By Keith Michael
We’re here amidst the hustle and bustle as finishing touches are added to the grandstand for the announcement of The 11th Annual Millies: the coveted Bird of the Year Awards! For those of you only listening in from your earbuds, I’m standing with Millie, the awards’ namesake, at the confounding intersection of West 4th and West 12th Streets, the time-honored locale for these festivities. As a reminder, this is the exact corner where my West Village birding began on September 9, 2006 with a bright pink House Finch: My Bird #1. Contenders for these hard-won honors are preferably birds seen within the rigorous boundaries of how far Millie will walk in the West Village, but frequently include birds spotted within New York’s five boroughs while Millie was otherwise pressing her corgi-nose tightly against the inside of our front door, protecting the hallway against friend and foe. The nominations please!
Last year’s undisputed People’s Choice Award winner, the Prospect Park Painted Bunting, easily garners this year’s citation for Best Revival. After weeks on everyone’s must-see list through the 2015 holiday season, this delightfully gaudy red, green, and blue fellow from the south lingered to become some people’s first bird of 2016 as well.
Most Prominent West Village No-Show. Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. The nominees include: (1) the Ravens who put on such a show in 2015 but have been in absentia in 2016, (2) my perennial duo: a “When are you going to visit the West Village?” flyover Bald Eagle, and (3) a “roosting in the Hudson River Park pines” Saw-whet Owl. Whoever shows up first to accept the award receives the “Well It’s About Time” proclamation instead!
Proud Parents of the Year. This may be the fiercest race of all of the awards, with heavy lobbying from all sides. Not that the Starlings nesting in a drainpipe on Greenwich Street can’t be proud of their offspring as well, but this award has traditionally gone to a “glamour couple,” and yes, as we now know, social media and Twitter presence does sway the voters. The contenders include: (1) the Great Horned Owls of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, (2) the Yellow-crowned Night Herons nesting for a second season on Governor’s Island, (3) the spunky Common Tern colony on Governor’s Island’s Yankee Pier, and (4) the endangered Piping Plovers of Breezy Point (who against all odds continue to produce the absolute cutest chicks that can be found). But the winner goes to Vito and Linda, the Staten Island celebrity Bald Eagle pair who successfully raised two youngsters in that western borough—the first time that NYC has produced surviving eaglets in over a century! Kudos!
Best After Dark Sighting. Birding is generally not a post-sundown activity—that’s the time for studying field guides, checking the tides for the next day’s outing, or having a dry martini. But sometimes, the waning light is just right, and birds can provide a good show even then. The two top candidates are: (1) a Black-crowned Night Heron caught balancing on a mooring rope at Pier 40 and (2) a flock of at least 25 Black Skimmers doing what they do—skimming the waves—off of Brooklyn’s Plumb Beach while I was enjoying the full moon summer solstice prehistoric mating ritual of Horseshoe Crabs (ask me about that sometime). This is one race where I’ve asked Miss Millie to cast the deciding vote to break the tie. And the winner is: the Night Heron! (Millie’s voting tends to favor the home team, and probably the clincher was that “she was there.”)
It’s Easy Being Green. Quick, name a green bird. The Green Heron has the name, but one really has to see them in the right light to say, “Oh, that’s a green bird.” But the Monk Parakeets of Green-Wood Cemetery—now those are green birds. Maybe they’re not native to New York (there are several versions of the story of how they arrived from Argentina), but they’re immigrants that have happily resided here for more than half a century. Three cheers for the Monk Parakeets—you can see them throughout Queens and other parts of Brooklyn as well.
Bluebird of Happiness. Unlike green birds, quite a few avian favorites have taken up a blue hue: Little Blue Heron, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, and one of our neighborhood regulars, the Blue Jay. But the award this year, once again, goes to a pair of Eastern Bluebirds spotted this fall up in Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan. Bluebirds really do induce happiness.
Best Holiday Bird. After the Thanksgiving Day parade, which I thoroughly enjoyed this year on 6th Avenue (Angry Bird and the Aflac Duck taking my Honorable Mentions), I headed down to City Hall Park where a Western Tanager was making a rare eastern appearance, then rushed over to the Trinity Church Cemetery where a loud-mouthed Yellow-breasted Chat had been trying to raise the dead for weeks.
Most Reliable “Cool” Bird in the West Village. Some birds just have a “cool quotient.” “Cool” doesn’t always just mean rare, or colorful, or even particularly newsworthy, but “cool” is the bird that makes you walk a little faster, opens your eyes a little wider, or gives your step an added bounce once it’s gone. This fall, the “cool” birds in the neighborhood have been the Cooper’s Hawks, long-tailed agile raptors who can regularly be seen roiling the pigeons into a frenzy. I do feel badly for the pigeons but the hawks still get the prize.
Just Because I Like Seeing Them Award. These are entirely subjective honorees (and I’m not going to pick just one—so there): Long-tailed Duck, Fox Sparrow, Brown Thrasher and Indigo Bunting (which could also double as the Bluebird of Happiness).
Giddiest Birding Moment of the Year. Honorable mention goes to hearing the call-and-response hooting of a pair of Great Horned Owls in Green-Wood Cemetery. But, the hands-down, or hands-up-with-camera-clicking-away, heart-racing-est birding moment of the year goes to sitting on the beach with friends at Mount Loretto Unique Area, Staten Island, when a white-headed-and-tailed Bald Eagle soared not thirty feet over our heads, then circled around to do it majestically again (this was Vito or Linda of the Proud Parents citation). Moments later, “one of the kids” flew in their parent’s wingbeats, replicating the flight pattern as well as the repeat performance. Sweet. Sweet. Sweet.
And finally, the three awards you’ve all been waiting for:
Best New West Village Bird. This one is easy because, for a second year in a row, I added only one new bird to my West Village List: Hairy Woodpecker (WV Bird #105). This isn’t a rare find (their diminutive relative, the Downy Woodpecker, the more frequently seen woodpecker, is nearly identical) but still: A new bird is a new bird.
Best New Bird and The Birders’ Circus Award. This one is, likewise, easy because I also added only one new bird to my North America List in 2016: Swainson’s Warbler (NA Bird #337). Here’s how it goes: Early in the morning, an observant and lucky birder happens to notice the geographically-challenged fellow (his usual range is the southeast, so he’s several hundred miles too far north). This birder gets the word out, and then, like a Fairy Godmother swishing her magic wand, nearly instantaneously, the 72nd Street entrance to Central Park’s West Drive is, literally, crawling with dozens of birders wielding their binoculars and block-long camera lenses. This subtly jaunty red-capped fellow put on a show all day under the bushes which brought august birders chest-to-asphalt for the best views. Delightful.
Bird of the Year. First of all, the committee would like to thank the tens of thousands of contenders who have walked, hopped, swum, and flown by this year, contestants from north and south, east and west. Some traveled thousands of miles to get here, others hatched above my front door. To all of you: You have made the year a little brighter. But only one can be Bird of the Year, and I vote for last month’s WestView feature: the charismatic, handsome, and resilient Virginia Rail, who by way of a collision with a window at Lincoln Center, charmed its way into my hands for an unforgettable few blocks walk to Central Park.
So, there we have it! Another year of avian wonders within our fair neighborhood and City. Please note that Press Time was December 19th so there are still surprises to be had by New Year’s Eve 2016—keep biting your nails for a possible ballot recount! (Please visit westviewnews.org for red-carpet photographs of this year’s avian celebrities after the ceremony!)
All photos by Keith Michael. For more information about birding outings (to all of the fair destinations mentioned), photographs, or books, visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com.