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Let this year be the one in which you truly embrace and enjoy summer’s pleasures. Forsake that air-conditioned cool to explore the natural beauty that Brooklyn - yes Brooklyn - affords in unexpected places.

For instance, you may have already known that Prospect Park offers an excellent slate of performances at the band shell, and there’s no better place to go for a picnic, but did you know the park is also an important habitat for animals and birds?

The new Audubon Center, which opened at the Prospect Park Boathouse on April 26, is now offering electric boat tours, for just $3, of the Lullwater and 60-acre Prospect Lake. With its phragmites - tall grasses along the shores - providing prime real estate for birds looking to nest, there’s a lot to spot on these birding boat tours.

The center’s executive director, Cheryl Bartholow, explained that the boathouse is "positioned on low water, which is the best nesting area for birds" and the quiet, captained electric boat doesn’t disturb the birds while it allows visitors to get a closer peek at them.

On Friday, we boarded The Independence to see what birds the lake was attracting. (The center’s director of education, Glenn Phillips, said, "The earlier the better" to see the greatest amount of bird activity, but the boat ride has charm any time of day.)

We took our seats on The Independence’s mahogany bench, under the green-and-white
striped canopy, and it was easy to feel like a tourist in a dreamy, quieter version of Venice as the boat smoothly glided away from the dock, leaving behind its stately patio and cafe.

Captain Pierre Vautravers helmed the 30-foot fantail craft for the half-hour tour.

As we pulled away from the dock, we saw a black crown heron rooting around for snails by the boathouse.

"It’s hard to believe you’re in Brooklyn on some parts of the ride," said Bartholow.

As The Independence glided under the Lullwater Bridge we were instructed to look up to see that the bridge’s cast-iron underside was decorated for the pleasure of boaters.

New to the park is the rustic arbor with bench seating and a "beach" that is visible from the boat. (You won’t find sand on this "beach"; the term is park lingo for a cement slope going down to the water.)

On the surface of the water, we passed a seasonal crop of duckweed, flowering primrose and water shield with yellow blossoms. There are also small areas of the lake fenced in with chicken wire to keep in barley straw, a natural way to minimize algae in the water, explained Phillips.

"It releases hydrogen peroxide, which reduces algae and it’s even better for fish," he said. (The water of manmade Prospect Lake is "New York City tap water," explained Bartholow.)

The hotter it gets, she said, the more visible the turtles are as they surface to sun themselves on logs.

Phillips pointed out a lone red-eared pond turtle, an offspring of a presumably abandoned pet.

"[Turtles] live as long as people," said Phillips. "These have chased away the native painted turtle. People shouldn’t have turtles as pets. They don’t stay little enough to be kept in kitchens."

A white mute swan glided by, and then, around a bend, we saw a mother duck and her ducklings scooting along the shore. Phillips guessed that those ducklings must be less than a week old.

"Ducklings are precocious; they can swim from the moment they’re born," he said.

Phillips explained that birds are shy in the summer because they’re nesting. "Mallards, wood duck and Canadian geese breed here," he said.

Orioles, noticeable for their black heads and orange bodies, are some of the most special birds that breed in the park, Phillips noted.

"They nest in the tops of trees near water. We saw a pair nesting in the Lullwater," he said. Visitors to the center can see an enormous replica of an oriole’s nest inside the center, and climb inside to sit on the eggs.

The Audubon Center is planning to put cameras on various birds’ nests so visitors can watch their activity on monitors, said Phillips.

From the boat, one of the most spectacular birds we caught sight of was the tall, white egret, posing beneath a low-hanging branch.

"The egret is the symbol of the Audubon Society," said Phillips. "They were almost hunted to extinction because women used to put their feathers in their hats."

The elegant bird seemed unfazed by our excitement and the quiet boat. "It’s a frequent visitor here," he said. "We provide lots of food by keeping the lake clean for fish and frogs."

Then we saw a double-breasted cormorant - which eluded our cameras by diving beneath the lake’s surface over and over again, resurfacing briefly with her dark feathers glistening in the sun. This shy bird also kept her distance from the boat, and binoculars would have come in handy.

On our way back to the boathouse we were able to get much closer to a rare sight - a green heron. Puzzled by the name, we looked at Captain Pierre who acknowledged it’s misleading.

"Only in a certain light does it really look green - a dusty green," he said.

The park’s varied habitat makes it an important stopover point for migratory birds, and as a result, it has been designated an "important bird area" by Audubon New York, according to Chuck Remington, director of education for the organization. More than 200 species of birds were spotted in Prospect Park last year, including 61 rare migratory birds and resident species.

Upon disembarking the boat, with a hand from Captain Pierre, we noticed the queue was already full with the next 14 passengers ready to hop on.

Because the tours sell out quickly - especially on weekends - tickets to a boat tour should be purchased as soon as you get to the boathouse. We were advised to while away the time until the next tour began inside the center, which offers an array of displays and interactive exhibits to help visitors refine their bird-spotting skills and attune their senses. (Even the center’s French doors have bird songs that are triggered by motion detectors when you open them.)

After a tour, visitors can use the center’s identification software on the six new computers, or reference the field guides, to learn more about the birds they’ve spotted.

There are so many birds to discover in Prospect Park, one boat tour this summer won’t be enough. But the next time you visit the park, you’ll be able to appreciate - and possibly identify - a few more of its feathered inhabitants.

 

Boat tours leave the Audubon Center at the Prospect Park Boathouse Wednesday-Thursday, from 1 pm to 5 pm, and Friday-Sunday, from 10 am to 5 pm. Tickets are $3. Binoculars are suggested. The boathouse is near the entrance at Lincoln Road and Ocean Avenue. For information about hours and programs, visit www.prospectparkaudubon.org or call (718) 287-3400.

Pedal boats, which seat four, can be rented from Kate’s Corner, near the Wollman Rink. An adult must accompany children under 16 years. Rides are $10 an hour with a $10 deposit, weekends and holidays, from noon to 5 pm, Thursday-Friday, from 11 am to 4 pm. For further information, call (718) 282-7789.

The Brooklyn Bird Club hosts its "Introduction to Bird Watching" walking tours every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 am to 11:30 am, led by volunteers.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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