By Keith Michael
Millie is pressing her corgi nose through the railing at Hudson River Park, eyes squinting into the wind. I’m pressing against the railing too, trying to keep my balance, also squinting into the wind (with eyes tearing from the cold), scanning the river for any blip in the white caps that might be a bird. Of course, Millie has picked a spot drenched from a recent wave crashing against the river wall and spraying the promenade. Shivering, I’m thinking that this is a little crazy. I should have worn another sweater. Millie’s white and orange coat seems to suit her just fine.
Crazy as a loon. You old coot. Blue bird of happiness. Thin as a rail. The early bird gets the worm.
It’s the first day of spring, but the weather’s been up and down like a yoyo. “March comes in like a lion…,” and all that. Who knew that Millie would actually pull me toward the river this morning, instead of the other way around—maybe there’s a whiff of possibility in this northern blast that only she can discern?
Fly-by-night. Flighty. Bird brained. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Goosebumps.
A friend told me that a Canvasback duck has been hanging out around the piers with some Brant geese pals (a red-headed Canvasback would be a new West Village species to add to my list) and that a fiery female Red-breasted Merganser has been seen diving next to the playground pier—both “good” birds to look for. Jaunty black-and-white Buffleheads are another common winter (ahem) spring sighting near the pin cushion of pilings. I love when bright sunlight belies that the Buffleheads are really sparkling iridescent green-purple-and-white bobbing technicolor bathtub toys.
In the catbird seat. Don’t be chicken. Playing chicken. Why did the chicken cross the road? Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Chicken Little. Light as a feather. Birds of a feather flock together.
A few gulls scavenge through the detritus churning against the wall, fluttering not to be slammed into detritus themselves. Wave after wave tricks me into thinking that its white foam is an intrepid sea duck, but then the ridge of water dissipates into a steely trough, just to bubble again in a new location. Angry water like this always makes me think of colonial mariners fighting the immensity of the ocean from their sailing ships. One of those waves snakes over the wall, giving Millie a bath of salt water, and my boots a drenching. “Millie, let’s move along!”
Good weather for ducks. Duck (your head). Duck feet. Wise as an owl. Eagle-eyed. Hawks and Doves. Swallow-tailed coat.
Just as we start to turn, one wave looks incongruously more stable than the others. It flashes white, then stays white. Maybe it’s a plastic bag or a foam float, an escapee from a dock upriver? But it’s more animated than only the toss of the waves. Finally, two wings emerge, and it’s clearly a loon—a Red-throated Loon! (Not that we would ever see its namesake red throated breeding attire here on its winter sojourn, but it’s still recognizable in comparison to the more robust Common Loon.) While I’m battling the wall of wind, and juggling my binoculars (and camera) and Millie’s leash, that loon is lolling up and down the terrain of the waves preening! Those feathers under the wings need a little coifing. That tail needs some fluffing up. How about a head scratch? It’s amazing how different our worlds are at this moment. One more standup flapping and ruffling of its feathers, settling in to the roller coaster ride of the tide, and then, bloop, down it goes for an underwater fishing excursion.
He’s such a peacock. Albatross. The birds and the bees. Eating crow. As the crow flies. One swallow does not a summer make.
It might be minutes before the loon surfaces again hundreds of feet from where it disappeared. How can they hold their breath for so long? How can they stay under in that freezing watery world? What do they see? How do they swim so fast and so far? Does a fish think about its demise as it’s plucked from the brine? Millie, let’s skedaddle home to ponder with a hot chocolate.
Laugh like a loon.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com