Please “Millie, Wait!” I get the white-eyed glare back over Millie’s shoulder. She seems to be pondering just how daft I might be, even though there is a car, a gazillion times larger than a corgi, rumbling closer down the cobblestones. All she wants is to bushwhack to the center of the street to do what she needs to do. Doesn’t that have priority over all? Mission accomplished, she skedaddles back to the front door. Her dinner bowl awaits.
Watching for birds constantly reminds me of the fragility of time, which then folds back into everything else: picking up the tea-bag-weight of a downed Black-and-white Warbler from a West 11th Street sidewalk (another fall migration window-strike casualty), my 91-year-old mother recently having difficulty breathing, Millie breaking her toenail (a trail of blood, hobblety-horsing to the vet, and the reason she’s now waiting inside rather than accompanying my evening stroll), a Red Maple starting to show off its namesake autumnal coloring, or feeling an unexpected twinge in my hip while looking up at the September 11th Tribute in Light where hundreds of birds were circling, caught in the infinity of its blinding ascension (talk about the telescoping vicissitudes of time).
I’m heading, sans Millie, for the evensong of the St. Luke in the Fields Garden, hoping for the cheering late-season sighting of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. At this time of year, hummingbirds are in marathon-training mode for their epic migration to the Yucatan, some of them booking a miraculous do-it-yourself 19-hour non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. My sole hummingbird West Village sighting was at the end of August at St. Luke’s, but others have certainly been seen in the neighborhood. I’ve spotted several all around the City in the last weeks. The (lucky) photo accompanying this article was taken at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. In Central Park, I’ve watched hummers admiring the late summer floral fireworks at the Conservatory Garden, and seen them counting the Jewelweed flowers at that birder hotspot: the Oven in the Ramble. Several weekends ago, while overlooking the ocean from the Hawkwatch Platform at Fort Tilden, one whizzed southward over my head. Mexico, Ho!
Recently, after posting a photo that looked down from the Manhattan Bridge at a couple picnicking on the grass, a friend reminded me of the classic 1977 Charles and Ray Eames short film Powers of Ten. That film takes us outward then inward through the scales of the galaxy—unfathomable in its mysteries and intricacies. Watching a hummingbird’s helicopter flight can transport me either into the comparable micro-world of a sped-up universe or ask me to ponder how our lumbering time must look through that pair of darting eyes.
With rapid photography, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been discovered to beat their wings around 55 times per second, with males up to 200 times per second during their courtship display flights! Sitting there on a branch is that damsel being wooed, with a stopwatch, no doubt chiding, “Hey champ, is that the best you can do?” What drives them to faster and faster displays? If you try lifting your arms, then bring them down and up as quickly as you can—one “wing beat”—the possibility of how that movement can be repeated a blur of times in a single second just opens one up to astonishment.
Then, think about how quickly must their tongues flick while drinking cocktails of flower nectar, or how fast “in the blink of an eye” might be for them, or how speedily those same eyes refocus on the next flower in the garden, and what unfathomable details they might see on its petals. They too “fall in love,” build homes (a fairytale walnut-shell-sized cup of lichen flakes and spider web), raise children, fiercely defend their natural resources, and look out for themselves by relocating thousands of miles to more promising locales.
Whoa! I need to sit down.
The late afternoon light diffusing through the St. Luke in the Fields Garden is otherworldly. The color palette of the flowers softens. Still, the underlying drone of bees etches their flight paths through the air. A Robin chirrups.
I’ll sit and wait for a hummingbird.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com.