Birders: The Central Park Effect (2012)

This is a must-see for all bird watchers, nature lovers, or anyone who lives in an urban jungle, thinking how one can stay there and escape at the same time. And, one would soon find this one-hour documentary just too short.

Beautifully shot, this exquisite gem of a film features its main characters the birds in Central Park. No make-up, no staging, no studio set-ups, all natural surrounding. Appearing also are the humans who dedicate their time, and some, their life in pursuing the sightings of these avian celebrities. The interviews of the birders show they are a species all their own.

Baltimore Oriole

Central Park is another major character in the film. I didn’t know this before, that it is completely man-made. The trees were planted there, the landscaping and ponds designed and built by human hands. But it is also nature. More than 200 species of birds pass through Central Park each year. During migration periods in the spring and fall, it is the hot spot of traffic thoroughfare, the hub of north-south continental flight routes.

Jeffrey Kimball is the film’s producer, director, cinematographer and narrator. I was so eager to see him in person for the Q & A after the film at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Oct. 8. Unfortunately, he had to rush back to his wife due to a medical emergency. I wish her well of course.

Common Yellowthroat

The 60 mins. documentary starts off right away by bringing us up-close to the avian paradise that is New York City’s Central Park, and with interviews of their inhabitants’ human admirers. What’s more interesting to hear than the exhilarating tone of the humans are the cheerful chirping of bird calls and songs throughout the film.

As a newly converted birder, I don’t need Jonathan Franzen to tell me the joy of birding, but it’s good to hear him share his view just the same: it’s ‘addictive’, that he would ‘miss work’ to go out to Central Park to have his fix of birdwatching. Oh, it’s also ’embarrassing’ too.

Jonathan Franzen

Yes, that’s the view of another birder, adult male. He shares that it’s been noted that birdwatching is not manly. There are guys who would carry their fishing rod and tell their wives they are heading out fishing, too embarrassed to admit actually it’s a birding they will go. It’s just… not cool.

Anya Auerbach, 15, echoes that sentiment. Not cool, geeky even. But does she care? The answer is obvious. She is not into fashion like her peers, but she is into something deeply gratifying.

Anya Auerbach

As any birder would readily admit, binoculars hanging on their neck, and maybe a camera with a long lens on the side, they look like walking geeks, to be spotted and laughed at. But as they weigh the joy of actually seeing that rare thrush, to be labelled and misunderstood is a small price to pay.

Starr Saphir is the matriarch of birding in Central Park. She has been leading birding groups in the spring and fall, four times a week for over 30 years. She could well be a walking specimen of the psychosomatic benefits of birding. Diagnosed with terminal breast cancer for a decade, Saphir testifies to how watching birds keeps her going. “Looking at birds really takes away sadness…” When one considers the fleeting nature of life, the joy is even more precious.

Starr Saphir

Chris Cooper disappears from his human social circle every year between April to Memorial Day. His friends know from experience that he has gone birding in Central Park. They understand his obsession. In the film, we can see his contagious enthusiasm.

Chris Cooper

Birdwatching is like collecting. The numbers count, how many species you’ve seen, which ones, the rarer the higher valued. It’s like seeing a unicorn… or, a bit more down-to-earth, it’s like you’ve seen pictures of a movie star, but when you actually see her/him in person, it’s a totally different feeling and experience.

“It’s mystical,” another birder articulated.

And to correct a misguided notion, birding is not a hobby, as one dedicated birder explains. Like raising children, it is a “deeply human activity.”

The Annual Central Park Christmas Bird Count is the longest running citizen science survey in the world. It is disheartening to note that the bird counts are dropping significantly in recent years.

Birds are nature’s celebrities, seeing them gives a birder deep pleasure and exhilaration. What’s most precious though, they are oblivious to their fame. They don’t flaunt their beauty, they don’t pose for pictures. They are as natural as can be.

As the credits roll at the end of the film, we see all those deserved to be named: species of birds that have appeared in the film.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

CLICK HERE to the official site of the documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

29 thoughts on “Birders: The Central Park Effect (2012)”

    1. I’m not sure it will be screen in theatres. It premiered at the SXSW Festival this March, and shown on HBO in July. The 60 mins. is ideal for the TV spot. So, watch out for it to be shown again on the small screen or maybe on Netflix?


  1. Although the New York Film Festival is currently underway right now in Lincoln Center (which is very near Central Park), if “The Central Park Effect” is screening there I’m not aware of it — and I’ve been attending. I am aware of the Ramble which is a popular bird watching area in the park. Back in the day it was also known as a popular cruising destination for gay men and last month, it was the scene of a particularly disturbing daytime rape of a 73-year-old woman who is also a birder. The suspect, a career criminal type, was quickly caught. I highly doubt that he’ll ever visit the Ramble again. I spent an idyllic afternoon in the park last July where I now think I saw that Baltimore Oriole, but since I know birds about as well as I know how to speak Latin, I identified it as a robin.

    Here’s the post if you want to see my tour of the park: — or delete my link since it is crass to shill one’s site on another blogger’s.

    I hope I’ll get a chance to see that film.


    1. First off, yes, you must see this film, then you can identify the actual hot spots for bird sighting in Central Park. The doc premiered at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas in March, then aired on HBO in July. Since it’s not screened at the NYFF, hopefully it will come back as a rerun on HBO or other stations.

      And, thanks for the link to your post, I’d appreciate your sharing since you probably are the closest human connection that I know with Central Park and the birds there. As a novice birder, I think I’m qualified to join your Latin club, if you ever choose to start one. I’d say that’s a Robin too. And it just might well be, since its beak is light color, and its wings look more brown than black.

      I heard on the news here in Cowtown too about that poor old lady. I can see the advantage of joining a birding group instead of going solo, which I suspect the old lady was doing. Anyway, Starr Saphir has been there for 30 some years leading birders. The next time you head out to your back yard, do look for her.


  2. I’ve heard about this documentary and am anxiously waiting for it to show up on television or DVD. I’ve even got a post-it stuck to my screen so I remember to search for it periodically! I know, I’m a little bird-obsessed.


  3. What a fun movie. I knew about Central Park being completely human-made, the designer often makes appearances in books about gardening. I did not know that it was such a bird thoroughfare. I don’t go birdwatching but I like to watch birds. We plants trees and plants in our garden to attract birds, we fill a feeder all winter and when we walk by the neighborhood lake we are always thrilled to see the occasional bald eagle or a tree with huge cormorants hanging out in it. We have a book of MN birds that we keep to hand at home and when we see a bird in the yard we can’t identify we look through the book and argue over whether the one outside our window matches the photo in the book. And of course my cats love to watch the birds too but for very different reasons than me and my husband!


    1. Stefanie,

      Looks like you’ve a wealth of experience already. Just today I was thinking of hanging a bird feeder out in my backyard for winter birds. Do watch out for this doc. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. And in the mean time, do go over to its official website and explore. Just click on the link at the end of my post.


  4. I really must recommend to you Neil Ansell’s book Deep Country. It’s the best book that is (mostly) about birds that I have ever read. And given it’s a winner of a small category, it also happens to be just generally wonderful!


  5. This sounds like something I would like very much! I wonder if it will ever end up on PBS — it’s a very PBS type of thing! I’ve never learned all that much about bird watching, but I like having those that are in my neighborhood come to the feeder (unfortunately, along with Bushy the Squirrel.) Lizzie is rather fascinated by them — I think it brings out her alley cat!


    1. Jeanie,

      I’m sure PBS can arrange to have it aired via their station. I highly recommend that you put that on the ‘purchase list’ of your station. It definitely deserves more wider release.


  6. Hi Arti
    Since you are a new bird enthusiast I wanted to see if you were familiar with The Big Year written by Mark Obmascik .It’s an excellent story about three rival birders who go on a ‘big year’ – basically 365 days seeking out and noting down birds. At the end of the year the bird with the most sightings wins. It was also a film which stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black and which tanked. They tried to make a big movie out of what should be a small and precious effort and it ended up being, if I may be so corny, for the birds.
    Have you seen the new Les Miserables posters? I’m getting pretty excited!


    1. Sim,

      I haven’t heard of this one. Thanks for alerting me. I’ll definitely try to look for it. Sounds like a fun movie with these three guys all in one… even if it’s for the birds it’s worth the sighting. 😉


  7. Sounds lovely! I think it’s always engaging to hear people truly interested in their subject share their enthusiasm. I have a few avid birders among my friends – must recommend this.


    1. I hope it’ll come around on HBO or any station. Do watch out for this one. I’m sure you as well as your birder friends would love it. It’s an hour of tranquil respite in one’s daily schedule.


  8. I just can’t believe how “in tune” we ended up with our postings this time – even though I was interested in dragonflies and purple cows instead of birds.

    I read the article you linked about Starr, and was quite taken with this tidbit about her “beginnings”. “I got out and was looking around—this was on the old Jericho Turnpike—and I found a black-and-white Warbler. I knew what it was because my grandmother had a copy of the old Audubon prints,” she recalled. “You see these things in books and you don’t think they actually exist.”

    Beyond that, what you said about collecting really rang true. This is what I said to Bella Rum over at my place, in regard to what’s rare, what isn’t, and how we go about finding it.

    It is the excitement of discovery that counts. When you get right down to it, that’s the heart of the collecting experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re collecting stamps, china, butterflies, rocks – the search and the learning bring pleasure, but the actual discovery? There’s nothing better.

    Even folks who don’t actually “capture” their prey – like bird watchers – still have their lists and their goals. I know a guy who drove many, many miles following reports of snowy owl sightings. He’s not seen one yet, but if he gets another report, that’ll be his dust going down the road. In some regions of the country, there are plenty of snowy owls. In his, not so much. So he keeps his eyes open. As he says, he may see the owl – but he may see something else, instead, and be just as happy.”

    That’s one of the wonderful things about bird watching. The person with the most expensive camera and the most powerful binoculars may not see nearly as much as someone who knows how to be quiet and pay attention. 😉


    1. Oh Linda, you must look out for this film. You’ll love it. They follow Starr back to her home and she shows us 80 volumes of sighting records. Outside of her leading birding groups, yes, after she has done with these activities, she would go see her oncologists and receive whatever treatments she needs. Like, birding is her prime occupation, getting her cancer treated is secondary.

      As for equipments, I must admit, they sure can bring one closer, much much closer to the objects of their delight. In that sense, they are very much an asset. And, a pair of high magnifying binoculars means seeing something spectacular over not seeing anything at all. But of course, the quiet attention is essential in any case.


  9. I’ve never heard of this movie before, but now I just have to see it! Pity I can’t seem to locate it at all from Australia….I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it. I watched the trailer, and while the birds and birders sound interesting, I think Johnathan Franzen just needs to get over himself. And really if other people don’t get the excitement of birdwatching, then that’s their loss. I’ve been browsing a recent book purchase called 50 Places to Go Birding Before You Die. It includes Central Park, which initially I thought was a bit much really- the book is highly American-centric, 24 of the 50 places are in the US, not even one in Canada, my whole continent gets two- but I’m wondering now if perhaps it’s a reasonable inclusion. Although I still think it might make the top 50 of a USA list, but to have nothing in Western Europe and include a city park in America, no matter how big it is, well it just seems a bit much. I am intrigued now though, and if I ever find myself in New York again I suspect I’ll head into Central Park with my binoculars on.

    BTW this post reminded me about a movie about birds in San Francisco that I never got to see either. And I should try for The Big Year too. There’s an Australian version of that concept too- Sean Dooley’s The Big Twitch. I haven’t read it yet, but have it sitting on the shelf ready to go. There’s a man out there this year setting out to break his record.


    1. Louise,

      Since it’s a U.S. book, I’m not surprised at all that it focuses mainly in the USA… or none for Canada, for that matter. Anyway, Central Park’s inclusion is justified if one is a birder, that I can say yes to. In the film, it shows satellite images of migratory birds’ flight paths and clearly, numerous of them fly over Central Park every night. I sure hope you can have the chance to see this, if not, maybe look for it to come out in DVD. As for movies, I admit since I’m a novice birder, in the past I haven’t seen any movies about this topic. Maybe from now on I’ll be on the lookout for them.


  10. Interesting! I hadn’t heard of this one film, and will definitely check it out, having been impressed by the dedication of Central Park’s birders in the beautiful story of Pale Male. I wonder if a movie was ever made about Pale Male.

    Here in Cambridge, we have our own little version of the nesting hawks story. We wait for the hawks to return every spring, a dedicated community of birders watches, and documents their every move.


    1. Polaris,

      You’d be glad to know Pale Male is also captured on screen… Do check this film out, esp. when you’re living so close (much closer than many of us), you might be able to relate to more readily.


  11. I saw this documentary partially on a whim, partially because I knew that it would delight me. It surely did, and made me prouder than ever of the time Boyfriend and I spend watching the seabirds exploring our beaches.


    1. aubrey,

      … and you should be proud to have taken photos of those birds in action, particularly capturing the very moment the Pelican diving vertically into the water. And yes, this is a gem of a film, too short for birders I think.


  12. Hi there. I will look for “The Central Park Effect” up here in Canada. I and my wife, Jean, live in Toronto, Ontario. And for birds, Toronto is really an urban jungle, very similar to New York City. Far to many glass towers, and only a few major parks to land in for the night. A week ago today, Jean and I came upon an adult Saw-Whet Owl out in one of Toronto’s northern parks. This was the first time as birders that we had ever seen a Saw-Whet Owl. Fortunately we had our camera with us(total luck) and we got some good pictures and video. We have posted them for anyone interested at:


    1. Frame to Frame,

      I saw this 60 min. doc at the Vancouver Int. Film Festival. Don’t think they screened it at the TIFF where you are. But yes, do check it out if it ever comes on your local TV stations, HBO, or whatever. I’m sure you’ll like it. And, you have a wonderful birding and nature blog over at Frame to Frame. That Saw-Whet Owl is some sighting! Thanks for stopping by Ripple Effects and leaving the link to your blog. Hope to hear from you again. 😉


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