Honking and braying, a Canada Goose family flies across the promenade in front of us onto the lawn. Millie seems nonplussed as the geese immediately get industrious at their grass maintenance routine. Corgis are herding dogs, but maybe the geese are already orderly enough that Millie doesn’t feel the need to intervene, or maybe she knows better than to take on a flock of geese at this time of year.
It’s a blue-sky early Sunday morning in Hudson River Park. The big city is sleeping in. Looking out over the glass-smooth Hudson River, it occurs to me that I’m witnessing what it might have been like the first day of ticket sales for entry to Noah’s Ark. It’s spring, and all the waterfowl are travelling in twos. Along the river wall there is a Mallard pair—he with his glistening emerald-green head and curly tail filigrees, and she in a harmonious array of modest browns with a brilliant blue patch on each wing. Out hobnobbing with the pilings is a Black Duck couple. One moment they are clearly bobbing in the waves and the next they are indistinguishable from the dark pilings themselves. Confusingly, American Black Duck is the full formal name for this species which is really a deep brown color with a mottled grayish head and distinctive darker cap. Though when compared to the more common Mallard, they do look nearly black, particularly at a distance. Except as a rare vagrant in other parts of the world, why its formal name includes American, and why simply Black Duck doesn’t suffice, I don’t know.
Also hide-and-seeking among the pilings are two Bufflehead. The guy of this pair looks like a black-and-white cartoon of a bathtub ducky but with a masked swashbuckling demeanor: standing up in the water to flaunt his wings, competition diving, and disappearing under the waves for a minute at a time. The gal is, again, browner, but with a white patch below her eye (maybe he finds this sultry). She is equally Olympian in her diving style. When they both pop up at the same time, he’s in full courting mode, stretching his neck and tossing his head straight backward nearly to his tail. The percussiveness looks like he could snap his back. When he catches the sun just right, the black feathers on his head come to life as an iridescent green-and-purple sheen. From this distance I can’t tell whether or not she’s being wowed by his athletic chutzpah.
Closer to the center of the river, yet another pair of winter ducks is cruising, preening, and diving. The Red-breasted Merganser always looks in high fashion with teased-out feathers on the backs of their heads as though they’re facing into a hurricane gale. The male is dandied up in a forest-green tailcoat with a white collar above a rust-red vest, while the female is turned out in a fetching warm-sienna ensemble over a white shirtwaist. They both look like they’re decked out for a fancy spring equinox dress ball.
A gaggle of Brant geese circle and splash into the water near the river wall, displacing the Mallard pair. These small geese, black above and white below with a smudge of white on their short necks, don’t seem to have paired up yet. They still need to conserve energy for their flight to the far north near the Arctic Circle before courting and settling down to raise their families. As a species seemingly perpetually gossiping and complaining among themselves, it makes me laugh to ponder a vast tundra of tens of thousands of bickering Brant couples!
Just as Millie tugs at her leash (not so politely) urging me to move along, a commotion in the water draws her attention back to peering through the river railing. Two male geese are either having a territorial showdown or arguing about whether one of them cut in line for that first-come first-served pair of tickets to Noah’s Ark. The full repertoire of Canada Goose fisticuffs—honking, splashing, biting, chasing—is employed in this aquatic tussle. The two hen geese skirt the sidelines, more interested in the tasty algae growing along the water line on the wall. The standoff escalates to an aerial skirmish out across the river. The two hens seem to look back over their shoulders with commiserating shrugs.
Show’s over. Millie’s had enough. Two Cardinals are duet-singing from the tops of the pines as we wait to cross the highway. Spring is in the air.
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 photos from around NYC.