By Keith Michael
Even though it’s still a few days before the official start of summer, it’s already swelteringly hot. And for some reason, rather than looking at me pleadingly over her shoulder to take her back inside to the air conditioning, this morning Millie’s leash is taut toward the river.
The sun glares off the cobblestones, as I follow Millie’s careful corgi steps along the shady curb to Charles Street to sit waiting for the light on West Street. I can hear a Cardinal a block uptown singing out a cheery cheery cheery, and downtown, a Blue Jay is already arguing with somebody. We’ve got a Mockingbird high on a water tower racing through his repertoire to “get outta town” while a rosy-headed House Finch beckons us onward with his cheerful burbling atop a light post in Hudson River Park. Quadraphonic sound.
The dribble of Sunday morning traffic eases to a stop while the light changes from green to yellow to red. As Millie hurries me across the street, the white collar of her fur goes in and out of phase with the white crosswalk stripes.
Maybe this is what Millie was pulling me toward: the temperature seems to have dropped ten degrees. Even with the breeze skimming along the river, the lack of early morning boats rippling the waves leaves a perfect reflection of the glistening Jersey City skyline.
Somewhere pouring out from among the yellow and blue flowers of the “apple garden,” there’s a Catbird’s rollicking phrases, including a few of its namesake cat-like mews. I’ll have to come back later, without Millie, to check out if there’s coming and going activity suggesting a nest somewhere. Catbird chicks in a few weeks would be fun to watch.
Millie drags me to the railing just as a circling Double-crested Cormorant skids down onto the river, and after a brief shake of its head, dives immediately. Whenever I see a Cormorant go under the water, I attempt holding my breath for minutes like they do. I always run out of air long before one pops up sometimes hundreds of feet from where it’s disappeared.
We inch along the railing. The lawn is populated with Robins, rushing, pausing, and inevitably, cocking their heads before diving for a bug or worm that they’ve found in the grass. The loose groups of Starlings, lightly speckled adults and fresh gray youngsters, have more of a “hunt and peck” breakfast rhythm—all the while bobbing their heads forward and back. Watching them makes me queasy.
Up at the 11th Street entrance to the park, the “joint is jumpin’”! The Juneberry bushes (also known colloquially as shadbush, shadwood, shadblow, serviceberry, saskatoon, sugarplum, wild-plum, and chuckley pear!) are in full “doing what they do best” mode: producing luscious sweet purple-red berries in June. The branches are vibrating with the shifting balance of Cedar Waxwings, Grackles, more Starlings and Robins, as well as the heftier Rock Doves (ahem, pigeons) indulging in this pre-brunch special. I’ll be sure to come back in a week when the berries, beginning to ferment in the sun, continue to attract an avian clientele unwittingly getting tipsy on their au natural liquors.
I happen to look up beyond the Zelkova trees lining the promenade and catch a flyover Common Crow. Believe me, I’m always enticed to turn any crow into a Raven, but this one second-guesses me, and confirms its identity with the unmistakable caw-caw-caw—of a Crow. Even higher are soaring several gulls, too high to discern if they are Herring or Ring-billed Gulls.
Along the river wall, a pair of Black Ducks forage in the waves, and further out, a cluster of one, two, three…nine, ten Canada Geese work through a slick of flotsam. One Black-backed Gull seems to struggle with something larger than it can handle. As we reach the Playground Pier, a pair of Mallard Ducks with their one surviving duckling of the summer float from the shadows of the pilings. The tide is heading out. Goodspeed.
Millie looks up at me as a flock of House Sparrows breeze past us on their way north to the rocks of the Sanitation Pier to hob knob with the Mourning Doves always there picking through the tidal wrack.
I don’t know what Millie was looking for. Was this it? A Sunday morning walk by the river? (Quite enough in my book.) But now she wants to go home.
For more information about New York City WILD! nature outings, birding, photographs, or books, visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow Instagram @newyorkcitywild