Pier Pressure

By Keith Michael

A quirk of the drift from being a casual Bird Watcher to one morning bolting up to the revelation, “OMG, I’m a Birder!” is the irresistible urge to start a List.

It can begin quite innocently once you have successfully identified your first bird. Perhaps you even “came out” and told someone, “This morning I learned that the bright red bird that has been waking me up by incessantly singing outside my window is called a Northern Cardinal. Maybe I should start keeping a list of the birds that I see.” I’m sorry to tell you but, “You’re hooked!”

Making lists is one form of the insatiable human desire to organize and collect things: books, travel destinations, pocket watches, mugs, shoes, anything with a corgi on it, Playbills, 19th century lace, or Instagram followers. Of course, the possibilities are infinite. Birders’ form of collecting is to keep lists of the different species of birds that they see. One might have a Yard List, an On My Way to Work List, a City List, a State List, a Trip List, a Country List, a World List, a Year List, a Life List, and on and on. It’s easy to see how obsessive this could become! An app that makes keeping track of these lists considerably easier is eBird. There’s not space here to sufficiently praise eBird, but if the birding bug has bitten you, check it out.

One’s Bird List, and all of the accompanying stories, fuels banter among birding peers. However, as one “acquires” more birds, it becomes harder and harder to see new ones. There are basically three options for changing that: travel to places further away from home where different birds live, follow the available sources reporting that a rare bird is in your area then try to see it, or just wait for a new bird to sit down in front of you.

Recently, Option One was useful when a family gathering took me to California and I added 16 western birds (bringing my North American List to 380 species) including an Acorn Woodpecker that stockpiles acorns by hammering them into tree trunks and a Long-billed Curlew that does wield an improbably long curved bill. Option Two came in handy this summer when a classy southern Sandwich Tern showed up with a wayfaring group of Brown Pelicans at Conference House Park on Staten Island. (SI List #216; NYC List #322; NY State List #341) Congratulations. Since you’ve waded this far into this article, you deserve a recent neighborhood example of Option Three!

Sunday afternoon, I headed over to the Hudson River Park River Project Wetlab on the southside of Pier 40 to see what surprises might be swimming there. Did you know that around 200 aquatic species thrive in the Hudson River right here beside the West Village? (Birders aren’t the only ones who keep lists.) Three of my favorites were gracing the flow-through aquariums: the charmingly homely Oyster Toadfish—worthy of a Hans Christian Andersen transformation tale, a rambunctious Blue Crab, and several Lined Seahorses. Honestly, it’s worth the trip to learn that native, super-agile seahorses call the pile fields of the West Village home.

Walking back north along the promenade, as well as looking up at the edges of buildings for Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, and Peregrine Falcons, I alternate listening for any unusual bird songs with looking out over the water. Is it really? Could it be? Bingo!

Sitting on top of one of the remaining pilings of the long-vanished Pier 41 is an Osprey—struggling with eating a very large fish. Ospreys are handsome brown raptors with white caps, necks, and chests. They specialize in catching fish by sight, plunging down, feet outstretched with accurate aim, to transport an unsuspecting fish from its watery world to the next. Contrary to the alarming fact that in the 70s Ospreys were nearly extinct due to DDT poisoning, once again they are considered a common bird within New York City. But, in the nearly 20 years that I’ve been a Birder, this is the first time that I’ve seen an Osprey here and this is the first new bird that I’ve seen in the West Village since my Corona Birds of May 2020. Bring out the champagne as my West Village List rolls up to 109 and my Manhattan List to 182!

As I watch this visitor enjoying his catch of the day without the assistance of the perfect fish knife, little by little his audience is growing. No, the joggers, dog-walkers, and shouting-into-their-phoners, aren’t stopping to ogle this celebrity, but avian celebrants are congregating, desiring a crumb from this royalty’s table. At first, the sole Ring-billed and Herring Gulls nearby hop a piling or two nearer to the banquet. Somehow, the word got out and a black-headed Laughing Gull begins hovering around the dining room. A few more gulls and a Common Tern settle in, just outside of the red-velvet rope, while two Double-crested Cormorants circle like sharks only a few feet below. Each is hoping that this Osprey will be a messy eater—maybe a fin or the tail or a ragged bit of sushi will fall into the water below. The Osprey keeps adjusting his catch on the piling, but eventually, the “I don’t like to be watched while I eat” pressure is too much, and he lifts off, clutching his main course, headed for New Jersey. Damn, an Osprey is already on my New Jersey List.

I hope it’s not three more years until my next new West Village bird deigns to appear. I need to go home to update my Lists.

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