You Don’t See THAT Every Day

By Keith Michael

Marsh Wren: The new star West Village bird.

Don’t move. There’s a bird next to my shoe.
Fall and spring migration is a time when birds can get so close you can nearly touch them. After a long night flying, possibly hundreds of miles, like this morning, they’re hungry. Hungry and they’re less wary of all the dangers around them. This includes ignoring the threat of that tree stump of a person rooted in the middle of the lawn festooned with binoculars and a camera.
One good migration night can produce waves of these flibbertigibbets in Hudson River Park bounding across the grass, skulking along the borders, flitting through the bushes, climbing tree trunks, or dashing thither and yon through the branches above. But yes, you do need to stop and look.
Standing still with binoculars and a camera with a long lens is a nearly failsafe way to be asked, “What are you looking at?” “There are several Kinglets bouncing around the trees.” “Is that a bird? I don’t see it.” “Yeah, they’re really small, greenish, about the size of a teabag. There’s one. (Click. Click. Click.) They never stop moving. There are two kinds: Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned. The bright yellow on the head of the Golden-crowned is really obvious but you rarely see the red patch of the Ruby-crowned.” “You must have good eyes. I still don’t see it. Well, good luck.” Sorry, you really might need to s-l-o-w down. Just stop. Scan the whole scene. Look for that one blur of movement. Listen for that one asynchronous, non-traffic chip sound. Then, eyes and ears, focus in.
Even more subtle than the Kinglets, scaling a tree trunk is a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It might as well be a magically animated piece of bark. The pattern of white and black stripes on its back is perfect camouflage against the ridges of the bark. Look away for a moment and you can lose it. Within the same color scheme but constantly on the move is a sparrow-sized Black-and-white Warbler. His stripes are obsessively tidy. His movement? Anything but linear. Have bug, will travel. Up and upside down, back and forward, this way and any other way, he goes.

It’s not like a zoo aviary with printed signs assuring you as to what can be seen behind the barrier. These birds are on their own. Every new view is an improvisation. In the grass, a yellow, stripey Palm Warbler is bob-bob-bobbing its tail, while closer to the shrubs, a svelte Hermit Thrush poses in his autumn auburns and browns, perhaps eyeing the sartorial splash of a local red-breasted Robin. Newly-arrived White-throated Sparrows scratch nearby in the leaves. It’s comforting to have them back for the winter with their “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” plaintive song calling up to their friends in the pines. A small breakfast club of Dark-eyed Juncos in their natty gray and white ensembles settles in further down on the lawn—more birds joining us for the winter rather than just taking a layover before continuing thousands of miles south.
My pocket buzzes. A Manhattan rare bird alert. What!? A Marsh Wren is in the new marsh on the north side of the new Gansevoort Peninsula. A Marsh Wren in a Manhattan marsh! Build it and they will come. Perfect. I hope it stays there at least a few more minutes until I can get up there. Yes, I’ll hurry.
As I race along the promenade, the perky Yellow-rumped Warblers, with their buttery yellow rumps plying the zelkova trees like hyperactive flycatchers, will just have to wait for my attention. The post said on the north side rocks of the Gansevoort Peninsula. Well, here I am. A Marsh Wren is an elusive bird at best. Brown, tiny, short tail, quick. In a marsh, its musical chattering is often heard but rarely seen—somewhat understandable with the thickness of coastal grasses. I’ve occasionally caught sight of one in marshes in Queens and on Staten Island. But to disappear on rocks? Maybe it was a one-hour wonder—paused a moment and moved on. Sigh. Wait. There it is! Diving in and out of the crevices between the rocks, scurrying like a mouse. Yay! My West Village Bird #111! Under its snappy white eye line, I can imagine that it winked, taunting me as it ducked once more out of sight.
Yup, you just have to look for them.

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