By Keith Michael
We’ve slammed the door on 2020! Of course this presentation of the 15th Annual West Village Bird of the Year Awards, “The Millies,” will be broadcast on Zoom rather than from the traditional in-person location on the tourist-confounding corner of West 4th and West 12th Streets where my Bird #1, a rosy-hued House Finch, launched my NYC birding quest!
A little Zoom housekeeping: for the enjoyment of all, please turn off your videos and mute your mics. There will be ample opportunity for cheering at the end.
As a refresher, the criteria for inclusion in “The Millies:” birds must be seen in, above, or from the five boroughs of New York; voting is weighted toward those birds observed during Millie’s daily corgi-walks in the West Village; additional points may be lauded to those candidates actually seen by the award’s namesake. Miss Millie’s patronage includes the privilege of casting the tie-breaking vote (or even the privilege of disregarding these ground rules completely).
I promised Millie that this year’s awards ceremony would be a masked ball. It appears she took this quite seriously because she has arrived in a full ears-to-bum Pembroke Welsh Corgi ensemble. If this were a costume party, which I hate to tell her it isn’t, Millie would definitely win First Prize. On to the awards!
My Corona Birds. All in all, 2020 was a sobering year. This is a grateful shout-out to those 79 neighborhood species that I saw during lockdown. Each bird inspired me to walk to Hudson River Park every day to be reminded that the avian world was on its usual FAST FORWARD while our world was on PAUSE.
Acrobat of the Year. After that near-downer, Millie is glaring at me to cheer things up. There were a record number of contenders for this Olympian prize. Clinging to tree trunks and hanging upside down are entry-level skills. Nuthatches up the game by climbing headfirst DOWN trees. Black-and-white Warblers embellish the basic repertoire with sartorial dazzle. But the surprise entry this year was a Least Bittern at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens who stunned me with cantilevered gravity-defying dining.
Just Because. Two Words: Bald Eagle.
Just Because Millie Likes the Photo. American Oystercatchers.
Color My World. Birds’ sheer beauty attracts many people to watch them. This citation goes out to these one-two-punch blasts of color: Northern Cardinals for defining RED, Blue Jays for their radiant BLUE, Baltimore Orioles for their snazzy ORANGE, Yellow Warblers aptly named for their sunny YELLOW, and Monk Parakeets, famous from Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, for their raucous GREEN.
Urban Parenting. As schools and playgrounds closed this year, human parenting was challenging. Many people told me they were inspired during those months by our urban birds raising their own kids in the wild, somehow surmounting the dangers of weather, traffic, and happenstance. Dozens of Black Duck and Mallard ducklings grew up swimming with the river tides. (Don’t tell Millie, but they were very cute.) Hundreds of birds raised families along our streets, but this special acknowledgement goes to the Canada Goose pair who nurtured four fluffy goslings to adulthood in Hudson River Park, entertaining scads of passersby with their daily traversing from the river to the grass. Ah, the photo ops.
Not a Bird. Millie hates this award. It’s likely not the prize itself she hates, but because this presentation usually falls midway through the ceremony she’s either bored or hungry. Today she’s protesting by getting a drink of water. Yes, there were Striped Skunks in northern Manhattan, Harbor Seals off Staten Island, Coyotes in the Bronx, Italian Wall Lizards in Brooklyn, and Bottle-nosed Dolphins seen from the beaches of Queens. But on December 7th a Humpbacked Whale was spotted in the Hudson River at 42nd Street and was eventually photographed frolicking around the Statue of Liberty before heading back out to sea. NYC’s not only an avian wonderland!
So You Think You Can Dance. Sidewalk pigeons bust a move with head jive as they walk. But some notable birds focus our attention elsewhere. The Northern Waterthrush and Spotted Sandpiper (two birds I’d love to add to my West Village List) forage with a comical derriere rhumba. My “10” goes to the Yellow-crowned Night Heron in New Jersey that wiggled its butt, seemingly out of uncontainable excitement, as he got closer and closer to nabbing a Fiddler Crab for lunch. (Unfortunately, Millie is back and she disapproves, both of out-of-state awards and of admirable bums other than her own.) Millie’s deciding vote goes to the exceptionally worthy Palm Warbler who displayed his tail-bobbing dance this spring on the green at Abingdon Square Park.
Any Owl I See Gets an Award. I swoon over owls. Their elusiveness, penetrating eyes, and nocturnal super-powers are catnip to me (if I were a cat). 2020 brought me sightings of Snowy, Saw-whet, Barred, Great Horned, and Long-eared Owls. ‘Tis the Owl-iday season, once again, to find a few owls staring down at me and wondering, “Who are YOU?”
On the Street Where You Live. Millie is alarmed that many birds I’m honoring are NOT ones she has seen. To balance that, this fall there were Chickadees and Tufted Titmice seemingly on every corner, a Great Horned Owl on Bethune Street (neither of us saw that superstar), and Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks hanging out on Perry Street. But Millie votes for a snazzy bird she saw with me this spring on West 11th Street: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
New Bird of the Year. This award was easy because, as was the case last year, there was only one new species added to my list: a glamorous Yellow-headed Blackbird strutting his stuff at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. This bird is aptly named, as it really is a black bird with a strikingly yellow head. All his friends are west of the Mississippi River. As with any vagrant, there is speculation about how he got waylaid thousands of miles from home.
Bird of the Year 2020. It’s time for this honored final proclamation. (Millie, wake up!) Whether due to climate change, reduced human activity because of COVID-19, or avian wherewithal, there have been many entertaining and unlikely birds to behold. The stories I could tell you about the top contenders: Golden Plover, Western Tanager, Nelson’s Sparrow, Royal Terns, and so many more! But the birds that literally got my heart racing (because I traipsed to look for it six times before we were on the same patch of six-mile beach between Riis Park and Breezy Point) were a King Eider duck and his future Queen. In breeding plumage, the King grows a striking orange shield on his bill, and the Queen boasts a smirk as if to say, “What’s all the fuss about?”
There we have it! Y’all can turn your Zoom video back on. Unmute yourself and let out a WHOOPING goodbye to 2020 as a grand year for seeing birds! Millie and I send you our hearty, healthy, and birdy wishes for 2021.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.