Yesterday upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
—“Antigonish,” William Hughes Mearns
I’m struggling into my sweater, half-hitching my scarf, heaving on my leather coat (its patina has evolved over two decades from stylish, to worn, to stylishly worn), plopping on a flappy-eared hat. My corgi, Millie, looks up. “Yes, Millie, of course you’re going out too, but you’re already dressed.” Clip. On goes her leash. And, for me, on, finally, go the gloves. Out. To the winter wonderland.
Winter birding in the West Village, while cataloging the birds that are there, is frequently a connect-the-dots reverie on the birds that aren’t. Nearly every step, tree branch and cornice remind me of a bird that I saw there once but isn’t there now. And, of course, I’m always hoping for that new bird that might appear just around the next corner. All of those past and future birds fluttering through my head are worthy of Hitchcock—quite a conjuring trick.
Crunching the snow on the cobblestones of Perry Street whisks me to another snow-covered morning, admiring Millie’s red-brick glow in the sunrise. Whoosh-wham. A mere leash-length in front of me, at the Greenwich Street corner, a hawk picked out a panicked Mourning Dove, then settled calmly to enjoy breakfast on a branch outside Braeburn (earlier Caribe, then Voyage and now Left Bank—more neighborhood pentimento). A Cooper’s Hawk. A first winter youngster. But already stunning. (I was stunned.) Just last month, in the midst of a morning nor’easter, another Cooper’s surveying Perry Street caught my peripatetic eye.
Raptors, from the Latin “to seize and carry away,” seem an unlikely match for the gentle enclaves of the West Village, yet some make their homes here, and others are just winter transients. Something tasty, or smelly, beckons Millie to catty-corner back across Greenwich Street. This offers a good view of the backyard treetops behind Greenwich Village Auto and Body Repair, a frequent winter perch for a Red-tailed Hawk. I’ve seen a robust auburn-tailed adult swaying on a branch up there as well as a browner-tailed white-rumped kid. Both looked equally impressive (I was impressed) silhouetted against the sky. And when one plummeted down into the atrium of my building pursuing a pigeon, a neighbor who came face to face with the literally hawk-eyed stranger on her windowsill told me that LARGE was an understatement.
Millie freezes, looking up in her amusing (for a herding dog) bird-dog pointing pose. A resilient clutch of oak leaves chatter on a branch while, just above, a plastic bag caught in an updraft circles ominously. A formation of pigeons loop-the-loop beyond that. My gaze stalls on the finial at the top of a water tower, tricking me once again with its hunkered-down-hawk-imitating outline. And further skyward are a handful of gulls scribbling against the clouds. Layers upon layers.
My mind wanders to another winter’s Bleecker Street chase after the surprising kek-kek-kek of an alarmed Sharp-shinned Hawk. I remember dashing (thrilling Millie) after a glimpse on Charles, a zigzag at Perry, and then losing the square-tailed tourist as it veered east at 11th Street. That was the only time I’ve seen a Sharpy in the neighborhood. But seeing one once means that every time I’m out, there’s the possibility that I might see its flap-flap-flap-glide again.
Heading west has me reanimating Kestrel sightings. Several pairs have nested in the West Village in the past several years, and though I’ve never seen one in winter, there could be one. On a sunny day, a male—with its gaudy orange and blue finery—perched on a balcony makes my day. I’ve tried to turn many a pigeon, with its sharply angled wings, into a Kestrel stooping for lunch. Occasionally the alchemy does work, though the exact recipe is elusive. Still, every roof line demands scrutiny.
Hudson River Park beckons. We have the light. Millie loves this, and having a jogger and a bicycle to chase makes it even better. The usual scruffling White-throated Sparrows are tsk-ing around the bushes. A Cardinal plinks from a tree. Out over the River, a small flight of Brant Geese careens south, probably for a snack on the Pier 45 lawn. Winter regulars.
A caterwauling gull. Oh. Up there. A Peregrine Falcon is in rollercoaster chase. A real raptor this time—not just one in my head. There’s a Peregrine pair that can often be found on the ledges of the yellowish building at West and 16th Streets, but they’re not strangers to hunting over these blocks. I’m hypnotized. Up. Up. Out of sight. Just a few seconds. But those seconds are now part of my Village birding lore.
Scanning the Hudson, I say, “Millie, maybe there’s a Bald Eagle riding an ice floe?” Right now, it’s one more glamorous bird that’s not there.