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For Longtime Central Park Birder, Walks 'Heightened Joys Of Life'

Saphir leads a bird walk in Central Park during spring migration last year. (NPR)

Legendary birder Starr Saphir died this week at the age of 73, after an 11-year battle with metastatic breast cancer. She led walks in New York's Central Park for some 30 years and enriched so many city lives.

I could never keep up with Starr Saphir. Even when her bones were fragile and you couldn't jostle her, and she stopped to rest several times during a walk to take pain medication, her walks could last five hours.

Born in New York City and living at the very tip of Manhattan, Saphir would lead walks four days a week during the spring and fall migrations in the North Woods of Central Park and the Ramble. Most people think the park is only home to pigeons, sparrows and starlings, not a magical realm where some 200 species of warblers, tanagers, hawks, flycatchers and other species of birds fly in.

You can watch Saphir lead walks in a recent HBO documentary called Birders: The Central Park Effect. In the movie, Saphir says it is a joy to watch the light go on in somebody's eyes when they see a bird and know what they are looking at.

Saphir never made much money, and in fact she barely got by. Most recently she charged only $8 a walk. She lived a spare, simple life and didn't have a computer. As birding got more technological, filled with apps, she told me she worried that it would be out of reach for many.

"You have to have thousands of dollars of equipment," she said. But she finally did consent to get a cellphone.

Saphir recorded some 259 species in Central Park alone. She saw her first bird — a black and white warbler — at the age of 6, when her grandfather's car broke down in upstate New York.

She was born as Muriel, but her nickname was always Starr. Feisty, funny, a gray braid down her back, she could show people with less ability how to see things they would never see on their own. In the film she says, "I'm alive and I want to live my life while I am here, and I want to experience as much as I can."

As she contemplated her life with terminal breast cancer, she told filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball that time had a new meaning for her.

"It's heightened my joys in life, " she said. "And I always loved what I did, but it's heightened even more because I know that not only is it not going to last forever, it's not going to last that much longer. For years at the end of a season I would have pangs, 'Oh, is this the last black-throated blue warbler I am going to see for this season or for this year?' And now I wonder if it is the last one."

Many of those who went on her walks say their lives were changed utterly. There will be one or two memorial walks for Saphir this spring in Central Park, the place she always called her office.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Now, if anybody could appreciate a vulture, it would have been Starr Saphir. The legendary birdwatcher died this week at the age of 73 after an 11-year battle with breast cancer. She led walks in Central Park for some 30 years and enriched many urban lives. NPR's Margot Adler has a remembrance.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: I could never keep up with Starr Saphir. Even when her bones were fragile, and you couldn't jostle her, and she stopped to rest several times during a walk to take pain medication, still, her walks could last five hours.

STARR SAPHIR: We knew this was going to be an absolutely great day. I had a common raven, which is an unusual bird in Manhattan, and it just heated up from there.

ADLER: Born in New York City and living at the very tip of Manhattan, Saphir would lead walks four days a week during the spring and fall migrations in the North Woods of Central Park and the Ramble. Most people think the park is only home to pigeons, sparrows and starlings, not a magical realm where some 200 species of warblers, tanagers, hawks, flycatchers and other species fly in.

SAPHIR: OK. Let's see who's right of center. Is this chestnut-sided warbler just moving right? Just watch for small movement. It's a joy to watch the light go on in somebody's eyes when they see a bird and know what they're looking at.

ADLER: That's from the recent HBO documentary "Birders: The Central Park Effect," which profiles Saphir. Starr Saphir never made much money. She barely got by. She charged six, and finally eight, dollars a walk. She lived a spare, simple life and didn't even have a computer. As birding got more technological filled with apps, she told me she worried that it would be out of reach for many.

SAPHIR: You have to have thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

ADLER: Although she finally did consent to a cell phone. Saphir recorded some 259 species in Central Park alone. She saw her first bird at the age of six when her grandfather's car broke down in upstate New York. It was a black and white warbler. She was born as Muriel, but her nickname was always Starr. Feisty, funny, a grey braid down her back, she could show people with less ability how to see things they would never see on their own. Here she is again in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BIRDERS: THE CENTRAL PARK EFFECT")

SAPHIR: I'm alive. And I want to live my life while I'm here, and I want to experience as much as I can.

ADLER: And as she contemplated her life with terminal breast cancer, she told filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball: Time has a new meaning for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BIRDERS: THE CENTRAL PARK EFFECT")

SAPHIR: It's heightened my joys in life. And I always loved what I did, but it's heightened even more because I know it's - not only is it not going to last forever, it's not going to last all that much longer. For years, at the end of a season, I would have pangs and say: Oh, is this the last black throated blue warbler I'm going to see for this season or for this year? And now, I do wonder if it's the last one.

ADLER: Many of those who went on her walks say their lives were changed utterly. There will be one or two memorial walks for Saphir this coming spring in Central Park, the place she always called her office. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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