By Keith Michael
Overheard on the street: “Who decides when is the first day of spring? Do a bunch of people sit around a table and say, ‘This would be, like, a good day?’” It’s hard for me to imagine thinking that “spring” is merely a marketing ploy and not that there are grand rhythms dancing through space around this small spinning planet, calculable to the millisecond, as to when the vernal equinox is as well as the upcoming summer solstice. If perchance you’re among those who haven’t heard, the former is when the sun passes over the equator making the length of day and night equal in length (as the earth, tilted on its axis, travels around the sun), and the latter is the longest day of the year before the pendulum begins swinging back toward winter. If you are a sunset-peeper in Hudson River Park, watch how the sun is now setting further and further north each day over New Jersey, and then begins its southerly journey again.
The summer solstice arrives on Friday, June 21st, at 11:54 a.m. this year. I always think it comes too early to begin contemplating the summer’s waning. With this year’s cool rainy spring, only recently changing to brimmed hats and shorts weather, it feels like a handful of seconds are left, rather than a handful of days, as June rushes along to the tipping point.
While May wraps up, migrating birds are still hurrying through the city’s flyway to their northern destinations for raising families. This epic journey, evolved over millennia, is of endless mystery; and as climate change rapidly tears pages from the rule book, it will surely not be without its cliffhanging drama for millennia to come.
My end of spring semester academic marathon makes me a frustrated birder. During weeks of long hours and late nights working inside, I content myself with the morning walk to the subway to catch spring warblers stopping on West Village streets. To see them refueling after their night of 100-miles non-stop flight, one should really be up before dawn to watch the sun warm the tops of the trees (and warm the insects that the birds are feeding on). Sadly, for me, getting enough sleep must take precedence. I have been lucky to catch some of the usual cast of colorful, and vocal, transient characters. The tss tss tss tss of a Blackpoll Warbler caught my ear along Perry Street. Bleeker Street offered up the welcoming bzz bzz bzz ZIP of a Northern Parula high in an oak tree. The always surprising upward inflected chew chew CHEW of the flashy American Redstart did, again, surprise me one morning while crossing West 4th Street. The sweet sweet sweeter sweetest of a Yellow Warbler alerted me to its breakfasting on Charles Street. And I did first see a blur of Yellow-rumped Warblers bounding through the trees on Waverly Place before I heard them announcing their presence. (None of these warblers were cooperative for my impatient got-to-get-to-work camera, hence the photo of a stand-in Yellow Warbler happily singing on Staten Island.)
At this time of year, I listen carefully to every caroling Robin to try to decide if it has the telltale “sore throat” vocal fry of the Scarlet Tanager’s song, or the baroque repetitive phrasing of the Baltimore Oriole. Those two stunners (the first one red and black, the second orange and black) haven’t shown up (yet) or, perhaps I haven’t been walking down the street when they are coursing above my head. When seeing illustrations in a bird guide, it’s difficult to imagine how these two birds’ megawatt coloring works as camouflage. But see how they disappear underneath a canopy of leaves when the reflected green effectively cancels out their sunset hues!
This is also the time of year when I’m frequently asked, “There is a bird that starts singing in the middle of the night right outside my window, quite a pretty song, non-stop until dawn. Do you know what that might be?” Well, it’s likely a Mockingbird, exhausting his repertoire, sampling tunes from all the birds he’s encountered during his travels. Fortunately (or unfortunately), if you have this nocturnal crooner outside your window, listen for whether it sounds like he’s singing one song, then “changes the channel” to sing a different melody for a few repetitions, then changes again. That’s the Mockingbird’s conjuring trick.
Millie just walked over beside my chair while I’m typing, her deep corgi eyes seeming to ask, “Have you told a cute story about me yet?” “Of course I have,” I lie. Content with this ruse, Millie trots off across the floor. Or, perhaps, she’s just content with chasing the treat I tossed into a patch of sunlight.
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.