Flyin’ High

By Keith Michael

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The orange and blue back of a flashy male American Kestrel. A Kestrel taking a dive from a West Village water tower. Looking up at an American Kestrel on the wing. All photos by Keith Michael.

While awaiting the rockets’ red glare to the east, I’m also tracking the sun racing to set in the west. What began as a cloudy, potentially rainy morning has turned into this perfectly patriotic Fourth of July evening for watching the fireworks from my roof.

I’m shouting out that cliché of clichés, “I love New York!” There’s no better way to indulge in that groundswell chorus than to stand on a high place surveying the extravagance of the panorama. Inevitably, if you’ve lived in NYC for a long time, or even for a short time, you begin recounting the changes to the skyline. “When I first moved to New York, such and such wasn’t there.” Or, “You used to be able to see the Statue of Liberty from here, but now there’s just this one sliver of an opening.” Or, “How did I miss THAT building going up?”

Whoosh. A pigeon-sized bird flies by just under my sight line and arcs up with sharp wings to perch on a rooftop air conditioner a block away. Bingo. Casting is complete for my August article! It’s an American Kestrel, a small parti-colored falcon that is also an assimilated New Yorker, neighbor in the West Village, and aficionado of the skyline. This male has the species’ characteristic orange back, contrasting blue cap and wings, and rakish black sideburns. Frankly, even distantly through binoculars, this guy looks a little blousy right now. Maybe he needed to take a momentary “time out” for himself to get away from the rigors of feeding a demanding family. Though I’m always on the lookout for clues to a local nesting site, I’ve still been unsuccessful. The fact that I regularly see Kestrels around Perry and West 11th Streets as well as near Abingdon Square leads me to think that I’m circling in on their well-concealed Home Sweet Home.

Another flight specialist with a completely different style zigzags through the dimming light—a bat! Wow, that was exciting! Though not uncommon around town, I find it thrilling that these furry aerialists also call NYC home. Could this one be raising a family somewhere in the neighborhood as well? That would be news. Simultaneously, a formation of Chimney Swifts types out their speedy, clickity-clack evensong across the sky, and then, they too vanish on their endless mosquito-nabbing journeys.

I look back across the Mary Poppins rooftops to that air conditioner perch. During the seconds while I was distracted by the bat and the Swifts, the Kestrel has moved on into the night. Window lights are pinging on near and far while the landmark towers glow in celebratory red, white, and blue. Distant bursts of fireworks begin to ding the dark, and then the first BOOMS of the rockets from the East River send parallel golden streaks above the skyline to explode into the requisite multicolored oohs and ahs.

It’s been several days before I could go to the roof again during the afternoon to see if, perchance, that Kestrel might make a reappearance. The steamy daytime light is nearly blinding. Within minutes, a water tower finial above West 11th Street is graced with the additional adornment of a preening Kestrel! Honestly, in this humid, heat-shimmering light, I can’t immediately tell if it’s the more beige, brown and streaky female or her flashier, presumed husband from the fireworks night. I’m going to call her the female. She also looks like she is taking a well-deserved break to tidy-up her feathers before the next hunting foray for her family’s lunch. A second Kestrel, this one likely the male, bombs through and disappears around the corner above West Street. Now, a quartet of crows noisily storms west as well. I can’t tell if those two battle plans are related. Then, spa moment complete, Lady Kestrel dives off of her perch, soaring south toward a rooftop garden above Perry Street. A trio of Blue Jays calls from a backyard east of Greenwich Street, and I hear a Cardinal cheer-cheering below me. With a few Mourning Doves coo-a-coo-coo-cooing from somewhere nearby, this has been a remarkably birdy ten minutes.

Though, being greedy, and hoping for even more rooftop avian bounty, I make a pact with myself to sweat through the heat of at least a mid-day hour. I’m often asked how I see so many birds in the neighborhood. Sometimes one just has to wait. The hour’s up. I’m hot, but not rewarded. Collecting my things to leave, as if on cue, Lady Kestrel swoops back up to her water tower perch. Oh wait, it’s NOT her ladyship this time, but the male again. To see birds, one also has to pay attention!

Maybe if I hurry, I can get down to the street to look up to this King of the Tower for an even closer view.

Keith Michael, West Villager, birder, urban naturalist, photographer, and ballet choreographer, leads nature walks throughout the NYC area. Visit
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