You Can Plan But ...
Viewing wildlife is sometimes like a shell game. Do you know it? Someone hides a coin under one of three or four cups, then shuffles them and you guess where the coin is hidden. Easy right? Not so much. It’s the same with wildlife. You might be absolutely CERTAIN that the animal/bird/lizard/insect WILL be at (fill in the blank) because 39 people saw him in that exact spot everyday for the last three weeks. But alas, when you finally get to the sure-fire location with camera and a load of anticipatory excitement – it has disappeared.
This is exactly what happened to us on a frosty morning last October when we decided to catch the tail end of the autumn bird migration from the banks of the Hudson River at Wave Hill.
Headed Up River ... Coffee-less
At precisely 6:30 a.m. our alarm shrilled. We dragged ourselves out of a peaceful day-off slumber and into the early autumn chill, pulled on jeans and hiking boots and headed out of our city apartment - coffee-less - for an hour’s trek on various and sundry means of public transportation, heading for the outskirts of the Bronx.
Wave Hill’s gate was just about to open as we arrived. We checked in, and - still without our morning's first cup of joe - crossed the lawn for a look at the magnificent Hudson. Framed by the Palisade’s basalt rock cliffs, it glistened in the morning light.
A few other late-migration hopefuls joined us; we all waited together in the early morning chill under a clear blue sky. Our guide appeared. He looked us over, gave a brief lecture on the proper use of binoculars, then off we went. Even without java, this day, this moment was perfect for bird watching! Les reminded me of the story of a Buddhist monk, who, when confronted by a man’s certainty of an event’s outcome, simply said, “We’ll see.” Hmmm … Later we agreed that the lack of folks who knew how to use their birding binoculars should have been a clue to the advanced progress of the migration.
Have I mention the sky was clear? It was absolutely clear. There wasn’t a cloud - or bird - in site. By 9:30 a.m. I was beginning to get a little ... annoyed. Have I mentioned that we arrived at this so far bird-less paradise without coffee?
We walked up and down wooded paths, passed hefty snowball shaped mushrooms and numerous tree species, over moss and yellowing ferns, past squirrels and paths-not-taken. The we abruptly halted.
At Last A Sparrow ... !
Our leader had heard something: a sparrow! In fact, there were TWO sparrows, one of each gender. Encouraged, we walked on, and looked and listened, examined that branch and scanned this tree trunk up to the left – and right. We discerned three types of crickets. Noted rustling leaves. We heard (but did not see) a mockingbird. Finally our guide spotted a tiny indigo bunting. Smaller than a sparrow, it’s not blue at all in the cooler months it’s grey. There he sat, high in a pine tree, a tiny rounded smoke-colored being - for exactly one-half second. Then he was gone.
... And a Pile of Mulch
Our guide, in relatively bird-less desperation, pointed out a Paw-Paw tree (usually found further south) and a berry used for the ink that wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Rapidly coming to the end of our tour time, still relatively bird-less, we rounded the last bend in the wooded path and came face-to-face with a huge mountain of mulch. Our guide, I'm sure in a last ditch effort to make this outing memorable for something other than a lack of avian adventure, explained how mulch generates heat and offered us the opportunity to stick our arms up to the elbows in the heap of it. No takers. He looked a little disappointed, “It’s warm, really.” Silence. No one moved. Finally, a smile-less man in a plaid shirt seemed to take pity on the struggling guide. He walked up to the giant mulch pile and stuck his bare arm in to the elbow.
Our intrepid leader seemed relieved. “Well, he said, “I hope you all enjoyed our bird walk.” He listed six other places to join him in the coming weeks and without waiting for a reply, rapidly took his leave, perhaps to join the birds, which were quite obviously not here.
It was after 12 p.m. A tiny waft of steam rose from the armhole in the mulch heap.
This is Exactly the Right Place at the Right time
Les and I went off to find that long awaited cup of coffee. We carried it outside. The sky was still incredibly, gloriously, absolutely clear blue. Wave Hill provides Adirondack style chairs dispersed liberally over the lawn. We sunk into them, cups steaming in the cool air. Couples strolled, children explored bugs and rocks and leaves, a very old woman studied an even older oak tree. The light began to change, softening. At last the coffee was gone. The day growing late. Reluctantly, we got up.
One of Wave Hill’s spectacular gardens is situated on the path back to the gate. That Sunday it blazed with masses of fire-colored asters and chrysanthemums. Bees hummed and darted among the flowers.
The Subway Would Wait.
There on the tip of one purple bloom was a monarch butterfly in full black-orange glory. We watched. She fluttered and paused and peeked inside a flower and turned and fluttered again to the next.
She let us get close with our eyes and then the camera lens. She didn’t rush us or tease us. She stayed, relaxed and comfortable in her garden.
On another day we might have seen a dozen birds at Wave Hill. We might have heard a dozen more. This day was not that day.
Instead we’d walked a wooded path, watched children discovering their world, drank coffee with the sun on our faces and stood amongst the flowers as our monarch’s wings turned to stained glass in the late afternoon light. All three of us enveloped in the last heat of perhaps the final warm Sunday of the year.
The Buddhists say that you are where you are supposed to be. Our monarch reminded us of that:
Birds or no birds, this was exactly the right place and today was the exact right time.
About the Migration
Wave Hill sits on a section of the Hudson River that is part of the Atlantic Flyway, one of the 3 migration flyways in the US and prime for migratory songbird and hawk watching. Hawks and other birds take advantage of the wind currants created by the Palisades by riding the updrafts. Its lawns and overlooks allow for an unrestricted view. When the conditions are right, there can be a steady procession of migrating birds from September to November; you may even find yourself eye level with a soaring raptor.
Spring Migration Peak:
Songbirds: April 25th through May 15
Autumn Migration Peak:
Songbirds: Mid September through Mid October
Hawks: September 15 – October 15 but red tails are later, usually October 25 – through mid November
About Wave Hill
Metro North railway to Riverdale station. There is a shuttle bus or walk uphill away from the river on West 254th Street. Take a right onto Sycamore Avenue continue to the intersection of 254th and Independence Avenue. Turn right onto Independence. The entrance on 249th Street will be on the right.
Wave Hill is a child friendly place - bring the whole family and spend the day!