If you’re a regular High Line visitor you know the magnificent peregrine falcon who has taken up residence at the Drug Enforcement Agency building on 17th Street. I’ve been photographing this bird for more than a year, and a few months ago saw him perched with his mate. Occasionally he cries out in piercing bursts, but lately he’s been sitting very quietly for hours at a time, watching the world go by. Today I caught him leaping off his ledge to go soaring over the Hudson River.
The Hudson is a major migratory corridor and some 300 species of birds – songbirds, raptors, waterfowl, shorebirds – pass overhead each year. One reason the abandoned rail line became such a bountiful wild garden is because birds carried seeds here from all over the country, both on their feathers and in their droppings. In his plan for the High Line landscape designer Piet Oudolf included many of the prairie grasses and perennials that first came here courtesy of birds.
My theory is that the falcon is transfixed, as so many of us are, by the Spring Cutback, a great event that brings dozens of volunteers to the High Line to cut back all those perennials and grasses and allow for new growth.
There are 100,000 perennials and grasses in the park, but unlike many gardens, the plants are not deadheaded in the fall. An essential aspect of Oudolf’s planting design is the presence of seed heads in winter, and these dried, multi-form structures play an important role in the distinctive High Line landscape. The untouched plants also provide food and habitat for wildlife throughout the winter. But every year, beginning in March, it all has to be cut back.
There’s so much to see along the High Line right now — it’s an embarrassment of riches. Just don’t forget to look up as you walk south through the Chelsea Grasslands. You might catch that wonderful bird watching you.