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Urban Birdwatching All the Rage in Central Park

By Amy Zimmer | August 10, 2012 11:14am
A black-throated green warbler in Central Park.
A black-throated green warbler in Central Park.
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Steve Nanz

MANHATTAN — Hey, New Yorkers: Put a bird on it.

Urban birdwatchers take center stage at this month’s Mostly Mozart Festival, an HBO documentary about birders in Central Park, and art exhibits at area museums and a collection of essays, among avian-themed festivities.

“It’s been a passion and hobby for so many years, but it’s definitely gaining steam recently,” Tod Winston, New York City Audubon’s Outreach Program Manager, said about the attention being lavished on the city’s birds and migrants. “This outstandingly beautiful world is right here and most people aren’t aware of it.”

Mostly Mozart is focusing on the influence of birds — “nature’s best musician,” as the organizers call the winged creatures — on the classical repertoire, past and present, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s pet starling to Olivier Messiaen’s blackbird muse.

“Mozart famously had a pet starling, who may have influenced his compositions,” Winston said. “Depending on who you talk to, it’s folklore or reality. But it’s certainly not folklore that birds have influenced classical music.”

The festival’s seven programs in six venues explore birdsong and the birds themselves.

The festival includes a screening of the film “Winged Migration” Saturday (1 p.m.) at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater where New York City Audubon’s Director of Conservation Susan Elbin will give an introduction about migration and flight calls.

At the Park Avenue Armory, on the Upper East Side, the festival is presenting "The Murder of Crows," a work by Canadian-based artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller in the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall where 98 speakers mounted around the massive space on stands, chairs and the wall are meant to evoke a minimalist "flocking of speakers," and include bird sounds, among others.

As part of that installation on Sunday (3:30 p.m.) there will be a panel discussion, with Elbin as one of the speakers, addressing the significance of bird song to both musicians and the birds themselves.

HBO's documentary "Birders: the Central Park Effect,” which celebrated the winged creatures and the characters who love watching them, from septuagenarian Starr Saphir, who has been giving tours for two decades, to acclaimed writer Jonathan Franzen, who talks about his addiction to birding.

New York City Audubon will also lead four sold-out bird walks through Central Park on pre-concert Tuesdays and Fridays (Aug. 14, 17, 21 and 24; 5:30 p.m.) that will lead visitors through the park from the lake to Strawberry field and onto Lincoln Center.

Guides will discuss the early migrants coming through the park before the September/October peak season and will also talk about the European birds that have made their home here, including the starling.

“Central Park is really a crucial place for birds,” Winston said. “You have millions of birds flying there during migration. They’re confused by the concrete wasteland [of the city], so Central Park is their hangout. It’s the place to be.”

With Central Park’s birds in the spotlight, the birding community may soon swell.

In “Central Park: An Anthology,” a collection of essays published this summer, British author Donald Knowler, wrote about the 50 or so who make up the “hard-core Central Park birding fraternity” and come out with their binoculars, rain or shine.

“There is no ‘average’ or stereotypical birder, although people who regard bird-watching as an eccentricity like to believe there is,” he wrote, describing some of this “frat,” including a man who worked in a railroad switch yard, a used car salesman and a viola player with the New York Philharmonic with “an ear for bird songs.”

Birds will also be the subject of a major auction of works by Roger Tory Peterson — considered the finest 20th century painter of birds — by Guernsey’s at the prestigious Arader Gallery, located at 1016 Madison Ave. on Sept. 8.

Following in the footsteps of John Audubon — whose rare prints will also be part of the auction, Peterson was responsible for developing a system of bird identification in the 1930s in the wild.

His bird paintings have filled the pages of the more than 10 million copies of his famous Field Guides that are in bookshelves in homes around the world.