I have traveled to New York to see Broadway plays, museum shows, and even to welcome a new year in Times Square. But never had I gone to there look at birds. Until last month.
As my train from Providence, R.I., sped past the Rhode Island and Connecticut shorelines, and I saw ponds full of swans and the occasional osprey nest, I was struck by the irony of my trip. There I was, bound for New York City, home to 7 million people and what seems like that many skyscrapers, to see migrating birds. For a moment, I thought I'd lost it.
Turns out, I couldn't have been more sane.
Central Park, all 843 acres of it, is a magnet for migrants. Ornithologist Roger Pasquier named it one of America's top 14 birding sites (see list page 15). To birds heading north, Frederick Law Olmsted's design is an island of green amid a massive sea of gray. It provides an essential place for them to rest and feed.
Some experts say they might not survive the trip if it weren't for places like Central Park.
I was there on a beautiful spring morning in early May, peak of the warbler migration. Everyone was up early - cyclists, dog walkers, croquet players, and us, a group of 15 who met at the boathouse to join Wendy Paulson, leader of Central Park bird walks for the Nature Conservancy of New York.
Ms. Paulson has developed the keen ability to identify birds by their calls and songs. What she hears tells her where to look. On this particular day, her senses got a workout.
"Hear that parula?" she asked just after entering the park near Tavern on the Green restaurant. "And there's a black-throated blue ... oh, look at that oriole!" Her pace quickened. "This is going to be a great day," she said under her breath.
I was then reminded that birders often use verbal shorthand - parula and black-throated blue - are two types of warblers, and that not every day is a great day for birding. Weather conditions - especially wind, as well as noise, availability of food, vegetation, and other factors can all affect bird activity.
Young professionals, retirees, teachers, and poets showed up for the walk. A few wore starched shirts, suits, or black patent leathers en route to work. Others were more informal. Everyone brought the essentials - their favorite bird book and a pair of binoculars (see binoculars story page 15). This was a serious group. Each individual had contributed at least $100 to the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation organization.
From the boathouse, we headed toward the Ramble, a densely wooded area known to be a gold mine of bird activity on most spring days. Paulson set a collaborative tone. "Tell everyone else when you spot a bird. Together we have lots of eyes," she told the group.
To the sometimes deafening sounds of trucks, planes, and helicopters, we eased through the Ramble, scanning trees and signaling to each other when we spotted movement. Warblers are known to be elusive - they are light, hyperactive birds that dart around picking insects off leaves and blossoms with their thin, pointed beaks. Their bright coloring, usually with some yellow, makes them a stunning sight.
Paulson had been right. It was a day to please even the most seasoned birder. In all, we counted 17 different species of warblers - from yellow-breasted, black-striped magnolias to sparrowlike ovenbirds, and even an orange-headed blackburnian, which Paulson says she had never seen before in the park.
Some people had a harder time spotting birds than others. That's why it's helpful to take an organized tour like Paulson's. A former elementary school teacher, she patiently points out every bird, setting at ease both expert and novice. "Do you all see the yellow-throated warbler on the lower branch of the oak tree at 4 o'clock?" she'd ask.
Bill Nimkin, who has been birding in Central Park for 25 years as well as in Mexico and South America, was elated with the day's sightings.
And a couple of young women, dressed for the office, chose to stick it out for almost the entire three-hour walk. "This is too good. I'll go in late," said the one in heels.
While watching the warblers, we were serenaded by the flute-like song of a wood thrush. "Sublime!" said Paulson, adding that these relatives of the robin nested in the park last year.
After the Ramble, we made our way through the Gill, past Azalea Pond, Willow Rock, Cherry Hill, Turtle Pond, and up to Belvedere Castle, built in 1869 and today, home of a nature center and observatory for hawk watching.
Along the way, we were stopped in our tracks by a male scarlet tanager perched on a branch next to our path. "Feast your eyes on him," said Paulson, as we admired his flaming red color made even more striking by jet-black wings and tail.
Later, we crossed paths with an egret on the bank of a pond. As he stretched out his pencil-thin neck, oblivious to our presence just a few feet away, Paulson declared him a "New York egret." Not far from our urban friend was a black-crowned night heron.
Paulson not only identifies birds by their markings, calls, and songs, but she also studies their behavior. Across the pond, Paulson pointed out an oriole nest held together with horse hair salvaged from the park's bridle trails.
We ended our Central Park walk with a look at a pair of red-tailed hawks perched near their nest on the corner of a tall brick building, home of Woody Allen, just on the other side of the model-boat basin. Other birders were there, studying the hawks and even offering their more sophisticated binoculars to a reporter who had brought along a low-budget pair. No sign of the filmmaker.
It was a day of surprises. Not only was Central Park loaded with birds, but the birders themselves were friendly and eager to share what they saw - hardly fitting the stereotype of New Yorkers. It taught me not to make assumptions on either count.
City parks, landscaped cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., and even your own backyard or rooftop can all serve as excellent classrooms for birding. Paulson, who has seen birds in South America and other exotic locales, says she gets the most satisfaction from observing interesting birds close to home.
"When your ears are attuned to the music of birds, your world will be transformed," wrote Frank Chapman more than 100 years ago in "Bird-Life," his tome about bird behavior. "The places and people that make our world are ever changing; the present slips from us with growing rapidity, but the birds are ever with us."
*Wendy Paulson also leads walks at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Long Island, (212) 997-1880.
Best US Bird-watching
Mount Desert Island, Maine
Central Park, New York
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania
Cape May Point, New Jersey
Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, Maryland
Everglades National Park, Florida
Dauphin Island Audubon Bird Sanctuary, Alabama
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas
Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona
Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, Kansas
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
(307) 739-3399 or (307) 739-3300
Tule Lake, California
Yosemite National Park, California
Monterey Peninsula, California
Source: Roger Pasquier, the author of several books on birds, works at the Environmental Defense Fund.