Millie, my corgi, twists and shouts in the air as we cross West Street toward the river. Her back leg is fine again (thank you all for asking), so she has revived her full repertoire of hopping, skipping and jumping. Her shouting had never faltered. After a sweltering summer, shedding a few hairs from her heavy coat with nearly every step, the frost in the November morning air seems to jazz her – maybe it’s the blue blood of her Welsh ancestors bubbling inside.
Immediately on the other side of the street, even above the traffic whirling into motion, I can hear the recently arrived White-throated Sparrows a-tisket-a-tasket-ing in the ivy. Just in time, I catch a House Sparrow diving into the pipe-end of the traffic light T-bar support – feeding yet another family. This may be his third or fourth brood of the year! Busy papa!
During October, fall migration along Hudson River Park was so good that I hated to see the month end. I added three new birds to my West Village List – Swamp Sparrow, Field Sparrow and Tufted Titmouse – bringing the tally up to 81 species. An Irish Setter ripples by and Millie launches into her blurry invitation to play, confounding him with a scribble of runs and bows, barking, “Play with me! Play with me!” These desperate tactics rarely work, but that doesn’t stop Millie from recruiting.
Between spring and fall migration, I get out of practice identifying the transient birds and then just as I’m getting my confidence back, the influx of visitors wanes. October was definitely the Month of the Sparrow, with many opportunities to indulge in the connoisseur’s pleasure of discerning the subtleties of these LBJs – Little Brown Jobs.
House Sparrow. Our Old World Sparrow. Of course, one gets to study these all year, but because they are so common, it’s easy to write them off for, “Another time.” However, the males’ fashionable black jabots, the females’ lovely Pantone pages of browns and the youngsters’ dandelion-fluff buoyancy always leaves a lot to admire.
Eastern Towhee. This is the first bird listed in the sparrow section of field guides, but doesn’t look anything like the rest of them. The male is a handsome black, chestnut and white harlequinade, and the female is a parfait of toffee and café au lait.
Song Sparrow. These guys can drop in at almost any time. A few weeks ago, a memorable one had unusually dark Martin Van Buren mutton chops. I experimented with my birder’s alchemy, attempting to transform him into a rarer species.
White-throated Sparrow. A familiar winter visitor. The name says it all.
White-crowned Sparrow. Their flashy white-striped stand-up cap makes them look like a hipster.
Swamp Sparrow. A skulker. Their gray neck and russet wings look mud-spattered.
Field Sparrow. If I had to pick a favorite sparrow, this would be it – baby-faced with pale features, a pink bill and a wide-eyed demeanor.
Millie has been sitting patiently through my sparrow-ful ruminations as my binoculars follow a perky Red-breasted Nuthatch, a cufflink on the striped Oxford sleeve of a Red Oak trunk. His little tin horn call betrays his disappearance higher into the branches.
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet bounces in full view along the promenade, not the usual peripatetic wisp hide-and-seeking through the treetops. There’s the understated zee-zee-zee of a Golden-crowned Kinglet somewhere in the Tupelo tree; two more birds that make me happy. Galloping along like Yellow-rumped Warblers buffeted by their own hyperactivity, Millie has reached the mid-point of her walk. A complaining trio of Tufted Titmice seem to chide, “Go home. Go home.”
Okay. As we turn around, a smattering of jauntily polka-dotted Flicker breast feathers littered across the grass belie that there’s still a hawk in the neighborhood – one of the many hazards of migration. Millie romps with an airborne tuft, unaware of its somber provenance.
Back across West Street, the fingers of dawn are reaching down from the rosy kitsch of the Palazzo Chupi to paint a group of wannabe House Sparrows as rose-colored House Finches – trick-or-treaters left over from Halloween. I look up, Millie following my gaze, just as a band of Brant Geese high above bicker about which way is south and who should lead them there.
Another cycle is ending. Or, wait, is it just beginning?