As a native Bostonian, I had hoped that HBO’s documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect was about a group of New Yorkers who dared to love Boston Celtics’ legend Larry Bird. That would have been right up my alley. Instead, it follows a group of birdwatchers in The Big Apple. This is slightly different, and far less in the area of my personal expertise. But if I’m not watching a documentary that delves deeply into a topic with which I am familiar, I prefer to watch one that depicts something I know absolutely nothing about. And Lord almighty, do I know nothing about birdwatching, though after watching Birders, I know quite a bit more about its appeal.
One of the documentary’s most fascinating figures, bird guide Starr Saphir, describes its appeal through, “…the sudden beauty where there wasn’t the moment before.” While Birders depicts many denizens in the Central Park scene, Saphir stands out the most. It’s not only because of her vast knowledge and experience, but also because of the terminal breast cancer that makes each trip into the park that much more profound for her. Whereas many documentaries might seek to milk that condition for pathos, Birders does a fairly remarkable job restraining itself, making each appearance by her throughout the year depicted in the documentary speak for itself.
Saphir maintains lists of the birds she sees, but what emerges throughout the slow-moving hour is just how much the seemingly obsessive nature of birdwatching speaks to a latent desire within these people to connect with the world at large. The subtitle of this documentary refers to the scientific phenomenon of birds gathering in green spaces amidst vast urban sprawl. But Central Park itself is a man-made creation, an illusion of nature that reflects man’s influence (good and bad) over the environment. For both bird and human, the illusion of Central Park allows for a special place of intersection, one that gives a home for many birds during their migratory patterns and a home for those viewing them to stir something within their souls.
Honestly, I know what you’re thinking: This sounds like a bunch of spiritual, new-age bullshit. And at the outset, it’s easy to look into the wide eyes of those viewing their first warbler of the spring and mock their enthusiasm. But as the hour progresses, one can at least sympathize, if not outright empathize, with the way seeing these birds makes these individuals feel. Central Park might be man-made, but it serves as a place for birders to get in touch with both the world and their own place within it. Central Park is an oasis within New York City, even without noticing the over 200 species of bird that inhabit it over the course of a single calendar year. Very few people interviewed for Birders can eloquently describe what it is they get out of seeing these winged creatures. But they don’t have to really describe it. It’s easy enough to intuit within their eyes.
Not that everyone on display is a tongue-tied, binocular-wearing acolyte. Authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Jonathan Rosen offer up several quotable lines throughout the hour. Franzen notes that the number of aviary species is “just the right size.” This is important, he notes, because it makes the act of birdwatching one that you could sustain for years without ever having it feel like a hopeless enterprise. This ties into the final aspect of what another birder terms the “Seven Pleasures of Birding”. In addition to providing joys in the arenas of scientific discovery and puzzle-solving, birding sometimes provides what this man calls “the unicorn effect.” Rosen picks up on this notion, remarking how incredible it is for him to finally see a bird up close that he previously only read about in books or saw online.
That “unicorn effect” lies at the heart of Birders, which ultimately depicts people looking for something special amid the mundane. They aren’t looking for God, per se, but they are looking for a single image that lifts their spirits up from the city streets into the air itself. It was either John Stuart Mills or Alicia Keys that once described New York as a “concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” but I think I prefer Saphir’s depiction of Central Park during her multitude of treks through its man-made hills, streams, and forests. There is sudden beauty throughout Birders, as the camera catches gorgeous, high-definition shots of a multitude of plumed, temporary citizens of the park. Birders doesn’t offer up the sweeping, panoramic, almost otherworldly images of something like Frozen Planet, but the human-sized scale of this production works in its favor.
Birders ends on a semi-somber note, with the annual winter Central Park Christmas Bird Count. Many of the people we’ve watched all hour gather together to attempt to count every bird in the park. It’s a bit of a fool’s errand, but the count (which dates back over a century) has yielded valuable data nonetheless. Unfortunately, the data isn’t that pleasant: Overall counts for almost all species are down and have been dropping at a rate where long-time birders have noticed a sizable change within the last half-decade. Birders doesn’t take a big-scale ecological perspective after revealing that data. But I’m not sure it had to do so. While Birders starts off a pace so languid it’s nearly sleep-inducing, I found myself caring a bit for both bird and birder upon hearing the latest Christmas Bird Count. Still, it’s not a complete downer of an ending: As the documentary closes, Saphir is still there the following spring, leading another tour and counting up the latest birds. She has filled 50 journals in her lifetime, and looks anxious to fill her 51st before Memorial Day. Even in the face of death, she’s still searching for another moment of sudden beauty.