By Keith Michael
This morning, Millie and I are out for her appraisal-of-the-neighborhood amble around the block. In her corgi-ish way, I imagine Millie reveling in the crisp October sunrise painting the cobblestones. Looking up, a Flicker flies into the honey locust tree at the end of the block. Barely having seen it, I knew that it was a Flicker, not by the swath of red on the back of its woodpecker neck, or the fashionable polka-dots on its breast, or the yellow wing lining, or even by the flashy “flicker” of its white rump. In an instant, I knew its daredevil flap-and-tuck bullet dive into the tree—wings repeatedly snatched in tightly while still in mid-air.
When I’m stopped on the street and asked, “How do you see so many birds and know what they are?” I realize my answer is by not only seeing birds’ shapes and colors, but also by hearing their songs, and knowing where to look for them. Yet another clue is how they fly. Hence, this lexicon of flight for my Top 25 Neighborhood Birds:
- Red-tailed Hawk: Soaring, wings outstretched, and, yes, that distinctive orange-red tail glowing.
- Bald Eagle (my most sought-after sighting over the West Village): They are so large and their wings so long (nearly twice as long as those of a Red-tailed Hawk) that flapping seems like an afterthought.
- Kestrel: Smaller, sharper, sleeker than a pigeon (and prettier too), I’ve tried to morph many a distant pigeon into a hotshot Kestrel.
- Cooper’s Hawk: Flap flap flap, glide.
- Sharp-shinned Hawk: Blurry flapflapflapflapflap, glide (really quite different).
- Robin: The delightful hesitation waltz of their flight is not quite regular, but not quite uneven either.
- Chimney Swift: Their wings vibrate just like their nervous airborne twittering.
- Barn Swallow: Swerving through a dashing design of swoops and curves, their razor-sharp wings cut through the air with the greatest of ease.
- Blue Jay: It seems like they have to work too hard, as though their feathers have holes in them.
- Cardinal: Quick and steady.
- Starling: With short wings they have to put a lot of effort into flying, but how synchronized they are wheeling in a flock!
- Gulls: Ubiquitous, but they really are flying technique show-offs—soaring, diving, pirating.
- Sparrows: Fiendishly quick in their slaloming chases through the trees. The young ones look like they are light enough to blow away—barely needing to flutter to get airborne.
- Mockingbird: These songsters always flash that white on their wings and tails—even backlit in the evening sun, it is still likely that those flashes show up.
- Catbird: One rarely sees them flying across a distant open space.
- Grackle: It’s their diamond-shaped tails that catch my eye, and oh, those bigger, much bigger, wedge-shaped tails of Ravens (as opposed to the blunt tails of the smaller crows) that delight me.
- Mourning Dove: Those pencil-point thin tails and always leaving that whistling sound in their wake.
- Canada Goose: The large size, the outstretched neck, their relationship to each other—if there is a group, they self-sort into a V, aerodynamically using the lift from the goose in front to ease on down that highway in the sky.
- Brant Goose: Soon to arrive for the winter, this smaller goose flies in helter-skelter clusters, always shuffling places. No orderly Vs for them!
- Ducks: They get where they’re going fast, and then down again out of sight—too many collective memories of seeing their comrades shot out of the sky.
- Swan: Well, they are huge and white with long stretched white necks. The white is almost always visible. And how many times do you see swans flying anyway? (Only once above the Hudson River near the West Village in 10 years for me!)
- Great White Egret: Also large and white, but they fly with their necks tucked in like a venetian blind, and their long legs stretched behind—a completely different silhouette.
- Great Blue Heron: They also fly with their necks tucked in. The massive size of their wings allows for slow steady grand wingbeats.
- Black-crowned Night Heron: Even though they have large wings compared to their body size, they have very shallow wingbeats as though they’re flying with a back brace. Whatever the reason, it works for them.
- Goldfinch: Like gazelles across a savannah, these lemon-yellow charmers bound through the air with their diagnostic po-ta-to chip call. (I don’t really think that their call sounds like a snack but the rhythm of the syllables is correct if you say it quickly.)
- Millie: Easily identified by her low silhouette and by not having taken a step during this lecture.
For more information about NYC nature walks, photographs, or books visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.