PHOTOGRAPHER PROJECT: Central Park Birds

Story and photography by Deborah Allen

Prothonotary warbler, Central ParkPoint, Central Park. New York, NY.

When Columbia University Press asked me to write a field guide to Central Park birds in 2009, I knew immediately that it was the perfect project for me. The New York City-based publisher was looking to capitalize on its success with a book by Edward Sibley Barnard, New York City Trees, by continuing with a series of local natural history titles.

Central Park is one of the most beloved urban spaces in the world. Many people don’t know that it’s also one of the best places to see and photograph birds in the United States—a “hot spot” in the language of birders. The complete checklist of all the birds reported in the park stands at 300 species. It includes 40 species of wood warblers, 36 of which occur annually.

Central Park is an 843-acre green space in a highly urban area, conveniently located on the Atlantic flyway, a major migratory pathway for birds. For the last 20 years, I’ve worked to document the bird life of Central Park. I photograph the birds in every season: nesting birds in summer; water birds, gulls and others in winter (when any sensible person would be indoors); and migratory birds in spring and fall.

I’ve used both Nikon and Canon systems, including 500 and 800mm lenses. Now my everyday lenses are Canon’s 400mm f/5.6 and 400mm f/4 telephoto lenses, paired with a 7D Mark II. I like these lenses because they are relatively light, easy to carry and can be used without a tripod. Consequently, I can cover more ground and stay out longer. I carry a flash, flash bracket and fresnel lens (flash extender) in my camera bag. I’ve found that a good pair of binoculars is essential, because you can’t get a photo of a bird if you don’t know it’s there.

Wood duck, Central Park

Bird photography at any location is most productive early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Open areas bordered with trees that catch the early and late light are best. At these times birds are more relaxed and often perch in the open. Two wooded areas of Central Park—the Ramble (south of Belvedere Castle and Turtle Pond) and the North Woods and nearby Wildflower Meadow—can be productive for bird photography. At midday when most birds take a break from foraging, they may bathe and preen at the Gill, a small stream, or Azalea Pond in the Ramble, or the Loch, another stream bordering the North Woods. In winter, the Reservoir is good for waterfowl, and you can also find ducks and geese at the Lake, the Meer, the Pool and the Pond. Check http://www.centralparknyc.org/maps/ for an interactive map of Central Park. A tree map, which also includes more birding locations, can be obtained from the Apple app store: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/central-park-entire/id722634607?mt=8, and a folding map can be purchased at: http://centralparknature.com/about/index.html.

Juvenile Cedar Waxwing Eating a Crab Apple

Cedar waxwing, Central Park © Deborah Allen

When berries are ripe, any number of hungry birds, such as vireos, some warblers, cedar waxwings and hermit thrushes, allow themselves to be photographed at close range. Flowers attract birds, too. Hawthorns in bloom attract insects in spring which in turn attract warblers and flycatchers. Jewelweed blooms in early September just when most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating south. The feeders at Evodia Field are reliable for seed- and suet-eating birds in winter.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) in Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) in late September on fall migration.Mugger’s Woods, Central Park. New York, NY.

In summer young red-tailed hawks fledge from the nest on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street. Our urban red-tails sometimes nest on other buildings surrounding the park or they may even nest in trees like their country cousins. Young birds and adults are relatively easy to find in summer and winter near the Fifth Avenue nest, in the Ramble and in the North Woods. Even peregrine falcons now live near the park on Central Park West.

Ruby-throated hummingbird, Central Park

I couldn’t have imagined that this project would take me seven years to complete, or that it would take me to so many places other than Central Park. For the sake of completeness, I included nearly all the birds that had been reported in the park since the 1860s, even though many of the park’s rarest birds had never been photographed there. An adult male Townsend’s warbler was seen only once, in 1963, for example, and tufted ducks regularly appeared on the Reservoir in winter from 1979 to 1991.

The Townsend’s warbler certainly isn’t likely to be seen again. A western species, its normal range extends only as far east as Montana.

The tufted duck is essentially a European species, but it occurs with some frequency as a vagrant in the United States. I made my image of a cooperative male on a small pond on Long Island in February, 2013. Some shorebirds, rare for Central Park, appear regularly at Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Queens. I made frequent trips to upstate New York, Connecticut and New Jersey for some species. And I had a good excuse to visit North Dakota for Baird’s sparrow and the golden eagle.

Henslow's sparrow, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

Henslow’s sparrow, Ft. Wayne, Indiana

The search for ruffed grouse and evening grosbeak led me to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. A trip to Fort Drum in New York for Henslow’s sparrow didn’t pan out, but if it had, I would never have had the experience of hearing—in a newly restored prairie in Fort Wayne, Indiana—the “tsss-lick” of Henslow’s sparrows all around me and finally seeing them perched low in the grass while the local dickcissels threw their heads back and sang from the sunflowers—a scene so idyllic it seems like it couldn’t really have happened. Yet, I have the pictures to prove it did.

Through all of this, the style of my photography changed. I’ve become less interested in finding an egret draped in golden, early morning light and more concerned about showing field marks, the features of a bird that allow it to be identified. Now my heart skips a beat when I see a bird that confuses me because its identification is a puzzle waiting to be solved. Showing the behavior, the nest or young, the plants that attract different species has become a priority. Fortunately, the birds themselves are beautiful and photogenic. Even a simple portrait can become something remarkable because the bird is unusual or colorful or has elegant markings. Scarlet tanagers are so red that light seems to illuminate their feathers from within. I wonder, can it even be possible to see such a bird and then be witness to the astonishing yellow of a prothonotary warbler all on the same day?

In Central Park, the answer is yes.


Deborah Allen is a freelance photographer and bird walk leader living in the Bronx, New York. Her photos of Central Park birds have appeared in books, newspapers and magazines including Bird Watcher’s Digest, BirdWatching, Natural History, and National Wildlife.