By Keith Michael
Remarkably, it is time for the 12th Annual Millies: the coveted Bird of the Year Awards! After 12 months of doom and gloom, Twitter fume, and fear of a big boom, the birds of the West Village and New York City have continued to be resilient—offering color, cheer, and laudable savoir faire through their amiable pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
Let me remind you of the ground (or flight) rules for The Millies: Birds must be seen in, above, or from the five boroughs of New York; voting is weighted toward those birds observed during Millie’s daily corgi-walks in the West Village; and additional points may be arbitrarily heaped upon those candidates actually seen by the Award’s namesake. Miss Millie’s patronage includes the privilege of the tie-breaking vote, if needed.
CONGENIALITY AWARD. Let’s start with this fiercely contended citation, admittedly a more satisfying win for the Bird-er than the Bird-ee. Nevertheless, the undisputed winners are a delightful pair of Buff-breasted Sandpipers that touched down at Miller Field on Staten Island’s south shore during their fall migration. For several hours, these “grass-pipers” entertained this birder with their rapid scurrying to and fro, occasionally skipping only inches from my toes—too close, and too fast, for my camera to focus. On the opposite end of the congeniality scale was a western, rare (for New York) Hammond’s Flycatcher who held court (for some) in Central Park, though after five power-walk lunch hours trying to locate him, remained elusive.
LUCKY CATCH AWARD. Following on the previous citation’s tail, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens whooshed into the sweet spot of my camera’s angle, focus, and shutter speed for her flashy portrait hovering over a cluster of blazing Trumpet Vine flowers.
COMEBACK AWARD. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy altered the urban and natural landscape all around New York City: Subway lines, barrier beaches, and basements are still in recovery. But what if you were a Bank Swallow, and you returned from your winter vacation to find that last summer’s “bank” had been leveled? Where would you set up housekeeping? Well, the summer of 2017 returned the bluffs along the beach at Great Kills Park in Staten Island, and the burrowing colony of swallows to raise a new generation. A win-win!
RESILIENCE AWARD. There was no discussion needed among the judges (quite frankly, Millie was napping) to champion the Common Terns of Governor’s Island. Home to more than a dozen pairs of these threatened New York State birds, half of Yankee Pier on Buttermilk Channel collapsed during the winter. Some of these delicate aerialists, upon returning from their thousands of miles flight from South America, found disaster-relief housing with their friends on the nearby Governor’s Island piers while others, no doubt, relocated to Breezy Point.
BEST PARENTING AWARD. (Full disclosure: Millie’s ballot named one of the judges—namely me—for this humbling award, but of course, I had to decline due to a conflict of interest.) Other candidates include: Vito and Linda, the Bald Eagles of the Mount Loretto Unique Area in Staten Island, who successfully raised two youngsters for a second summer in a row; a Killdeer pair in the parking lot at the Alley Pond Nature Center in Queens whose protective wings were always available for their hatchlings to run under for cover (okay, perhaps scraping gravel together for their nest in a busy parking lot wasn’t the cleverest strategy for the safety of their children); and the globally endangered Piping Plovers at Fort Tilden in Queens, who, though only a few inches tall, tirelessly defended their turf and progeny against dogs, sunseekers, SUVs, birders, and over-eager photographers. And the winner is: Whew! A three-way tie! Bravo to good parenting.
BEST KEPT SECRET AWARD. There are pocket park gems with avian specialties all around New York City. This year’s surprise was Marine Park in Brooklyn and the nesting Willets—lanky shorebirds poking their heads above the pristine marsh grass and piercing the air with their raucous calls. The park’s Osprey family was the close runner-up for this prize.
EXTRALIMITAL BIRDS & NEW LOCATION AWARD. This is a new category for the 2017 season, and slightly bends the aforementioned geographic rules of The Millies. After expanding how far my love of public trains, buses, and ferries could take me, this fledgling award goes to the Black-bellied Plovers and Clapper Rails spotted at the Bayonne Golf Club Hudson River Promenade, a short PATH train and Hudson Bergen Light Rail ride to a land of low-tide mudflats, recreated Scottish heathland, and views of the Staten Island Ferry plying its way across the New York Harbor. (I’ve heard tell that this is a likely location for the appearance of a winter Snowy Owl. Shhh.)
CONSOLATION PRIZE. Every summer, I look forward to boarding the American Princess from Riis Landing to enjoy the spectacle of Humpback Whales and dolphins cavorting in the waters south of Coney Island, the Manhattan skyline in the distance. (How cool is that?) Unfortunately, the dolphins and whales didn’t show for me twice this year. One day was so foggy we could barely see the water. There was also an eight-year-old’s birthday party onboard whose attendees returned to shore greener than when they had come up the gangway. But the second time, at least, there was the consolation prize of delicate white-rumped Wilson’s Storm Petrels foot-pattering above the waves.
BEST STUNT AWARD. As the judges were considering contenders for this accolade, Millie was performing a slalom through my legs, turning to the right and left, sitting down, lying down, backing up, and curtsying repeatedly in her most regal fashion (she needs to work on that). Luckily, the judges aren’t prone to undue “sway.” Despite her unapologetic lobbying, this award is easily bestowed upon a January blizzard-flying Bald Eagle at the Mount Loretto Unique Area in Staten Island (let’s say it was Vito). Repeatedly throwing himself upside down in the snow-filled air, seemingly grasping at the flakes with his massive talons, he’d then plummet, somersaulting through the infinity of white above us. I still ponder a scenario to explain his behavior. (Millie, here’s a treat for your effort—The Ethics Committee will review your behavior.)
PRETTY BIRD, PRETTY BIRD. This is the companion honor to last year’s “Just Because I Like Seeing Them Award.” Not singling out any one species, the honorees are: the black-and-white harlequin Long-tailed Ducks seen from the Marine Parkway Bridge, the blue-and-orange parfait of American Kestrals in the West Village, the screaming green Monk Parakeets of Brooklyn and Queens (and newly seen this summer as well in The Bronx), and the ever-cheerful Indigo Buntings of Staten Island.
Barreling on to those final prestigious awards, we have:
BEST REVIVAL. A Common Raven, after a year’s absence, again appeared on the water tower at the corner of Washington and Charles Streets. Its croaking and knocking alerted me to its presence. Welcome back, evermore!
BEST NEW BIRD. Unfortunately, there was not a single nominee for this prize in 2017. As previously noted, this judge put in extra hours and effort to claim the Central Park Hammond’s Flycatcher, but it will have to take the honor of Best New Bird on someone else’s list for the year.
NEW BIRD FOR THE WEST VILLAGE & BIRD OF THE YEAR. It’s a tiny bird that wins these two BIG 2017 awards! A miniscule Winter Wren (West Village Bird #105), with a stand-up tail seemingly too short for its chunky little body, appeared on a late October morning for mere seconds in the tree enclosure outside my front door. It flitted, cocked its head—and flew away—but history was made. Millie heartily endorses this honoree. Perhaps its chunky little body melted her heart, but more likely what tipped her vote was that Millie was THERE.
Please visit westviewnews.org for more photographs of this year’s avian celebrities and visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of my New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs.
Happy Birding in 2018!