Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from the Prologue
Falling in Love
Loving helps us to discern, to discriminate. The bird-lover in a wood at once distinguishes the twittering of different species, which to ordinary people sound the same.
The Bird Register
If it is possible to fall in love with a thing, I believe I fell in love with the Bird Register the day I first opened it. The emotions were familiar: the same feeling of excitement, of undeserved luck, the mildly deluded sensation that a new kind of happiness was just around the corner, the certainty that life was about to divide forever into a before and after.
The Loeb Boathouse, a nondescript building located at the east end of Central Park's rowboat lake, is where the Register resides, though not always in the same place. During the years I've known it, the Bird Book, as it is often called, has lived on the frozen-yogurt bar, on a shelf behind it, and on the cafeteria counter where the little packets of sugar, mayonnaise, mustard, and grape jelly are kept. Currently it may be found behind the podium where reservations are taken for the Boathouse Café, a private restaurant. It may have moved again by the time you read this, but keep looking. It's sure to be there, somewhere, sitting right out in the open as if it were an inconsequential thing instead of a local tribe's central treasure.
I remember casually picking up the plain, blue canvas loose-leaf notebook with its sloppily hand-lettered legend on the front cover: CENTRAL PARK BIRD REGISTER AND NATURE NOTES: ENJOY BUT PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE. I opened it for a quick glance at its contents. Then, with that greedy feeling one gets after cautiously tasting some unpromising new dish and discovering it to be delicious, I stood there devouring page after page.
I had known there were robins and sparrows and blue jays in Central Park. I had even seen a warbler or two on occasion. Now I read of owls and snipes, goshawks and scarlet tanagers, flycatchers, vireos, kinglets, and twenty, thirty species of warbler--all, it appeared, more accessible than in any wild forest or meadow.
Squirrels, rats, and dogs were the only mammals I had encountered in my past visits to the park. Here were raccoons and woodchucks and bats. And snapping turtles laying eggs. And bullfrogs croaking at dawn. And butterflies and dragonflies. And so much more, all to be found at such intriguing locations as the Humming Tombstone, Willow Rock, the Oven, Muggers Woods, the Point, the Azalea Pond. Where were these places? I wanted to find them. They weren't on any Central Park map.
The detailed observations, notations, exhortations, invitations, descriptions, maps, diagrams, even poems in the Bird Register gave me a tantalizing glimpse not only of the unexpected wildlife treasures of Central Park but of a community as well. Who were these people? I longed to know them, to learn their secrets. And there was the Bird Register right out in the open. "Don't be an eavesdropper," its voices seemed to be saying. "Come and join us, come and learn."
Into the Woods
Everyone in the birdwatching tribe knows Sarah Elliott. A trim, redheaded, trenchant woman in her sixties, Sarah once roamed the park with a different band of Regulars from those active today. She remains a vital link with the past, for it was she who started the Bird Register in the first place.
A native of Chicago, Sarah was not solidly hooked on birds until she moved to New York in the early 1960s. There she began birdwatching in earnest, learning to identify birds in the company of some of the city's top birders of the time: Richard Harrison, Dick Plunkett, Bert Hale. Central Park was where most of her bird studies took place. There, in 1972, she met Lambert Pohner and began her journey from birdwatcher to naturalist--a person who studies nature in all its forms.
Lambert Pohner's obituary in The New York Times on July 13, 1986, described him as "an elf of a man, with a white beard and a bush hat . . . who watched over the birds and butterflies of Central Park for more than 40 years." Sarah had often wandered through the park with Lambert, picking up an approach to learning that appealed to her, one that took in the whole picture--the trees, flowers, frogs, turtles, butterflies of the park, as well as the birds.
Sarah soon revealed an organizing skill all her own. As she rambled through the woodlands, she kept two lists: one, of the birds she had seen that day; the other, of the birdwatchers she ran into. Until then, Central Park's birders knew each other slightly, or not at all. Sarah became a common link. Around 1975 Sarah took the crucial step that marked the birdwatching community's true beginning: She started the Bird Register. Now Central Park's birdwatchers had a place to meet, if only on paper.
In 1980, the Central Park Conservancy, then a newly formed organization seeking to rehabilitate a down-at-the-heels park, asked Lambert to lead bird walks in the Ramble, a 37-acre wilderness in the heart of the park. He accepted the invitation, and invited Sarah to share the job.
There had been regular birdwatching walks in the park before Lambert and Sarah's. There was the legendary Farida A. Wiley, who began leading walks in 1938 under the aegis of the American Museum of Natural History and continued for almost fifty years. Lambert and Sarah's walks were different, slower, as likely to focus on a plant or grasshopper or bat or raccoon as on a bird.
After Lambert's death, Sarah kept his memory alive by continuing the Wednesday and Saturday morning walks during the spring and fall migrations, on her own now, but still in Lambert's uncompetitive, reflective style. Many of the park's most ardent birdwatchers and nature lovers first caught the Central Park bug, as it were, in one of Sarah Elliott's bird classes.
though sarah was to be my entry into the vibrant world of Central Park's birdwatchers, it was dead birds that first brought us together. That was in late May of 1991. I had come upon an article she'd written in the New York City Audubon Society newsletter in which she'd declared that the city's brightly illuminated skyscrapers were deathtraps for passing migratory birds. To save birds' lives, she proposed a letter-writing campaign: Write to the owners of well-lit skyscrapers to tell them to turn off their bright lights during the migration seasons, at least on foggy and rainy nights, she instructed.
I had begun writing an occasional column about birds for The Wall Street Journal. I called her for an interview about her crusade and she chuckled at the opportunity to reach a nice pack of fat-cat skyscraper owners.
We arranged to go on a fact-finding expedition the next foggy or rainy day. Our mission: to look for dead birds near the Empire State Building, the Met Life Building, the World Trade Center, and other illuminated towers.
On a highly propitious (i.e., dismal) morning a few days later our inspection tour turned up no dead birds at all, merely one dazed warbler that zipped off the moment we tried to pick it up. Perhaps Sarah thought she owed me more birds, for as we parted that morning she offered to take me on a bird walk in Central Park some day. I called her that very afternoon to set a definite date. Open Sesame.
We met at the Boathouse. There's an expensive restaurant at one end where tourists and swanky New Yorkers congregate. The Regulars, a little band of the park's most devoted birdwatchers and nature lovers, prefer the plain cafeteria next door. That's where they warm up on cold days, take shelter from rain, and find out where the action is. The vegetable soup isn't bad, the blueberry muffins are homemade, and the Bird Register is kept there--the major attraction.
From the moment we set off, I began scribbling notes and drawing maps filled with kindergarten-style representations of rocks, fences, and lampposts where a path to somewhere or other is to be found. It was my first walk in the Ramble and I wanted to remember what I was learning--the names of trees, flowers, birds, streams, bridges, people, everything!
Most of all I wanted to be sure I wouldn't get lost when I came the next time. This was Central Park, after all, and everyone knows it's not the safest place in the world. I'd been to the park many times before, to be sure, for I grew up nearby, but I had never been in the Ramble. That dense woodland had always been out-of-bounds--a scary place. The feeling still lingered on that day in mid-June.
As Sarah Elliott led me up the steep footpath that begins behind the Boathouse at lamppost 7401 and leads into the Ramble, I learned the first of many park secrets: the last two digits on each lamppost tell its location relative to the nearest city street. (North of 99th Street the numbers begin with 00, indicating 100th Street.) In this case it revealed that we were somewhere near 74th Street. For the park's birdwatchers the numbers serve to pinpoint important spots where birds have been sighted so others can easily find them.
We were hardly halfway to the top when the show began. Suddenly a pair of tufted titmice appeared on a branch just ahead and seemed to be keeping up with us as we walked. They were pronouncing their raucous version of the black-capped chickadee call as they flew from branch to branch. Dee-dee-dee!
As Sarah stopped and fumbled with something in her bag, the titmice hopped to a branch so near I could no longer focus my binoculars on them. The birds continued yelling, making little forays out towards us and then back onto the branch.
Sarah unscrewed a small black plastic film canister, removed a peanut fragment, and held it out on her hand. One of the titmice promptly landed and snatched the peanut away. She provided another peanut tidbit for me to do the same. I'm embarrassed to find in my notes that a bird's feet on the palm of the hand feel "like fairy wings." In years to come I was to see this little drama many times, for most of the Regulars hand-feed the resident birds on occasion. Chickadees, blue jays, and cardinals are others that yammer to be fed when the Regulars walk by, though they only come close; titmice and chickadees alone actually come to the outstretched hand, with a downy woodpecker taking the plunge once in a blue moon.
The Ramble proper starts at the top of the hill and an unmistakable landmark--the Balancing Boulder--marks its beginning. One of the park's many naturalistic artifices, it is a huge upended rock that from a certain angle appears to be balancing so precariously on top of another, horizontal boulder that a good, firm push should send it toppling. Children seem compelled to give it a try.
Just past the boulder, at a crossroads of sorts where three paths diverge, we bore left. "You'll see a few warblers in a moment," Sarah promised. And so we did, soon after we arrived at the Point, a wooded promontory jutting out into the rowboat lake. This little spit of land is a famous birdwatching spot during the spring and fall migrations.
Standing at an elevation high above a heavily wooded depression just to its west, known as the Oven, observers at the Point can look down into the crowns of the Oven's oaks and willows and get an exceptionally good look at such elusive warblers as the Cape May and the cerulean, treetop feeders. Thus birdwatchers can avoid the occupational hazard known as warbler neck, a painful condition brought on by long-term upward gazing.
Birdwatchers have long joked about warbler neck, but the ailment may be more serious than people believe. Neurologists have discovered that when people assume extreme neck positions for extended periods of time, blood flow through the vertebral arteries is reduced, leading to an increased vulnerability to strokes. Researchers singled out the tilted-back head position of women having a shampoo at a beauty salon. But it happens to be the very posture of birdwatchers craning to see a warbler at the top of a tree.
At the Point, according to my notes: "2 magnolia warblers, female redstart, blackpoll warbler; warblers eat berries in fall, otherwise bugs; big uproar about Point and Ramble in '81 when Conservancy chopped down trees to restore historic views--birdwatchers still mad."
Birders sometimes see more than twenty species of warblers at the Point, Sarah told me. But by the beginning of June the spring migration is winding down. The birds we saw that day were the stragglers--mostly first-year birds (last summer's fledglings) and females. The bright-colored males in breeding plumage had raced ahead to their breeding grounds farther north to get the choicest nesting spots, Sarah said. The females would join them a week or so later, after the males had worked out their territorial disputes.
From the Point, we walked a short distance to Willow Rock, a flat outcrop high above a peaceful lobe of the Lake. It was named for the two thick black willows growing nearby, Sarah explained. (One of them fell in a storm in 1994.) There was a small tree, almost a sapling, growing out of a crevice in the rock, near the edge. "Look at this," said Sarah. "It's a real peach tree. Maybe somebody planted a pit here." I could see dozens of unmistakable mini-peaches growing all over the little tree. They were still green--though already covered with that characteristic fuzzy down botanists call pubescence.
Willow Rock offered easy views of the same treetop activity we had seen from the Point but from a different angle, as Willow Rock is directly across from it. What a splendid opportunity this affords birdwatchers: with the sun behind them they can spend their morning hours gazing at warblers from the Point, and then do the same at Willow Rock in the afternoons.
Like many impassioned novices, I wanted to know everything all at once--the names of every plant, every bird, every part of a bird. Sarah, it was clear, did not suffer such acquisitive fools gladly. "What's that tree with the bunches of red berries?" I asked--it was probably my hundredth question. "Oh, that's the bunches-of-red-berries tree," she answered with a smile. A few moments later, as we saw a black-crowned night heron land on a willow overhanging the Lake, I wondered out loud about one of the bird's most conspicuous features: "Is that called a bill or a beak?" I asked Sarah. "Yes," she answered firmly, and that was that.
Her message sank in. Don't worry about nomenclature when a bird is sitting in front of your nose. Look at it. Notice everything you can about it--its yellow-green legs, its blackish back and cap. Look at that orange eye. Later I checked out the bill vs. beak question in The Birdwatcher's Companion, a reliable reference book by Christopher Leahy. His entry for beak says: "Essentially synonymous with bill. In more restrictive usage, refers particularly to larger bills, especially the hooked beaks (or bills) of birds of prey. In general 'bill' is the preferred term in ornithological/birdwatching contexts." Yes.
Next we walked up a small incline, passing another large boulder--Warbler Rock, Sarah called it. I was growing more and more uncertain of our orientation as we veered away from the Lake and open sky and entered the deeper woods. Soon the leafy canopy was closed all around us. Even the air felt different--more carbon dioxide, I imagined.
Once in the woods, I gave up mapmaking entirely. I had completely lost my sense of direction and was too embarrassed to keep asking Sarah which way was which. In other parts of Central Park one can orient oneself by the surrounding tall buildings--the Fifth Avenue skyline is east, the twin towers of the El Dorado and the San Remo are west. But in the heart of the Ramble the city has vanished; all reminders of civilization are obscured by trees.
An illusion begins to take over: You are in an enchanted woodland. Even the park furniture seems to belong. "Sit on us," the dark green benches command. "Look at the birds, look at that flower. Stay awhile. Don't hurry or you'll miss something." The black wrought-iron lampposts no longer foreshadow the feared nightmares of Central Park in the dark. At nightfall their soft light will show owls and bats and gaudy moths attracted as if by moonlight.
We had entered a virtual maze of little paths, all unmarked, winding, twisting, taking us past ravines, waterfalls, rustic benches, scenic vistas. By then my notes had become as confusing as the Ramble itself, a jumble of bird names, people names, plant names, and samples of Sarah's botany and ornithology sound bites: "parula, magnolia, Wilson's--warblers, Ruth, George, Ira, Dave--Regulars, double-file viburnum has 2 rows of white flowers in May, Swainson's thrush has buffy eye-ring, gray-cheeked thrush doesn't, spice bush--smells good, sassafras has 3 kinds of leaves, grackles walk, crows hop."
We reached the area birdwatchers call the Swampy Pin Oak (sticklers prefer to call it the Pin Oak swamp, for there is no such tree as a swampy pin oak). Within a little grove of trees growing in a moist sumpy spot, there is one significantly larger tree right in the center, the "swampy" pin oak. That day it was hopping with a variety of small birds while the wet ground below revealed others busily poking around in the mud. Watching the action from two ringside benches were a variety of birdwatchers as well: Alice and Ira, Max and Nellie, David Monk, Sheila and Lou, Mary Birchard, Chris and Marianne, Judy--some of them, I soon learned, were Regulars, others Seasonal Migrants, birdwatchers who show up regularly only during the migration seasons.
There I learned yet another secret from Sarah. The eggs of minute aphids hatch on the leaves of pin oaks in May and June, attracting a great variety of migrating songbirds. So head for the pin oaks if you want to score heavily during spring migration.
On our way to the Azalea Pond--our last destination, said Sarah--we came to a couple of thick holly trees just to the right of the path. M. M. Graff, author of Tree Trails in Central Park, disapproved of these particular trees, accusing them of being "a gloomy black-green at best and made even more funereal by a coating of city soot." They looked shiny and handsome to me. I was even more taken with them when Sarah told me these were a favorite roosting place for owls. I kept returning to the spot over the next few weeks, hoping to find a roosting owl, until a kindly birdwatcher informed me that owls show up in Central Park only in the late fall and winter.
After turning right at the second holly tree, we found ourselves out of the deepest woods. Now the skyline of Central Park West was visible once again. Walking northward along the same path, we soon came to a grassy knoll where a small group of birdwatchers were standing in a classic pose: looking upward, watching something invisible to the naked eye. Their binoculars all pointed to the same spot in the same tangle of wisteria vines. Sarah did not ask, "What are you looking at?" as I might have done, but maintained birders' etiquette, merely raising her own binoculars in the same direction. It took her hardly a minute to locate the bird--a "good bird," she told me with some excitement. "A hooded warbler." A good bird? All the other birds we had seen on our walk had been just as good, as far as I was concerned.
At the edge of that little clearing was a large, rectangular granite block. "Do you hear anything coming from that block?" Sarah asked me. At first I heard nothing but the sounds of birds all around and dogs barking in the distance. Then I did hear it--a faint buzzing sound. "We call that the Humming Tombstone," Sarah said, and I immediately realized that the block did resemble a large cemetery monument. "Some birders use the sound as a hearing test. Every year they see how near they have to get before they hear the buzz."
I stepped away until I couldn't hear it, and noted the place. I still check every year to see if I hear the buzz at the same spot. So far so good.
It took me years to discover what makes the Humming Tombstone hum: a mechanism within that controls all the lights in the vicinity, turning them off in the morning and on at night. One year in the early spring I found myself at the Tombstone at sunrise. I thought I had gone deaf, for it was silent. A few moments later, at 6:00 a.m. sharp, it started to buzz.
After another few twists and turns of the path where we encountered, according to my notes, "common yellowthroat, ovenbird, three raccoon babies up a tree, Mo & Sylvia," we crossed a small rustic bridge known as (surprise) the Rustic Bridge and I began to hear a crescendo of bird sounds. We were approaching the Azalea Pond feeding station.
The Azalea Pond is a small body of water fed by the Gill, one of the Ramble's most picturesque features. This replica of a meandering stream is turned on and off by a hidden faucet. Though winter was long over, and official bird-feeding would not resume until cold weather set in, the place was still well stocked: birdseed was scattered all around, bits of bread, and some brownish lumps that looked like dry dog food. (They were.) Chunks of suet had been attached to nearby tree trunks. And birds were everywhere.
Sparrows, pigeons, cowbirds, and mourning doves were eating seeds on the bare ground in front of six scraggly bushes. These were the azaleas for which the place was named, a rather garish carmine variety called "hinode-giri," which M. M. Graff called "an offense to the eye in almost any garden setting and a shrieking dissonance in this quiet spot."
As I took in the scene, entranced, other birds flew in and out, mainly titmice and cardinals, grabbing bits of peanuts from a sardine tin attached to the trunk of an oak. Several woodpeckers were working the suet, squirrels were racing up and down the tree trunks, trying to get at the peanuts, while a man with a shock of white hair threw sticks at them and shouted, "Go away!" After the bucolic serenity of Willow Rock and the Swampy Pin Oak, the place seemed a madhouse of activity.
Birdwatchers were everywhere too. The Azalea Pond is one of their major gathering spots, and some we had met earlier were now sitting on the benches facing the feeders. "George, Joe Richner (keeps list of birdwatchers, not birds)--white-breasted nuthatch, red-bellied woodpecker goes Chork!" read my notes.
Sarah was on her way home, but I decided to stay just a few more minutes. "I'll find my way out," I assured her, knowing it wouldn't be easy. Bill, the white-haired man who had been throwing sticks at the squirrels, was now throwing peanuts to a pair of cardinals. "Get this!" he was saying with each throw. The male was bolder and got more than the female. Joe Richner put my name on his People list. "I have four Marys and you're the second Marie," he informed me. A red-bellied woodpecker arrived and grabbed one of the cardinal's peanuts. George and Ira were talking about vitamins. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by and I was still at the Azalea Pond. Hours pass like minutes there.
A spell must have come over me in that dark, mysterious wood, for I came back the next day and the next, and never stopped coming. I still get lost in the Ramble at times, and most of the Regulars admit that they do too.