I’m standing a thousand feet above the streets of New York City, on the 86th floor observatory deck of the Empire State Building, looking for birds. It’s a few hours after sunset, and New York City naturalist Robert “Birding Bob” DeCandido is leading our small group. We can see the cityscape in every direction as the cool wind tousles our hair, but our gaze is focused up. Migrating songbirds, many of which travel by night to keep cool and avoid predators, are passing high overhead on their autumn journey. DeCandido has taught us how to differentiate the movement of small birds—“See how they flap-flap-glide?” he tells us—from the erratic motions of moths, But there is another denizen of the city’s skies that we’re all hoping to see.
A blur of a bird zips past the western flank of the building, level with the observatory. It’s too fast for a gull, too big for a songbird. Maybe a pigeon. Maybe something else. There is an excited buzz as we fumble with binoculars, unable to track the receding figure.