Standing at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 12th Street, St. Vincent’s disappearing behind me like an Etch A Sketch® erasure, Millie, my ever-addled corgi, searches my face for the surely unsatisfying answer to her question, “Why did we walk all of the way over here – again?” For the last week, I’ve forgone our usual Take Me to the River morning ritual to traipse east hoping for a repeat appearance from the neighborhood Red-tailed Hawk.
Last Wednesday morning, a crowd dodging the fruit cart gathered at this corner. Dozens of phones, pads, pocket cameras and telephoto lens the size of mini-vans had instantaneously appeared clicking at a handsome Red-tail perched on the fence railing looking for breakfast. Morning off-to-workers stopped amid the paparazzi, quizzing, “What are you looking at?” More than one commuter jumped back as their eyes focused on the startlingly large raptor not ten feet away.
This was likely the same brilliantly red-tailed soaring bird that I saw the Wednesday morning after Hurricane Sandy while I waited at the Bus Stop Café for the M11 to take me uptown, out of the blackout zone, to charge my phone, take a shower, and get some hot coffee. Probably, it was the same bird I had seen several weeks earlier being harassed by a Kestral on the cornice of Westbeth. In other words, a neighborhood regular and getting to be a neighborhood celebrity.
Quite frankly, that hawk was the only Storm Bird that I associate with Hurricane Sandy. Some birders, and I count myself in their camaraderie, get twitchy at the prospect of a big storm coming through and the unlikely avian hitchhikers it might pick up and drop onto our streets. A storm as massive as Sandy could be an express train for birds from the tropics or the far-Atlantic. Maybe a Magnificent Frigatebird, a White-tailed Tropicbird, or something fantastic like a Red-footed Booby, might be glimpsed while catching its breath in a gingko tree on Perry Street. I could imagine a Dovekie, a Murre, or perhaps even a Puffin, dodging pilings in the Hudson, wondering how it got there. I wondered, after the thrill of seeing it, how it might get back home.
Millie is really bored now, scritch-scratching at the sidewalk, an unmistakable cue for, “Let’s move on bucko.” I wipe some morning gunk out of one of her eyes (she’ll only tolerate me doing one at a time) and we’re on our way. Our no-show red-tailed star is using the tried and true gambit of celebrity – more mystery, more curiosity.
One snazzy new bird that I did see, and its appearance could well have been related to Sandy: my Northeast Bird Species #318, a Virginia’s Warbler. Since after the storm, this dollop of yellow has been confounding birders with its elusiveness out at Alley Pond Park in Queens, hide and seeking through the downed Red Oaks brush. This little guy is supposed to be in the southwest, so maybe he was scooped up by Sandy as he headed for his winter vacation.
As Millie and I turn west, an explosion of Blue Jays, those security guards of the streets, alert me that perhaps the hawk is still around. Millie steps lively but just as quickly gets mired in a cul-de sac of intoxicating aromas. Perhaps a chicken bone is masquerading as an ivy leaf.
I can honestly attribute none of the past week’s surfeit of birds to Sandy. Why we have had an influx of the perkily crested Tufted Titmouse, after years of their absence, I have no idea. For over a month, their skittery whining has been heard up and down all of our usual blocks. Hermit Thrushes have been nearly common. One morning at Hudson River Park I saw a foraging quartet of Swamp Sparrow (a recent newbie to my West Village List), Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and House Sparrow, with a Slate-colored Junco thrown in for a flash-of-white-tail-feathers guest appearance, and a chorus of Chickadees scatting from the treetops. The Yellow-rumped Warblers, and sadly, the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have moved on, but a Red-breasted Nuthatch or two are still caching their nuts, which means that they may be planning to stay.
At Washington Street, Millie pulls me to complete her unconscionably overlooked walk to the River. “Okay, just down and back.” Mid-block, as we wade across the now invisible high water line from Sandy’s storm surge, I imagine Millie gracefully doing the backstroke to the sea like Esther Williams.
With each step west I calculate, “How deep was the water here?” As water figuratively pours over the tops of my boots, Millie figuratively doggie-paddles down the sidewalk, happy as a clam.