By Keith Michael
My phone vibrates on my desk. I hit “Send” on a work email before checking the message: Text? Gmail? Facebook messenger? Instagram notification?
Millie’s photograph, of course, is the wallpaper on my phone. Her doe-like corgi eyes look up out of the palm of my hand, virtually, ever-hopeful for a treat. Tapping in the passcode over Millie’s vigilant gaze brings the tidy grid of icons to life (like autumn leaves waiting to fall). It’s an Instagram reply back to my cryptic “What? Where? Wow!” comment on a friend’s bird photo caption: “Taken on Sunday. It was still there yesterday, maybe it’s still there today. Foraging among the planted area of Abingdon Square Park in the West Village.”
It’s nearly lunchtime. Maybe I can wrap up a few more things at work, hop on the train, and book it to Abingdon Square. If it’s still there and easy to find, I can snap some photos and get back for my afternoon meeting. (What a great subject for my next WestView article!)
Oh, you might like to know what the “it” is. It’s a Virginia Rail, a starling-sized marsh bird, brown with gray and blueish highlights, red-orange on its decurved bill, and long toes for walking on soggy ground. A striking physical feature is that, after millennia of squeezing between narrow reeds, their bodies have evolved to be laterally compressed. They are literally “thin as a rail”—though that colloquialism likely refers to fence railings rather than this skinny bird. Not particularly rare, they are infrequently seen as they quietly live their lives among the dense grasses of wetlands.
I have nothing to back this up, but it’s possible that several or dozens of them have spent their summers raising their families while skulking through the damp edges of Manhattan. Even though they are strong on the wing, they are more likely to run and hide than to fly to escape predators. However, while migrating they can show up almost anywhere, like this current avian star walking the red carpet at Abingdon Square Park.
I’ve only seen a Virginia Rail in New York City once before. That was another bird on migration that collided with the glass at Lincoln Center. I well remember holding that wary bird, stunned but not injured, in my hand while I walked to release it in Central Park. My December 2016 WestView article, “Crash Course,” documented that encounter.
Logging off, I throw away “Done” notes, square the piles of papers on my desk, close my door, and hurry down the labyrinth of stairs to the subway. The #1 Train is behaving, so I arrive downtown in record time and hightail it to Abingdon Square. While waiting for the light to change to cross Eighth Avenue, I look for a gaggle of long-lens-wielding birders. (That’s the easiest way to find a rare bird in NYC). No such luck. Entering the park, a quick scan reveals no binoculars—no lurking, circling denizens who might be “in the know” that there is an unusual bird in the shrubbery.
I discover an earlier weekend post detailing that it had been seen in the northwest corner, so that’s where I begin. But nearly simultaneously, behind me, I hear a muffled “What is that!” I spin around, and there, energetically crossing the green of the lawn, is the “that”: the Virginia Rail. Gardeners have been planting the fall chrysanthemum spectacle (thank you!), so the rail is feasting on the unearthed worms from the freshly turned ground.
Remarkably fearless, it flies in front of me to the aforementioned northwest corner of the park. Hidden for a moment, I go to the outside of the fence for a better view under the bushes, but then it returns to scavenge along the inside walkway. The number of delicacies it finds seems limitless. What a smorgasbord! I’m clicking away and at one point I actually need to step backward so that it doesn’t walk across my shoes (though that would have been a great shot!)—it’s too close for my camera to focus.
In the blink of an eye this Virginia Rail became my 106th West Village New Bird. The last additions to My List were a Hairy Woodpecker (#105 in 2016) and a pair of Mute Swans flying down the Hudson River (#104 in 2015).
After the recent stunning revelations that the number of birds in North America has plummeted by a third during my lifetime (nearly three billion individuals, while the human population on the planet has increased by more than three billion), and that climate change additionally threatens the survival of nearly half of North American bird species (more than 300), seeing any bird gains proportionately more wonderous weight. One gloomily optimistic thought is that since birds survived the extinction event that wiped out the other dinosaurs 66 million years ago (yes, birds are surviving dinosaurs), they are likely to outlive us.
Before heading back uptown to work, I again swipe up Millie’s wistful photo on my phone. My thumb whizzes through the passcode (grazing Millie’s nose and front paws). I text my friend, “Saw it! Awesome. Thanks!” and hit “Send.”
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.