By Keith Michael
Call me crazy, but having to stay relatively in one place for this hour, on this lovely block with the prospect of a bird’s eye view of my hometown is my own idea of a sort of heaven: letting the birds come to me. Across the street, the metallic plink of a Cardinal dings above the street noise. Ah, there she is: An olive and reddish bird with a sharply-peaked crest is brunching on the sunflower heads drooping around Rosemary’s rooftop garden. Behind the Jefferson Market fence, several White-throated Sparrows, recently arrived for the winter from further north, are tsk tsk-ing under the ground cover. They’re too busy eating right now to sit out on a branchto show off their namesake white throats and lemon-yellow fashion eyeshadow. Homegrown sparrows hopscotch on and off the sidewalk searching for leftovers.
Taking ten steps forward in the line (as the next group is invited to start the 149-step spiraling climb inside the tower) opens up a patch of silvery sky, thinning with a few splotches of blue. I wrote last month about the flying rhythms of neighborhood birds, and there, in the distance, circling, then heading uptown, is the classic flap flap flap glide of a Cooper’s Hawk. I don’t bother lifting my camera—I know that hawk is too far away—I’ll just have to watch it this time. But having looked up, I catch the distinct white wing patches and white tail flashes of a Mockingbird claiming the pinnacle of a water tower. I keep willing him to launch into either an aerial show or a bravura display of his singing panache, but this guy is content merely to oversee his realm.
We’re now next in line. Time to admire the charming owl, and a squirrel eating a nut (as well as a disconcertingly headless bluebird) in the stonework around the window near the beckoning open doorway. I already know that there’s a heron with a frog right around the corner above the original water fountain on Sixth Avenue.
Hooray. We’re next. We turn in our waivers and start up the stairs. A step-by-step circling through the upward labyrinth of waxing and waning light from the stained glass windows and yellow-plastic-protected bulbs articulating the walls. A voice several steps behind me chants, “If I just keep looking up I’m fine.” We finally arrive in what I imagine to be Rapunzel’s chamber with windows spiraling still higher in the wall. More stairs hug the circular tower and then: Here we are! After shuffling by the lair of the hibernating Halloween spider and octopus (Who knew that they cohabitate here all year before dangling outside the tower on their annual holiday?) with a step onto the balcony, the City floats out in all directions—the slate roof, chimneys, turrets, weathervanes, and filigreed lightning rods of the Library thrust up Dickensian-ly across the foreground while the 360-degree panorama yields penthouse and balcony gardens, backyard trees touched with fall colors, a mosaic of roofs, and crosswalks. The glass walls of nearly every 21st century tower in the City punctuate the distant horizon, ubiquitous New York water towers soften the skyline, and dancers relax on the barren inside the Joffrey School’s open windows. Oh, a quartet of Robins fly by follow-the-leader style while a Mourning Dove, with its pointed tail, whistles past at eye-level, a flock of pigeons are circling high above Sixth Avenue’s bumper-to-bumper clog of traffic seemingly stretching all of the way to Central Park, and the green roof of P.S. 41 seems to sparkle with invitation in the brightening afternoon light.
One more quick circuit—south, east, north, west—absorbing a thousand more details of light and color. As I round the final corner, a trio of star-studded Starlings alight on the lighting rod curlicues in front of me, their songs chuckling out into the air over the Village. With one concerted whistle they dive off, airborne once more. Soaring toward their next aerie with a view.
I duck back through the doorway and begin plodding back down to the ground.
For more information about NYC nature walks, photographs, or books visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.