Central Park in the Dark By Marie Winn (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages; $25)
Urban living does not lend itself to encounters with the wild, and city dwellers might be forgiven for thinking that wildlife consists of rats, pigeons and a few squirrels – that "real nature" exists out beyond the last line of high-rises. Maybe so. But if one lives in America's most razzled urban environment, New York City, and craves the experience of nature, it is right there in the middle of things. In Central Park.
There are birds in the park, as anyone who has walked through it knows. But 244 species? This is the number recorded by one diligent Manhattan birdwatcher. Among the most celebrated birds of recent times are the pair of red-tailed hawks that messily took up residence alongside a high-rise at Fifth Avenue and 74th Street in the early 1990s, eventually causing a controversy among the building's tenants that captured the interest of a lot of other New Yorkers. The hawks were the central figures of Marie Winn's best-selling "Red Tails in Love" (parts of which first appeared in The Wall Street Journal). When the saga ended, Ms. Winn didn't stop observing and recording her encounters with Manhattan wildlife, of course. She simply sought out its nocturnal side.
In its very title "Central Park in the Dark" calls to mind something mysterious and perhaps frightening. Over the years there have been plenty of horror stories, lavishly recorded in the tabloids, to make anyone reluctant to enter Central Park once the sun has gone down. But for Ms. Winn, the darkened park is a place of magic, not menace. Raccoons come out to feed. Owls stir themselves and go on the hunt. Bats take flight. Moths of many types appear in vast numbers. The park comes alive.
"In all the years I've been walking around the park at night, both alone and with friends," Ms. Winn writes, "I've had only two scary experiences." One occurred when she encountered some faux undercover cops – Guardian Angel types with whom she eventually exchanged pleasantries – and the other involving real undercover cops who were less convivial. Otherwise, she says, the prevailing mood has been one of enchantment.
As it turns out, Ms. Winn often makes her nocturnal rounds with other park enthusiasts and lovers of the urban wild. They compose a kind of nightly audience for nature's theater. And there is much to observe – like the emergence of a cicada from its nymph stage: "Suddenly fluid begins to throb through the veins. At first the wings take on a golden, glittery color that sparkles in our flashlight beams. Then, almost immediately, they turn as bright green as the legs. Let there be life! The rapt audience lets out a collective exhalation – ah!"
Ms. Winn's passion for the life of the park extends to all manner of creatures – the large, the small and even the slimy. There is a whole chapter (no kidding) on the sex life of slugs, and while it is not exactly erotic in the most appealing sense of the word – slime has a limiting effect – it is fascinating. "Like our own species," Ms. Winn writes, "slugs prefer to engage in sex under the cover of darkness. Yet people who have managed to observe the arcane rituals of slug sex by lantern or flashlight confirm that what happens when slug embraces slug is ravishingly beautiful."
She is equally lyrical on observing the fly-out of an owl – the occasion when the bird awakens, preens, looks around and in various stages of contemplation decides finally to get up and go to work. Those who gather to watch the fly-out with Ms. Winn are a precise lot, given to recording in their notebooks the exact moment, from night to night, when the owlish event occurs. "Seeing the clock time of an owl's exit change over the months serves a deep purpose: it provides a powerful connection with what Thoreau called 'the steady progress of the universe.' As you stand on terra firma watching the same little drama every day, over time, you begin to absorb the realities of the life on a planet rotating on its axis."
Sample-collecting can be another part of the nightly vigil. At one point Ms. Winn takes some owl pellets that she has gathered – the undigested remains of whatever an owl has killed and consumed and then regurgitated – to the nearby American Museum of Natural History to be analyzed. The pellets are from a barred owl, a species rarely seen in Manhattan. Ms. Winn and her associates are curious about its diet. It turns out that the owl is killing and eating pigeons. This is one version of urban justice.
Among Ms. Winn's nighttime park companions are a group that calls itself the Central Park Mothers. Together they witness the moths that come to an English oak just south of the Boathouse Restaurant, in the middle of the park. The tree gives off a "strong alcoholic smell," suggesting that it is diseased. But the aroma makes the tree attractive to the moths and thus also a gathering place for Ms. Winn and her compatriots. The Central Park Mothers are especially fond of the moths known as "underwings," perhaps because their names are so suggestive: Inconsolable Underwing; Tearful Underwing; Dejected Underwing. Keats might have made something of such melancholy.
Ms. Winn writes as affectionately of her park companions as she does of the wildlife experiences that are their bond. When one of them dies – Charles Kennedy, who "loved Central Park with the passion of the Iowa expatriate that he was" – his friends scatter his ashes near the site where he had seen "his first prothonotary warbler," after a 10-year quest. "We didn't feel sad at all," Ms. Winn writes. "We joked around about Charles's devotion to the stunning warbler. Who else would have chosen such a hard-to-spell name for his e-mail address?"
Mr. Norman, a writer in Vermont, is the author of "Two for the Summit: My Daughter, the Mountains, and Me."