By Keith Michael
This is my tenth August article for WestView, and the first one written from out of the West Village.
The end of the “Millie Years” has made it possible again for David and I to travel together, away from NYC, for longer than a weekend (someone always stayed with Millie while we were gone.) After a lapse of twelve years, we went to our favorite place: The Netherlands. For eight days, we’re in the environs of the medieval city of Deventer, east of the more expected destination of Amsterdam. What a festival this is of stunning step-gabled houses, local seafood, frites, cheese, beer, windmills, rivers, canals, bridges, bicycles, gardens, flowers, and the greenest green everywhere, and, of course, birds!
One of my joys of traveling is seeing new birds. I confess that I do feel guilty about deserting the West Village avian residents and their summer travails, but not THAT guilty. And it’s still strange to pack, and pull the door closed behind me without the last sight of home being Millie’s plaintive corgi eyes staring back, “Hey, where’re ya going without me?” Birding in a new place is filled with, uh, ruffled feathers. Just walking out of the hotel presents fresh challenges of sights and sounds. Yes, some of their city birds are the same as ours—pigeons, “European” House Sparrows, and “European” Starlings—because ours came from over here. I always wonder whether they too speak different languages. But then a gull flies overhead, and suddenly the questions begin, “What is the common gull here? What is it most likely to be?” It is probably a Herring Gull, which is the same as our medium-sized, gray-winged gull, but maybe it’s a Common Gull, which would be a rarity for us. A black crow-like bird flies from one picturesque chimney to another, but it isn’t “saying” anything. Consulting my field guide, was it a Carrion Crow, a Rook, a Chough (unlikely) or a Raven (probably not?) What are the tell-tale signs? At home I’d know. And I won’t chastise myself for not remembering the Dutch names for all of these birds, or for not pronouncing them correctly!
The walls of backyard gardens seem to be overflowing with the songs of new birds. Walking on Perry Street, I play the (easy) game with myself of naming every bird I hear. Rarely do I forfeit my turn by admitting, “I don’t know.” But here, I can’t even deal the cards to get a hand in the game. Is that repetitive call a Chiffchaff, named for its repetitive call? What is that warbling song with the two endnotes? Someone who knows would immediately call it out, “Oh, that’s a…” Now that “crow” from on top of the chimney is summoning his friends, but I don’t know that call either so it’s no help.
Walking through The Brink, the main square, I hear a Blackbird in a tree who seems to have trained with our Catbirds or Mockingbirds for their repertoire of bawdy songs, and an entertaining clamour of small, gray-naped crows called Jackdaws are hobnobbing to and fro across the cobblestones, many of them with demanding youngsters stepping on their shadows. A frenzy of scythe-winged Swifts screams by overhead while a massive, chicken-sized Woodpigeon whistles in at my feet to snag a frite from the street. First of all, I think, “How could someone NOT have finished those delicious, double-fried fries?” Then, my hand remembers, holding a phantom leash, that Millie would have pulled me toward them for a snack.
While taking a break in the shadow of the 13th century St. Nicholas church, a few avian mysteries become clearer. I hear that warbling song again and follow it to the top of an extravagantly flowering Catalpa Tree. A European Goldfinch is concertizing there. Ah ha. I recognize this bird’s flashy red face, and yellow, black, and white wings from a presumed escapee that I saw once in Central Park, but I never heard one sing before. Next, on the top of a wall across the street, the obvious capers of a Pied Wagtail snag my attention. This bird is well-named for its stylish black and white feather patterns, and its tireless habit of bobbing its tail. Finally, a wee Robin “Redbreast,” of nursery rhyme fame and the namesake of our American Robin, is working the edges of the shrubbery. That’s three new, named birds for the trip in as many minutes.
It’s time for an afternoon beer with the gothic Great Church of St. Lebuïnus, and people watching, as the view before getting ready for dinner.
Hey, West Village birds, save up some stories for me. I look forward to hearing from you when I get back.
Visit www.keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.