8 Easy Ways to Have Fun with Nature in New York City

Most people tend to think of cities as being purely built environments of concrete, brick, steel, and glass, sprinkled lightly with spots of green in the form of human-made parks with well-groomed landscaping.

Well, think again! Even in a sprawling, dense metropolis such as New York City, nature is everywhere, if you only pay a little attention.

1. Observe Birds

American Robin in Prospect Park

It’s hard to open your eyes in NYC and not see a pigeon, starling, or house sparrow. Look for their nesting sites — pigeons along building ledges or under elevated trains, sparrows in the ends of traffic light poles. Listen for their sounds — pigeons cooing, sparrows loudly chirping, starlings making an amazing assortment of squeaking, rattling, and whistling calls. Watch their behavior: when a flock of pigeons suddenly takes off, whirling and circling, look up! You might spot a red-tailed hawk overhead. In fact, the city is part of a major migration route; more than 200 kinds of birds can be found here, to the delight of the very active NYC birding community.

2. Check Out Street Trees

Lichens on tree bark. (Did you know that lichens are a sign of good air quality?)

With more than 675,000 street trees around the city, there’s plenty to look at. Can you identify our most common species, such as London Plane, Norway Maple, Ginkgo, Pin Oak, and Callery Pear? Notice a tree’s overall shape and size, the colors, textures, and shapes of bark, leaves, flowers, and seeds. Is there moss on the trunk? Lichen? Mushrooms? Bugs? You can even adopt a tree to care for or learn to become a “citizen pruner.”

3. Find Weeds or Wildflowers

Vacant lot in Boro Park

Even the tiniest sidewalk crack can sprout a seedling or tuft of grass. Hundreds of species of plants thrive in the urban environment, resistant to drought, hard-packed soil, road salts, and other hazards. In addition to sidewalk cracks, tree pits, vacant lots, building roofs and walls, windowsills, piers, construction sites, above-ground train tracks, and unmaintained yards all provide places for plants to grow, from tiny chickweed to full-grown trees. A weed is just a plant that pops up where humans don’t want it to grow. Many are beautiful, some edible, and all play an important role in the urban ecosystem.

4. Bug Out about Bugs

Monarch caught by a praying mantis at a Red Hook plant and garden store. (Can you spot the second mantis?)

Honeybee hives may get all the attention, but more than 200 species of native bees have been found in New York City. Like honeybees (which aren’t even native to North America), many of our local pollinators are in danger of serious decline. Dozens of kinds of butterflies flutter about the five boroughs, cicadas rattle all summer, and I’ve seen praying mantises in stoop planters, window boxes — even inside a LIRR car! When you find an interesting creepy-crawly, look it up on Bug Guide. (And watch out for the beautiful but invasive Spotted Lanternfly, one bug you can squash without guilt!)

5. Coexist with Mammals

Woodchuck in Green-Wood Cemetery

Gray squirrels are ubiquitous, of course, but not alone. Raccoons, white-tailed deer, white-footed mice, chipmunks, Eastern Cottontail rabbits, opossums, skunks, woodchucks, and even coyotes can all be found in NYC. And despite their terrible reputation, even those subway track rats are actually fascinating creatures.

6. Go Beach-Combing

Prospect Park Lake. How many turtles can you see?

The city’s ponds and waterways — including the Gowanus Canal Superfund site—are home to all kinds of birds, fish, turtles, jellyfish, crustaceans, and plants. Whales and porpoises swim in New York Harbor, and, amazingly, there are seahorses in the Hudson River! Seagulls nest on the flat roofs of warehouses, piping plovers in the dunes along our beaches. Next time you head out to the Rockaways, Riis Park, Brighton Beach or Coney Island, see how many different kinds of shells you can find, or look for sand crabs in their burrows along the tide line. But please don’t let your pet turtle go in Prospect Park Lake!

7. Get Involved in Citizen Science

With the iNaturalist app on your smartphone, you can share pictures of the plants and animals you find for more knowledgeable folks to ID. Join Monarch Watch, (or report if you see a Monarch tagged with a sticker on its wing), or FrogWatch, a project of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Celebrate Urban Birds site, or use native plants in your garden. These are just a few of many citizen science efforts you can get involved in.

8. Get to Know Other Urban Naturalists

A few terrific blogs to get you started on your urban nature adventures are The City Birder, Backyard and Beyond, and Central Park Nature.

Organizations such as NYC Audubon, the Brooklyn Bird Club, the New York Mycological (Mushroom) Society, the Linnaean Society, and the Littoral Society offer opportunities to go on field trips, attend talks and webinars, meet other nature enthusiasts, and get involved in conservation efforts. Both the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx offer interesting classes.

With nature, there’s always more to learn!

(All photos by Jean Gazis.)

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