On a gray Manhattan morning in late May 2012, at the tail end of the spring migration that sees up to 100 bird species pass through the city en route to their summer homes in the north, Starr Saphir wove through Central Park like a divining rod — if divining rods were meant to detect warblers instead of water.
Traffic hummed along Central Park West. A helicopter flew overhead as two dogs fought on a nearby lawn. Still, Saphir heard birds, and when a Warbling Vireo reeled off its frenetic violin solo of a song she snapped to attention.
“I only hear the birds,” she told me later. “A truck could hit me — I wouldn’t hear it.”
Saphir, who died Tuesday after an 11-year battle with breast cancer, led birding walks in Central Park for 28 years. The morning I joined her was her last group walk of the spring. As a few stragglers joined the group, Saphir, unsure that we’d see much of anything so late in the season, assessed the turnout: “Well, this proves that we are a species in which hope springs eternal.”
Known as the “matriarch” of the park’s birding scene — she logged 259 species there over the years — Saphir naturally figured as a character in the documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” which aired last summer on HBO.
The show took its title from an ornithological principle: if you put a park in an urban area — even one as densely populated as Manhattan — it will serve as a magnet for numerous species of birds. As filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball explained on the show’s website, “What I really hope people take away is that a vacant lot, or a backyard, or a strip of road — anything can be thought of as habitat and should be preserved and treated as habitat and not abused, because it very well may be supporting a little pocket of nature.”
HBO will air the program again at 6 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, in honor of Saphir’s passing. (The program is also available via Amazon and iTunes.)
Anyone who joined one of Saphir’s walks quickly learned that she was a character as colorful as the birds she sought. She had a habit of walking with one arm tucked like a wing behind her back, and of scolding birders for pointing at their quarry.
On that May morning her outfit seemed chosen to coordinate with the Cerulean Warbler featured on her website’s masthead. She wore a blue bandana over curly gray hair; glasses over heavy blue eye shadow; a blue windbreaker tied around her waist; blue running shoes. Her t-shirt was tan, with a picture of a bird.
She looks like this in most pictures you’ll find.
For a decade after she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, she continued to lead her birding walks four days a week: Monday through Wednesday, and Saturday. She charged $8 per person.
The walks covered a great deal of ground; Saphir moved quickly, with only brief pauses for observation. After a vigorous search for an Acadian Flycatcher Saphir heard calling in the trees, she was off to the next location within moments of spotting the tiny olive bird.
A short distance away, she heard another call. “Warbling Vireo,” she shouted over a lawnmower as she tried to alert the group. Then, frustration in her voice rising: “Warbling Vireo. Warbling… God!”
A raccoon slumbered in a nearby tree. Saphir moved on.
In the Ramble the group stopped at a pair of benches. Saphir sat and I asked her how birding in the park had changed over the decades.
She began scientifically. “There are far fewer neotropical migrants,” she said, chalking the decline up to several factors: deforestation and the suburbanization of America following World War II; pesticides; feral cats. In the 1970s, she says, an abundance of migrants would mean seeing 300 American Redstarts or Magnolia Warblers during the spring migration.
Now, to see 30 of either species in a season is considered a bounty.
She squinted at the trees and said, “I’m sorry there aren’t more birds.”
Then, after a quiet moment interrupted only by a woodpecker somewhere out in the Ramble, she offered another observation about how her experience birding in the park had changed: “I sit more than I used to.”
Below, a gallery of images from the walk.