Birders: The Central Park Effect

By Pat Leonard
July 11, 2012

HBO is airing a documentary that should make bird watchers do the unthinkable: put down their binoculars and head for the TV set. You’ll be amply rewarded. “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” directed by Jeffrey Kimball, follows an eclectic group of birders through the seasons as they pursue their passion in New York City’s Central Park.

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Central Park? A bird paradise? You bet. Despite the fact that everything about the 843-acre park is man-made (except for the glacier-strewn boulders) it is a magnet for birds migrating up and down the East Coast. It’s one of the few green spaces where birds can rest and refuel on their grueling journey. This is the “Central Park Effect” explained in the documentary by one of the experts in the film, Cornell Lab of Ornithology director Dr. John Fitzpatrick.

One hundred species can be seen in the park during spring migration in April and May. And you will see them in this film–gorgeous video of colorful migrant warblers all shot within Central Park, no stock footage. The film captures magic moments of discovery and rediscovery. Even when a bird has been seen before, there’s something special about seeing it for the first time when another spring rolls around.

The film is narrated by the birders themselves and, combined with music and bird sounds, can be a serene, almost meditative experience. Even the hard-driving, fast-paced New York City lifestyle gives way before the gentle pleasures of bird watching. Walking through the park, author Jonathan Franzen describes his reaction when he was handed a pair of binoculars and saw what he was missing: “It was like the trees were hung with ornaments,” he says. “It was one of those rare times in an adult’s life where the world suddenly seems more magical rather than less.”

One of the key players in the film is Starr Saphir who has been leading bird walks in the park for 40 years. Saphir has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and your heart aches when she wonders aloud if she is seeing a particular bird for the last time. There is a new urgency to her walks as she waits to see the “light go on” when people recognize a bird. She says, “Birding makes you forget about yourself for a while and gain perspective about your place in nature. We watch birds, perhaps, because we feel the wildness slipping away and birds are a bright, visible link to the wild.”

Ultimately, this documentary is about the effect of green spaces on the birds and about the effect birds have on us. It is about the persistence of nature, despite our best efforts to pave it over. But it is also a call to preserve our green spaces and create more of them before dwindling species lose a foothold in this world entirely and we lose one of our most accessible bridges to the natural world.

The film will appeal to and move people who already watch birds and may help non-birders “get” why we’re so passionate about it. A few may fall asleep in the recliner, but they’ll do it to the sounds of birds singing sweetly.

If you liked the movie, check out these posts for more:


  • Dixie Wong

    We don’t have HBO

  • Rob Biller

    Airing on what station?

  • Rob Biller

    Oops. Nvrmnd. :)

    • Mae

      is this Rob Biller from the old aol days?

  • Emily Marcello

    I can’t wait to see this HBO special.

    I wish they had more documentaries on


  • Jerry W. Davis

    Why in the hell with a film as important as this is it limited to HBO? Very few birders have HBO and most of the peoplt that do are not likely to watch or care about birds and birding in Central Park.

  • doris bercarich

    Really saddened that this show is not being broadcast in Canada, HBO or no.

  • Holly

    We don’t have HBO either, but often we can rent HBO shows on Netflix.

  • Patricia Soule

    Thanks for the heads up!! I’ll tune in for sure.

  • Lydia

    soooo looking forward to it! :)

  • Ada Albright

    I am disappointed that this will be aired on a channel inaccessible to many of us.

  • Ada Albright

    It is disappointing that this will be shown on a station that is not accessible to many of us.

  • Joyce Farley

    I will watch ty The quote y Starr Saphir is very proufound

  • Robert B. Alcott

    The colors in my art match those of the birds. Don’t have HBO – wish I did.

  • Joyce Farley

    Please excuse all typos

  • Charlie

    Me too! Thanks for the heads up!

  • Heidi

    Beautiful news. Hope to catch it on TV tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Lydia

    Franzen (birdlover/writer) is in it too… :)

  • Barbara

    Don’t have HBO. Where else can I view this?

  • Marilyn

    would love to watch….we don’t have HBO

  • Bill Poindexter

    Heck! I don’t have HBO either.

  • xonnie morse

    no hbo will alert family who do

  • monica

    so glad to hear about this…Thank you :)

  • Cathy Becker

    We don’t have HBO – will this ever be available anywhere else? NPR online, Cornell website on line, PBS? Please advise. . .


  • Sherry Ferguson

    A Wall Street Journal review on July 14 had a photo of what it identified as a “Scarlet Tanager” — but it looked more like a Western Tanager to me (and I’m assuming that in Central Park, that would be a rarity) I don’t get HBO, but I hope someone watching will be able to clarify this for me. Thanks

  • Peter K. Connolly

    Don’t have HBO. Will there be any post-event tapes available on your site? Hate to miss this one!!!!!!!

  • Jean

    Wouod have been kinder to air it on a PBS station. I don’t get HBO either.

  • Donald Casavecchia

    Thanks for the notification. I don’t pay for HBO, but I have two friends that do, and they are birders, so I phoned them up and they’ll be watching. Thanks!

  • Jenny Preece

    We don’t have HBO.
    Do you sell the video?
    Or is there another opportunity to view it?

  • donna Petrokowitz

    Thanks for the heads up. I missed the first showing, but have it ready to tape the second one on the West Coast. I’m very excited to view this. We have spent the last 3 month rehabilitating native birds of California back to the wild. Just released, allen humming birds, white throated swifts,house finches, barn swallows, barn owls, crows, cooper hawks, red-shouldered hawks,red-tails hawks, great horns are coming up in Sept. Gosh, I love my volunteering!

  • Brenda Dietiker

    I was wondering if this documentary will be available any where else besides HBO. I do not have access to this station. It sounds awesome!!

  • Jan Dolph

    I found Birders: The Central Park Effect documentary a complete joy. I can see that I will watch the documentary over and over again. When you have a passion for birding you never stop feeling the happiness a single bird can give you.

    I am now planning another trip to New York City around April 15, 2013.

    Happy birding!

  • Heather Dove

    Great film! I would love to obtain a copy to show at one our member meetings. Any chance of that?

  • Rudi Burgos

    This was great! Like catching up with old friends which always stop by to visit and even stay awhile. Here in Belize The Belize Audubon Society conducts “Urban Bird Watching” when we enjoy birding in very urban settings every Sunday in October. Very common to record 50-80 species in a four hour period on these October mornings. So… great birding in the middle of New York City does not re4ally surprise me. Hoping to join you all one day!

  • Kathryn A Upton

    I watched and recorded it on my DVR. It was pleasantly mesmerizing. I LOVED it and then went to bed happy.

  • Ellen T

    Oh my goodness, it was an amazing show,
    the entire cast of characters were
    spectacular & the bird watchers
    themselves were good too!
    Would love to go to NY & have Starr
    be our guide, what a thrill that
    would be. God bless her.

  • Betty Look

    I don’t have HBO. Discovery Channel would be nice..

  • David Steinman

    Thanks Cornell Labs for the heads up. I caught it last night. Very well done. I’m in the NJ/NY area and though I’ve been in Central Park many times, I’ve never taken the time to stop and listen to nature. I’m now looking forward to the fall to take in the migration south. My heart does go out to Starr. I will look for in the fall in hopes she is still giving her walking birding tours.

  • Elisa

    Spectacular broadcast! Would have missed it had I not been on your listserv.

    HBO does have multiple broadcast dates. Would be wonderful to haveon PBS.

    The energy and enthusiasm of common folks…..well it brought the spirit and energy of loving nature in all of us (terminally birders as well as with a lovely lady with terminal cancer.)

    Central Park, as a planned environmental wonder of the world, shows the promise that can be brought to the world by planning. We have students and teachers from our Italian Sister City marvel each year to see this spectular force of nature holding its rightful place with concrete and skyscrapers buried behind it.

  • From New York

    We don’t have HBO either. Will this be available online at some point?

  • Deanna Prisco

    It was indeed a great video. The photography and narrative were outstanding. I learned things about Central Park I never knew and of course I learned more about birds. I’d love to get a copy of the video to show to my fellow Board members of our local land trust to reignite their enthusiasm for protecting natural environments and its life. Any suggestions as to how I might get a copy? Deanna

  • Lydia

    I had no idea Central Park was such a magnet for birds. Thoroughly enjoyed the program & am looking forward more to my next Central Park visit :) Thank you HBO and to all who contributed to this documentary!

  • Hugh

    We sympathize with those of you who don’t have HBO and couldn’t watch the program—we’ll do our best to let you know when it will be available online or on DVD. Thanks!

  • Janet

    I’m so glad you sent the email about the program last night. It was fantastic, and I really enjoyed watching it. Thanx!

  • Joanna kaser

    You were given to me as a wonderful present. Thanks so much for your attention to beauty and details.

    I would have loved to watch this but no HBO. Ditto, will it be available anywhere else?

    I now live in CA , however as a former New Yorker I have visited the wonder of Central Park many times

  • Patricia Farber

    Just got HBO for 3 months just to see it. Taped it and looking forward to seeing it tonight. Thanks for the great programming always. Loved the Hawks and the Herons. Please keep it up a pleasure and a treasure!

  • Kevin Karlson

    This is the finest documentary about birding and birders that has ever been produced. I am a bit biased since I know so many of the featured birders, but the wonderfully balanced film captures the true reasons why we look at birds, and the passion behind the sport that we love so much. Young and old birders are represented, and there is a wonderful connection to the birds mentioned by the birders with immediate video of the species from Central Park. This is one not to be missed, and the message is both uplifting and sobering, with my dear friends Lloyd Spitalnik and David Speiser relating their personal observations about declining songbird numbers over the last 20 years in this fixed habitat. Kevin Karlson

  • Sue

    Re comment by Jerry Davis..I have HBO, watch TV at night and birds by day. Don’t make assumptions!

    The show was wonderful. Sometimes HBO programs are available later as DVDs on Amazon. Keep checking.

  • Lloyd Spitalnik

    I’ve ben one of the “regular” Central Park birders for 20 plus years. When I used to run around the country chasing after rarities and enjoying the local irds, people always asked why I lived in NY being such an avid birder. This film answers that question really well. Jeff Kimball answers the bigger picture of why we o what we do. No other film I’m aware of even comes close. BTW, april 15 might be a little early. Prime time is last week of April through May 15. Weekends can have 200 birder roaming around so try for mid-week.

  • Martha

    Those visiting or living in the city must see the fall migration from the top of Empire State Building at night. Birds and insects are attracted to the lights. I was there many years ago and there on top of it all, picking them off one by one, was one of your Peregrine Falcons.

  • Stephanie

    We don’t have HBO, but we just happened to be traveling and staying in a motel that did. This was a magnificent show. I second all the calls to distribute this video more widely – NatGeo, Discovery, PBS are among those stations that could broadcast to a wider audience. I would actually be interested in purchasing a copy of the DVD should it become available.

  • http://permalink Anita Carter

    Live in the northwest coast aea and desire to watch this program. Do not have HBO since it is very expensive in this area. If there is any other airing available can someone advise my family. The world and Gods creatures are too beautiful to ignore.

  • Patrick Harwood

    Excellent documentary! The one birder who gives the seven reasons he’s into birding articulated my very feelings. Very well produced program. This plus “The Big Year” airing also on HBO is heaven for this birder!

  • Sarah D

    We don’t get HBO either. If someone finds this anywhere else, do tell!

  • Nihal Mawella

    by Nihal Mawella of Sri LankaI have been watching Central Park birders for several years . Excellent job. I really appreciate .I watched it with six bird olvers.
    Best regards
    Nihal Mawella
    Sri Lanka.

  • Roberta Ross

    In the final credits they listed under “Starring” all of the species of birds in the order they appeared in the film. Is this list available online anywhere? Can anyone provide the link?

  • Nancy j Paine

    Loved it! Especially the man who told his friends not to call him April through May and the young girl with the long hair. Their love for birds was infectious.

  • mark & camille

    We saw and love the documentary. When will it be avaiable in DVD. Would make a great gift for our birding friends.
    Happy Birding!

  • Roberta Redfield

    Could someone please answer Roberta Ross’s question: In the final credits they listed under “Starring” all of the species of birds in the order they appeared in the film. Is this list available online anywhere? Can anyone provide the link?