You can go birding literally almost anywhere on earth. But, if you want to photograph rare species and large birds of prey, Manhattan is probably not on your birding bucket list. Nevertheless, Central Park, in the middle of New York City’s Manhattan Island, is known as one of the nation’s top birding spots.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
One thing Manhattan does offer that most places don’t is the opportunity to go birding with staff members from the national offices of the Audubon Society—the folks at the heart of worldwide bird conservation efforts. And, even though I was not training my binoculars or telephoto lens on a majestic bald eagle or endangered woodpecker, I did get to spend a morning in the park with a group of infectiously passionate birders.
“That is my favorite warbler!”
“Look at that!”
Every spring, a group of birders from the Audubon Society’s head office in Manhattan gather in Central Park to see if they can find some of the avian treasures presented to the city by the spring migration. You’d think the folks who run the gorgeous Audubon Society website, excellent magazine, and public relations efforts would be in the field as much as they are in the office. Unfortunately for them, this is not the case, so it is a rare occasion when a good portion of the office is walking around on a beautiful spring morning with binoculars dangling from their necks and eyes pointed skyward.
The D500 is Nikon’s newest APS-C (DX) flagship camera, replacing the very long-in-the-tooth D300s that has been out for almost 10 years (the D300 was announced in August 2007, the D300s in July 2009). Sporting a 20.9MP CMOS sensor and the same EXPEED 5 image processor as the Nikon DLSR flagship D5, the D500 can shoot 10 frames per second, 4K UHD video at 30fps, and photos at up to ISO 51200 (expandable to ISO 1640000).
With every successive generation of DSLR, we see not only refinements in the sensors and processors, but in the autofocus systems, as well. With a Multi-CAM 20K AF system, the D500 has 150 phase detection AF points—99 of which are cross-type sensors. 15 of the points are usable with apertures up to f/8, and all of the points work with lenses of f/5.6 and larger. The f/8 sensitivity allows autofocus points to be used with an f/4 aperture lens and 2x teleconverter.
In short, the D500 is virtually the D5 for APS-C shooters, and it can be had at a fraction of the D5’s price tag.
The latest version of the Nikon 300mm f/4 lens is the revolutionary Phase Fresnel version that arrived last year. Packed with the most modern NIKKOR lens features, such as fluorine coating, the latest Vibration Reduction, Silent Wave Motor, Nano Crystal Coating, one Extra-low Dispersion (ED) element, and an electronic aperture diaphragm, the most significant feature is the Fresnel lens that nearly eliminates chromatic aberration or ghosting and allows the lens to be truly compact.
What we are left with is a lens that is only 2/3 the length and slightly more than half the weight of its predecessor. Read that again. No, don’t. I’ll just reiterate. The new lens is 2/3 the length and slightly more than half the weight of the older Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens. Oh, by the way, that D-version of the 300mm f/4 isn’t really a bazooka of a lens—it has a deserved reputation for portability.
Enter the new lens, and my mind is now blown. Do you need another comparison? The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR lens is almost ¾ of a pound heavier and 1/3 of an inch longer than this 300mm lens. Read that again. A 300mm telephoto lens is smaller and lighter than the popular Nikon mid-range zoom lens that has less than half the focal length of the telephoto.
For this review, Nikon gave us a D500 with the new Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR lens and a compact Nikon Deluxe Digital SLR Camera Case, which is designed to hold a body with a lens attached and one additional lens. The case is about the size of an average purse and smaller than standard multi-lens camera bags—not something you would usually grab off the shelf to tote a 300mm lens plus a large DSLR and mid-range zoom. But, guess what? The new 300mm lens fits easily in a small camera bag. Amazing.
Back to birding
The group guide for the outing was Audubon’s Chief Network Officer, David Ringer, who has been birding since he was a small child, in Springfield, Missouri. A veteran birder, he and some of his Audubon colleagues definitely had the advantage over me when it came to spotting birds—even with my good eyesight. There is certainly a practiced art to spotting fast-moving warblers in dense foliage.
Along with my “property-of-Nikon” D500 and the 300mm lens (a mint-condition model borrowed from the B&H Used Department), I had my pair of Nikon 8x42 Venturer LX binoculars (replaced by the LX “L” and now the Nikon 8x42 Premier). The 450mm equivalent field of view of the D500 and 300mm was similar in power to the view afforded by the Nikon binoculars, so switching back and forth was not an exercise in visual surprises. I will say this: even with a large bright viewfinder, and a premium lens, the view of one’s surroundings through a nice pair of binoculars is much brighter, sharper, and more immersive. If you are a long telephoto lens birder, keep your binoculars close and step away from the camera every once in a while to better experience the view—even if it keeps you from getting one more great shot.
Great optics aside, staying targeted on the smaller birds, higher up in the heavy spring foliage of the Central Park Ramble, was challenging. The mature trees are very tall, and the warblers were enjoying the treetop canopies. Shooting distant small birds would have been challenging for any camera and lens combination, but the D500’s autofocus system and easily movable AF points were up to the task. In reviewing the images, I got more in-focus “hits” than misses. Everyone from Audubon who looked through the camera and lens remarked about its blazing-fast autofocus.
I had the D500’s ISO set to 800 for most of my shooting. The skies were a sunlit overcast with few breaks, and the camera spent a lot of the morning trained skyward into heavy foliage and the shade this created. With the extreme 450mm equivalent field of view, I knew camera shake would be an issue. I didn’t feel like I brought my steadiest hands to the party, but the 300mm’s VR system is advertised to be good for 4.5 stops. Pressing the shutter halfway and engaging the VR motors would immediately steady my view through the D500’s viewfinder.
Starting from the Naturalists Gate on the west side of the park, we meandered through the Ramble to Summit Rock, Central Park’s highest natural elevation at an ear-popping 142 feet above sea level. Coming down from elevation, we made it to the beautiful Belvedere Castle, where migrating hawks are known to gather. Down below, turtles enjoyed sun breaks on the shore of their namesake, Turtle Pond. We descended back toward the American Museum of Natural History, where a current exhibit highlights the relationship of today’s birds to ancient creatures.
For birders who are looking to travel light during a morning outing, the Nikon D500 and AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens combination forms an amazingly capable, yet compact and light travel package. You cannot beat the compact size and weight of this 300mm lens. If you need a longer reach, you can combine the 300mm with the AF-S TC-14E III, AF-S TC-14E II, AF-S TC-17E II, AF-S TC-20E III, or AF-S TC-20E II teleconverters.
Our guide, David Ringer, leads the Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Communities program that connects people in urban, suburban, and rural areas with their local birds and environments—encouraging conservation efforts at a local level. The umbrella program oversees three initiatives. The Native Plants for Birds program recommends bird-friendly landscaping and growing tips for your area of the globe. Lights Out: Creating Safe Passage gives us one more reason to reduce light pollution. Lastly, the Avian Architecture: Providing Good Homes for Birds program helps birders and conservationists reverse declining habitats by suggesting how artificial structures can best benefit local and migratory birds. You don’t have to be a birder to get involved!