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A handsome Hermit Thrush has all eyes for you. Photo by Keith Michael.

By Keith Michael

Charles Lane, 11:28 am. Weather cloudy. 59 degrees.

Quite frankly, I’m on my way to Hudson River Park, hoping to take a good photograph of a neighborhood bird for my December (this) WestView article. The inspiration for my monthly recounting of an instant of West Village or greater NYC avian life always comes, literally, on the wing. Each time I hit send on my latest article, the search begins to meander through my mind for, “What’s next?” That’s one of the things about bird watching—sometimes you have to wait.

In New York City, we are lucky. Never are we far away from a remarkable bird, and since every bird can be deemed remarkable, we’re even closer. But. You might have to wait for it. I would say that most people are surprised by how rich the bird life is where we live. According to eBird, a citizen science bird reporting application, in the last century of record keeping, 342 species of birds have been seen at least once within the five boroughs. My current West Village list stands at 108 species, and I know that others have seen around a dozen more. But it’s not like the bird house at a zoo where you walk along the raised path of the aviary with helpful identification plaques on the railing. “Oh, up there’s the red one.” Check. And, “Over there’s the green one.” Check. “Have you found the brown one yet?”

Finding a bird might be as seemingly insignificant as noticing a leaf twitch in a bush or hearing an unusual tsk from high in a tree. One could be jolted by the alarm call from the neighborhood Blue Jay police or only catch a fleeting glance of a soaring bird above an intersection. Seeing or hearing “the bird” might increase your heart rate or light a fire under your feet to hurry to the other side of the street to extend that fleeting glance. Or it might freeze you like a statue in a game of Red Light, Green Light. This is, perhaps, my favorite. “Shhh. It’s RIGHT there. So close. Be like a tree. Part of the street scene. Hope the bird doesn’t notice and fly away.”

That’s the moment you wait for. You have to enter into their world. A bird is usually busy. So busy. Finding enough food to fuel the industry it takes to find food is a never-ending cycle. Also, their eyes are always active to anticipate a threat. Maybe a hawk is lurking above? Maybe they discovered a damaged feather which might mean they’re a split second slower to avoid a car, a bicycle, a dog, or a cat? Is the weather too hot or too cold, or might a sudden storm destroy their nest? Or maybe they’ve heard rumors from friends that a collision with a window reflecting blue sky might, out of nowhere, end their life?

A bird just hopped up from the 1820s Newgate Prison cobblestones of Charles Lane to the 21st century Richard Meier wall abutting the lane. Maybe this is my Bird of the Month! Slowly I walk. Step by step. Easing my camera up to my eye. The bird is watching me but not flinching. I click off a few distant shots—that might be as good as it gets. But I keep taking one step after another, focusing on that curious eye. It gives me a fetching three-quarters over the shoulder fashion magazine pose, then spins about face for a full-frontal glare. It IS a good bird—a svelte, auburn-tailed, spotted-breasted Hermit Thrush. This might be the last one I’ll see this season as they’re on their way south for the winter. It keeps glancing at me with one eye then the other, intermittently gazing up, tail perkily cocked. Perhaps it’s a lucky survivor catching its breath after a recent close call from a hawk’s chase or it’s stunned by a glass curtain wall strike. Rather than fleeing, it lets me pass by. I seem to be the least of its worries.

It’s rare that I decide to leave the bird before the bird leaves me! This one has been so cooperative that I hope it’s okay. Thank you Hermit Thrush for your time. Goodbye and good speed to you on your journey.

Visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram. 

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