Every Sunday morning in winter—save for the snowiest days—Deborah Allen and Bob DeCandido lead birding tours through Central Park.
The first Sunday of February was no different. A gaggle of birders gathered around the Loeb Boathouse café, chatting about the latest avian gossip: A great horned owl had taken up residence days ago just steps from the café. (In the first pine tree on the left side of the uphill path toward the Ramble, for curious birders.)
In years past, Central Park birders logged different species in a book at the Boathouse so other birders could check out which new birds had flown in. The book’s still there and in use, Allen says, but that might be more for nostalgia than utility. Nowadays, New York City’s birder network relies on tweets, texts, and email to spread the news of an alluring new find — that is, when they’re not already out and about.
DeCandido has been giving tours for decades, since his days as a park ranger. Over the years, he’s earned the affectionate nickname Birding Bob. He’s a jolt of energy on a Sunday morning: equal parts naturalist, enthusiast, and emcee. When DeCandido is trying to spot a particular species on a trek, he’ll play the bird’s signature call on a portable speaker to lure it out from behind the leaves so birders can catch a glimpse.
As a longtime nature photographer, Allen is a grand master in the art of watching and waiting. She’s currently working on a field guide to the birds of Central Park (slated for publication in 2017) featuring her photographs from over the years. Allen tells the Village Voice that birding takes both patience and endurance; it’s not easy standing still and scanning for birds that are usually smaller than New York City rats.
For $10, bird enthusiasts can embark on a three-hour tour of Central Park with DeCandido and Allen as their trusted guides. Participants can come and go as they wish, since walking from one location to another can feel like more of a break than standing and waiting attentively for birds. The two guides keep things lively on each trip, which is particularly impressive during spring migration when they’re out scouting birds seven days a week.
The flood of migratory birds in springtime is so sudden, Allen and DeCandido can’t miss a day. The season begins mid-March in New York City and reaches its peak in the beginning of May. For new birders, they recommend looking toward the trees in April, before budding branches make it difficult to see smaller birds.
Three hours later on that chilly February morning, Bob’s birders returned from a circuit through the park to find that the nocturnal predator hadn’t moved. They puttered around the base of the tree, looking for a few last birds before heading home, when someone noticed the owl had finally awakened. He turned to face the birders, eyes unblinking. He stared for a minute before turning his head back, signaling the silent end to another day of successful bird-watching.
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