’s alerts “have changed the connectivity of people’s birding in the city dramatically,” says a friend, the ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and leader of the BirdCast and BirdVox projects. Such online crowdsourcing, he explains, is part of a global trend. The most comprehensive, worldwide, online database is the Cornell lab’s e-Bird, launched in 2002, which gathers more than a hundred million sightings annually, providing maps, images, recordings, historical analog data, and other information to support science, conservation, and education related to avian life.
New York City’s birding community, highlighted in the 2012 documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect, encompasses tenacious aficionados like Barrett and countless weekend amateurs. Since 1886, the Central Park Conservancy has kept a checklist of the 200 species regularly seen there, yet unusual fowl also land on street signs, awnings, and sidewalks. Barrett notes the “photos we posted of a Virginia rail that somehow made it into a Midtown Duane Reade drugstore. If you follow the alerts, you see these amazing birds showing up in unexpected places.”
Before discovering birding, the always hyper-focused Barrett applied his quantitative, analytical talents to managing hedge funds, from the 1990s through 2009, at a firm he helped found. Initially, counting species simply enlivened his outdoor training as a competitive runner with a low five-minute mile and victories as a masters athlete. “I could measure everything I did: heart-rate data, paces,” he recalls. “I was very scientific about it.”
Soon, though, both the birds and the challenge of the hunt became a primary fascination, with his own twist. Unlike those who eagerly travel to Costa Rica or New Zealand to revel in close encounters with exotic fowl—or routinely cross the Brooklyn Bridge to check out shorebirds at Coney Island—Barrett restricts himself to mastering Manhattan’s avian realm because it’s what he can do best. His 2013 book A Big Manhattan Year: Tales of Competitive Birding details that period and his 2012 quest to trounce other birders. Tallying 208 species, remarkable for a newcomer, he wrote of finishing second to “a vastly more knowledgeable and more skilled birder,” his friendly rival Farnsworth—who does not take Big Years too seriously. (He’s been birding since 1978 and has acute vision, along with high-end optical gear, “so it’s pretty easy to just look up and see things that other people are simply not clueing into.”)
In 2013, Barrett placed second again to Farnsworth, and launched the Manhattan Bird Alert. In 2014, concerned that his count would be surpassed, he ramped up efforts—landing with a comfortable victory, and assured that “No one will try that anymore because they can see I’ll just do whatever it takes.” No amateur birder, he says, has since topped his annual tallies, and he ended his last official Big Year, 2018, with the all-time record for Manhattan, 230 species.
That fall surge coincided with the arrival of an exotic male Mandarin duck, its painterly plumage making imperial waves among the common mallards on Central Park’s 59th Street pond (until it disappeared the following March). Thanks to Barrett’s doggedness and theatrical accounts—“The feisty MANDARIN DUCK often chases down and nips at the larger MALLARDS when they invade his space”—the East Asian native went viral as the “Hot Duck,” with Barrett sharing the limelight as its de facto agent. He “got in a bit of trouble” with some more conservative birding community members after a New York Times story mentioned his tossing tiny pieces of a soft salted pretzel into the water to attract the glamorous bird, but asserts, “I do not feed ducks bread products, and I do not advocate anyone else do it.” As he sees it, his alerts have inspired new fans and potential conservationists, especially among young people, by making time spent outdoors watching birds “cool.”
Birds are creatures of habit, as Barrett can appreciate. His encyclopedic arsenal—as useful to attracting Twitter followers as they were to his competitive birding—takes those habits, as well as each species’ idiosyncrasies, into account. He also studies ornithological science and methodically tracks weather and wind patterns, often in conjunction with historic and current reported sightings along migratory routes.
Such goal-directed data-crunching is prevalent: in his “day job” of managing his own money, for one, and in his focus on computer science. Since 2016, Barrett has re-taken Harvard’s introductory course CS50, which he enjoyed as an undergraduate, online, and has earned certificates in artificial intelligence and as a Google Android developer, with plans to conduct his own research and projects. While studying classical singing in the early 2000s, he pushed himself to extend his range and reach high tenor notes in the “Che gelida manina” aria from La Bohème (and also loved to hone his rendition of “Desperado,” by the Eagles). When not out birding, he further educates himself online—natural science and computer science, mostly—and tackles mathematical challenges. Reading fiction has been a source of pleasure, as have a few broadcast series. “Bo Jack Horseman—a lot of fun! The Crown. And, of course, Sherlock. Excellent.”
Like the great detective, Barrett is exceptionally rational and ultra-focused. Yet he is also an earnest, solicitous birding companion, eager to share all he knows, and calmly patient with newcomers, as long as they really want to learn. He has been happy to go into the field with a reporter, for example, and even take the time to teach the rudimentary procedure for properly focusing binoculars before setting out at a trot across the park. But he does not have much time for television, or even trips to the grocery store. “I don’t like to waste time on things that are not essential,” he explains. “I just buy massive quantities of pasta and cereal, protein powder, bars. Something has to contribute to what I am trying to do...help me reach a goal. That’s the key.” He can easily correlate his spreadsheets logging years’ worth of fat, protein, and carbohydrate intake with those that track his weight loads and reps at the gym, to calibrate muscle versus fat gain.
Barrett recalls his years at Harvard fondly (“The hardest I ever worked!”), and in particular praises his math professors John T. Tate, Andrew Gleason, and David Mumford. By sophomore year he was in graduate-level courses, en route to applying to MIT’s doctoral program and planning a career as a mathematics professor. But he left MIT after passing his qualifying exam and ultimately focused instead on finance at Chicago, moving to New York City in 1992 to become a Wall Street mortgage trader when “mathematical approaches were revolutionizing the industry.”
Long ago, Barrett visited Britain, but says he’d never live outside Manhattan, and hasn’t left the borough for more than a few hours in at least a decade. Asked about those British tones, he explains it’s “an RP accent. RP British…received pronunciation.” He pauses, thinking. “Maybe it was the classical training I did in voice and speech that encouraged that. But I’ve always been fond of speaking, and accents in general. And I think some things become a choice: that if you like something over a long time, it eventually becomes part of your life.” He has friends within the birding community, and until COVID-19 arrived, sometimes joined guided groups in Central Park, because more eyes on the trees increases the odds of finding more birds. But for him, as for many others, birding is chiefly a solo pursuit, “because it is about the birds, not people.”
After spying the pied-billed grebe at the reservoir, Barrett reported that he pressed on along its north side and was surprised to find a horned grebe. Ordinarily such a rare bird—not seen in the park for two years, he said—would have quickly drawn observers. But after an hour, only a few fellow enthusiasts had arrived.
At home later, he was excited by an online report of a great horned owl at Inwood Hill Park. “They are solitary birds. They hunt alone, spend the day alone. And I think I feel some kinship with them,” he said. “I am a solitary person, and I like it, and I survive that way, too.” Ordinarily, he would have spent nearly an hour on the subway to see and photograph this favorite of his followers, but that didn’t seem like government-approved essential travel. Besides, in roaming Manhattan’s greenest corners, he’d already recorded dozens of owls, including eight different species.
Scrolling through his personal database to count and relay exactly which ones, he lit on an entry from January 11, 2014. He’d been alone at Randalls Island Park, an oasis between the Harlem and East Rivers. Scanning the sky, he noticed something among the soaring white sea gulls, something more compact flapping in a distinctly different style. It was a snowy owl. None had been spotted in Manhattan for 20 years, “and they come from afar, thousands of miles away,” he explained. “So it was unexpected, and simply beautiful and elegant, and right there. So I texted Farnsworth so he could come out and document it with me.” They were the only people out there that wintry day, the only two people to see the ethereal bird. It stayed for maybe 90 minutes, then flew away. Did they go celebrate? Barrett laughs. “No. Nothing like that. He just went back to his family, and I lingered awhile. There were other things I wanted to see. And then I went on my way.”