No one told me I’d see fireflies in Central Park. Yet, there they were. Even before all the day’s light slipped from the sky, the fireflies sparked under the stately elms, over the 450 million year-old schist, and around the grassy Strawberry Fields. This remarkable beetle illuminating tiny patches of the park in search of its mates as if surrounded by wilderness, not eighteen million people.
Yet, the press of population has a strong influence on the wildlife in the mostly landscaped and manicured park. The pervasive fauna are introduced; the European triad of Starling, House Sparrow, and Rock Pidgeon are abundant here as they are through much of the city.
On my first foray into Central Park I walked into the park past throngs of early morning dog walkers and saw no birds but the hordes of House Sparrows and Starlings. That began to confirm my suspicions that only invasive species inhabit this contrived environment. As I paused at the Bethesda Terrace, I noticed several dragonflies that circled, and mated, and coursed out over some sickly green water called The Lake. And then, the first native bird species of the day: two barn swallows darting over the fountain in the center of the plaza. There for a brief moment they bring hope but then are gone as if an apparition.
As the morning warmed, so did the park fill with more visitors. My quiet respite at the fountain ended with some Italian tourists asking me for directions to the Boathouse. I consult my map for advice, Central Park Entire: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map by Ken Chaya and Ned Bernard, not just looking for the Boathouse but also seeking a spot to watch birds. Towards the north, a bird icon on the map indicates a “Birding Site.” Doubtful, I pack up and trudge past the Boathouse towards and area called The Oven. Brunch is in process at Loeb Boathouse Cafe and among the coffee and pastry more House Sparrows are in waiting. Up the path past the bike rentals and I’m presented with a fork in the pathway.
The main paved path and the flow of tourist traffic continues forward but to my left a rougher trail disappears into the trees. I choose left and slowly take a few steps. As if suddenly transported to a completely different reality, I’m startled by unfamiliar birdsong. Foolishly traveling to NYC without binoculars, I’m not able to use magnification to make a quick I.D. Instead it takes a little stealth, patience, and luck as a bright red Northern Cardinal comes into view and I realize what I’ve heard. Still watching the Cardinal, which is now Cardinals(a male and female), my attention is drawn to another motion behind me, a Blue Jay. The jay perches above me mostly obscured by branches as if bashful. I eventually get a good view and I see the lovely shades of blue and white and black that paint his feathers. “Such luck,” I think.
Yup, probably not a big deal. But both of these birds are a boon to a west-coaster. I don’t keep a life list but I do know I’ve never seen either of these birds. My heart is uplifted, my soul replenished, it’s most exhilarating to see these two for the first time. Thank you Robert Frost, the path less traveled was indeed the right one.
Continuing down the Frost path, I’m pleased to notice that this section of the park has begun to naturalize and the habitat elements are abundant. An American Robin bathes in a stony pool in a small cascading stream. House Sparrows and House Finches bathe in the dust at the toe of a schist outcrop called Willow Rock. A snag, standing bare and bleached, gives solid evidence of woodpeckers. The multi-storied canopy suggests that not all of the park is indeed manicured. I continue to revel at the sanctuary here and notice a Black-crowned Night Heron perched on a boulder in the lake below. I watch in disbelief and it lifts to wing, flying out of sight as a turtle splashes into the water. Two Eastern gray squirrels rustle in the brush, nose to tail in pursuit one of the other. Later in the day I see several different species of butterfly, a cabbage white for sure but also some of fritillary and checkerspot ilk.
I follow the rutted path past more squirrels, more rocks, more creeks, and eventually return to the main path and civilization. Before continuing I turn for one last look at the refuge behind me and notice a sign mounted to a cast iron post. “Forever Wild,” it proclaims. “Ironic,” I think. That horse left the gate long ago, who thinks this place to be wild? Forever? Answer: evidently, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. Their Forever Wild initiative was established to protect the most important ecological areas of New York City. According to their website you can visit and “get a taste of wilderness” in 51 different nature preserves throughout New York City.
This claim congers the koan, “What is wilderness?”
I spent endless hours debating this topic in graduate school, studying the Wilderness Act, pouring over the pages of wilderness literature, discussing the definition with other students and professors. The answer is complex and there are many definitions but never could I have imagined it to include a small section of Central Park. Wilderness, in my estimation, is an area in its natural, untrammeled condition.
During the creation of Central Park large areas were cleared of all inhabitants (both human and natural): in other words, heavily modified by human activity. This is not wilderness in the purest sense but the wildlife here confirms it is wildness relative to the rest of the park and the city.
Perhaps it is a good thing that tracts like those preserved through the Wild Forever initiative, are considered as wilderness. Despite being less than pristine, these places are protected for the value they do hold and the role they play in conserving wildlife. Though not the rugged mountain peaks of John Muir’s wilderness west, they are more like the perceived wilderness of Robert Winkler’s suburbia; a place where the animals within are as important as if they were in the deep Sierras. Winlker claims, ”Living in society’s overpopulated, paved-over world—with all its rules, regulations, and traffic jams—I think we envy the birds’ wild freedom. We want that freedom and wildness for ourselves. And so we birders watch, listen to, identify, count, list, house, feed, and photograph birds.” And so, too we’re compelled to set aside the remains of what’s wild on their behalf, declaring wild patches to be wilderness even in heavily altered urban centers.
At first glance Central Park appears a wildlife wasteland, completely void of native species, a landscape dominated by cultivars and invasive species Yet, in the less traveled pockets of the park that offer some semblance of habitat, native species do reside, and certainly lend diversity to Central Park.
The first published list of bird species in the park, in 1886, listed 100 birds. Today, the Central Park Conservancy’s checklist includes over 200! On two visits to the park, I spied only a fraction of those birds but each one harkened wilderness for me, provided me some wildness to temper the paved and populated environment of New York City, raising my spirits through the surprise of Cardinal red and with the wonder at sparkling fireflies in the center of the most populous city in the United States.
In addition to the European Triad these birds spotted 6-7 July, 2010:
- Barn Swallow
- House Finch
- American Robin
- Northern Cardinal
- Blue Jay
- Black-crowned Night Heron
- Canada Goose
- Red-tailed Hawk
- Song Sparrow
- Mourning Dove
- American Crow
- Cedar Waxwing
- Common Grackle
- Chimney Swift
- Northern Mockingbird
- Gray Catbird
Other wildlife: Eastern gray squirrel, turtle, dragonfly, cabbage white, butterflies (frittilary or checkerspots), Fireflies!