My plan for this morning was simple. I was going to drive out to the Rockaways, the barrier beaches in Queens, and find a spot to wait for the flocks of finches that were sure to be passing by on the northwest winds that had blown all night Friday night and were predicted to blow all day long. Daisy had heard of an organization called YANA (You Are Not Alone), that was distributing relief supplies to those who had suffered from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, and that needed warm clothes and other supplies for children, so she prepared a box of clothes that Desi had outgrown, along with wipes and diapers. I put the box in my car along with the address, and headed out early this morning.

Fort Tilden was totally closed and the cop standing guard at the road to Breezy Point looked at me like I was crazy when I asked if there was any chance someone who wanted to watch birds could get to the barrier beaches anywhere west of Fort Tilden. I turned east, heading into the Rockaways, and figured I would drop the supplies off and then find somewhere that I could get near what was left of the boardwalk to watch the morning flight. As I drove east through scenes of destruction that I can’t even come up with the words to describe, I was frustrated by the continuous flocks of birds going overhead – most were blackbirds but some, at least, were finches.

At shortly before eight in the morning when I pulled up at the corner of Beach Rockaway Boulevard and Beach 113th Street, where YANA has their main distribution center, I was impressed by the large solar array they had providing them with power, a solar array that belongs to Greenpeace. I dropped my meager box of baby supplies off and stopped to chat to the two volunteers who were already helping people who had stopped in looking for warm clothing, batteries, and a sympathetic ear. I heard of the shortage of D batteries, flashlights, winter hats and gloves, warm socks, sleeping bags and sleeping pads, and how people were struggling to stay warm, fed, and safe.

It suddenly dawned on me how absurd it was that I was burning precious gasoline looking for birds when people were suffering. Yeah, I’m a bit slow sometimes. I decided that barrier beach birding was done for the day and that I would instead spend my time trying to help out with what was clearly a disaster beyond what could be handled by the people and resources that were already on the Rockaways.

As soon as I made that decision, and, no, I am not making this up, a small flock of Evening Grosbeaks flew over. I have never seen Evening Grosbeaks in Queens. It was almost enough to make this avowed atheist believe in karma.

I headed out to Costco as soon as it opened and bought a big old pile of batteries, gloves, hand-warmers, and socks (the only supplies on the most-needed list that Costco had in stock). Then I swung back home and picked Daisy up and we headed back out to the Rockaways where we brought our supplies and made ourselves useful. The amount of need was and is great. So is the response of people from all over New York City and beyond. Volunteers were doing everything from distributing supplies to pumping out flooded basements. Occupy Wall Street, Doctors Without Borders, and myriad other groups and individuals were all pitching in and doing whatever they could to help others while city, state, and federal agencies were dealing with the bigger picture cleanup items, like boats that had floated onto streets, the sand and dirt that had flowed over everything, and the huge volume of just plain old debris and destruction.

We joined two other folks and knocked doors in a tower in a housing project, using our phones to light our way up dark interior staircases and hallways, and using our sincerity to convince scared residents when we knocked on their doors that we weren’t there to rob them but to find out what they needed. We made lists, went back to distribution centers, and then delivered what people needed. I helped a guy lug a cart full of water, food, and other supplies up eleven flights of stairs to his apartment, something he would not have been able to do alone, and made sure he and his family were alright and had everything they needed.

After several hours of doing this Daisy and I headed home to get Desi, who has spent too much time indoors over the past week, and take him to Kissena Park for a bit of a nature walk. After what we saw people going through in one of the epicenters of Hurricane Sandy damage I think it made both of us realize how precious being able to do normal things, like take a walk in the park with our two-year-old is. Also, we saw a Blue Grosbeak, some Fox Sparrows, and both species of kinglets. Desi also cracked us up by imitating Black-capped Chickadees.

The next time a hurricane rips through New York I will definitely be out looking for storm-blown birds, at least in the time immediately following the storm. But after that, assuming I am able and needed, I will get out and help those suffering from the hurricane’s effects. Birds are great but you know what? People are too.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.