On June 26th, HBO gave a group of journalists binoculars and snacks and took them to Central Park for a birding walk through The Rambles with filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball, longtime birdwatching tour guide Starr Saphir and novelist Jonathan Franzen. Though it was charmingly oddball, It wasn’t a random excursion — Franzen, Saphir and fellow traveler Chris Cooper all appear in HBO’s documentary “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” making its broadcast premiere tonight at 9pm.
Kimball is himself a passionate birder making his filmmaking debut with this doc, which premiered at SXSW earlier this year. The film, which at a brief hour runtime is being paired with Lucy Walker’s Oscar-nominated doc short “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom,” is a mild-mannered love letter to Central Park and those who’ve found in its cityscape sanctuary a population that includes both humans and winged creatures. According to the film, more than 200 avian species funnel through the park in a year thanks to the titular phenomenon in which migratory birds use it as one of the few places to land in an otherwise unwelcoming urbanized area.
Like the film, the walk was intended to be an introduction to what might otherwise seem like an incomprehensible hobby — though June is a notably slow time for birdwatching, falling between the spring and fall migrations. Still, there were a few sightings to be had, including a red-tailed hawk pointed out by Franzen, circling the sky above the park while being hectored by smaller kingbirds.
Franzen, while the most famous face in the film (he’s written about his experiences birdwatching in the New Yorker), is its most sheepish interview, admitting that when he first began birding it “presented a lot like an addiction,” taking him away from work, and saying that he “still think it’s embarrassing, a little bit.”
Others are less apologetic, like the enthusiastic Cooper, who talks of pre-listing reasons for loving birding to offer to his bewildered friends who mock him, and teenager Anya Auerbach, who agrees to the potential geekiness of the pasttime but is unhesitating in her love for it.
Even at 60 minutes, “Birders: The Central Park Effect” feels long, structured around a year-long cycle in the park and interviews with different birders musing on the rewards and motivations of their calling. But the nature footage cut between the speakers and shot by Kimball is gorgeous, with jewel-like cardinals and mallards gleaming on tree branches and in the water. In one of his on-screen appearances, Franzen mentions that the first time he really became aware of birds in the park, “it was like the trees were hung with ornaments,” and the film does capture a sense of the magic of spotting these animals out in the sanctuary of the park without the patience and time seeking them out yourself requires. Trust me, it’s harder in person than it looks.