Early December. A birder’s doldrums. There aren’t actually many birds around Hudson River Park this morning, but the anticipation of a late migrant snuffling in the shrubbery or the arrival of our winter-only visitors crowd the air with unseen flocks.
After decades (or centuries) of seasonal regularity, the recent years’ wonky weather leaves the migrating birds a bit flummoxed. Even though the shorter days up north commanded, “Fly south!” the autumn temperatures were still warming up plenty to eat late into the fall. Until wham! Frost and snow. Travel plans suddenly changed.
Friends tell me that a male Bufflehead has already been seen bobbling around the pilings, but there’s been no sign yet of the winter Red-breasted Mergansers.
A few rollicking Juncos are flashing their white tail feathers through the Sweetgums and Red Oaks stalwartly holding on to their hard-won leaves after Sandy’s salt water dunking last fall. I do hope that the partying-hearty Tufted Titmice, so entertaining last winter, come back this year for more skittery scolding through the streets.
A single Brant skims just above the waves. Does he know that there are already thousands of his goosey kind out in Jamaica Bay? Or is that where he’s headed?
There are tiny whitecaps on the river and the sky is a frosty porcelain blue. Wait! What’s that soaring in from New Jersey? Smaller than a crow. Sharper than a gull. I think it’s a, yes, a Peregrine Falcon. Oh, and it’s circling back. Really? Is that possible? A second falcon! The twosome dive and swoop together. A December romance? They’re wheeling around in tandem riding the same gusts of wind, splitting formation like in an airshow and each alighting on one of Westbeth’s two flagpoles.
“Millie, let’s run back across the street and see if we can get closer!” Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. I don’t know whether she’s excited to run or indignant that it’s taken me this long to drag her regal corgi-ness into this article.
Several years ago, there was a resident falcon pair at 17th Street. I wonder if this is the same couple returning to set up housekeeping in the old neighborhood, or if they’re just visiting out of nostalgia.
Seeing the pair together, the female slightly larger than the male (and on the higher lookout), peering at each other in their matching dark helmets across the flagpoles – formidable as if pacing out before a duel – it’s obvious that you don’t mess with these guys. Recorded flying at over 200 miles an hour, their potential for speed and power is indelible even when they’re sitting quietly. Their eyes rake the sky over the West Village as though they’re superheroes with laser vision.
Is what I am reading falcon playfulness or affection? A tilt of the head, a slightly carefree ruffling of the wings? For a Peregrine, extraneous movement of any kind that is not surveying, travelling, or pursuing seems frivolous. (A better question might be why do I read playfulness as extraneous?) I feel like I’m in the presence of Apollo and Athena strategically bantering across the heights of Mount Olympus.
I snap out of my ruminations just in time to catch the falcons drop from their flagpole eyries – somehow faster than falling. They’re off braiding the air above the Hudson.
My audience with avian deity concluded, I can exhale now.
“Millie, walk me home.”