By Keith Michael
It’s the summer birding doldrums.
I’m sitting on a shady bench in Hudson River Park. An unexpected boat regatta just sailed upriver, flags flying, horns celebrating. A decade ago, Millie would have pulled me to the park this Sunday afternoon and demanded to be lifted up onto this bench —too high for her corgi legs to jump—to laze an hour similarly watching the passersby, and hesitantly accepting head pats from admirers. These days, no walks to the park, no being picked up to sit on benches, and especially, no head scratches from strangers. On a hot day like today she’s at home snoozing near the air-conditioner, perhaps dreaming of ice cubes sailing through her water bowl.
No Robins singing, no Sparrows squabbling, no Starlings trilling, no Catbirds caterwauling, no Mockingbirds mocking the rest of them. They’re there. But it’s siesta time.
The river is somewhat more active. A smattering of Ring-billed Gulls loafs on the pilings. A Great Black-backed Gull, bobbing in the waves still ricocheting from shore to shore after the passing of the regatta, struggles with a fish. One snake-necked Double-crested Cormorant flies surprisingly quickly across the Jersey City skyline, another is modeling the classic “hanging its wings out to dry” silhouette on top of a piling, while a third cruises along in the water, its back nearly submerged and turquoise eyes sparkling, then with a little hiccough arc, dives for an afternoon snack.
But my favorite birds of the afternoon are the four Common Terns that have called this stretch of the river home since the end of May. Common Terns are a smaller, arguably more graceful version of a gull: sleek white body, jaunty black cap, snappy black-tipped red bill, and a sartorially elegant swallow tail. All four of them are lounging, socially distanced, on the Pier 49 pile field. They’re far from strangers to the area. Several thousand pairs nest out at Breezy Point, Queens, and a smaller colony of about a hundred have made the decommissioned piers of Governor’s Island their home for a decade.
Remarkably though, this is the first year we’ve been graced with the presence of Common Terns along the West Village throughout the spring and summer. Early in June, I watched both pairs do their courting rituals around these same pilings—the circling flights, the swelled-chest dancing and bowing, the male’s presentation of a fish to the female, “Hey, look, I’m a great provider!” Watching these courtships, I had hoped that they might be moving into the neighborhood, maybe homesteading on the Covid-closed playground pier. But I’ve seen no evidence of family-raising routines. Maybe these four are young birds from last summer still play-acting at being grown-ups.
Common Terns are one of the world’s longest distance migrants. These New York summer birds have spent the winter as far south as the coast of Argentina, only to return 15,000 miles later to lay this season’s eggs not a dozen feet from where they scraped together a few shells to call home last summer. With exposed nests on sandy beaches, terns sometimes need to sit over their eggs not only to keep them warm but to shade them from the heat of the sun—protecting the eggs from frying!
Terns fish for a living. Watching their technique is one of the great pleasures of my summer. Parents teach their fledglings how to do it, and watching the palpable consternation of the youngsters try-try-again practice takes me right back to my own childhood humiliation learning to play baseball. But the parents are both patient as well as “tough love” insistent that the kids learn to do it themselves. I’ve watched a parent with a fish in its bill nearly taunt a hungry child as if to say, “Go ahead, you can do it. Go get one for yourself!”
But how do they do it? Terns hunt by sight. If you follow one tern, you’ll see them make long looping flights up and down the river, occasionally passing at arm’s length from the promenade railing. Once they spot a fish near the water’s surface, they’ll hover midair while focusing below them, then tuck their wings and plunge straight down in an Olympic medalist’s dive of pure form. It seems that after the splash, more often than not, they don’t get the fish. Which means another flight, hover, and dive. The amount of energy expended on each four-inch silver fish seems extraordinary, and the number of miles flown every day, not to mention throughout a lifetime, is unfathomable.
The summer’s Canada Goose family sails by heading upriver—the gander in front, the four now adult-plumaged goslings in the middle, followed by the ever-protective hen. The sun has dipped to that imperceptible angle that marks the waning of the afternoon. The quartet of terns have roused. I missed them taking flight.
A decade ago, I would have helped Millie off of the bench and we’d saunter home. Today, it’s just me and my shadow.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for links to ALL of my WestView articles, books, photographs, and the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban adventures in nature outings throughout the five boroughs (currently on hold). Follow me on Instagram @newyorkcitywild for daily photos from around NYC.