Central Park Birding:: About the Park

All text and photographs Copyright © Phil Jeffrey 2001-2009 unless explicitly stated otherwise.

Central Park

Central Park was constructed on the island of Manhattan in New York City in the late 1800's to a design by Calvert Vaux and Fredrick Law Olmstead selected by public competition in 1858. This pair also later designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn. At the time of the 1858 plan, Manhattan was in a period of rapid expansion and the city's urban development had barely reached beyond present-day Midtown. The land that Central Park was built on was relatively sparsely developed. The creation of Central Park spurred development further north into Manhattan as the areas immediately bordering the park became more desirable.

At 843 acres, or approximately 2.5 miles by 0.5 miles, Central Park is a large urban park, stretching from 59th Street to 110th Street and Fifth Avenue to Central Park West (i.e. Eighth Avenue) in one of the most densely populated islands in the world. A combination of it's sheer size and varied original design means that Central Park offers a range of habitats, from the 100 acre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir that attracts wintering waterfowl to the nearly 40 acre Ramble that contains extensive canopy and some understory. And of course, being a park, there's no shortage of grassland.

The park has had a rather eventful history, dominated by politics, and sometimes neglected. However it has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years. It's also undergone numerous modifications due to various influences. Robert Moses led a radical clean-up of the neglected park in the 1930's, filled in the old Croton Reservoir to create the Great Lawn, added playgrounds and ballfields. However this period of improvement was matched by a period of decline during the 1960's and 70's until the founding of the Central Park Conservancy in 1980. This non-profit group still manages the park by virtue of a contract with the NYC Parks Dept. The Conservancy relies on donations by private individuals, corporations etc for the vast majority of its operating budget, yet has been responsible for a remarkable resurgence in the fortunes of the park. (See the Conservancy website for more on Central Park history, and on the Conservancy's history).

Central Park remains the most visted urban park, with approximately 25 million visitors per year. By comparison Yosemite National Park gets ~3.5 million visitors per year and Yellowstone National Park gets ~3 million visitors annually.

How to Get There

You can always walk. New Yorkers walk everywhere too. Most parts of Manhattan are as safe as any urban area, even at night. Manhattan's north/south blocks ("short blocks") between streets are 20 to a mile. Manhattan's east/west blocks are more variable but closer to 4 or 5 to a mile. Manhattan is not very large, but it has an extensive public transport infrastructure so it's not really necessary to walk too far.

Street parking in Manhattan is difficult at the best of times, and parking garages are expensive so I recommend coming into Manhattan via public transport if at all possible. Most parking meters are of short duration (1 or 2 hours) and are active even on Sundays - the city council recently passed a ruling that eliminated parking meter charges on Sundays, even though signs may remain to the contrary.

By subway: the west side is better served than the east side in this regard. The C line runs local up Central Park West, with stops at 72nd St and 81st St being particularly convenient since they are right at the edge of the park. Be aware that the A line runs express over the same route, and stops only at 59th St at the extreme south-west corner. (The A runs local 10:30pm-6am). The 1 line runs a little further west on local stops, with the 2 and 3 lines running express over the same route (2/3 stops at 72nd and 86th being most convenient, the 1 also stops at 66th, 79th, 86th). On the east side your option basically is the 6 line (local) stopping at 68th, 78th, 86th or 96th or the 4 and 5 lines running express over the same route and stopping at 59th and 86th streets only. You'll have to walk a few blocks west from the Lexington Avenue 4/5/6 stops to the park. Check out the MTA subway map for more details. The F and N/R lines also run close to the park, stopping at the south end and south-east corner. Contrary to what you might expect, New Yorkers are quite helpful in setting you straight if you manage to get lost on the subway system.

By bus: there are numerous bus lines running up both sides of the park, and a few that cross the park at the traverses. On the east side the M1/M2/M3/M4 run "up" (i.e. northbound) on Madison Ave and "down" (southbound) on 5th Ave. On the west side, the M10 runs up and down Central Park West, the M7 and M11 run up Amsterdam and down Columbus. The M66 and M72 buses run across the 65th Street traverse between east and west sides. The M79 crosses the park at 79th St, the M86 at 86th St and the M96 at 96th St. If you are not confused enough already, you can download the MTA Manhattan bus map.

By cab: usually I'd recommend specifying the following intersections to cab drivers: "72nd and 5th Ave" for the Ramble; "72nd and Central Park West" for Strawberry Fields and the west shore of the Lake; "81st and Central Park West" for Tanner's Spring and Turtle Pond area; "110th and 5th Ave" for Harlem Meer. These are all on the outer edge of the park. Telling them to take you to "Central Park" is analogous to telling them to take you to Manhattan: it's a big place, and you probably want to go somewhere more specific. Cab drivers can also be induced to go to the Central Park (Loeb) Boathouse before they close the park drives at 10am, but don't expect them to always know where that is. They will not drop you at arbitrary locations within the park nor will they pick you up within it even if you see a free cab driving by. You must walk out to the local streets to hail a cab.

Birding the park

What makes Central Park special as a birding location is habitat and location. New York City and the associated urban sprawl sit right on the Atlantic Flyway - a major migration route that channels many of the migratory birds down the Atlantic coast (see more on migration routes). Under good migration conditions in spring and fall a torrent of migrating birds is passing over New York City. Since most small birds migrate at night, they start looking for shelter and food when the sun comes up. Those that find themselves above the city itself gravitate toward the city parks, and Central Park is one of the largest and most centrally-located. You can also find migrants in city neighborhoods (I found a Yellow-throated Warbler on the Upper East Side in April 2005, quite by chance), but you find greater numbers and diversity in the city parks. Central Park is not unique as a migrant magnet - all the other city parks attract them as well - but it is by far the most intensively birded. Central Park's habitat is not pristine or perfect but it's a substantial improvement over the alternatives they are presented with. Birds that migrate during the day, like waterfowl and birds of prey, don't find the park quite as much of a magnet (hummingbirds are an exception) but vantage points like Belvedere Castle are good places to watch for these too.

Central Park's property of concentrating migrants into a small area, and the rapid communication of sightings, make it a very productive area to bird and one of the top 100 North American Birding Hot Spots. About 200 species occur in the park fairly regularly, and about another 85 are found only very rarely - see my summary by species for more details.

In the "field" in Central Park, sightings are communicated by word-of-mouth and also increasingly by cell phone. Many people saw the Central Park Boreal Owl on the day it was found on the Christmas Bird Count by virtue of this informal communication network. (Central Park was one of the 25 locations that constituted the first CBC). There's a sightings log that sits in a folder in the cafe section of the Loeb Boathouse on the east shore of the Lake. There are also an expanding array of internet-based NYC bird sites, which vary as to their degree of immediacy. My eBirdsNYC group, which I took over from Ben Cacace, is a good place to find sightings (common or rare) within the greater NYC area. Lloyd Spitalnik's Metro Birding Briefs is for timely reporting of rarer birds. Mike Freeman's nyc bird report summarises sightings in more of a database approach. The New York City RBA is (regrettably) not often communicated in electronic form, but you can call (212) 979-3070 to check the RBA by the more traditional telephone.

I've broken down my guide to birding Central Park into three sections: by location, by season and by species.

Other websites:

Central Park-related Websites (a few of many):

NYC bird sightings including Central Park:

Websites associated with birding in/around Central Park:

(and there are doubtless more that I've omitted for space and time).

Comments etc to my email address.