Matthew, age 46, showed me around The Ramble in Central Park, where he introduced me to the tufted titmouse and I spotted the first red tail hawk I've ever seen in person. Be sure to check out his wonderful website that details his naturalist observations, Backyard and Beyond.

“My mother became a bird watcher when she and my father moved to Nantucket. This was in '79. So I finished high school there, and went off to college, and I would hear reports about how she was taking a class with some local naturalists and learning a lot about the island.

“One of the things they did was assign her a length of beach to patrol to find and collect dead birds, to identify them and help figure out what had killed them.

In the fall of 2001, I quit my job. I worked for a dot com, so I made some money but I thought the job was completely soulless and horrible, and I quit before they fired me, because they were going through waves of layoffs.

“So that fall I had a lot of time. I lived in Park Slope, just a few blocks from Prospect Park, and I spent a lot of time in the park. I don't know if you remember, but it was a disturbingly, hauntingly beautiful fall that year, and I was seeing great blue herons in there and getting quite close.

“When I went home to visit my parents in Christmas of 2001, it turned out my mom had pancreatic cancer, which is one of the worst because it really lurks in there and you can't find it. So bird watching became a way to connect with my mom; I would tell her all about the red tail hawks I'd see in Prospect Park. That year they nested out in the open and when the young ones were out, they were just like everywhere! They were buzzing over the heads of people, chasing each other, totally freaking out the nannies. They were so close when they flew by that you could see the little mouse in their claws. It was pretty spectacular.

“I started to read a little more about birds and trying to learn more about these hawks, and I went up to Nantucket in the spring, and while I was there a box came in the mail and my mom had bought me a pair of binoculars. I hadn't used them before that ... I was just eyeballing.

“Bird watching has made me interested in other things around me as well; I'm sort of an amateur naturalist now. When I'm in the park and I see a fungus, I wonder, what kind of mushroom is that? And what kind of insect is that? And what kind of plant is that?

“Part of the appeal is also that you're in the woods here, but you look over and, yeah, we're still in New York. Even though obviously I love New York -- after all, I live here -- still, it wears you down sometimes and bird watching is a great refresher. It's also a way of using senses that you don't normally use, or use them in a different way. I mean, we're all about talking really fast in the city and trying to make our point and here in the park it's much quieter and you're listening for birds because each species sings in a different way. And there are all kinds of birds on the ground, and you can hear them rustling in the leaves, looking for grubs and other yummies to eat.

“I suppose some people get jaded, but I find it wonderful, entering this whole different world, turning on these different senses or expanding them or whatever I'm doing. There's a great sense of achievement when I see something that I haven't seen before, but just seeing the old familiar ones, that's still wonderful, too, because as you observe them more, you learn new things: like that little downy woodpecker over there, which is pretty small, but nonetheless very bold: they'll land on a tree this close to us!

“Even the city is a natural world and it's full of life. And that's another thing, people are like, what are you looking at in the park? And I say, if you just look a little closer, you'll see the most amazing things.”

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