By Keith Michael
We are standing under the canopy of a cloudy winter sky on the corner where the 14th traditional presentation of the Annual West Village Bird of the Year Awards, “The Millies,” is held. This tourist-confounding intersection of West 4th and West 12th Streets is where a rosy-hued House Finch was heard and seen, my Bird #1 that began my binoculared view of our hometown, New York City!
As a reminder, the ground rules for The Millies are as follows: birds must be seen in, above, or from the five boroughs of New York, and voting is weighted toward those birds observed during Millie’s daily walks around her blocks in the West Village or the birds she sees or hears upon sniffing (when out in damp weather) to determine the favorability of the barometric pressure. Miss Millie’s patronage includes the privilege of casting the tie-breaking vote if needed (or even the privilege of disregarding these ground rules completely).
My phone please (and spare charger) to read the citations. Millie is FaceTime-ing in as she hosts an award ceremony fete of her own from her corgi-shaped spot of sunlight back at home.
To dispel the tension right away, my New Bird of the Year Award goes without contest (since there were no other competitors) to the Riverside Park Evening Grosbeak that drew birders from far and wide in January 2019. This thick-billed, seed-cracking, handsome, chunky, yellow-black-and-white finch is actually one of the first birds that I remember from my Pennsylvanian childhood, when dozens of them descended on our yard’s winter bird feeders around 1965. As this sighting was decades before my current bird-identifying frenzy, I never officially “counted” it until this year.
The competition was fierce for the Owl of the Year. Millie wanted to ignore the extralimital rule to include a Great Horned Owl pair, a Barred Owl, and an (adorable) red morph Eastern Screech Owl from Croton Point Park, Croton-on-Hudson, but (after giving her a marrow bone to gnaw on) she conceded to vote only for contestants from the five boroughs. Runners-up included Barred Owls from Pelham Bay Park, the Bronx, as well as Saw-whet Owls from both Central Park, Manhattan, and Forest Park, Queens. But the winner is a gray morph Eastern Screech Owl from Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan which eluded my sighting for a full three visits—tucked oh-so-discreetly in its own B & B split tree trunk.
The Avian Spectacle of the Year was another difficult category. I’m quite partial to the thousands of Brant Geese wintering in the city waters around every borough. Their constant shuffling, gossiping, and messy flight geometry, always intriguing, causes me to ponder, “What is it like to be one of them?” Nevertheless, I have to declare this one a solid tie between the blackening-the-sky hordes of Common Grackles in Forest Park, Queens, and Snow Geese at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Reserve in Queens lifting off with the twenty-miles-distant Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. Tie notwithstanding, the JBWR Snow Geese have my sentimental vote for conjuring up Don Riepe’s iconic 2001 cover photo on The New York City Audubon Society Guide to Finding Birds in the Metropolitan Area. Then, the Twin Towers rose behind the flight of the Snow Geese; and now, One World Trade Center is the centerpiece.
Shh, I see that Millie has nodded off; and though I know that she disapproves, I must bestow the Best “Not a Bird” of the Year Award. My summer months are punctuated by day trips thither and yon traversing the New York bight on American Princess Cruises out of Riis Landing, Queens with the thrills of breaching Humpbacked Whales, acrobatic dolphins, and leaping Atlantic Sturgeon as my voyeuristic bait. But the “Not a Bird” that deserves the accolade of this award is “Sealy,” the Harbor Seal who called Muscota Marsh in Inwood Hill Park home for the summer and frequented the mudflats and Columbia University boat docks at incoming tides! Sealy gets my vote out of sheer delight.
The Mellow Yellow Award, with few contenders, goes to a Yellow Warbler singing its cheerful far-from-mellow song in Wolfe’s Pond Park, Staten Island.
Blue Bird of Happiness: Millie insists that this award be honored because she saw a Blue Jay once, sometime this year, right when she walked out the front door.
The Best Parenting Award is a fraught category because thousands of birds call New York City home for the summer and do a laudatory job raising their families under the most adverse circumstances (I ask you to imagine the challenges), and yet, there are “star” birds who unfairly make the headlines. The Common Terns of Governor’s Island, the Ospreys at the Salt Marsh Nature Center, Brooklyn, or Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, or Vito and Linda, the resident Bald Eagle pair at Mount Loretto Unique Area, Staten Island, are certainly Instagrammable contenders. But Millie’s insurmountable “cuteness factor” vote goes to the Piping Plover parents of Fort Tilden, Queens, who once again, managed to raise their toothpick-and-cotton-ball chicks amidst the human sunbathing traffic of this popular beach destination. Thank you Gateway National Park Rangers for keeping them safe!
The Be a Good Neighbor Citation is awarded to a pair of Monk Parakeets that set up housekeeping in Riverside Park this summer. After decades of these Argentinian green and gray natives colonizing Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, Manhattan finally has a pair to call their own. Look for them at 137th Street.
The Acrobat of the Year is a Caspian Tern, seen on a full moon Horseshoe Crab mating season walk at Plumb Beach, Brooklyn, that seemed to twist itself into a corkscrew to shake off water after a beachside plunge in the waves.
The time is nigh for that cherished final pronouncement of this annual ceremony—a duple honoree: New Bird of the West Village and Bird of the Year 2019. To me it was obvious (and with a few extra treats, Millie conceded as well) that both of these awards should celebrate our October visitor, the Abingdon Square Park Virginia Rail. This thin as a rail prize winner entertained us for more than a week, feasting on the dirt-loving fauna of the park, packing protein to continue its migration further south. With stately stride and unfazed industry, it showed off its subtle feathered finery at the feet (literally) of anyone who took the time to observe this alien creature in our very civilized backyard.
In conclusion, this is the merest smattering of the “good birds” that have been seen during this calendar year in our fair neighborhood and city. As a few flakes of snow begin to fall on this idyllic scene, Millie and I wish you the bird-friendliest New Year in 2020! Keep your eyes and your ears open.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for books, photographs, and the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs. Visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.