The Birdman of Ossining
Charlie Roberto’s job is fighting fires in New York City, but his passion is sharing his
vast knowledge of the Valley’s natural wonders
By Thomas Staudter â€¢ Photographs by Kenneth Gabrielsen
Springtime seemed a long way off one Sunday in late March as a breeze from the northwest kept temperatures in the 30s. A more seasonable day had been predicted, though, so a handful of people had gathered at a small beach in Croton-on-Hudson, near a part of the Hudson River called Eagle Bay.
The group clustered around a mounted viewing scope as Charlie Roberto, a 49-year-old captain in the New York City Fire Department and an ardent amateur naturalist, invited one and all to take a gander at three mature bald eagles sitting in the trees across the bay. A tall man nearby was trying to find the birds through the binoculars that hung around his neck. Roberto beckoned him over. “Look at that! That one eagle’s got some shoulders,” the man exclaimed as he peered through the scope. The other onlookers nodded in agreement.
For the past 15 years, when he wasn’t putting out fires and saving lives or spending time with his family, Roberto has been leading popular birdwatching expeditions and nature walks around Westchester and Putnam counties. On this March day, with his well-worn field guide in hand, he pointed out how the beak of the eagle goes from brown to blue-gray to yellow in the course of maturation, and then expounded on how eagles conserve energy during the winter for the rigors of nesting in the upcoming months.
Birds were Roberto’s first love, but the self-taught naturalist has long since expanded his expertise; any other weekend, you’d be just as likely to find him at Teatown Lake Reservation, Fahnestock State Park, or points elsewhere, leading groups in search of salamanders and frogs, wildflowers or butterflies, or his newest interest, moths. Whatever the topic, you can be sure Roberto is thoroughly prepared: he’s been known to awaken in the middle of the night to check out the amphibian migration around Teatown Lake.
Although Roberto is reticent to talk about his knowledge of nature and his passion for sharing it, others aren’t. “The professional naturalists on our staff learn from him,” says Phyllis Bock, assistant director of education at Teatown. “Charlie is a true prince — he’s so collegial and generous,” adds Christopher Letts, the environmental educator for the Hudson River Foundation. “What Charlie knows and understands is this: when we see special things in nature, it’s a gift; and when we share these discoveries with another person, we’re twice gifted.”
Roberto’s love of the natural world began early on. Born in Yonkers and one of seven children, he grew up on a 15-acre “rock farm” in Mahopac, Putnam County, where he helped raise goats, chickens, and ducks. “We were always outside mucking around and picking up rocks to see what was living underneath them,” he says. His interest in birds started with the colorful species that visited the feeders outside his home, which he researched in the various Golden guides his parents kept close at hand. He joined the New York City Fire Department at age 22, and rose through the ranks before landing as a captain at Upper Manhattan’s Engine 58 and Ladder 26 — better known as “The Fire Factory” — several years ago.
On a fishing trip in 1982 with Fabrice de Lacour, a close friend from the fire department, Roberto talked of his youthful passion for birdwatching, and before long the two colleagues were competing to see who could spot the most species. “Charlie’s enthusiasm was contagious,” says de Lacour, a Warwick, Orange County, resident who has since retired from the NYFD. He recalls how Roberto used to lead overnight camping trips for other firemen and their sons that were akin to crash courses in nature appreciation. “He likes to educate people, especially children, with the hope that someday they’ll change the world,” remarks de Lacour. “When you develop a passion for something like nature in your younger years, then there will always be something to bring you back to a happier time in your life.”
And so it was after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that Roberto, who lives in Ossining with his wife, Cheryl (a French teacher), and their two young daughters, sought solace and escape from depression by returning to his favorite natural haunts. He ran an emergency fire department mobilization center in Manhattan during the attacks and later attended more than 100 funerals for firemen who perished in the Twin Towers. Yet two weeks after 9/11, he led a birdwatching hike for the Audubon Society and realized how important the activity was to his soul.
“Taking a walk through the woods is a quick way for me to relax and forget about the stress I experience on the job,” says Roberto matter-of-factly. “The losses firemen live through — so much of it is beyond our control, and few people can really feel what we go through. Heading down a trail to find what kinds of birds are in the area allows me to refocus.”
One thing Roberto talks freely about is the need to make residents more aware of the wildlife around them. “Essex, Connecticut, attracts 14,000 people a year to see their eagles, and yet we have more wintering here by far,” he notes. “Coming into Croton Point Park, though, there isn’t any information about the eagles, no kiosks set up with flyers or brochures. Better partnerships between the different nature groups and various parks and the media could really swing this around. And not only are there bald eagles here, but loads of hawks and even short-eared owls, which are on the New York State endangered species list.
“This area has been historically rich in wildlife, but meanwhile we’re losing the open grassland habitats around here because of too much development,” Roberto continues. “Maintaining the environment and biodiversity means controlling invasive species as well. So, getting people more interested in nature — via eagles, say — is a big step in the right direction.”
When he’s not in the field or fighting fires, Roberto assiduously studies up on fauna and flora, gracefully brushing aside the wisecracks from his brethren at the firehouse. “You got to keep up,” he says. “Read a book or science journal about birds written long ago and it’s akin to old wives’ tales. We’re learning a lot about migration now, for instance, thanks to radar tracking and sophisticated listening posts. And changes in the environment are causing species to expand their natural habitats. The mockingbird, which is generally thought of as a southern species, is now found here in the Hudson Valley, thanks to winters that aren’t as harsh and residential plantings that are familiar to them. Staying on top of all this is important.”
Family vacations have included a number of trips to parks and nature reserves, where he is only too happy to share his knowledge with his wife and two daughters. “We’ve also set up a black light in the backyard,” he says. “You should see all the moths that are coming to visit us.” His kids frequently accompany him at his lectures and on nature walks. “Discovery is a big part of childhood, and you hope the sense of wonder sticks with them as they get older,” he says. “Any time you go on a hike or even a short walk, you can see things in nature — colors, interactions, little details — that are special. I find the natural world to be as exciting today as it was for me when I was five.”
The eagles had returned to their summer nesting grounds in Canada by mid-April, when Roberto drove up to the Croton Point Nature Center to speak with curator Amie Worley about some upcoming programs he’d be leading. Seeing a kestrel (or sparrow hawk) perched on one of the valve access markers atop the old landfill, he commented about how they use Croton as a stopover during migration. He then quickly pointed to several large woodpeckers, called flickers, hunting for insects in the grass. The willows and red maples were budding with colors that heralded warmer weather; and just past the treetops a fish crow flew overhead, which Roberto identified from its call. ■