A Wildlife Photographer Finds Nature in a Bustling City

It can be hard for a person to communicate in another language, especially when it comes to animals. In that case, it’s understandable that someone might think the language to be useless. But apparently, people can speak to birds.

“Can you attract the titmouse by the birdcall?” a tourist asked with surprise upon meeting Sandra Critelli during the Central Park bird walk on a cloudy Sunday morning in New York City. She told her New Yorker patrons in her Italian accent that these birds heard it and responded.

After they arrived at The Ramble, the well-known winding and wooded paths in the heart of the park’s 843 acres, Critelli gave peanuts to tourists and instructed them on how to lure one of the common small birds, the titmouse, right to their hands. But on this day, the birds didn’t seem to be in the mood.

Critelli, a Dr. Doolittle of Central Park, told the squirrel in front of her, “wait for your snacks.” The squirrel patiently stayed put. At that moment, there seemed to be an inexplicable magical connection between Critelli and the animal, a rare sight in this urban jungle.

Critelli was 24 when she moved to New York City from her hometown of Como, Italy which is a rural area at the southern tip of Lake Como in northern Italy. After arriving, Critelli worked full-time as a textile designer, and she spent most of her free time traveling to every continent to take photos of nature. Now, at 55, she has found solace in Central Park, which became a necessity as her income reduction ate into her travel budget in the last few years. For now, destinations that she enjoyed during solo trips in the past, like Guadalupe Island, Raja Amat, and Antarctica, are off the table.

“I would go to Antarctica every year if I won the lottery,” she said.

Finding an escape in Central Park’s human made greenery has allowed her to develop closer relationships with nature without having to travel far from home.

Long before Critelli was spotting birds in her binoculars, and back in the mid-19th century, Central Park was rocky and swampy. It was primarily the site of Seneca Village, where African-American landowners lived, according to the Central Park’s website. This enclave only existed from 1825 to 1857. Then, settlers and residents were forced to leave for the construction of Central Park. It took the local government $14 million dollars and countless hours to make the landscapes look true to life in Central Park—including every bit of water.

As a result, it eventually became one of the finest birding spots in the United States, attracting birders worldwide. “Being here, bird watching is the closest and easiest activity somebody can do to be in contact with nature,” she said.

Eighteen years ago, because of her fascination for nature, a friend of Critelli introduced her to Robert DeCandido, known as Birding Bob. DeCandido, 62, is a biologist who previously worked for the Department of Parks. He has organized the bird walk on his own every weekend since the spring of 1992. Over the past 30 years, DeCandido and his partner Deborah Allen are the only people who give such tours. They charge $10 per tour, with the funding supporting their academic research in biology to improve urban biodiversity in New York City.

During the first tour with DeCandido, Critelli said she was hooked after she saw a boreal owl which she thought was “not supposed to be in this part of the world.” Her eyes lit up when she mentioned the moment. From then on, Critelli continued to join the bird walk with the group to spot birds every weekend.

Everything was new to her. She absorbed information about over 210 different species of birds in Central Park. So, day after day, Critelli kept on going on tours with her mentor DeCandido and other tourists to spot birds on weekends. She went home and checked bird species that she was not familiar with against bird guides. Then, she memorized them. The National Geographic Bird Guide, a tiny book, is Critelli’s favorite, and she always carries it with her in case she’s stumped by a bird she spots.

But for the most part, Critelli is a walking encyclopedia of the birds in Central Park. For example, she can identify the sex of a fox sparrow without binoculars. She simply looks at their size. While the female fox sparrow and male are quite similar, the male is slightly larger and therefore easily identifiable to the trained eye.

“I see a bird, like far away, or the way it flies, the way, the shape in the sky, I can tell you what it is,”she explained.

So when DeCandidob left for a few months to go to Namibia and Botswana to study bird species, he asked Critelli to take over for him. “She has been doing (this) for several years whenever we go somewhere. She is wonderful,” he said.

Critelli’s role was reversed. When her friend and teacher DeCandidob was away in Africa, she led the bird walk of a group of about 20 people in Central Park during that period. She feels that The Ramble in the middle of Central Park is just like a little planet that needs to be cherished; it’s a place where there are no car horns and no light pollution.

“New York City really is so far away from nature. So far away from nature, but you find a lot of stuff in Central Park that can connect to nature,” Critelli said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that Robert DeCandido no longer works for the Department of Parks; that only Critelli led the bird walk on Sundays; and a minor difference in how male and female sparrows are identified.

About the author(s)

Yuanhao Zhang is a journalist and M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School.