About an Hour
Text and photos by Keith Michael
Step right up. Front row seats still available for the Best Show in Town.
That was the scene on a recent sunny Friday afternoon in Central Park. The “Best Show in Town” is the Bathing Rocks at the southeast corner of the Pool at 103rd Street. This Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux rustic waterfall creates the perfect arena for watching bathing birds. With a picturesque bridge and a gallery of convenient rock seating, one can image 19th century couples strolling in their weekend finery, spreading shawls upon these rocks and courting amidst the avian music of this cooling spot. Rather than a carriage, I took the C Train there after work.
Today, it’s a Standing Room Only audience since every seat is taken by a birder wielding a camera with a long lens! (Please note: Contrary to the current company, one can enjoy birds without having a camera and a long lens.) At any time of year, the various depths of the pools and speeds of the water make for an inviting spa for every sized bird. During spring migration, the smorgasbord of feathered glitterati that can show up here for close range viewing makes for a Gala performance. Let the show begin.
The stars that everyone is waiting for are the colorful, migrating warblers that briefly pass through Central Park each spring on their way to family time further north. More than 30 species of these small birds have spent the winter in Central and South America, having already flown thousands of miles for this overnight in NYC. It is a poignant honor to see them, imagining the marathon they have recently endured.
The first headliner to appear from the safety of the overhanging greenery is a yellow-capped male Chestnut-sided Warbler. This fellow’s other sartorial attributes are true to his name. There are oohs and ahs from the crowd accompanied by an explosion of camera shutter clicks. And. He’s gone. That’s the hook. He might be back or those seconds graced by his presence might have been it.
An off-stage player, a Blackpoll Warbler, calls its radiator hiss tss-tss-tss from a shrub behind me. Perhaps this is the same black-capped fellow I heard this morning from high in the trees over Perry Street while I was hurrying to work. But then, like now, a sighting remains elusive.
Another warbler, that I’ve heard but not seen this week on Perry Street, suddenly materializes: a Northern Parula. The mystery of their cheer-zzz-UP calling card is not a preparation for their MET Gala entrance finery. His blue frock coat with olive shoulder embellishments, and yellow vest front with burnt orange cravat is nothing short of stunning. The paparazzi go wild.
At the lower pool, a trio of drake Mallards make an entrance while a rosy House Finch briefly tests the water of a rivulet amidst the falls for a splash, and in a tree above, a Baltimore Oriole declaims his lofty aria. Ah, there’s the brilliant orange guy, peeking out now and again. For an instant, all eyes are on him, until a call of “Wilson’s!” ripples through the crowd. Quick. There he is. Bright yellow. Wearing a seemingly painted on black toupee. These warblers have certainly donned their fancy chapeaus for the day.
The supporting players of the afternoon are the local House Sparrows, European Starlings and American Robins who drop in, take a dip and leave like an unassuming Greek chorus. Here comes a flashy Common Grackle with its iridescent purple finery and piercing yellow eyes. What a beauty! Click. Click. Click. A shriek rings out. Oh my god. The Grackle just nabbed a Sparrow from its bath and is killing it in front of our collective eyes. The audience gasps. Honestly, it’s a shockingly brutal, bloody grand Guignol scene. I certainly had missed the “spoiler” that murder was one of the possible plot twists for today.
Some of the crowd is still looking away in disbelief, murmuring, “I didn’t know a Grackle would do that.” (I didn’t either.) Others begin to be distracted by a svelte, crested Cedar Waxwing stopping by for a drink and a flashy American Redstart fanning her seductive yellow tail for her admirers. As further distraction, a confusing pale-yellow duo plays hide-and-seek out of the undergrowth. At first, I think that they’re both female Common Yellowthroats but then white crescents around the eyes and tell-tale white “pocket squares” on the wings confirm that one of them is a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. (Once more, it’s the male who lives up to the colors of the name.)
Again, the Grackle swoops in from offstage, now accompanied by hisses from the crowd like for the mustachioed villain in a melodrama. If he has arrived for a reenactment of his Act I performance, I’m not sticking around for an encore.
All in all, it’s been a theatrically transporting hour upon the stage.
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.