Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Unfinished Business

Earlier this month I wrote the first part of a long narrative purporting to report on the events of the early morning of August 11th. That's when the Perseid showers were supposed to reach their peak. Hundreds of shooting stars in the sky: worth getting up at a truly ungodly hour for such a spectacle .

In Part One
I intimated that though I never saw any shooting stars that morning, other things happened to make it all worth while. In subsequent postings, however, I never told what they were. Under the guise of continuing that narrative, I went off on a digression about a dormitory for male robins. To tell the truth, I had several other digressions in mind, about owls and moths and other critters, possibly postponing the conclusion of my original story until Christmas.

But at the start of my vacation ten days ago I decided that enough was enough. I promised that before the holdiday's end I'd tell what really happened on the morning of August 11th. Today's the last day to keep that promise. Here, then. is a quick summary of my Perseid adventure:

3:30 a.m. Alarm blares. Leap into clothes the way firemen leap into uniforms and boots as they slide down the pole. Out of the house and on the street by 3:42, shoelaces untied. Grab coffee in container at 24-hour coffee shop on Boadway, find cab, instruct cab driver: "Fifth Ave. and 79th Street, park side please." It's obvious that he doesn't understand why anyone would want the park side in the middle of the night. [Note: it is dark as night at 3:45 in the morning]. Driver drops me off on the building side. Mop up spilled coffee, pay, cross the street, enter park. Head for Cedar Hill to meet up with Naomi [featured in the robin digression] and two astronomy guys, Charlie Ridgway and Tom Claybough. Though the park is deserted I can see flashlights up ahead to the left of the path. Hope it's Perseid-watchers, not park's famed muggers. It is. [Threat of muggers in Central Park wildly exaggerated throughout country and world. New Yorkers like to perpetuate that myth, God knows why.]

4:a.m. Settled down on rock outcropping where others are sprawled. They're chatting, not looking at sky. Why? I wonder out loud. That's when it's brought to my attention that the sky is completely overcast. Oh. I'd been in too much of a hurry to get there and also too groggy and sleep-deprived to notice. . [Up with the mothers [rhymes with authors] until 11:30 previous night, observing night lepidoptera]

4:15 - 4:45 : Idle chit chat about. . . guess what? Robins. Charlie tells me that last April 10 at 3:50 a.m. , when he was at the Great Lawn attending some other star-gazing event, he heard robins beginning to sing. Then he recalled that even before that, just before sunset at the same location-- a favorite star-gazing spot, having a view of a broad expanse of heavens-- he saw a huge gathering of robins on the Great Lawn. "I had never seen so many robins in one place before," he subsequently wrote in his blog. I was hugely gratified. My robins. I told him about the male robin dormitory that Naomi and I had discovered in a nearby Linden tree. He promises to send me the relevant pages of his blog. [Subsequently he does.]

4:45 Charlie and Tom are fiddling with their mobile devices. They're checking some star-gazing website. I gather that another astronomical event is scheduled to happen in a few minutes. We all begin to gaze at the southwest part of the sky.

4:50. It appears, a bright star-like object in the southwest part of the sky. It's a pass-over of the Space shuttle, they say. Hard to believe. It travels in a stately manner from southwest to northeast. Then it vanishes.

5:a.m. Charlie calls out Look!. Swooping down the hill behind us and disappearing in the wooded area just east of the park wall is an owl! If any sentence deserves an exclamation point it's that one. "A large, heavy-bodied bird with a buff or grey or white underside," Charlie wrote later. I was too excited to observe carefully. An owl sighting is always amazing in Central Park, and especially when no owls had been seen in that area for more than a year. There would be no regrets about missing a few hours of sleep that morning.

5:20 More excitement: Bats swooping quite close to us, ending their day just as the human day is about to begin. There are 5 species of bats that have been seen in Central Park. These were probably Big Brown Bats, the name of a species as well as a description.

5:33: The beginning of civil twilight, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory's website. That's when you can begin to see objects in front of you. I guess civil twilight is what they used to call dawn.

5:28: It's still cloudy, but now Tom and Charlie point out Aldeberan, the Hyades and the Pleides in breaks in the clouds. Also Mars.

5:50: A flight of Chimney Swifts passes overhead -- five or six of them.

5:55: Sharp chips heard from the eponymous Cedar trees just to our south. We turn to look. Out fly five birds who perch on a pine a few feet to the west. A Mockingbird family. They sit and preen. We sit and wonder. They had been there, sleeping, all the while.

6:03 Sunrise. Sky pinky. Clouds moving quickly to the north. Sky almost completely clear now. Perfect for watching the Perseids. But too late. Nothing can be seen. It's day.