By Keith Michael
With a glass of wine in my hand and Millie’s corgi nose slumbering across my foot, the late afternoon sun draws shadows down the walls.
Well, that’s not quite accurate: The glass of wine sits beguilingly blocking my monitor as I type, and Millie is flattened far across the floor in her self-proclaimed “time out spot”—not guarding the door, not herding passage from room to room, not willing kibble to appear in her empty food bowl. Though, it’s true that the waning sun is sketching and re-sketching the shadows. Pour yourself a glass of wine, and sip along with me at the paragraph breaks.
I’ve spent the day laying the first tracks, crashing through the crust of snow at Wolfe’s Pond Park on the south shore of Staten Island. (Why am I only one of a handful among millions of New Yorkers who couldn’t wait to do that today? Come with me sometime—it’s a gorgeous, seemingly out-of-NYC woodland wilderness a little over an hour away.) A few of the 36 bird species tallied were noticed as a streak through the tree tops, from a flutter among the pond-side reeds, or by the shimmer of light bouncing off their wings at the ocean horizon. But the majority of those birds, I knew to look for them because I heard them first.
Birding by song is a favorite. One of Euclid’s axioms should have been: If the song is there, the bird must be there. How can those lima bean-sized lungs produce such enormous sounds? And how has every kind of bird come to develop its own patois? A further mystery is whether every Robin sounds differently to every other Robin. Are there Pavarottis and Tibaldis among them, or are they all equally gifted?
Though many regulars were present—the toot-toot-ing of a Nuthatch perilously climbing headfirst down a tree, the whirring and clicking of the impractically-named Red-bellied Woodpecker (its belly is barely red and hardly the first thing one notices), the squawking and clacking of the iridescent Grackles scratching in the snow, the cawing of a passing band of Crows, or the ronk-a-donk huckstering of male Red-winged Blackbirds already staking out territories for the summer ahead—my ears are always tuned for the electrifying wavelengths of “good birds.” How about the “like-bones-in-a-box” rattling call of the Belted Kingfisher? Yep, it was there. This standard field guide simile amuses me. How many birders have actually heard what bones rattling in a box sound like? Or the deep gawking croak of a Great Blue Heron flying away on silent wings? I probably wouldn’t have seen him without his guttural displeasure that I had gotten an acre too close to his fishing grounds. It’s true that the stealth approach of a Bald Eagle didn’t alert me to its soaring hungry presence, but the sudden vocal eruption of hundreds of gulls, geese, and ducks fleeing the scene ran up the red flag that something was up. (That’s another reason to go to Staten Island: Bald Eagles!)
Millie has rolled to her back, legs askance and lightly twitching—maybe she’s birding in her dreams. A toast to Millie.
One doesn’t have to travel to the “outer boroughs” for avian aural delights. Just listen for the slightly different song, and follow your ears. Walking down Perry Street to the train this morning, I heard Chickadees calling and responding with their bipolar plaintive two-note chorus, “Poor Me, Poor Me,” alternating with their otherwise chipper namesake verse, “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” There were the usual Blue Jays jay-jay-jay-ing, and the Starlings squeaking and chortling, the Sparrows chattering, and the luscious caroling of an orange-breasted Robin singing out endlessly from the highest brickwork. Soon it will be time for the midnight serenades of our filibustering songster, the Mockingbird.
Last month, I told you about the kek-kek-kek-kek-kek from high above that alerted me to the pair of Kestrals making whoopee on a water tower. I’d recognize the descending whinny of a Red-tailed Hawk anywhere (though, it’s true, I’ve been tricked by both Blue Jay and Mockingbird impersonators). One morning, I picked out that whinny wafting above the cacophony of horn-blowing behind an ill-advised double-parked car—its driver likely having run in for a double latte (with soy milk, triple pump vanilla, and two dollops of fat-free whipped cream, no doubt). There, far above the fray, having just alighted on a balcony railing, was the Hawk, editorializing on the caffeinated street ruckus below. Millie used the distraction to her advantage as more unsupervised foraging time on the sidewalk.
Even though there’s recently been snow on the ground, it is once again balmy enough for an open window, and floating in on that warming breeze is the sweetest, clearest cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up drifting down through the atrium. Now with wine glass blithely in hand, I’m drawn to that open window and look up eight floors to see the expected red-as-red-can-be Cardinal perched in a golden hour spotlight on a roof-top tree, singing lustily and long.
I’ll drink to that.
For more information about New York City WILD! outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com.