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Synopsis

Devoting equal time and affection to birds and birders, first-time filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball explores a distinctly New York phenomenon, telling a story of humanity, nature and the precarious balance between the two. BIRDERS: THE CENTRAL PARK EFFECT captures an astonishing number of species - from hummingbirds and herons to owls and hawks - with stunning HD photography that does justice to the birds' amazingly diverse patterns, hues and personalities. The film also celebrates devoted NYC birders who find a paradise within the urban chaos, among them author Jonathan Franzen and Starr Saphir, the "matriarch" of Central Park birdwatching.

It's springtime in New York City, and the city's biggest park is hosting a community of several hundred birders. As veteran birder Lloyd Spitalnik notes, "If you get tired of looking at the common birds, you might as well just pack it in." Chris Cooper says his friends don't see him from April 15 through Memorial Day; if they question his annual obsession, he counters by rattling off his "seven pleasures of birding." Anya, a 15-year-old birder, wants to protect birds because they are "so alive, active, varied and beautiful."

As the birders describe their passion, the pleasure they derive from the birds is both contagious and poignant. To a birder, finding a feathered friend is like a celebrity sighting. Scientists call the concentration of birds funneling into this oasis of nature amid a sea of steel and cement the Central Park Effect.

Septuagenarian Starr Saphir, who has been giving bird tours almost daily for 20 years, was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer a few years ago. She talks about her heightened joy in birding, which eases her pain, and shares lists of birds she's seen, which she has kept in journals every day since she was a child, looking at them fondly like a photo album or scrapbook. Jonathan Franzen says that when he began birding, it was like an addiction; a morning without birding gave him a sense of unease that could only be fixed by the first spotting of the day, like a smoker craving a cigarette.

Central Park is a magnet for millions of birds who need a rest stop as they migrate along the Eastern Seaboard twice a year, in spring and fall. While this migration is a dangerous process, during which millions of birds die each year, many survivors remember stopovers in the fall and return to the Park, where devoted birders await them.

By early June, all the migrants have passed through New York City, but a couple of dozen species linger. Birds have adapted to human urbanization, and though Central Park is entirely man-made, it appears no different to birds than most natural parks in the country, which are also managed landscapes. Unfortunately, notes birder Jonathan Rosen, the Effect can lead some to believe that the world and the environment is doing just fine.

In winter, species that tend to migrate north in warmer months often fly south to Central Park. At the annual Christmas bird count, citizen scientists help produce the official "Birds in Decline Report" by going out in teams and counting every bird in the Park. Though a seemingly impossible task, patterns can be found in the results. One depressing statistic for bird lovers is that nearly a quarter of all species have had a 50% decline.

Sitting on a park bench the next spring, Jonathan Rosen says he doesn't think of his birding as a hobby "any more than raising my children would be considered a hobby." Perhaps, he concludes, as all sorts of animal populations slowly diminish, people are hungry to touch something that may be slipping away.

A 2012 SXSW selection in Documentary Feature Competition, BIRDERS: THE CENTRAL PARK EFFECT is directed and produced by Jeffrey Kimball; executive produced by Pamela Hogan and Tom Casciato; edited by Daniel Baer; co-produced and co-edited by Nick August-Perna; cinematography by Tony Pagano, Nick August-Perna and Chris Dapkins; bird and nature cinematography by Jeffrey Kimball; music by Paul Damian Hogan.

Birdwatchers in park

Birders: The Central Park Effect

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