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

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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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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