On a recent sunny morning in New York a few dozen people gathered in Central Park's wooded Ramble area with a common goal: zero in on an elusive owl.
Autumn leaves crunch under their shoes as "Birding Bob" -- a guide who has been organizing birdwatching tours in the park for more than three decades, with interest jumping since the coronavirus pandemic hit the city in March -- leads them along winding paths.
Suddenly the avian enthusiasts raise their binoculars and cameras with powerful telephoto lenses to view Barry, a barred owl peering through the pines, who arrived about a month ago to the delight of New Yorkers.
Each year some 220 bird species frequent Central Park, which remarkably is considered one of the best spots in the world for birding despite the city's 8.6 million residents, with especially good viewing during migration periods.
In pandemic times bird-watching has grown in popularity, with theaters and clubs indefinitely closed due to coronavirus, which has killed more than 24,200 people in the city since spring.
"There's fewer things to do in New York City -- and the things that you could do inside are either limited or canceled," Birding Bob -- the tour guide born Robert DeCandido -- told AFP.
"So people are doing things outside. That's good. And these walks are only $10 so that's a really good deal... try to find something for $10 or less in New York City, you know it's impossible!"
The recent arrival in Central Park of the barred owl that meanders from one side to another -- or perhaps there are two of the species, one of the city's current mysteries -- along with a great horned owl have triggered curiosity and filled DeCandido's tours with New Yorkers who have trouble spotting the birds themselves.
The Ramble is the park's best birding locale; it was also there that Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog off-leash, wrongfully called the police on a Black man who was bird-watching and requested she restrain her dog.
The incident -- which happened the same day in May that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis -- triggered outrage and resulted in charges against Cooper for filing a false police report.
Democratization of birding
Tarini Goyal, who moved to New York a few months ago, said her new hobby helps her handle the stress of the pandemic and has also helped her socialize as the city experiences a resurgence of the virus.
"It's helped me feel like I'm more connected to the community and to nature," the 28-year-old doctor said, offering nuts from the palm of her hand to a black-hooded chickadee and tufted titmouses.
David Barrett, who founded the Twitter account "Manhattan Bird Alert" -- which soared to local celebrity status for its tracking of the exotic mandarin duck, a non-native bird whose presence fascinated New Yorkers two years ago -- said his handle has grown "tremendously" since the pandemic's onset, now boasting some 30,000 followers.
"Birding is an activity you can do on your own. You can do it in parks where you can maintain distance from people," said the 56-year-old mathematician and investor, who says he's spotted 282 species in his life, the second most in the specialist e-Bird database.
"It's a great thing to do during these times."
In an isolated section of the park Birding Bob dashes back and forth evading a red-bellied woodpecker he has attracted with a recorded song, as onlookers scramble to snap photos.
"This guy has testosterone issues," the guide laughs, referring to this particular bird's aggression.
Some critics argue that Birding Bob shouldn't use pre-recorded sounds to attract the birds, or that popularizing the hobby was to the detriment of the once unfrequented Ramble.
But others, like Barrett, say DeCandido is respectful of the environment, and that democratizing the pastime is positive: "The more people we have, the more chances that rarities get found."
- Tranquility -
Barrett took his hobby to the extreme in 2012, competing with prominent ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth to see who could spot the most species in Manhattan.
Barrett won, and recounted the experience in his book "A Big Manhattan Year: Tales of Competitive Birding."
For DeCandido, Barrett and others like Deborah Allen -- a 60-year-old photographer who has worked with "Birding Bob" -- the leisure activity has effectively turned into a full-time job.
"When I first moved to New York, I was a little bit intimidated by the urbanness of it," Allen said. "Everything's happening and everybody's busy and hurrying... there's glass and steel.
"But then, you know, I would go to Central Park on my lunch hour," she said. "And then I noticed birds."
"So that was it for me. I was all over it."