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By Keith Michael

It’s Tuesday evening after work and the temperature has passed that imprecise degree which brings out the throngs to indulge in the warmth of the sunset. Accompanied by a lively band of Crows cawing overhead, I too have marched to Hudson River Park for the same reason and to see what birds might be doing likewise.

The promenade is jammed with walkers, baby strollers, skaters, selfie-takers, and dogs cheerfully pulling their humans by their leashes, all underscored by the rhythmic footfalls of an endless parade of joggers. It’s difficult not to get caught up in this incessant human tide and stand calmly watching for birds. Focus.

Ah, up there in the budding elm, flashes of white direct me to a trio of dueling Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers challenging ownership of their freshly chiseled sap wells. Many trees in the park are decorated with these bracelets of evenly spaced rows of holes. This is the hard-won initiation ritual of these arboreal tattoos. Surprisingly, even at this distance I can see beads of sap glistening on the trunk, and even more surprisingly, the Sapsuckers’ usually faint namesake yellow breasts are beaming in this golden hour glow.

An Eastern Phoebe, the undisputed harbinger of spring. Photo by Keith Michael.

A sally from a lower branch now catches my eye. An Eastern Phoebe swoops out fly-catching, returns to its limber perch, bobs its tail a few balance-catching beats, and then dives toward its next quarry. These entertaining birds are one of the first spring arrivals and have already been gorging on our northern cuisine for weeks.

Still not moving my feet, but looking down now, the aeration of the lawns by the meticulous HRP gardeners has provided a smorgasbord for our resident red-breasted American Robins. Here and there, near and far, a choreographic canon is being performed: run, run, run, p-a-u-s-e, head tilt, foot tap-tap-tap, bend forward, nab a worm, tug it out of the ground, pause with the prize, look around, disregard table manners, and dispatch quickly. Repeat. Their dexterity and success rate are impressive. Oh, one of these birds is not like the others. Nearer the bushes, a timid Hermit Thrush, slightly smaller, browner with a spotted white breast and reddish stand-up tail, is gleaning bugs from the grass for supper. This cousin to the Robin is a nice find for tonight.

Also wending their way along the shrubbery line are several foraging sparrows. Our resident House Sparrows are the most vocal. The black-throated males are in courting mode—fluffing up, lowering their head and wings, and fluttering, in what I always think of as a flamenco dance, accompanied by their rat-a-tat-tat chatter—while the females seem more attentive to the newly seeded lawn than to these macho antics. One bird flies up to a branch. Ah ha, this one is no neighborhood sparrow but a subtly dashing Savannah Sparrow in brown pinstripes with fetching bright yellow eye makeup. Is that another one? No. On a higher branch is a darker-striped Song Sparrow with a bull’s-eye blotch at the center of its breast. Rounding out the sparrow contingent for the evening, a suitably-named White-throated Sparrow comes scratching out of the leaf debris. This fellow has been a winter visitor and will soon be heading north to his, “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” This, his whistled refrain, will be missed.

My binoculared perusal of the bushes has been receiving a few skeptical stares from picnicking couples and groups spread across the lawn. I’m amused as a Canada Goose pair descends from the blue at full vocal throttle seemingly perturbed that “their” lawn has been invaded by another species. I’m further amused at the synchronicity of the two species’ behavior defending their turf: both the gander and the male homo sapien puff themselves up, shout loudly at each other, and vigorously flap their wings/arms while the hen calmly browses the grass buffet and the female of our species lounges on her blanket eating grapes. You can’t make this stuff up.

Amidst the braying of this interspecies duet, I hear the mimic mewing of a Gray Catbird nearby and a far more subtle tsee tsee tsee high in the elm. I recognize this call as a Golden-crowned Kinglet, but seeing it is not as easy. This tiny bird, about the size and weight of a dunked teabag, does have a tiny yellow flag on its head which one would think would be helpful but it is endlessly on the move. The trick is to maintain a wide view of the still branches and catch any peripheral flutter of movement. There, to the left, now to the right, a tiny blur bounds from twig to twig. Unless it comes to a lower branch, I’ll just have to take my word for it that I saw it. But beyond the top of the tree, a much more obvious tidy phalanx of Double-crested Cormorants is heading toward the East River for the night.

Suddenly, something changes in the air. All the background twittering goes silent and pigeons seem to be fleeing for cover in every direction. Hmm. High above, a pair of Peregrine Falcons glides north. I imagine the ground birds are hoping the falcons have already had dinner. It will take a while until the avian “All Clear” sounds. It’s the perfect time to put away the binoculars and find a spot on a bench to watch the sunset show.

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