By Keith Michael
…tern, tern, tern.
It’s hot out here.
A moment ago, when I offered Millie a treat to join me for this walk to Hudson River Park, with classic corgi insolence she raised her head from her chill spot under the air conditioner, inches from her water bowl that might jingle with the ice floating there if she bothered, and squinted at me as if to say, “Are you crazy?” Probably an apt appraisal.
The A/C is nice, but on a summer Sunday afternoon, I am hoping to be entertained by Common Terns fishing from the promenade railing in the park. Remarkably agile aviators, they can sprint and pivot in the air, swoop, hover in place like helicopters, fly with their heads upside-down, and they are one of the elite migration marathoners—flying 8,000 miles (one way) to southern Argentina for their winter holidays. I’ve ventured to the park, water bottle in hand, looking forward to watching another entry in their aerial repertoire: diving for fish.
Though the Common Tern is state-listed as threatened by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, New York City has at least two healthy nesting colonies: several thousand pairs inundate the dunes of the Breezy Point peninsula in Queens during the summer, and a smaller but still feisty number of pairs have become regular homesteaders on the Governor’s Island decommissioned Buttermilk Channel piers.
Aerodynamically evolved, a tern looks like a tiny, more graceful gull with a sleek white body (the better camouflage for the fish peering upward from the water, my dear), wings curved like scythes, a deeply forked tail (like the stabilizing tails of a kite), a tidy black cap, sparkling black eyes, and bright orange-red bill and legs.
Ah, there’s a Common Tern now—right on the railing as expected. It looks sharply right and left, then to the water, and glides precipitously down over the river. Showing off all its moves, this tern banks and zigzags above the waves, then effortlessly gains altitude like racing up on an aerial rollercoaster. At last, it displays its specialty. With eyes focused below, it holds itself still above the brine with rapidly flapping wings, then tucks and plunges straight down in a daredevil plummet with barely a splash in the water.
Alas, the tern has come up without a prize, and is off to try again.
This bird is likely a tourist from Governor’s Island. I see a flash of bands on its ankles, which means that it might have been captured there, banded, and will be tracked for its hemispherical whereabouts. Still, I ponder in wonderment at the energy expended on the flight from its family out in the New York Harbor, multiple coursings along the west side piers, and repeated plunges in pursuit of one silver fish to deliver back to Governor’s Island for a waiting, screaming toddler. That’s nearly a 10-mile round trip. Meanwhile, the second or third toddler continues to bellow, “What about me?!” What parents won’t do!
Any day now, one’s likely to see “Fishing School” commencing here on these piers. Terns have to be taught to fish, and the fledglings are none too happy about it. After having all of their meals flown in fresh direct for weeks, suddenly Mom and Dad turn the table and say, “Look sweetie, eventually you’ve got to do this for yourself.” Needless to say, this pronouncement is not met with much wing-snapping applause.
Watching the essentially sullen teenagers, hunkered down on the pier railings, glowering as Mom or Dad “shows them the technique,” then trying it out for themselves (often punctuated by humiliating belly-flops—not Instagrammable moments), well, it’s a time for interspecies generational empathy for all concerned. But these youngsters will learn how it’s done and this October they will be flying south with their elders that 8,000 miles to Argentina! Imagine.
While I’ve been rambling on, that tern has made a half-dozen more dives, and finally has come up with one wriggly silver sand lance fish (at least that’s what it looks like) and, immediately, the tern heads south with its protein-rich treasure.
The sun is still bearing down, my shirt is drenched, and I’m thinking, in admiration, about Millie’s strategy of hanging out under the air conditioner. Maybe a nap is next on my agenda for the day.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs, and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.