Fro and To

By Keith Michael

Left to Right: #1 Go north to see Bobolinks singing at Croton Point Park, Westchester. #2 Stay home to be entertained by our neighborhood American Robins. #3 Venture south to Fort Tilden, Queens to witness Piping Plover bravery in action. All photos by Keith Michael.

Summer time is free range time.

My clock is wound to an academic calendar which means that when the summer season comes around, the alarm sounds, and I’m off. It’s even more dramatic this year because I’m, ahem, retiring after 26 ebullient years as the Manager of Dance Production at The Juilliard School. Quite frankly, I’m a little giddy. Shh.

As I walk down Perry Street toward the train once again, cataloging the Robins, Sparrows, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Crows, and twittering Chimney Swifts that I hear overhead (was that a Baltimore Oriole?) and perhaps under the influence of the intoxicating fragrance of the linden trees in full bloom, I’m also playing a “What if?” fantasy game in my head. It might as well be a Hans Christian Andersen scenario: If I had to choose one square mile from which I couldn’t leave, where would it be?

Will today take me north, east, west or south? I have a few more blocks before the train to decide. Here are a few of my tried-and-true destinations. Each one is a contender for that enchanted square mile. Try them yourself sometime or let me know if you want to come along.

Heading north, Croton Point Park, a short walk from the Metro North Croton-Harmon station, has avian bounty in every season. Perhaps best known for multitudes of Bald Eagles gathering during the winter—my high count on one ice-bound day was 29—in the past several years, summer brings the music box courtship of Bobolinks fluttering above the top of The Mound. A former Westchester landfill, the hill has been restored as grasslands, and is now covered in opulent wildflower blankets of beardtongue, vetch, sweet clover, and spurge. While Purple Martins and Tree Swallows careen within arm’s reach, the stars that I travel for are the black, white, and yellow-naped male Bobolinks. They alternate between perching on high lookouts proclaiming their territories and launching themselves into the air for their metallic, tinkly flight songs that can take them to the edges of their version of a magical mile. Occasionally, the more subdued females pop up, perching in the open to survey their prospects among their mellifluous suitors against the sky.

My frequent eastern destination is Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. The fastest route is to take the A Train to Rockaway Boulevard, then the Q52/53 bus right to the entrance of the Nature Center. It’s still early in the season for this to be a hands-down first choice, but in a few weeks, I’ll be lugging my boots to slosh along the edge of the East Pond. Starting in mid-summer, a wide variety of shorebirds, relatives of Sanderlings, those sprightly, pint-sized waders you might see chasing waves on the beach, make a stopover there during their annual migration from beyond the Arctic Circle to South America. Their names sound like denizens of Middle Earth: Dowitchers, Phalaropes, Whimbrels, and Godwits. Right now, it’s likely a land of ducklings and goslings.

Mount Loretto Unique Area is my western outpost. Take the Staten Island Ferry, then go to Richmond Valley on the Staten Island Railroad. Okay, do check the MTA Weekender to assure there will be no transportation imbroglio along the way. Nesting Bald Eagles, Indigo Buntings, and Orchard Orioles, more grasslands, the remnant of an historic lighthouse, and winter seals are the primary draws, but there’s a serene mirror-land swamp where I’ve seen herons and egrets, owls and Ospreys, enormous snapping turtles, deer, a raccoon, a muskrat, and a fox!

To the south, get thee on the #2 Train to the last stop at Flatbush/Brooklyn College, then settle in on the Q35 bus to Fort Tilden, Queens, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. In my annual Bird of the Year Awards, the “Millies,” Piping Plover parents or their cotton ball chicks are regular honorees—the parents for their feisty resilience and the chicks because they’re so damn cute. A critically endangered species, nearly each nesting pair now has their own Park’s Department guard trying to give them their best chance to raise a family against formidable odds. Seeing even one of these heroic mites scurrying on the beach is worth every second of the trip to get there.

Just before I head down the stairs to the subway, a Red-tailed Hawk soaring high overhead casts a shadow. I nearly run into an orange ribbon. What? Oh, for some reason the train isn’t running. Maybe for today, my Magic Mile will be the West Village. Honestly, that will do just fine.

Keith Michael, West Villager, birder, urban naturalist, photographer, and ballet choreographer, leads nature walks throughout the NYC area. Visit or follow @newyorkcitywild on Instagram.