By Keith Michael
Another Sunday. Another walk in Hudson River Park.
At the end of her leash, Millie has already walked me around her neighborhood block this morning, taking care of corgi-business, and now I’m walking myself (at the end of my own inner leash) along the river promenade, absorbing the view.
The summer is ending. It’s true that the pristine New York blue sky at this time of year gives me a visceral recollection of just such a pure blue sky on that September 11th morning. But there wasn’t a Hudson River Park then. And I wouldn’t have been walking here then. This bucolic park, that we’ve grown to take for granted as our backyard amenity, was a construction site.
The shrinking daylight hours of September remind me of the pending rigors of going back to school. Even the hottest days have a coolness around the edges now as the sun creeps further south along the horizon at sunset. A few trees boast of a cluster of leaves already turned to fall hues. The weeks ahead will bring less and less time for me to ramble the back woods, marshes, grasslands, and shorelines of the city. Sigh.
A sharp shreek nearby interrupts my (not unpleasant) drift toward melancholia. Out over the Pier 48 pile field, a Common Tern is hovering like a helicopter, head bent down at an angle, then, without warning, tucks into a vertical dive, and disappears into the water. Within a blink, it is back in the air, as though that splash was a mere glitch in the film. The tern’s buoyant scribbling through the air, pausing, wings aflutter, then diving again and again into the high tide, is an aerial tour de force. On the fourth dive, the plot changes. This time the tern emerges with a wriggling silver fish in its orange beak. Success. (Well, not for the fish.)
It’s then that I notice another repeated shreek shreek shreek coming from the top of one of the exposed pilings—a fledgling Common Tern is ordering breakfast! This youngster couldn’t be clearer, “Feed me! Feed me!” And yet, after a number of near-delivery airborne passes, Dad (or Mom) astonishingly—doesn’t make the drop off. This tough-love parent swoops up to perch on the railing of the bow-bridge overlooking the pile field with the silver fish still un-delivered, still un-eaten. (My inner photographer is jumping up and down, “Yippee! Yippee!”)
This is probably a parent and child Common Tern from the summer’s colony on the Governor’s Island piers. A little over a foot long, the parents have full black caps on a sleek white swallow-tailed body, while the youngsters look a little blurry with a white forehead. Dozens of pairs have taken up residence on the abandoned Buttermilk Channel piers in the past years, barely scraping together a few pebbles as a nest site, laying their eggs right on the hot concrete, “sitting” on their eggs more to shade them from the scorching summer sun than to keep them warm, and, devotedly, bringing locally-sourced seafood to the chicks for weeks.
Over the years, I’ve watched tern chicks grow from barely out of the eggs to strutting about open-mouthed as their parents swooped in with the latest catch, from jumping up and down like they were on a trampoline as their flight feathers started to grow in, getting a bit more airborne each time, then finally, to this adolescence when it’s time to fend for themselves. All along the way, they have to be taught.
And now, it’s training season. “Kiddo, you have to learn how to fish for yourself. Day One.”
Within the month, this chick and its parents will be heading south for the winter. “South” is to the southern coast of Argentina. That’s around 6,000 miles away—give or take 1,000 miles or so! And. If all goes well, they’ll be back next summer. That’s a 6,000-mile return flight. Book your accommodations now.
Melancholia? The deadlines and future disappointments (and elations) of my fall pale in comparison to what this chick has ahead.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow Instagram @newyorkcitywild