By Keith Michael
“Excuse me, what is everyone photographing?” “That yellow bird by the water. It’s called a Prothonotary Warbler.” “I don’t see it. Is it rare?” “Yellow. On the rock now. Not super rare, but only a few pass through every spring. Oh, it just flew to the other side of The Pool. Bye.”
This is what I affectionately call the NYC Birding Circus: a flashy bird shows up, someone sees it, a rare bird alert goes out, and seemingly instantaneously, dozens of birder paparazzi show up with their arsenal of long lenses. Maybe this “definition of yellow” bird didn’t reach the glory of true superstar status during his week on the April avian runway but he certainly was a calling card to the extravagance of spring migration in New York City.
What are the qualities of a bird vying for superstardom? Beauty, Rarity, Dependability, Location, and Longevity top the list, and the truly memorable birds garner a touch of Poetry as well. Of course, the bird doesn’t know it. It’s the birders, and then, perhaps, a broader public, who bestow the honors simply through collective adoration.
This current Prothonotary Warbler nails it in the Beauty category. Yellow, bright yellow is what one immediately notices about this bounding bird. The olive-yellow on his back and shoulders and his blue-gray wings and tail just seem to enhance that riveting yellow of his head and chest. He glows. You might wonder where that name came from. Papal clerks in the Roman Catholic Church, known as prothonotaries, at one time wore bright yellow robes, and someone who knew that fact named them. A Swainson’s Warbler in 2016 was literally stopping traffic in Central Park and needed police support to contain the flash mob. Was it a surpassing beauty? Nope, only rare. But the Prothonotary Warbler is a coloring book bird that nearly everyone who sees it exclaims, “What a pretty bird!” Beauty? Check.
As to Rarity, this male isn’t in the stratosphere on the rarity scale, such as first record on the east coast, first record in New York state, or first record in Central Park. Though primarily a southern bird glimpsed in the dark tangles of swamplands, a few are seen each season as they move north along watercourses toward a perfect nesting spot (one of only two species of warblers that nest in tree cavities.) But still, one here and there a season means a rare bright spot to admire wherever it lands. Over a decade ago, another glowing male showed up on 42nd Street and posed memorably with Patience and Fortitude guarding the New York Public Library. Rarity? Check.
Dependability is essential to a bird’s fame. Yes, there are the one-day or even the one-hour wonders which generate story-telling intros for the few who made the effort to see it, “Hey, remember the Western Reef Heron at Calvert Vaux Park?” (That was the first rare bird that I “chased” back in 2007.) But being reported at a location and then staying nearby while the word gets out so that more people can see it is the key to notoriety. This cheerful twittering chap was first spotted in Central Park along The Loch, north of 103rd Street. The path couldn’t contain the autograph seekers hoping for a glimpse or that prized photo. Perhaps to increase his fan-base, after several days he moved on to the banks of The Pool where everyone passing by got caught up in the paparazzi crowd dashing back and forth following every whim of this star performer’s insatiable appetite. Dependability? Check.
Location is a happenstance of where a bird lays over on its journey. This same bird could have landed in someone’s backyard for a week while they were away on vacation, and no one would have seen him. Would he still have eaten his fill before moving on? Probably. If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and no one was beholding him, would he still be beautiful? Let’s have a martini sometime and talk about that. Central Park is a prime example of a spot easy to get to for everyone. Then the photos are taken and shared and the word gets out. The West Village had its own yellow traffic-stopping Couch’s Kingbird around New Year’s 2016. I took a favorite photo of the battery of birding scopes clustered around Abingdon Square. Fame nourishes fame. Location? Check.
Longevity is tied in a three-legged race with Dependability and Location. Dependability is staying long enough in one area for more than the first person who spotted the bird to see it. But then staying for several days or weeks or months around the same spot, means that the bird outlives the first wave of fans to the second wave of, “Oh, it’s still there? I really should try to see it.” Then it’s still around for even the slightly curious, and finally, for the consensual rubberneckers who don’t even know that they might be curious until they too succumb to infatuation. This fellow had a nine-day run. Longevity? Check.
Poetry is a lofty credential—bestowed from the heavens. Only four birds have reached that status for me. The dashing male Prospect Park Painted Bunting of 2015 who made headlines as the first ever recorded in Brooklyn. Thousands across all demographics made the pilgrimage to see this rainbow-hued glitterati. Central Park’s Mandarin Duck of 2018-19 reached world-wide recognition through the perchance that beauty could heal the clouding ills of the world. The winter 2021 Snowy Owl, another Central Park celebrity, generated the made-for-media tagline “not seen in Manhattan since 1890” which offered (the however false) hope that nature might be healing itself. Yet the ultimate marriage of ornithology, urban lore, and poetry was Barry, the Barred Owl who cheered New Yorkers through the pandemic, introduced hundreds to the wonder of watching birds, and whose untimely death was mourned in tributes from every part of the globe.
Ah, my phone is vibrating. There’s a Bicknell’s Thrush singing in Central Park! Gotta go.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.