Back in the throes of March, between snowstorms and soggy showers, I craved color with the pining of a thousand lost loves. Since the woods were as grey as a dirty lint trap, I plugged in the TV one night and snuggled down with a bowl of popcorn to watch the HBO documentary, Birders: The Central Park Effect. It was exactly the right medicine, and I think it’ll hit the spot for anyone who is still as greedy for summer as I am.
The film explores a phenomenon known as the Central Park Effect, a quirk of geography and development that makes the Big Apple one of the prime spots to find birds in the Northeast. Birds follow ancient migration routes up the east coast of the continent, flying by night and stopping over during the day to fuel up for the next leg of their journey. Those who follow the Eastern Flyway are funneled by the Appalachian Mountains and the coastline toward the dense development of New York City, which you might imagine offers little respite for hungry birds. And yet, smack in the middle of Manhattan, Central Park stretches out like a green welcome mat to millions of migrating birds year round. In fact, over 200 different kinds of birds have been spotted in the park throughout the year. And the birds’ biggest fans are just as easy to spot, toting their foot-long lenses through the thickets and along the bike paths of Central Park.
My summer-starved heart would recommend this film for the eye candy alone. If you’re not usually a bird watcher, you may never have seen some of North America’s most vibrant birds. You’re in for a treat. The videographers recorded footage of colorful warblers, tanagers, ducks of all shapes, sparrows and wrens, and many others who are usually gone before you know they were there. Birds wearing lemon yellow, birds streaked with black and russet, gleaming true blue, splashed with green and crimson and orange. And film offers the added treat of watching these tiny birds flit around in all their vivid alive-ness, an advantage over the two-dimensional, static depictions in field guides (or fruitless shrub scanning for those of us packing our own binoculars).
The story of birds in New York City isn’t complete without the human element, and the people in this film are as interesting as the birds themselves. The fervent bird chasers are insightful, well-spoken and funny. They’re definitely good company. Be sure to watch their eyes during the interviews — you’ll be able to tell exactly when a bird is flirting off camera.
My only quibble: Though all the human characters are introduced throughout the film, none of the birds are named. The documentary is available online through HBO with a subscription or for a fee for non-subscribers. Or you could request it from your library, which is what I did. HBO offers a PDF brochure with names and information for each of the birds, but I especially liked the extra features on the DVD. If you can, watch the 10-minute reprise of all the bird footage with their names. I kept a tally of all the species I ID’ed correctly. Not that I’m competitive or anything…
In the liner notes, director Jeffrey Kimball writes, “Upon seeing my nearly completed film, my sixteen-year-old son turned to me and said that he finally “got it,” he understood why I spent so much time wandering around outside with binoculars looking at birds.” This documentary had the same effect on me, and I already carry a pair of binoculars around in my handbag.
Have you seen this film? I’d love to hear your thoughts!