They come very early in the morning on the crosstown bus or hurrying feet, booted and belted for country adventure, their eyes bright under their wool caps and their shoulders slung with binoculars, the birdwatchers of Central Park.
They have been reconnoitering the Ramble, that stretch of natural tangle south of the Lake and north of the Great Lawn, for decades now. Every year the groups grow bigger and the pursuit and identification intensify as the lure of the chase spreads. Chase is the right word. Except for the kill, the pursuit of bird-watching, or birding, as many now prefer to call it, has the same allure as hunting. Add to that the natural excitement of finding something that is given to artful concealment, the pleasure of the unfrequented outdoors, and the exercise that goes with it, and you have the reason for birding’s popularity.
Central Park is a paradise of bird observation. An oasis of green in a desert of brick and concrete, it is a natural target for the Atlantic coastal migrations. You can see twice as many species of warblers on a May morning in the Ramble as you can on a hike through a wide tract of pristine forest. People come into Central Park from rural suburbs, rising at four in the morning, to take advantage of exactly that.
In the high migration season of April and May, the park is full of birders. Most of them are in organized groups, men and women, middle-aged and often retired, but there is a respectable sprinkling of the young and hyperactive. Most of them are dressed in the woodsmanlike style of L. L. Bean, their binoculars heavy around their necks and their pockets stuffed with notebooks, pencils, and identification charts. But there are also stockbrokers in pinstripes who scoot away, briefcases flat against the wind, when it is time to dash for work, and women in Saks Fifth Avenue clothes who look as though they were there by mistake until you realize better.
Once I was standing in the Ramble listening to the spring chorus when a patrol car came nosing its way along one of the macadam paths, gently pushing aside overhanging branches as it turned and twisted. A murder in the Ramble? (This was before people actually did get murdered there.)
A burly policeman slipped from the front seat and approached me, something knobby and black in his hand. “Did you hear the fish crow?” he cried out in his brogue, waving his binoculars, as they turned out to be, in the direction of the water. I learned that he was so dedicated a bird-watcher that he had refused promotion to keep his beat. Today’s group has a cop along, ostensibly for protection, but I have an idea he will end up a birder too.
The typical birding group is made up of 20 or 30 people who at first display a collective concentration, turning their heads and raising their glasses in precision at every chirp and cheep. Later in the morning (most of the walks last two hours), it wears off and some drop behind to gossip with old friends or new acquaintances. Birding breeds sympathies. It has a spiritual dimension too, especially now that protecting the environment is so much in fashion.
“There’s the yellow-rumped warbler over there,” sings out Stephen Quinn, the American Museum of Natural History’s bird man. Quinn has been running tours for 10 years, taking over from the legendary Farida Wiley, who was famous for kindling enthusiasm for the natural wonders of the park. “I’m surprised how quiet it is today,” he continues, remarking on the increasing dearth of songbirds in the Northeast owing to development and the destruction of nesting habitat.
“That yellow-rump is a male. Early in the season there are mostly males. The females come a little later to organize the nesting.” There is a rustle across a ravine and a sleek brown form scurries over a rock and under a log. “That’s a specimen of the Norway rat,” Quinn says. The group emits a titter or two and shifts uneasily.
The yellow-rumped warbler used to be called the myrtle warbler. Its name, and other bird names, were “officially” changed a few years ago by the same kind of implacable, mysterious force that changed the colors of the New York street signs or the language of the Book of Common Prayer whether people wanted it or not. Thus the familiar sparrow hawk is now the kestrel, and the duck hawk became the peregrine, because those names sounded classier to those moved by that familiar ambition, the desire to do good to others.
There are several other organizations that conduct bird walks in the park, notably the Audubon and Linnaean Societies; most birders do it by themselves, believing that watching birds, like fishing, is a natural communion and is best done alone.
And there are even a few watchers who are not interested in the all-important lists, meaning the number of species they rack up. The “bird-a-thon” scrambles of teams of people desperately trying to beat other teams in the numbers they report in a 24-hour period are not for them. One bird in their sight (like God’s) may well do for a thousand, but for the record, the number of species recorded in Central Park well exceeds 200.
You can see so much birdlife it is possible, apparently, to become jaded. Mr. Quinn suddenly flung his arm toward the sky and announced strongly: “A pair of Canadian geese moving overhead to the north!”
A man in a deerstalker raised his head, but not his glasses, and said softly to no one in particular: “I see those every day.”