Birding Central Park NYC

11 09 2009
Pine Warbler - Luke Tiller

Pine Warbler - Luke Tiller

It always amazes me how few birders outside of New York seem to know what a great birding spot Central Park is in NYC. Think about it you are a lonely Cape May Warbler heading to your breeding grounds in Boreal Canada, the sun is rising and you know you have to get down on the ground for the day to rest and feed up. Problem is you are over an ocean of concrete, glass and metal..but hello, there is a large green oasis coming up right ahead – New York’s Central Park.

For this reason spring (and fall) migration in the park can be absolutely superlative. Name me another spot on the east coast where you can get to see 26 species of warbler in just a few blocks as I did one may day in 2005! Who needs Point Pelee or Magee Marsh! The other thing that always amazes me is that the birds in Central Park almost always seem to be exceptionally confiding. It seems like they hit this busy city and figure there’s no way of getting away from all the people so they might as well just relax and get on with it! Ever seen a Connecticut Warbler walking on a lawn? It happens all the time in Central Park.

Birders in Central Park belie the general impression of New Yorkers as unfriendly, too busy to care types. My birding rebirth was very much encouraged by an exceptionally friendly group of birders who allowed me to tag along for the day or even volunteered to show me the ropes of birding the park and some ID pointers when I was just staring out again. A couple of them have a website or two so let me share those here and let you in on some of the delights of Central Park Warblering (David Speiser and Lloyd Spitalnik). In fact if anything Central Parks birders can err on the too friendly sometimes and you spend more of your time chatting than getting any birding done 😉

Now you’ve seen the pictures I am sure you are intrigued – no? Perhaps the most off putting thing for most birders is that they have an image of Central Park as it probably was in the late 70’s, a dark place in the heart of a dying city full of drug dealers, hustlers and junkies. None of that is true these days, it’s a perfectly pleasant place where millions of tourists, families and New Yorkers hang out and spend pleasant days getting back to nature. Now I am not claiming it is all sweetness and light but in 6 years of birding there I have never had what I would consider trouble or unpleasantness (a little qualifier later).

So now you have to work out how you are going to get to all the best spots in the park. That’s the hardest thing to work out. There are two general approaches to the park. One is to hit the North End Woods (where I must be honest I have birded many times and felt perfectly safe but perhaps as a lone female birder you may feel a little more intimidated). The woods are great for birds but they are much quieter and you do feel somewhat isolated from the rest of the park/city and potential help. The other plan is to hit the Ramble. This is essentially the central/south end of the park and is much busier with dog walkers, people strolling and on good days a large number of birders!

Probably the best site for getting information about spots to bird is Phil Jeffrey’s websites section on Central Park (here) .  Here you can even see a map of the notoriously maze like Ramble. As I said in my previous post I always end up at some point during a day in the park where I am in the ramble and am aimlessly wandering around trying to work out where exactly it is that I am. No big deal though, although mazelike, the Ramble isn’t that big and you always find yourself back at a spot you recognize (or a friendly birder you can get directions from). The second qualifier for the Ramble is that the area by ‘The Point’ particularly is a well know pick up spot for gay men and some people find it a little seedy. It takes more than that to put me off one of the parks best birding spots though, and I find a theatrical scan for birds with my bins lets the locals know that I am looking for nothing more than the throngs of birds that are often loitering there.

Ask 10 birders their favorite parts of the park or ramble and you’ll get at least 10 different answers. For me I like to start bright and early at the Maintenance Field which is an open area which is great for catching the early morning sun and the associated early morning birds. The Maintenance Field also has a set of bathrooms which might come in handy if you’ve over indulged in coffee for that early start! Then I like to have a wander through the ramble and then up towards Belvedere Castle and the path that runs behind Turtle Pond to the the Polish Statue. As the day heats up, a good spot to check (or if you are after photos) is Tanners Spring where bathing and or thirsty birds often come during the hotter parts of the day when other spots become less active. Here I have seen a wealth of uncommon birds that have been just a handful of yards from the appreciative crowds of excited birders and photographers.

There are a few books on Central Park birding and nature if you feel like reading further including Marie Winn’s Redtails in Love (about Pale Male, CP’s celebrity Red-tailed Hawk) and Central Park in the Dark. You can also read her blog (here). If birding photography is your thing then check out Cal Vornberger’s book  Birds of Central Park (website here). If it’s film you want then Pale Male documentary might be for you (youtube clip here).

So there you go as promised a little introduction to the world of Central Park birding. Hopefully see you down there at some time! Next time perhaps my favorite NYC bars, restaurants, galleries and whatnot to hit after a days birding!



5 responses

11 09 2009
Lloyd Spitalnik

Hi Luke,
Thanks for the mention.
Although I eat in the Boathouse Cafe very often, I’ve never gotten sick from the food except for the burgers 🙂 For lunch the meat chile is excellent as are the hot dogs. All the sandwiches are more than passable, but those burgers, stay away.
See you soon,

11 09 2009

Hi Lloyd,

Thanks for taking me under your wing so to speak a couple of times in those early years – and not laughing at my old bins! RE: The Boathouse – I eat there regularly too and that’s the only time I have had an odd reaction! Never again with the burgers – it’s a very handy place to stop for a bite as a birder though – I’ll be back there no doubt – it’s just too convenient!

Take care,

12 09 2009

I can honestly say that the oatmeal there is really good, especially nice on frigid mornings. I got sick from my burger experience too…

11 03 2010

Great Post! I try to go to Central Park everyday. I saw a Wood Duck today at the Pond.

12 03 2010

Thanks for the kind words. CP sure is one of the birding wonders of the east coast. Looking forward to spring in the park already.


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