Goodbye to the Matriarch of Central Park
By David Wimpfheimer
For the last thirty years, birding in New York’s Central Park often meant going on a walk with Starr Saphir. This green oasis amongst the concrete sprawl can rival High Island, McGee Marsh or any site in spring and fall; fifteen to twenty warbler species, countless flycatchers, tanagers and grosbeaks seem to drip off the trees. Starr, however, made even the common birds come alive.
Since birding gave her so much joy she wanted to inspire others to have the same experience. And she did. Several times a week Starr could be seen with twenty or more birders following her. She loved teaching and knew the names and skills of everyone on her walks.
I met Starr at Jamaica Bay in August 1982. She had just moved back to New York City and it was obvious to me that she brought with her an energetic California style of birding. By mastering species distribution and occurrence, she could predict what uncommon birds would be in an area. Of course she tried to see every one of them, often traveling by subway for hours. And her wide geographic expertise meant that no bird would go unidentified.
That fall we did a Big Day and were pleased to find over a hundred species. We were even more thrilled to find my life Connecticut Warbler near 101st Street in Far Rockaway. The abandoned lot behind razor wire and broken glass was a classic migrant trap as much as any at Point Reyes or Death Valley and we returned to Trap 101 many times.
When I visited family in New York I birded with Starr. Of course we tried to find any good birds in the area, but mostly were satisfied with the quest and our enhanced friendship. She was my mentor, but more importantly a close friend. There was no aspect of our lives we didn’t share. This was especially true over the last decade as she tenaciously fought the cancer that ultimately claimed her life on February 5.
Starr was born in Brooklyn in 1939. She was only six years old when she began birding. It was unusual for such a young girl to be a dedicated birder then. Perhaps less unusual was that she was an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan. She had a hard time forgiving her team when they moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Ironically Starr herself moved there, with her daughters, to pursue an acting career in 1975.
She quickly became active in the Southern California birding scene. Jon Dunn looked for shorebirds with Starr in the Antelope Valley. “We spent lots of time carefully studying them and she was a very keen student,” he remembers. That keen eye for detail served her well for decades as she taught details of identification and feather molt.
Long birding trips to Yosemite, Death Valley and other wild areas created a strong bond with her ten-year-old daughter, Lara. Even the sweltering inferno of the Salton Sea was no problem for them; that’s where the birds were.
Don Roberson enjoyed traveling with Starr because she was an excellent companion. “Starr didn’t complain about bad roads or primitive camping conditions, and she was interested in snakes and lizards, not just the target birds. Better yet,” Don recalled, “she had lived a full life and told stories about New York, working as an actress and about the lessons to be learned in life.”
Starr and I led several tours in the West. On our 1995 Alaska tour we detoured to Homer to look for a Black-tailed Gull. After we saw the bird she calmly revealed that it was her 697th life bird. It was impressive that she always knew exactly how many species were on her lists which included half the states and fourteen countries. By knowing the birds on her lists Starr became aware of species not on her lists. She then focused her energies on finding them, which increased her expertise.
I feel fortunate to lead birding walks in wild places like Point Reyes. However, Starr made the remarkable achievement of taking people for a few hours off the busy city streets and enriching their life with her love of birds. She heard every chip and call, getting people to focus all their senses on the birds around them. Starr taught them that “Looking at birds takes you out of yourself and into the real world.”
Although best remembered for her birding walks, Starr expertly taught groups about butterflies and dragonflies as well. The thousands who were enriched by her love of birds included school and youth groups exposed to the natural world for the first time.
There are many memories of our companionship I’ll cherish including a Montezuma Quail that miraculously appeared on a rock behind her in Madera Canyon. And I will especially remember the last adventure I shared with her finding a Barnacle Goose in New York City’s Inwood Park
Whenever I bird in the park I will think of her and see her wearing her trademark blue bandana. And if by some incredible magic I see a Cerulean Warbler, her favorite bird, I will know her joy and love of birds is still there.