Spring Forward

By Keith Michael

An Eastern Phoebe sits pretty in a flowering Red Maple. Photo by Keith Michael.

6:50 am. Even though it’s a day off, I still wake up at the same time as usual. Lingering doesn’t make a difference so I might as well get up. After a shower and pouring coffee, I start my morning routine of checking eBird Rare Bird Alerts for each borough, Twitter alerts, texts, emails, and Instagram feed to see if any “good” birds have sown up to plan where to go today. I’m repeatedly asked, “How do you find all the birds that you photograph?” That’s how.

Wait. How did it get to be 8:30? I couldn’t have dawdled for that long. I just got up! Oh. It’s already Spring Forward: Daylight Savings Time Sunday. We still have an apartment full of analog clocks, so around I go turning all of them an hour ahead. Knowingly, now begins the mental gymnastics of the next several days, calculating what time it “really” is. A Cardinal, singing his full-throated spring cheer-cheer-cheer from a roof garden, seven floors up in the atrium, goads me to get out to see some birds.

After more than a month of freedom, Flaco, the Eurasian Eagle Owl star escapee from the Central Park Zoo (featured in my March article) is still doing just fine in the wild. Enviable paparazzi took portraits of him hunting last night in the new construction around the Harlem Meer. That’s a possible destination for the morning.

There are two other recent celebrity birds that I still haven’t seen. One is a Swainson’s Hawk which was first found on Staten Island, but has now become a regular near the Sunset Park Recycling Pier at 29th Street in Brooklyn. (If you ever get the chance to tour this facility to marvel at how our curb-side recycling jumble gets separated and processed—do it. The monstrous sorting machinery could have inspired the cliché: mind-boggling.) This dark-plumaged raptor usually calls the western Great Plains home. Why he got the wanderlust to travel thousands of miles to visit NYC is a mystery.

Independently, a Western Meadowlark, also from west of the Mississippi River, for several weeks now has staked out the unlikely scruffy environs of Bush Terminal Piers Park, also in Brooklyn. One would think that this flashy Robin-sized yellow bird with a superhero V on his chest would be easy to find, but from what I’ve heard, he can be incredibly hide-and-seek-elusive skulking through the marsh grass.

Yet another possible addition to my itinerary for today might be Bryant Park to look for American Woodcocks under the shrubs along 42nd Street. March is the time when these alien-looking dumplings start migrating through the city and, surprisingly, the borders of this congested mid-Manhattan park seem to attract them.
Unfortunately, these potato-shaped birds with comically long bills and bulging side-facing eyes are prone to window strikes. If you see one stunned on the sidewalk, and have the time, please contact the Wild Bird Fund on the Upper West Side (646.306.2862) who may be able to help the bird recover. WBF currently has a Woodcock Suite to care for all the migrant casualties then, hopefully, send them onward on a safe journey.
Too many choices. It’s only 9:30, uh, really only 8:30 by the “old” time, so maybe I can plot out how to see them all today! Camera, binoculars, water, sandwich, potato chips, umbrella. Let’s go. I’m still not completely set on The Plan so I’ll spin through Hudson River Park first.

A Robin on the curb isn’t aware of the time change and is still declaiming her morning oration. On the way to the park, a few Tufted Titmice vocally spar along Charles Lane. Their glassy black eyes and jaunty peaked gray caps belie how feisty they really are. In the park, the Canada Geese look like they’re hosting an after-party on the lawn following a night of carousing. The resident geese seem to be augmented by a few of their sisters and their cousins and their aunts returning to their Canadian homeland.

As I head north along the promenade, a gray blur swoops in front of me, landing at eye level on a branch just ahead. Excellent. It’s an Eastern Phoebe, always one of the first returning birds of the spring. It’s a flycatcher, hence that barnstorming dive in front of me, nabbing a breakfast snack. An olive-gray back, white chest, bright eyes, and slightly large squarish head is not that different from a host of other flycatchers, but the Phoebe’s tell-tale identifier is its habitual pumping of its tail while balancing on a branch. Bingo.

Who needs a subway, a bus ride, and walking many city miles? This is a great way to start the day—no matter what time it is.

Keith Michael, West Villager, birder, urban naturalist, photographer, dance production manager, and ballet choreographer, leads nature walks throughout the NYC area. Visit http://www.keithmichaelnyc.com or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.