A loud wheezing sound is coming from the trees. Fifteen pairs of binoculars swivel in unison before coming to rest on a distant spot. "False alarm. It's a grey squirrel," shouts a voice with evident disappointment. But as our guide, Gabriel Willow, explains, it pays to be aware of every sight and sound. Even a seemingly mundane squirrel squawk could signal the arrival of something more exciting, like a hawk or an owl.
We are in Central Park, a stone's throw from the designer boutiques and smart restaurants of Fifth Avenue, for a 90-minute birding walk organised by New York City Audubon, an organisation that champions nature in New York's five boroughs. One of the most built-up cities in the world might seem like an odd place to go twitching but, as Willow explains, Manhattan is on a key migratory route from Canada to Latin America and the Caribbean, making Central Park an important pit-stop for dozens of species in the autumn and spring.
As we walk around the lake in the middle of the park, we come across a turtle resting on some rocks. With hawk-like eyesight and a wondrous awareness of the environment around us, Willow points out plants and flowers, and various bird and animal calls, as we walk the wooded paths.
"Look, a black-throated blue warbler. There, to the right of the thickest tree, on the high branches. Look for a white spot on her wing," he directs, with the speed and precision of a sports commentator. "Like a pocket handkerchief!" shouts someone else in the group.
Willow is a born teacher. He talks about the 200 or so species of birds that can be found in America's most notable park during the course of the year with a passion that would have felt familiar to John James Audubon himself, the 19th-century bird enthusiast who set out to record and paint all of America's birds. Willow was so engrossed in reading about the yellow-bellied sapsucker on his way here today that the 31-year-old Brooklynite missed his subway stop. His enthusiasm is contagious.
"We were so excited by a particular bird we saw last week in the park that no one noticed we were standing by Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange," says lifelong birdwatcher Alex McKown. "They asked what we were looking at."
If we're lucky today, we could see up to 120 different bird species. On a bad day, there might be nothing more exciting to see than the mallard ducks paddling out in the lake. "That's the beauty of migrating birds; you never know what's going to be out," enthuses Willow. But at least we can celebrate the freedom afforded by this vast green stripe in the middle of one of the world's greatest cities.
I'm struggling to see our next specimen: the ruby-crowned kinglet, which, at less than four inches long, is the third-smallest bird in the US. "Always identify a bird with your eyes first before you reach for your binoculars," says Willow. "Listen, do you hear it, 'chittick'? It's a high-anxiety bird with a loud, nasal call."
"Typical New Yorker," jokes someone.
Most birds are more active in the early morning and late afternoon. As sunset draws nearer, we are treated to an amazing nature show as a procession of migratory songbirds comes to feed in the foliage. A yellow-rumped warbler is next up. "Look for the flash of lemon-yellow," says Willow, pointing to a spot high up in the branches.
The golden-crowned kinglet, the black-throated blue warbler, the northern cardinal... the names have an undeniable poetry. Further along the path, a pine warbler is snacking on insects. "Warbler neck is a common affliction in this game," jokes Willow, as we all strain skywards.
When someone asks why a black-throated green warbler we see isn't green, Willow explains that birds generally take their names from the physical appearance of the male of the species. "That's kind of sexist," complains one female member of the group. "That's nature," responds another.
Today's group is split between novices and hardcore twitchers, retirees and those in their 20s and 30s. Though just a hobby for most, it can clearly get addictive. The more serious members make a note in their birding handbooks of the location, date and time of each sighting they make. Danielle Guarracino, 29, rushed to get here from work. "It's such a peaceful thing to do after a day in the office," she says.
The creation of Central Park in the mid-19th century was a remarkable tribute to the "can-do" attitude of New Yorkers, and its survival a testament to their appreciation of the great outdoors even in this crowded corner of the north-eastern US. It covers 840 acres from 5th to 8th Avenue and 59th to 110th Street. New Yorkers make much of their park, usually by cycling, skating or jogging. But staying still brings its own rewards.
The appearance of a golden-crowned kinglet elicits oohs and aahs, rather overshadowing a house sparrow, which appears larger than usual, having fluffed itself up in preparation for the winter chill. "A lot of birdwatching is about a process of elimination," says Willow.
Birdwatching has long been the butt of jokes, but Willow believes it could go mainstream. "There was this perception of birding being the preserve of retirees, but that's changing as people are starting to feel a hunger to reconnect with the natural world. More people are realising it's a pretty cool hobby."
Travel essentials: City twitchers
*New York City Audubon runs birding trips and classes year-round in many New York locations including Central Park. For more information, visit nycaudubon.org
*Central Park Conservancy loans out Discovery Kit backpacks containing binoculars, a guidebook, maps and sketching materials free of charge at the Henry Luce Nature Observatory at Belvedere Castle. For more information, visit bit.ly/birdpark .Reuse content