Red-Tails in Love

Marie Winn's new book, 'Red-Tails in Love,' shows that even in New York City, nature -- and nature-lovers -- thrive.

By Marie Winn

Published March 26, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

As Central Park was being planned in the middle of the nineteenth century, neither Frederick Law Olmsted, its principal designer, nor Calvert Vaux, his architect partner, intended any part of it to be a real wilderness. Wilderness was not a romanticized ideal in that era. Too recently had citizens of the young Republic struggled to survive in the untrammeled wilds of the New World to regard it as anything other than an obstacle to life and happiness. Besides, with plenty of unspoiled woodlands, meadows, and marshes an easy carriage drive away, why bring the mess right into one's front yard? Central Park was created as an improvement on the wild, a carefully fashioned landscape where city dwellers could come and enjoy the illusion of wilderness without any of its inconveniences or dangers.

A description of the Ramble written in 1878 gives an idea of the kind of stage-set wilderness the park provided in its infancy:

In sauntering through the Ramble one comes upon bits of open, sunny lawn where perchance a gorgeous peacock is grandly trailing his long tail feathers over the short, soft grass. ... Strange notes are heard from the thicket; there are guinea fowl, white turkeys, pigeons and other varieties of feathered chatterers which make their home there ... lively chipmunks spring about from tree to tree. ... Little streamlets flow under bridges covered with hanging vines and tumble in tiny cascades downward toward the Lake. In the season the thickets are brilliant with rhododendron.

Today the rhododendrons are few and far between. Instead, Japanese knotweed, one of Vaux and Olmsted's most ill-considered plantings, has taken over their carefully planted landscape. Yet this hardy, invasive non-native plant may be the only one to withstand the trampling of millions of visitors each year. The Arcadian bowers have been taken over by the homeless. The tame peacocks and guinea hens, too, are long gone, their care and feeding no longer a part of the park's budget.

All the while, other creatures have been infiltrating those man-made woods and manicured lawns -- raccoons, woodchucks, rabbits, frogs, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies, crickets, and birds -- great numbers of birds. Gradually, through Nature's mysterious alchemy, the former fake has begun to turn into the real thing.

Who knows how the raccoons and woodchucks made their way to Central Park. Maybe some of them were abandoned pets. Others may have traveled down from the suburbs, crossing city streets in the dead of night, wandering hither and yon until they found themselves in ... Shangri-La! And the birds? As the real country shrank and disappeared, as wilderness became a rare commodity, Central Park grew ever more alluring -- a green oasis in the concrete desert.

The park's first official bird census, undertaken in 1886, listed 121 species. By 1996 the total had more than doubled -- 275 bird species on the list of Birds of Central Park published that year. Though the century has seen a northward expansion of certain bird species -- tufted titmice, cardinals, mockingbirds, red-bellied woodpeckers were once birds that never appeared as far north as New York City -- this cannot account for so great an increase. Habitat change in the park together with habitat loss in the environs has played a significant role.

The Ramble's transformation did not occur by plan. Neglect created the unmown meadows that soon became sparrow heavens, the unpruned trees and dead snags offering prime real estate for woodpeckers and raccoons -- neglect dictated by New York City's ever-increasing budget constraints.

As the metamorphosis of fake to real progressed, word began to spread among bird lovers: Central Park was a great birdwatching area. Great? Yes. In a recent list for birders compiled by the bird expert Roger F. Pasquier, New York's 843-acre enclave of green was designated one of America's fourteen great birdwatching locales, together with Yosemite, the Everglades, Cape May, and other famed birders' meccas.

To be sure, not everyone was enchanted by the transformation. What is wildness to some seems a mess to others. That great defender of Vaux and Olmsted's vision, none other than the strongminded M.M. Graff, has agitated for years to restore the Ramble to its original design concept. In Tree Trails, she calls the Ramble "an eyesore, an overgrown weedy jungle with a few rotting trees to recall its intended character. Civilized people stay away; inevitably, the criminal element moves in." Clearly Ms. Graff does not include birdwatchers among the ranks of the civilized, though the binocular band easily outnumbers the criminals in Central Park -- at least on a fine day in May.

In the past Graff's strictly horticultural attitude was shared by the Central Park Conservancy. In 1981 the Conservancy initiated a costly project in the Ramble intended to reclaim views of Bethesda Fountain and Belvedere Castle established in Vaux and Olmsted's original design. Unfortunately this required the felling of dozens of healthy, mature, bird-friendly trees that had grown bigger, as trees do, in the course of a century. Among them were a seventy-year-old chestnut oak, a cherry tree that flowered in two different colors, a persimmon, a magnolia that had once housed a family of cardinals, some hawthorns, locusts, and many black cherries. The park's bird lovers were appalled -- they knew those trees personally! They protested effectively, capturing the attention of the news media and creating a public-relations nightmare for the Conservancy. The project was abandoned. Today, in a new ecology-minded era, the Conservancy's interest in the woodlands as a wildlife habitat is second only to the birdwatchers' own.

WHAT, IN FACT, accounts for Central Park's exalted position in Roger Pasquier's birdwatching pantheon? During the spring and fall migrations, when millions of songbirds take to the air, they need stopover places on the way for rest and refueling. Since most migrants travel at night, those that find themselves flying over Manhattan just before dawn don't have much choice: They funnel into Central Park in huge numbers. (Other city parks get their fill of migrants as well.)

This concentration of a great variety of birds in a small geographic area, a migrant trap, as it is called, leads to exceptional birdwatching. At the height of a recent spring migration, some of the park's best birdwatchers came up with a total of 124 species of birds in Central Park, the highest number of sightings in a single day up to then. The number may be higher by now.

During the spring or fall migrations, the wooded areas of the park are filled with birders as well as birds. Walking through the Ramble on a nice day in May or September, you might run into several members of the ornithology department at the American Museum of Natural History, for instance. They like to spend their lunch hours warbler-watching, a birdman's holiday, you could call it.

This concentration of expert birders in a single bird-rich location leads to a phenomenon called the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, named after a rest stop in Patagonia, Arizona, where a rare bird was once discovered. Much to the amazement of the birders who rushed to the spot, three other equally rare birds showed up at the same roadside rest area on the same day. Was this a bizarre coincidence? A better explanation has become part of birdwatching mythology. Since so many experts had congregated at a single spot to look at the first rarity, their sharp eyes and ears spotted other unusual birds lurking in the vicinity.

In Central Park, similarly, the presence of so many accomplished birdwatchers helps to uncover elusive creatures that might otherwise go undiscovered. A hard-to-locate bird like the Connecticut warbler, considered a rare species in other locales, is regularly found in Central Park.

And of course you will inevitably run into some of the Regulars. A friendly lot, they're likely to take you in hand and steer you to where the action is. "There's a nighthawk sleeping on a horizontal branch just a little ways from here," they'll tell you if you give them half a chance, and even lead you to the bird. Many other places have abundant bird populations. But few make their birds so accessible.

Yet the greatness of Central Park has another, deeper source: the very idea that wildlife can exist and even thrive in the middle of a city like New York. It seems remarkable that a pair of wood thrushes, a diminishing species in America, birds of deep woods and sylvan glades, would choose to build a nest and raise a family in Central Park's Ramble, as they did a few years ago. On early May and June mornings and then just around dusk, the Ramble wood thrush gave regular concerts. And numbers of city people passing through stopped and listened to its penetrating, flutelike, heart-stoppingly beautiful song: Ee-oh-lee, ee-oh-loo-ee-lee, ee-lay-loo.

On June 22, 1853, before Central Park even existed on paper, Henry David Thoreau heard a wood thrush singing as he took his evening walk on Fair Haven Hill near Walden. He described the experience in his Journal:

All that is ripest and fairest in the wilderness is preserved and transmitted to us in the strain of the wood thrush. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. Though the wood thrush in the Ramble sings its song in the heart of the city, its mysterious power to evoke deep woods and the wildness of nature is undiminished. As Thoreau explained it (Journal, August 30, 1856): "It is vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brain and bowel, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream."

Just as the physical realities of Central Park -- its plants, trees, lakes, streams, and the wildlife within -- stand in sharp contrast to the man-made world around it, so the park's little band of Regulars stand in relief to the culture of urban life.

The passage of time is different for the Regulars. The changing length of days, the arrivals and departures of birds, the flowering of plants, and the changing colors of leaves organize their time far more than the calendars and clocks and schedules of contemporary life.

The seasons do not begin for them on dates given in almanacs. Spring begins with the arrival of the woodcock in February, or at the moment the first phoebe begins hawking for insects at the Upper Lobe, or when the juncos start trilling and the fox sparrows whistling, well before the equinox. Winter begins when the witch hazel blooms, when rafts of ruddy ducks appear on the Reservoir, when flocks of white-throated sparrows arrive and the saw-whet and long-eared owls appear in the Shakespeare Garden hemlocks and the blue spruce at Cedar Hill. Butterflies and dragonflies, crickets, and katydids define summer.

The Regulars notice what others have long learned to ignore: the sights and sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of the world around them. Forget the self and its hungry needs. Pay attention to tiny details. One wing bar or two? Six petals or eight? Listen to that squirrel whining. It probably means there's a hawk or an owl nearby. Notice the wind. In May if it's from the southwest, a wave of songbirds may be arriving. Pay attention to tree cavities. There may be a bunch of raccoon babies poking their heads out, or a family of young downy woodpeckers clamoring to be fed.

In their human relations, too, the Regulars' ways differ from the ways of the modern world. Neither job nor income nor family background confer a place in their hierarchy -- nobody asks about these things. They don't matter. Among the Regulars, each person's skills and abilities count to secure the others' respect and approval. Among these are skills in observing, identifying, asking the right kinds of questions, skills, even, in encouraging others who might possess any of these skills to practice them. Is faithfulness a skill, an ability, a tendency, a trait? Whatever it is, it is admired, perhaps above all. The regularness of the Regulars is the feature that binds them together most powerfully. It allows them to count on each other to be there, observing, noting, keeping track. The Bird Register is their communications center.

ANYONE CAN WRITE in the Bird Register, and over the course of time many do. New birders, old-timers, out-of-town birdwatchers, ornithologists from the Natural History museum, tourists who want to express their delight with the park -- all write occasional entries in the Bird Book.

During the spring and fall migration seasons, precisely when a greater diversity of birds shows up in the park, a diversity of contributors weighs in with entries. Names of legendary park birders appear then: Marty Sohmer, Michel Kleinbaum, Peter Post -- the Big Guns, as I think of them, who write only when they spot something out of the ordinary.

The Big Guns are actively searching for esoteric birds. While many bird enthusiasts will glance at a bunch of sparrows and dismiss them as ordinary house sparrows, one of the Big Guns will spend fifteen minutes inspecting this army of drab creatures, going over them one by one, and find in their midst a single, elusive Lincoln's sparrow. This bird resembles the song sparrow, a common park bird, but the side of its face and its eye stripe are a bit grayer, its breast stripes a bit finer, its bill a tiny bit thinner. Once Kleinbaum, a bird illustrator, pointed one out to me near Willow Rock. I always see better birds when a Big Gun is in the vicinity.

The Register would be a slim volume indeed if the Big Guns were its only correspondents. In fact it is a hefty volume by the end of the year. Most entries, as I saw that first day I looked in the Register, were written by a small number of men and women whose names appeared again and again -- the Regulars.

The entries in the Register resemble nature sightings in logs almost anywhere: Cape May, Point Reyes National Seashore, Muir Woods. Some of Tom's entries would not be out of place if they appeared in Henry David Thoreau's great Journal:

March 11, 1854: Air full of birds, -- bluebirds, song sparrows, chickadee [phoebe note] and blackbirds. Song sparrows toward the water, with at least two kinds of variations of their strain hard to imitate. Ozit, ozit, ozit, psa, te te te te te ter twe ter is one. The other began chip chip che we etc. ...

H. Thoreau

April 27, 1995 -- Weather: mild, s/sw wind, bringing light haze/sunny sky ... Indigo Bunting, singing 6:20 a.m. Belvedere Castle (w. side), Red-eyed Vireo, singing, "Warbler Rock" (i.e. the trees on top of rocky outcrop, N.E. of Bow Bridge), Least Flycatcher singing: rapid Che-bek, che-bek call, Tupelo meadow area (early a.m.) ...

T. Fiore

Yet there is the difference of a world between these observations. Thoreau described what he saw and heard in a natural surrounding unchanged for millennia. The world of Central Park is entirely man-made and its wilderness is enclosed by a city. Not even a city of well-tended gardens, with tree-shaded lanes and village greens: this is a city of skyscrapers on a bed of Manhattan schist.

"And imagine! This happened in the heart of New York City!" Nobody bothers to write these words in the Bird Register. Nevertheless, this context -- the "other" world of nature within, civilization and its discontents without -- informs each natural event in the park and deepens its excitement. The red-eyed vireo nest where both parents are feeding three nestlings is not hanging in a wooded glen; it is suspended over a path directly beside lamppost 7106, and as the parent birds go back and forth with large pale-green insects in their bills, legions pass directly underneath, some on foot, others on Rollerblades, bicycle, or tricycle, or in carriages or strollers pushed by parents, baby-sitters, or nannies in uniforms. And none of them have the slightest idea of the drama taking place inches above their heads.

On January 13, 1856, Thoreau found a red-eyed vireo nest at Walden Pond and wrote in his Journal:

What a wonderful genius it is that leads the vireo to select the tough fibers of the inner bark, instead of the more brittle grasses, for its basket, the elastic pine needles and the twigs, curved as they dried to give it form, and, as I suppose, the silk of cocoons, etc. etc. to bind it together with!

His admiration for the vireo's genius would surely not have diminished at the sight of the nest at lamppost 7106, displaying bits of toilet paper, plastic wrap, and fishing line among the leaves and twigs and plant fibers.

Excerpted from "Red-Tails in Love" by Marie Winn. Copyright ) 1998 by Marie Winn. Used with permission by Pantheon Books.

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