By Keith Michael
As the National Audubon Society wraps up this Year of the Bird 2018—bringing international attention to the plight of countless bird species and the effects of climate change for us all—it is time, once again, here in the West Village, to celebrate our local ecosystem with the 13th Annual Bird of the Year Awards: The Millies!
As a reminder, the ground rules for The Millies are as follows: 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 around her blocks in the West Village; and 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 if needed (or even the privilege of disregarding these ground rules completely).
On to the Awards Ceremony:
Thanks for Brightening Up the Neighborhood. There are so many contenders for this prize. Personally, I’ve seen 105 species of birds within the geographical boundaries of the West Village, and, of course, thousands of individuals. With only a few degrees of separation with friends, we could get the species count well over 120 (if any neighborhood birder has a higher count, I’d love to hear about it!). Every walk to the deli, every step on the way to the subway, each outing to a corner restaurant, oh, and of course, each walk around the block with Millie, is enlightened by the sights and sounds of our avian residents and migratory visitors. I’ll narrow down the contenders to some of our splashier neighbors: Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, American Kestral, and Red-tailed Hawk. The envelope please. Sorry, I’m a marshmallow. How could I pick just one? I’m grateful to them all for coloring my days.
Year of the Owl. This is going to be another award for which Millie or I can’t pick just one as a winner. January began with sightings of Snowy Owls at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens (snowbirds from the Arctic Circle), then there were Screech Owls in Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park, and Central Park produced Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, and the diminutive Saw-whet Owl. Other possible NYC species turned up as well (which I haven’t seen personally this year—yet): Long-eared Owl in Fort Tryon Park, and a Short-eared Owl was spotted on Randall’s Island. Owls always bring a mystique along with them. I think that part of their allure is that they have binocular vision like ours. We like to attribute vision to wisdom. Whooooo is the wiser?
Just Because They’re Red. This is an arbitrary category. In the past, The Millies have featured the “Blue Bird of Happiness” and the “It’s Not Easy Being Green” accolades. This year’s “In the Red” nominees are: Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Cardinal, and Red-headed Duck. Since two of these redbirds have already been cited in another category, the winners of this honor are the Red-headed Duck winter regulars on Baisley Pond in Queens.
Too Cute for Words. The Piping Plovers of Fort Tilden, Queens and this year’s visiting flock of Snow Buntings on the rocks at Fort Schuyler in The Bronx are fluff-to-fluff competitors for this cuddly prize. Wait! Millie has just charged across the apartment with a somewhat tattered envelope in her mouth. Could this be a tie-breaking vote from the coast? My fingers are shaking as I pull out the soggy contents. Uh, Millie has cast her paw print for… Millie. This is an unconventional winner and will need to be taken back to the ethics committee for discussion. In the meantime, these avian cuties will be left for you to decide who is the cutest of them all.
Locavore and Paleo. Many urban birds have learned to adapt their diets to the seeds, fruits, flora, and fauna that our contemporary concrete environment yields, but that doesn’t mean that birds don’t still need to live by their ancient wits to plunder the food that is available. I give kudos to a Great Black-backed Gull I watched pluck a crab out of the brine at Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn.
Comic Relief. If one can elbow one’s way past the kaleidoscope of people on our NYC beaches in the summer, it’s the American Oystercatcher who provides the free entertainment with the sand and the waves as its stage. Their carrot orange bills and crisp attire seem honed for a slap-stick routine, and they generate their own laugh track with their constant raucous squabbling. However, it’s no comedy when it comes to being devoted parents. Most of their beach-side altercations are territorial wars, and that orange beak is a formidable weapon that can pry open a pesky oyster or clam shell to feed their demanding chicks.
Super Extralimital. Millie has completely withheld her support for this new category for distant birds or, perhaps, she is still withholding her support of me for having deserted her for a family wedding this summer (or perhaps she’s just napping). My niece was getting married in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I was, luckily, able to go and share in the festivities as well as add more than 25 western birds to my Life List! The heavenly host of hummingbirds everywhere was certainly exciting, the new varieties of LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) were challenging to identify, and I confess that I was disappointed not to witness a (beep, beep) Roadrunner. Easily, my favorite new bird was the sartorial splendor of the Steller’s Jay, with its nifty black crested cap and royal blue tailcoat. A stunner.
Super Local Hero. Bald Eagle. There I’ve said it—without even looking in the envelope! Millie always manages to find a reason to award the Bald Eagles of Staten Island. After dozens of outings, I still find it super-cool to be able to take the super-free Staten Island Ferry to that distant isle, and be watched by a super-local Bald Eagle family while I eat a sandwich on the beach. Any time you’d like to go see them, just let me know, and we’ll plan an Eagle Fest outing.
“Millie, wake up, we’re getting to the ‘good’ awards!”
Best “Not a Bird” of the Year. This is an unconventional category to champion during this ceremony. One might even consider it a commercial break. I am more than happy to get on any kind of a boat that travels the New York waterways: a canoe down the Bronx River, a kayak in the Gowanus Canal (still on my To Do list), any of the multitude of ferries crossing the Hudson and East Rivers, the Circle Line Cruise, Working Harbor Tours, Open House New York boat outings, or the aforementioned Staten Island Ferry. But my favorite maritime excursion is the American Princess Dolphin and Whale Watching Cruise out of Riis Landing, Queens. Within sight of the Manhattan skyline, one can see dolphins cavorting through the wake of the boat, and the highlight of this summer was a Humpbacked Whale who, after breaching, enthralled us with at least 50 consecutive percussive tail slaps, telegraphing, “How’s it goin’?” to his cetaceous buddies near and far.
All photos: Keith Michael
New Bird of the Year. The two candidates for these two final prestigious awards are BOTH deserving of BOTH accolades: a Kirtland’s Warbler that appeared for a brief weekend in May right inside the 91st Street and Central Park West entrance to the park, and the famous Mandarin Duck, also of Central Park, which I obliquely championed in my December article for WestView: “Not ‘The Duck.’” The Kirtland’s is a small yellow and gray tail-bobbing bird famous for having been on the brink of extinction only a few decades ago. But after having its limited Michigan habitat and population carefully monitored, the species has recovered enough that one individual could make it to Central Park for the first time ever! Even though I saw it for only a few minutes, the Kirtland’s Warbler became my North American Bird Species #337 and I herald it as my New Bird of the Year for 2018!
Bird of the Year. Like that other ambassador bird, the technicolor Painted Bunting of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 2015, this year’s unanimous winner of the Bird of the Year Award has it all: beauty, charisma, mystery, faithfulness to location and fans, and media-savvy photo ops. (You can still make a pilgrimage to The Pond at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue to see it!) Let’s give it up for the Bird of the Year: the flashy drake Mandarin Duck of Central Park. Stand up and cheer!
This concludes the 2018 Millie Awards!
May you see many birds in 2019!
Please visit westviewnews.org for more photographs of this year’s avian celebrities after the ceremony; visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs; and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for oodles of photos from around NYC.