Jeffrey Kimball’s Peek at an Overlooked New York Pastime
What does the term “warbler” mean to you?
No, it’s not a rival a cappella team from Glee – they’re birds! Warblers are an exotic species, one of the 117 chronicled by Jeffrey Kimball in his understated documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect. Birders, filmed over the course of a year, documents New York bird watchers in their own natural habitat. And while it, yes, introduces average viewers to appreciation of both a hobby and a part of nature, it is also a fascinating cross-section of a sector of New York life: those who escape Gotham’s hustle and bustle by running inward.
Birders, commissioned by HBO, begins in springtime, when the park’s bird population multiplies to include the many flyers migrating from Central and South America. One watcher describes a “unicorn effect,” in which they get to see birds about which they have predominantly only read, that have taken on a mythological status. Initially, Kimball focuses on the watchers, as they explain how they got turned on to watching in the first place. For some, a relative or girlfriend introduced them to the habit. Others say that for them, Central Park provides a refuge away from the noise and the crowds of Manhattan streets without forcing them to outright leave the city. It is an active way of observing the slow-moving beauty of nature, and suits their personalities. One person interviewed for the doc, Chris Cooper (not the Oscar-winning actor) says that most birders are collectors and listers in life, and watching falls under that umbrella of completest observation.
But then Kimball begins to pour on the facts, some of which are quite harrowing: of the ten million birds that migrate to the Andes every fall, only eight million will make. And then only five million will still have survived into the spring. Imagine losing half of your family between Labor Day and Easter every year. We learn birder jargon: a “CAGU” is a California gull, and an “LBJ” is a small, obscure brown bird; a peep, meanwhile, is a small shorebird. Birders operate in the off-hours, and have been known to disappear from their friends from March to May. While they tuck their pants in under their socks to prevent Lyme disease, those birders who have gotten beam at their avocational hazard.
And the human subjects of Kimball’s documentary, often speaking in the hushed tones and patient cadences of watchers, benefit from Kimball’s own love of the subject. When Starr Saphir, a New Yorker in her seventies who has made a living giving bird tours through Central Park (we first meet her as she explains tough times have forced her to up her fee from $6 to $8), learns of a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, her love of birds allows her put the news in perspective. She is a part of nature, just like the birds. Kimball skirts condescension or any kind of subjective personal commentary when portraying her in these moments. He does the same with esteemed novelist Jonathan Franzen, who has written several essays about his love for birding. Referring to a tableau in which birds dot all the trees in sight, Franzen posits that it is “one of those rare times in an adult’s life where the world suddenly seems more magical, rather than less.” (Those who have read the author’s Freedom will note that bird watching made its way into the book via the character of Walter.)
Moderation is the key to Birders, which is only an hour long. Even Paul Damian Hogan’s musical score is light and calm, a reflection of those partaking in watching. Kimball never overwhelms the viewers to whom his documentary will serve a primer on the subject. But his view is equally passionate about Central Park itself as it is about the birds. It’s a haven for nature enthusiasts and proves that even in the most concrete jungle of all, there is plenty of room for serenity.
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