By Keith Michael
With the curtain down on 2022, join me to stand and cheer for the 17th annual West Village Bird of the Year Awards: The Millies! Due to a growing crowd of avian aficionados, I’m thrilled that these festivities have moved to Abingdon Square rather than us dodging traffic at the corner of West 4th and West 12th Streets where a rosy-hued House Finch became Bird #1 of my New York City bird-counting obsession. For those of you who may not know, this is the second ceremony without the award’s namesake ‘Miss Millie’, who was a red and white Pembroke Welsh Corgi, and who also has inspired ten years of monthly avian tales in WestView News with a combination of mirth and aggravation. Thank you for bundling up and joining me on this brisk morning!
As a reminder, this was the founding criteria for a bird to become one of The Millies: “Birds must be seen in, above, or from the five boroughs of New York; voting is weighted toward those birds observed during Millie’s daily walks in the West Village; and additional points may be given to those candidates who were actually seen by the award’s namesake.” In homage to Millie, the Awards Committee continues to honor her past patronage by imagining the blocks Millie walked around, and to consider the disregard she likely had for these ground rules while comparing the attributes of each new feathered candidate. Let’s begin!
Traditionally, Millie dismissed these first two award categories with a disapproving sneeze because they nudged her out of the limelight.
EXTRALIMITAL. This prize brazenly flaunts the requirement that a bird must be seen within the city—hence, Millie’s justifiable disapproval. However, Millie considered anywhere that she could not walk to, “extralimital,” which excluded each place except her West Village. However, public transportation beyond the Metro Transit Authority (MTA) or a drive with friends brings back memories of Miss Millie’s destinations. Contenders for this long-distance award are the Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, and Short-eared Owls of Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge in Wallkill, NY. In addition, attention must also be given to the explosion of summer reproductive life at Nickerson Beach, Long Island: American Oystercatchers, Black Skimmers, Common and Least Terns, and Piping Plovers. Yet even with all of those unforgettable encounters, the laurels go to a svelte gray and white Mississippi Kite that was tracked down nesting in a suburb of Albany.
NOT A BIRD. The Porcupine seen moseying down a trail in the Adirondacks pushes the boundaries of this already pushing-the-boundaries designation. Humpback Whales, Bottle-nosed Dolphins, Harbor Seals, Fiddler and Horseshoe Crabs, are the usual NYC contenders for this prize. There is a slight nod to the stealthy Ghost Crabs of the barrier beaches, though their predilection for endangered Piping Plover chicks deserves boycotting. Once again, the cuteness factor gives a landslide win to a Staten Island Red Fox. (Millie might have approved of this as reflected glory, because oft was the time people on the street exclaimed, “She looks like a fox!”)
BLUEBIRD OF HAPPINESS. This award is easily bestowed upon the truly blue Eastern Bluebird pairs that made their cheerful appearance near Central Park’s Pinetum this fall. I guarantee that seeing Bluebirds will make you happy.
OWL OF THE YEAR. Since I’ve already piled so many words upon the wonders of owls in the city this year, I’ll make this fast. The front runners up for this prize are a Snowy Owl sunning itself in the winter dunes of Fort Tilden in Queens and a Barred Owl in Central Park for whoooom I waited two hours for it to open its eyes. But the winner, finally located after three trips to an undisclosed location, is an elusive red morph Eastern Screech Owl.
JUST BECAUSE (I’M PRETTY, AND I KNOW IT). Kudos go to a long-legged, peachy, white, and black American Avocet with its scythe-shaped bill plying the shallows at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. Even if beauty is only feather-deep, I firmly believe this Avocet had a lovely personality as well.
FLOCKING BEHAVIOR. Gold stars should be given to all the birds in this category considering the spectacles of dozens of Great and Snowy Egrets, hundreds of Short-billed Dowitchers and other shorebirds gathered during migration at JBWR in Queens, or the thousands of Brant Geese careening around our winter waters. A punky flock of 154 Royal Terns (I counted them) that amassed on Plumb Beach, Brooklyn was the closest contender against the unexpected 500-strong Brown-headed Cowbirds bounding across the playing fields of Pelham Bay Park in The Bronx. Like the competing athletes there that day, Millie would have loved chasing them.
LOCATION, LOCATION. By the numbers, another Barred Owl that attracted security-defying crowds in bustling Bryant Park was the people’s choice for this blue ribbon. Nevertheless, to spread the wealth, the Committee favored a secretive, pin-striped bird that played hide-and-seek amidst the hubbub of Greeley Square Park at 32nd Street: a Lincoln’s Sparrow.
TWICE AS NICE. A Staten Island Killdeer pair caught shamelessly propagating, a Marbled Godwit couple laying over near JFK, and a duo of subtle Baird’s Sandpipers wading through the famous puddle at Miller Field on Staten Island, all proved that “one is fine, but two are better.” However, catching the Staten Island Bald Eagle pair on their nest, and then watching their two kids grow up over the summer gives a “twice as twice as nice” affirmation to this award!
FEMALE BIRD OF THE YEAR. The subtler plumage of the women-folk birds often gets short shrift from admirers’ attention. The lovely lady Cardinals should be paid compliments every day of the week and we should tip our hats to the soothing pastels of those visiting damsel Eastern Bluebirds cited earlier. This year’s surprise win is a Baltimore Oriole female that paused, mid-nest-building, on a headstone at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.
MILLIE’S WEST VILLAGE BIRD OF THE YEAR. Honestly, without Millie’s routine West Village walks at multiple, random hours of the day, every day, my notable neighborhood bird sightings have plummeted. Though Millie might have preferred giving this honor to a classy bird like a Cooper’s Hawk or a Peregrine Falcon seen over Hudson Street (both of which one would have had to look UP to see giving her the chance to sneak a pizza crust from the sidewalk) the judges felt that one of our common, handsome, year-round birds, the American Robin was due for some praise—and its warm, red breast is reminiscent of Millie’s russet coat.
NEW BIRD OF THE YEAR. Akin to last year, 2022 added a remarkable six new birds to my list as competitors for this prize. The three NYC birds were a juvenile White Ibis foraging in a Staten Island backwater, a Brown Booby duo along the Kill van Kull, and a yellow-breasted Townsend’s Warbler that should have been vacationing in California instead of Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn! The longer distance birds were a masked Loggerhead Shrike at Croton Point Park, a rare Black-capped Petrel seen on a pelagic birding trip 100 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean, and the winner, a Red Phalarope (North American Bird #361 for me) seen on a misty beach in Newport, RI. The Committee waived the opposition to this win over a local bird, because Millie was born in Rhode Island and thought she would have felt kinship.
BIRD OF THE YEAR 2022. Repeating these bird names suggests, “If you’ve seen one bird of the species, you’ve seen them all.” But, of course, during a year, one might see thousands of individuals! Given those innumerable choices for honoring one special bird, an impossible task, the accolade of this year’s top honor goes to one, singular, sensational Yellow Warbler jumping for joy.
2022 was a very good year for birding in New York City. I’ve appreciated all the avian questions you have sent my way, and been heartened by your impromptu reminiscences about Millie. May 2023 bring many fine, feathered friends, and one or two corgis, crossing your path in our lovely West Village.
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