Editor’s note: Wild Eyed will be the “celebrity” spotter section of the fully realized Nature Calendar site, and will be featured in our blog ahead of that. We invite readers to share their encounters with the species that reside in this city with us. Sometimes we’ll post something as simple as a quick tip: “Check out the giant squid attacking the Staten Island Ferry!” Other entries will be fuller stories like the one below, by Tanya Elder, about a placid moment with a predator best known as the world’s fastest bird. After enjoying it, please check out her blog: At The End of the Boom.
While Tanya’s tale unfolds outside her former workplace at Riverside Church, the city’s 16 pairs of peregrine falcons have also been sighted, among other places, living in the Queensboro Bridge, MetLife Building (nesting in the company logo), 55 Water Street, Kosciuszko Bridge, and Brooklyn Bridge (as evidenced by this fantastic photo by Steve Nanz; click to enlarge).
The Falcon and the Smoker
by Tanya Elder
The Riverside Church is located on Riverside Drive between 122nd and 124th Streets on Manhattan’s West Side. The gothic structure looks ancient, but it was actually built in 1928 with a modern-day steel skeleton under a layer of poured concrete and stone hewed in the gothic style. Thanks to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the Church was built as a progressive place of worship, which has continued under influential pastors such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloane Coffin, and currently, James A. Forbes, Jr.
The Church reaches to a height of 394 feet, with the Tower rising from the main building to 24 floors. I was lucky enough back in 1999-2000 to be involved in helping to shape the Church’s collection of archival materials, and my tiny office was located on the 9th floor, directly over the Nave or central worship space. The 9th floor is divided into two sections: an ornate area with a stage, four small offices at each corner, and two long balconies on the East and West sides of the building; the second section is connected to the front room by a passageway that leads to a cavernous attic that at one time housed Arts and Crafts classes, and is now used as a storage area for the Church’s archives.
My office was located on the West side of the building and was the size of a large walk-in closet. It housed a desk, a computer, a bookcase and two chairs. It had one tiny wrought-iron window and two doors: one led to the 9th floor, and the other to a 50 ft. long balcony that connected two of the small offices from the outside and held an amazing view of Manhattan.
I would often head out to the balcony to catch a view or, ahem, surreptitiously smoke a cigarette (I quit smoking this past December!). It was easier than going downstairs, and it was outside. The view was fantastic, though the pigeons resting on the balcony were squawky and annoying. Occasionally I would see one or two very large birds soaring through the sky, bigger than anything else flying around that was not a jet engine.
I can’t remember exactly which Tower floor Henry and Henrietta, the Peregrine falcons of the Riverside Church, reside, but I remember once heading to the floor on which they live in search of old documents possibly tucked away into long-forgotten crevices. I was startled coming out of the elevator as I heard the screech of birds and the shadow of wings behind a clouded-glass window. Up until then I hadn’t realized that the falcons actually lived in the Church; I simply hadn’t put two and two together at the time.
Later on that summer, I was in my teeny tiny office and I had to get out. It was a bit claustrophobic and overly hot, and I had this magical balcony so I grabbed a cigarette and a light and opened the creaky iron door and stepped out. It was unusually quiet. The pigeons that were always scurrying around trying to get out of my path weren’t there. In fact, there seemed to be no birds flying around at all.
I walked toward the far end of the balcony, past the second pillar that held the best view. I really didn’t look up as I was lighting my cigarette, and once it caught, I took a deep drag and stood straight up, looking out onto the city.
I let smoke out, and took a look to my right, and came face to face with one of the falcons, who was perched on a gargoyle about 10 ft. away from me. I didn’t know which falcon it was, but I did know that he or she was looking right at me. It was calm but as startled as I was to come face to face with another creature out there that was not food for it, or for me a small pigeon that I could kick around.
The falcon assessed the situation quickly. I was not food or an enemy and he/she was simply not interested. It turned away and continued to survey the horizon. I decided it would be best not to make any sudden moves, so I calmly continued to smoke my cigarette while my heart raced. I stood there for a while, thankful that the bird would let me be a part of this moment with it. I turned my head to where the falcon was looking, and stared out onto the New York City skyline with it for a few minutes. And then I very, very slowly and as quietly as possible, backed up toward the doorway and into my office. I didn’t want to push the fabulous moment I had just shared with this incredible bird. The sky was the falcon’s space, and truthfully, I was intruding on its home. I was just glad that I wasn’t a pigeon.