Central Park, New York. This is a city full of famous places, but none are as synonymous with New York as the great park that occupies a huge swath of central Manhattan. It defines the neighbourhoods around it — people talk about Central Park East or Central Park West. And it’s the favourite venue for every kind of recreation, from picnics to major concerts. You could call it the green heart of the city. But while Central Park is the city’s heart, the park itself has a heart — a lush, green heart called The Ramble.
The Ramble is the secret haunt of those who love nature, (relative) solitude, and birds. Most visitors never get to see it, but on my recent visit to New York, I was lucky enough to have expert help: my friend Roberta Kravette, author of the excellent Destination: Wildlife website, and her friend Dennis Newsham, a professional photographer and a man who knows the park like the back of his hand.
Roberta and I arrived in Central Park bright and early one morning, and after a few minutes we found Dennis, who had arrived early and was waiting for us. In fact, he’d already found the first bird of the morning, a great blue heron sitting at the edge of The Pond.
After a good look, we headed out, past tranquil scenes that seemed far removed from the hustle of downtown Manhattan, even though we were only a block or two away. Joggers bounced by, mothers pushed baby strollers, people read the New York Times on park benches. Yet just over the trees you could still see the famous art deco towers of midtown Manhattan.
We made our way north, up the Literary Walk, for a look at the statues of Robbie Burns and Sir Walter Scott. And soon we were crossing one of the park’s landmarks: Bow Bridge, built-in 1859 in the shape of an archer’s bow. Today it’s a favourite spot for photos, and also the gateway to The Ramble.
Not everyone knows that, of course. But if you know where you’re going, it soon becomes clear that you’ve reached a special part of the park. Described by the park’s website as a 36-acre “wild garden,” The Ramble is as old as the park itself, created in 1859 as a refuge for city dwellers (sorry, it’s not a natural feature). Some of the trees from that era still stand along the pathways.
The entrance to The Ramble was marked by a big, bold sign with a map of the area. Which is lucky, because The Ramble could just as well be called The Maze: without the help of my local guides, I imagine I’d be lost in about 10 minutes, even if I dropped a trail of breadcrumbs. They’d likely be eaten, anyway: this patch of woods is a birding hot spot, especially during migration, with more than 230 species recorded over the years.
Unfortunately, the migration had pretty much come and gone by the time we made our walk. But we did find a flock of golden-crowned and ruby=-crowned kinglets in the woods, and a few warblers. And the park was alive with northern flickers, on their way south. But I was happy just to enjoy the greenery of The Ramble, and views like the one below. The Ramble, like the rest of the park, was cunningly deigned to provide lovely views of the nearby water features, and often the city beyond.
However, as we walked the paths, we could see bits of motion in the underbrush, and hear the soft chirping of songbirds here and there. Soon we made out the chestnut-brown shapes of thrushes flitting through the woods. I didn’t bring my telephoto lens on the trip, but Dennis was well prepared. And finally a thrush stayed put long enough for him to get a lovely portrait, which he kindly let me share.
Our visit to The Ramble was over — thanks to my friends, we found our way out. But our day in the park wasn’t finished. Nearby, we found the beautiful Shakespeare Garden, an English-style garden planted with flowers and plants mentioned in the bard’s poems and plays. And the Swedish Cottage, a log house shipped in pieces from Sweden in the 1870s. It’s now a children’s marionette theatre.
Then on to the Belvedere Castle, a fanciful fortress built by the park’s planners as a lookout, since it’s at a high point that provides the best views of the park and its surroundings. Getting to the top required navigating a steep set of stone stairs, but the view was worth the climb. Incidentally, this is where the National Weather Service takes the atmospheric readings broadcast across local media.
The morning was over, and we headed back toward the Tavern on the Green for a festive lunch, passing horse carriages and mounted policemen and families enjoying a day in the park. It was a fine adventure in one of the world’s great parks, and discovering its secrets with my New York friends turned it from a pleasant walk into a day in the VIP section. And as for birds, I’ll leave you with Dennis’s photo of the great blue heron he found at The Pond. No matter where you find them, they’re a sight to behold.