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A Starr Birder Takes Flight

Published: 4/1/2013
Up until about four months ago, Starr Saphir was a familiar sight in Central Park where, for the past 30 years, she guided bird walks – four tours each week, up to five or six hours each. Her knowledge, her generosity, her passion and, in the end, her stamina made lasting impressions on her friends and family and fellow birders. She referred to birds as “individuals” and, says one of her devotees, you learned early on not to point! Starr always said, “Seventy percent of the birds fly when you point!”

Starr Saphir (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)
Starr Saphir (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)


Margaret MacCary, who immersed herself in the bird walks after her retirement seven years ago, says that Starr remembered people’s names and felt obligated to get everyone “on” the bird. If they somehow “missed” seeing, say, a catbird, Starr would make a point of saying, “I owe you a catbird.

When Margaret started the walks one fall she knew Ms. Saphir was battling cancer and feared she would not return the next spring. Still in awe of her perseverance, Margaret says, “That was seven years ago!”

“She was a master teacher,” she recalled. “She worked hard on knowing what she knew and she was a taskmaster, very exacting. She put on a good show, had a very dry wit, wasn’t above a good pun and she had good patter.”

Starr had two daughters, non-birders, who finally and fully understand their mother’s impact and influence in this active community.

“The tributes that have been coming in for the last days have truly overwhelmed both my sister and me,” wrote Shawna Leigh on her Wordpress blog. “I never really comprehended the extent of her presence in the birding community until I was lucky enough to live with her for the last 3 ½ years and see some of it for myself. I am extremely grateful to my mother’s birding family for the loving support they have extended to my sister and me, and of course for all of the joy that you brought to my mother.”

Last year, HBO aired Birders: The Central Park Effect, filmed and directed by birder Jeffrey Kimball, which featured Starr. Soon after that, she began showing up more sporadically, stopping along the way to take her medicine. “But she never complained,” Margaret said.

Increasingly her “sidekick” Lenore Swenson, who birded with Ms. Saphir for over 23 years, would lead or complete the walks. Ms. Swenson has said she will plan a memorial event for her birding buddy in Central Park during the spring migration. (Information about the event will be posted on Ms. Leigh’s blog.)

Surely all her disciples will have favorite moments and memories of Starr’s walks but one of Margaret’s has been especially enduring: meeting her constant companion, Sid Schwager on an early morning walk in 2006. And virtually all of them, it is certain, will treasure their time with her and the “individuals” – birds and people – she introduced to them.

“Somebody who can open up a whole new world and teach you how to look and how to listen…to see things that were always there and that have been there for millions of years and you never saw them or you never heard them,” Margaret said no doubt speaking for many. “It’s a way to be so much more attuned to nature. I’m eternally grateful to her.”

Written by Susan Soper. Soper is the author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has been a reporter with Newsday, writer for CNN, and Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."

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