I was so disappointed.
I was basking in the glow of a wonderful wildlife moment and in she ruined it. Not on purpose mind you, I know that, but without warning, my subject: a big, beautiful Canadian goose who was stretching and preening like a supermodel for my camera, abandoned me, leaving me bewildered and annoyed.
In fact, I watched as all the pigeons, mallards and geese I was shooting turned and race across The Lake in Central Park, their tiny, pointed, feathered butts leaving me in the proverbial dust.
Then she appeared on the lake opposite me. Dressed in an over-sized white coat and baggy jeans, her shoulders slightly stooped as if her jacket were too heavy. What was this woman up to?
She made her way to a small rocky peninsula that gently sloped into the lake and faced the Hernshead where I stood. Carrying a battered blue tote, she pulled out seeds and bread and threw some of her stash into a semi-circle on the ground in front of her.
In a deafening roar of honks, quacks and flapping wings, the birds that had been in front of my lens only moments before, were suddenly at her feet hundreds of yards away, scooping up her offering in an enthusiastic frenzy that would make a riot seem half hearted.
It was clear that the possibility of becoming a beautiful image on my wall couldn’t compare to a loaf of bread. If I wanted to continue to photograph the birds I would have to follow them across the lake.
I arrived on the other side 10 minutes later. The woman, I’m guessing in her late 50’s, maybe 60’s, watched over her brood as they gobbled up her treats. Her expression was serious but attentive, like that of a headmistress addressing beloved pupils.
I plopped myself down on the edge of the cold rocks and began shooting the feathered spectacle.
I should have asked. I knew I should have asked, but she didn’t seem very friendly and I chickened out. Within in a minute she was eyeing me with a steely gaze, and by one minute thirty she grabbed her bag and in a bit of a huff she left.
I felt bad. I knew better. My gut told me to ask her before I started shooting. Even if she wasn’t the subject of my photography, she obviously felt the birds were her domain.
I stayed to photograph the birds she left behind when….. whooooooooshhhhhhhh…they were off again! In a moment of exasperating deja vu, I looked across the lake and there she was, throwing food to the traitorous lot and standing exactly where I’d been 20 minutes before when she lured them away the first time. I looked around me and all of them had gone.
Well played lady. Well played.
Two days later I was on my way to the same little rocky peninsula when the woman passed me, her blue bag swinging by her side. Oh crap, I thought. What am I going to do now?
I shot for a while in the woods and then took the path to the lake and found her already feeding the hungry hordes. I waited until she turned around and still feeling a bit sheepish, I smiled and held up my camera to ask her if I could shoot. Stone-faced, she looked at me briefly and then nodded her head.
I situated myself at a distance so that I could get a wide shot of the scene: the rocks, the woman, the birds, the lake and the City looming in the background. Two seconds later the mishmash of pigeons that had congregated at her feet flew into the air in a rush of warbles and feathers, racing away as if their tails were on fire.
What had I done? She started to turn and I thought, oh hell, I’m in trouble now! I figured I inadvertently frightened the birds away. She looked into the trees, then at me, and as if she knew what I was thinking said, “Hawk.” Oh thank goodness! It wasn’t me. Behind her the pigeons were already flying back to finish their meal.
“I’m Susan,” I offered.
“Liliana”.. she replied, a thick Romanian accent shaping her words and as she spoke, her demeanor softened.
Liliana, I learned, is a veteran Central Park bird feeder. She’s fed the pigeons, geese, mallards and whatever else has flown her way, every morning for the last three years. She recognizes many of the birds and pointed them out to me when they appeared.
“See that one with the missing toe? I’ve fed him for two years now.” And right on cue, the maimed pigeon hopped up on her knee and with an entitled air began to eat directly out of her hand.
“He knows me,” she said with a slight grin. “Those two are hybrids,” she said pointing to two identical ducks that had a mallard-like appearance but much darker. “They were domesticated but someone let them loose in the park.”
She told me how she saved an injured goose hidden in the bushes near the lake’s edge by carrying it to the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine on Columbus Avenue at 88th Street. (Not an easy feat by the way, geese are a tall as a toddler and can weigh up to 20 pounds!) I didn’t even know they had a bird hospital in New York, and thankfully, the goose came through with flying (yes, pun intended) colors.
On the whole however, Liliana didn’t talk much and we relaxed into periods of comfortable silence.
At one point I saw a thought spring into her head and she began to look around as if she misplaced something.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“The geese,” she muttered. There were no geese, but that was exactly her point.
Hmmm… That’s strange, where could they be?
“HONK! HONK! HONK! ”
I swear they were psychic. On the other side of the Hernshead we heard the geese honking in the distance. Apparently, up until that moment they didn’t know that Lillian was in the hood. They flew towards us like high-speed rockets.
“Wait! Wait Liliana! They honked. “Don’t forget us!…..We’re coming! Save some food! ….Move out of the way you silly pigeons!”
They landed gracefully, sliding into the water with a splash. Then waddling up the stone slope, they nipped and chased the other birds from their path.
“Where were you?” She scolded, a small grin on her lips.
She sat on a rocks and held out her hands. Needing no further invitation, they dove right in.
Feeling a bit nippy, I asked, “Do you come here in the winter?”
“Oh yes, it’s more important in the winter,” she replied.
Of course, it made perfect sense. The birds would probably need food in the winter. But as I sat there shivering in the cold, I thought how brutal it must be when it snows. I imagined myself bundled up looking like the Michelin man. It wasn’t pretty. Liliana was a dedicated woman.
After an hour she exhausted her supply and my butt was frozen from the stone. The birds, having eaten their fill were back in the water preening themselves.
We walked together until we reached the entrance of the park on 72nd Street and Columbus Ave. “I go this way,” she murmured pointing to the left. I was headed straight. She smiled, we waved, and we parted ways.
For a second I felt a little sad. She was a special lady and it had been a good morning. I was sorry to see it come to an end.
But then I remembered I knew just where to find her.
More from my feature: Rediscovering New York