What Wildlife Lurks In Central Park By Night?

By Margot Adler
NEW YORK’S Central Park might not seem like the sort of place you’d want to hang out after dark, but journalist Marie Winn says there’s a whole other world in nature that comes alive.

In Central Park in the Dark, Marie Winn explores the urban wild when the sun goes down and looks at the animals that play in the shadows: bats, owls, moths and slugs. There is even a Russian lady in an electric cart who comes out every night to feed peanuts to a group of rambunctious Raccoons.

In her follow-up to a book that chronicled the lives and loves of the park’s most famous residents —Pale Male and Lola , two Red-tailed Hawks—Winn uncovers the mysteries that make Central Park come alive when most people are sleeping.

As a woman of a “certain age,” you might think that Winn is crazy to wander through the wild and wooded parts of Central Park at night—even though it’s gotten somewhat safer. But it turns out she is part of a whole band of city folk who follow the night mysteries of urban wildlife.

On a recent trudge through last fall’s leaves, Winn admits that “10 or 20 years ago, this was not a place that anyone would venture into.”

Winn says dusk is the time she loves the most. She meets many people who regularly come to the park at night, including owl watchers and “mothers”—people who look for moths. “It rhymes with authors,” Winn notes.

Among the owlers are Jean Dane and Bruce Yolton, whose Web site features pictures of Screech Owls. He’s been taking photos of them for years, photographing the owls as babies, and as they grow up and learn to fly.

Night is when the owls are awake and go hunting, but they’re difficult for people to see in the dark.

“We have only a half-hour of light to look at them, ” says Yolton. “We have only seen them with prey a few times, and that makes it nice—there is still a mystery about them.” Arrive at the park a few minutes too late, and the owls are gone.

One of the strangest night mysteries in Central Park In The Dark is something Winn calls the “Robin’s male dormitory.” It’s a special linden tree in a very populated part of the park. Joggers run by, and people pass with their dogs, but no one notices it. But at dusk, hundreds of male American Robins fly into this tree to sleep, while the females and the babies stay in nests spread across the park.

“It’s a little bit like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds,” Winn says. “First you see one or two birds, then five and then 10, and then you realize there are a lot of birds heading for that tree.”

And just as she says this, a mass of robins flies toward the tree: 10, 12, 15 of them. Once they are all tucked away, it’s hard to see them because the foliage is so thick. But with a tiny flashlight, you can make out their little bodies and beaks.

Winn describes the different songs and sounds the robins make, including a very quiet sound just before they go to sleep.The tree is filled with robin song. But then, quite suddenly, the song dies down. It only takes about a minute until all is still, and the robins are asleep.

Once it is totally dark in the park, Winn walks to the Shakespeare Garden, where a group of people have gathered to look at moths at night. They have a special battery-powered light that attracts the moths. Once, a few years ago during hurricane season, a Black Witch—the largest moth in North America—spent several days in the park.

It was quite a find. Jim Lewis, whom Winn describes as a “master mother,” has put a white sheet over a park bench and turned on the light. Winn trains her binoculars on a tiny tan moth.

“Would you believe that little creature, here, looks plain tan,” she says, “but if you magnify it, it has a red band and these white speckles.”

Winn says that it is normal to be afraid of the dark—that it is part of our human heritage, and that everybody has to overcome it.

“Night is very beautiful. It is magical, and people who are interested in nature miss a lot if they only look at nature in the daytime,” Winn says. “At night, a whole other world is unfolding, one that most people don’t even know exists.”