By Keith Michael
As a devoted bird watcher, the question often flies my way, “Why do you like to watch birds?” (Of course, now it comes with lots of arm waving from six feet away and with gymnastic eyebrow action from above a mask.) The brisk answer is, “Why not?” But the curl-up-on-the sunny-opposite-ends-of-adjacent-benches response is that birds change the rhythm of my day, inspiring mystery and wonder. Their fragile lives magnify the tenuous depths of time. I can look for them, but they might not be there. I can listen for them, but they might not be singing. They can fly. They are beautiful. They live fast and thrive in unfathomable weather extremes. One bird crossing my walk to the subway can change the scale of my thoughts from admiring the minute coloration and practical architecture of a single feather to pondering how this mere handful of a creature can endure a perilous migration flight over thousands of miles then return for me to see it.
This devastating COVID-19 pandemic has turned most of us toward looking deep into what is important. My Shelter In Place began on Tuesday, March 17th when my work building closed for the foreseeable future. Yes, I have the luxury of working remotely and have become proficient at the new social etiquettes of Zoom meetings. I think that Millie loves having both of us at home all of the time, and if her little corgi paws had opposable thumbs, no doubt she would be sewing masks in her spare time when she wasn’t guarding the front door (okay, that wouldn’t open up many minutes in her day.)
The other guilty luxury the coronavirus has given me is time. Time to enjoy the spring. Normally, mid-March through mid-May, the height of spring bird migration, is also the height of my academic year when I am working nearly all of my waking hours in dark theaters. But now, “Whoosh!” most of that has evaporated. I’ve had the time to visit Hudson River Park (of course, with a mask and keeping socially distant) and slow down to photograph birds. I could likely walk or bicycle fairly safely to other parts of NYC during these weeks, but I’ve committed to stay in the neighborhood and document the time here at home. These will forever be my Corona Birds.
In five weeks, I’ve seen 41 species, photographing all but a handful of them (Blue Jays have been confoundingly uncooperative so far), and imagine adding several dozen more through May. What have been a few of the more memorable ones? First on my list was getting to follow a bonded pair of Red-throated Loons for several days—watching them swimming, fishing, and calling back and forth together. From the roof of Pier 40, a flyover Raven was a surprise. That first migrant of the spring, the Eastern Phoebe, was right on schedule bopping from tree to tree and metronomically bobbing its tail, posing picturesquely in a blossoming Red Maple tree. Another peripatetic tail bobber is the Palm Warbler—one kindly made the lawn at Abingdon Square Park home for several days offering sunny yellow entertainment. Seeing a pair of Peregrine Falcons flying wingtip to wingtip not once, but twice near Westbeth, led me to imagine that I’ll see them again. I have to add a trio of Golden-crowned Kinglets effortlessly cavorting through the Stephan Weiss Apple Garden as a delight. Just thinking about their never-ending acrobatics inspires a nap.
Tales could be told about every one of my Corona Birds, but I’ll let the photographs do the explaining, and I’ll return to scritching Millie’s head.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for books, photographs, and the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs. Visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.
All Photos by Keith Michael.