Green and lush as Southeast Asia, Central Park was bustling with warblers, woodpeckers, and 40 urban naturalists when Tom O’Handley, development director for Audubon New York, drove up to the Loeb Boat House at 6:15 a.m. He was spearheading the 2011 Leadership Birdathon, where committed birders scramble around the metropolitan area after high species tallies to raise money for Audubon’s science programs. Grabbing the master checklist from his car, O’Handley put on his Yankees cap and binoculars and, like a military commander, sent three battalions of birders into the manmade wilderness It was early May when thousands of birds, soaring north along the Atlantic Flyway, layover in Central Park. The splendid profusion of species is as colorful as the people chasing after them.
Carl Howard, a tall, skinny employee of the E.P.A., led one of the groups on which filmmaker Aaron Woolf tagged along. Woolf just had surgery on his shoulder and wore his arm in a brace. He hung in the back without binoculars, taking in wide vistas while everyone else brought covert feathers into focus. The path wound past a bucolic cove that city birders refer to as the Tupelo Tree (because it’s the only one in the park), where a flicker balanced on its tail, pecking at the trunk of a dead (non-Tupalo) tree. “I like trees because they don’t move,” Woolf said. Howard, on the other hand, was riveted by every quiver and tweet. “Do you hear the White-throated Sparrow singing? It says: sooo seeeee dididi dididi. Do you hear the e.l.a. that’s a Wood Thrush.”
Howard’s cuffed green trousers and black leather boots made him look like a soldier in a banana republic, until he started crooning zoo-zoo-zoo- zee, zoo-zoo-zoo-zee, the cry of the Black-throated Warbler, then zoo-zoo-zoo-seeee, the cry of the Blue-throated Warbler, much to the confusion of those who literally do not tweet. “For me, it’s like the difference between Mandarin and Cantonese,” sighed Woolf, a fledgling, who, like me, was here because he finds birders as fascinating as the birds.
Mary Tannen, a veteran Central Park birder, further raised the language barrier facing newcomers like Woolf, referring to park landmarks colloquially: there’s the Electric Box (a big air-conditioning unit-looking thing that birds like to perch on), the Oven, the Singing Tombstone, and the Lake (a.k.a. The Boat Pond). Craning to see a if a warbler that had disappeared up high among the chartreuse leaves of the canopy was, indeed, a rare species from Texas,* Tannen said, “We call this warbler neck.” Unlike say, tennis elbow, warbler neck is something of a badge of honor. One-upping is a distinct pleasure of birding; so are spring warblers, and people fly here from all over to observe them flitting from branch to branch. The warbler in question, Howard patiently pointed out, was not displaying its telltale golden cheek but rest assured, if it was the tourist from Texas, it had one. The Black-throated-green, on the other hand, has no green. “It’s misnamed.” Of course.
“You’ve got your top-of-the-tree warblers, and your middle-tree warblers,” Tannen chimed in. Petite, dressed in a black Patagonia vest and a floral silk scarf, she glimpsed a Wood Duck preening on a rock on the edge of the newly dredged Upper Loeb, a cliff-lined pond that glistened in the sun with Monet-like reflections of flowering trees. “It was a gunk hole,” she said, bringing two kinglets into focus with her binoculars. “We take school groups from the city who aren’t used to nature here—and they are terrified.”
On the way to the Sheep Meadow, a birder in a West Side baseball cap, answered his cell. “My dad just called with a Field Sparrow on Falconer’s Field.”
“He’s part of Audubon. We can count it,” determined O’Handley, the birdathon’s umpire. (Call-ins only count if you are part of the group.)
After croissants and coffee at Le Pain Quotidian, Howard was back on the trail, scouting for a Redheaded Woodpecker that had spent winter in the Sheep Meadow. Up until it now, Central Park’s star was a Varied Thrush from the Pacific Northwest that received top billing in Audubon’s Christmas Count, but it had migrated a while ago. Redheaded Woodpeckers are very easy to I.D. because they have a stark white rump and wing patches, a scarlet head, and jet-black wings. In flight they resemble a flag rippling in the breeze, visible to even the local dog-walkers. “There it is!” shouted Howard, pointing at its incongruous beauty. We hoped it would stay perched on the branch indefinitely, like they do in the dioramas on the other side of Central Park West, but real nature, unlike the museum kind, is unpredictable. It darted and was gone.
*This sentence was amended on June 15, 2011 at 12:26 p.m. The "rare species" was identified as a Golden-cheeked Warbler, but it's highly unlikely that this bird would be found in the northeast. Golden-cheeked Warblers nest only in central Texas and winters in Central America, according to Kenn Kaufman.
Melissa Milgrom is the author of Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, reviewed in Audubon's May-June 2011 issue.