A Birder’s Guide to Central Park

Ken Kaufman (Photo credit: Michael Chen)

Kenn Kaufman (Photo credit: Michael Chen)

It’s been a chilly spring so far, but that hasn’t delayed the parade of songbirds that migrate north through Central Park around this time every year.

Last week, the naturalist Kenn Kaufman led a birdwatching expedition through the tangle of trees and shrubs known as the Ramble, situated in the middle of Central Park. That giant rectangle of green that imprints Manhattan is a welcome retreat for avian passersby, who stop here to rest and feed as they make their way north. And birders flock to the park–in which more than 280 bird species have been recorded–to seek them out.

Mr. Kaufman served as a consultant for A Birder’s Guide to Everything, a charming film featuring Ben Kinglsey about a group of friends who go on a road trip to find a supposedly extinct duck. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, and so we were accompanied by the film’s director, Rob Meyer, and a few actors from the movie. (Alas, Mr. Kinglsey was a no show.)

“It’s all about the birds this morning,” Mr. Meyer told a group of about 20 people convened in front of the Loeb Boathouse on a brisk, sunny morning. “It’s nice not to be in charge.”

And with that, Mr. Kaufman took the lead, guiding us up and into the woods. Our first sighting of the day was a common blue jay–a year-round resident–squawking loudly high up in an oak tree.

“It’s straight up overhead,” Mr. Kaufman deadpanned, craning his neck, “so don’t open your mouth while looking at it.”

The blue jay, Mr. Kaufman added, was the favorite bird of the ornithologist John James Audubon, whose bird paintings are on display at the New-York Historical Society through mid-May.

Pointing out a bird. (Photo credit: Michael Chen)

Pointing out a bird. (Photo credit: Michael Chen)

We saw a number of year-round residents in the park: a white-breasted nuthatch shimmying up a tree trunk, a couple of downy woodpeckers, a cowbird, a house finch and a slew of starlings, which were, interestingly enough, released in Central Park in the late 1800s by a man named Eugene Schieffelin, who had it in his head to introduce to America all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. (The starling was named only once in Henry IV.)

Our walk through the Ramble took place shortly before the peak of the migration, which crests this week and the next–go, if you can; it’s worth your time–but we still managed to find a few newly arrived warblers–the real harbingers of spring that will soon be out in full force.

And because the birds are often accustomed to people, Mr. Kaufman told us, you can sometimes get a closer look.

Near the bank of the Lake, we watched a robin as she built her nest, monitoring us from the corner of her eye. “It’s a common bird,” Mr. Kaufman mused, “but it’s so richly colored.” A drab but lovely pine warbler was also spotted nearby darting from branch to branch. An itinerant from the southern United States, she would soon, in the next few days, be commuting further north.

As the group strained to make out the contours of a black-crowned night heron resting calmly in the distance, a black-and-white warbler flew into our line of sight. We almost mistook it for a nuthatch as it flitted down the side of an aged tree, but Mr. Kaufman settled the matter.

And at one point, a group of white-throated sparrows swooped in before us. They began to make pretty whistling sounds that resembled, if you cocked your ear, something like, “Oh, sweet Kimberly, Kimberly, Kimberly.”

Mr. Kaufman, whose wife, he told us, is named Kimberly, paused for a moment and took in the melody.

“That’s got to be the most beautiful bird song in the world,” he said, adding: “That’s not an opinion, that’s a scientific fact.”

Birders in Central Park. (Photo credit: Michael Chen)

Birdwatching in the ramble. (Photo credit: Michael Chen)