Imagine a wood overrun with birds. A red-tailed hawk gazes down from a pine, and a nuthatch is nosing along a nearby trunk. So many colorful warblers sing from the branches that it is as if “the trees were hung with ornaments,” as birder and author Jonathan Franzen describes. Surprisingly, this woodland is Central Park, the subject of an hour-long documentary about the amazing circumstances that transform the park into birder’s paradise. Premiering tonight on HBO at 9pm EDT “The Central Park Effect” examines both the birding phenomenon at the heart New York City, and the birders that eagerly await the bi-annual migration.
The film unfolds with the seasons, beginning with the arrival of warblers and other migrants in spring. More than 200 species of birds migrate through Central Park each year, about 25 percent of all species found in the United States and Canada. After long nights aloft, flying hundreds of miles, birds seek out woodlands where they land to rest and refuel. In the vast sprawl that is New York, Central Park stands out like a giant landing strip. From mid-April through May the park acts like a giant funnel, concentrating an amazing array of species into a relatively small area. Absent for the summer, the birds return again from late August through October as they reverse their migratory route.
But “The Central Park Effect” features both birds and the bipedal primates who goggle at them through binoculars. Birds come to Central Park for shelter and sustenance, but the birders who watch them come for a variety of reasons. Birding is “one of those rare times in an adult’s life where the world suddenly seems more magical rather than less,” says Franzen. For others it is a healing activity. “Looking at birds takes away a sadness in a lot of us,” says legendary park birding guide Starr Saphir, who has terminal breast cancer. “Looking at birds takes you out of yourself, into the real world.”
The Central Park’s influence is an unparalleled phenomenon, but nation-wide declines in bird species may threaten its ability to maintain its birding allure. Results from the Christmas Bird Count, conducted every year for more than 100 years, reveal that nearly one-quarter of the bird species in the park have declined by nearly half percent in the last four decades. Despite the park’s uncertain future as a birding hotspot, the documentary shows how the extraordinary urban oasis fuels a passionate birding commnity in the heart of New York City.
Produced and directed by Jeffrey Kimball, “The Central Park Effect” first premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in March. It will be broadcast on Monday, July 16th at 9:00pm EDT on HBO. Avian enthusiasts eager for more can tune in early to watch The Big Year on HBO Signature.