Wayfaring Stranger

December 20, 4:00 AM. Thursday. The sun still two hours from breaching the horizon, I’m up and pulling myself out from sleep-warmed sheets and into the pre-dawn chill. My wife, still snuggled safely under the covers, breathes softly, oblivious to the goings-on around her. She won’t be joining this chase.

I dress quietly in the dark and head to the kitchen for a quick breakfast, waiting for my son to wake and making final preparations for the day’s adventure: a northern sprint to a little park in Portland, Maine, wherein lies the rarest bird we’ll ever see.

Aidan emerges from his room, groggy but excited. Though he’s on winter break and fiercely protective of his sleep, this trip was his idea. He is first and foremost a birder, and earliness of the hour be damned, he’s champing at the bit to go. It’s three-and-a-half hours to our destination, and the winter light is short; there will be time to rest tomorrow. We gather the last few items—binoculars, cameras, gloves, provisions for the road (even birders as obsessed as we are need to eat)—and we’re off, leaving my wife sound asleep and the cats silently questioning our sanity. Just one thing left to do: pick up Keith.

Gyrfalcon © Keith Carver

As of this writing, Keith Carver and I have known each other for exactly six years and 30 days—and I can almost pinpoint the hour. This is due not to any special powers of recollection on my part, nor because I have the date and time entered into a journal. I know this because on January 2, 2013, Keith and I met in Hadley, Massachusetts while watching a Gyrfalcon. In our area, this happens about once every 20 years, so it’s an event of some note—and a very auspicious start to a friendship that’s since included Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, Bohemian Waxwings, and one very obliging Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Keith’s a great friend and wonderful birding companion, and is always up for a chase: When I told him our plan and invited him to join us, he didn’t hesitate. He also knows Portland well, and could guide us to the very spot where, with a little luck, the bird would be waiting.

When we got to Keith’s house, he was ready for us. A quick turnaround—exchanging greetings, stowing gear—and we were back on the road, drawn automatically and inexorably towards our own Magnetic North, driven by hope, passion, and the thrill of the chase.

Three hours later, we pulled off the interstate and into Portland, our destination just to the right of the exit ramp. One slow merge and three turns later and we’d arrived: Deering Oaks Park. And there, at the last turn, was the bird—perched in a tree at the junction of Park and Deering Avenues, in the park’s southwest corner, right where it was supposed to be. We found a spot just down the road, walked back to the tree, and looked up.

There it was. And it was beautiful. At the end of the easiest chase we’d ever had was the rarest bird we’d ever seen. For a moment, none of us spoke—we just stared, letting our minds fully grasp the reality of the situation in which we now found ourselves. By all rights, the bird shouldn’t have been there—and yet it was. Standing on a corner in downtown Portland, Maine, we were looking at a Great Black Hawk.

Great Black Hawks are large raptors (similar in size to Red-tailed Hawks) native to Central and South America; until this bird, there’d never been a confirmed wild Great Black Hawk north of Mexico. Then, on April 24, 2018, a birder found and photographed a large raptor on Texas’s South Padre Island; review of the photos and subsequent observations confirmed the bird as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. But the bird vanished later that day, and despite dedicated searching was never seen again.

Fast forward to August 6. Twenty-four miles south of Portland, a birder again photographs an unusual hawk, this one soaring over the seaside town of Biddeford Pool. The photo hits the Internet and eventually lands at a FaceBook group called What’s This Bird?, where it’s identified as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. Three days later, this bird, too, disappears. On October 29, the bird appears again, this time along Portland’s East Promenade—but vanishes like smoke the next day.

Finally, on Thursday, November 29, the hawk discovers Deering Oaks Park and, without fanfare or fuss, settles in. Since that August 6 report, birders up and down the state have been on the lookout for this bird; word gets out almost from the minute it touches down, and birders begin pouring in behind it—the first trickles of water ahead of the flood. Someone manages to capture a photo of the underside of its wing, showing distinctive patterning. Comparison to underwing photos of the Texas bird come up positive: incredibly, this is the same bird that materialized over South Padre Island eight months before—and nearly 2000 miles away.

News of the hawk’s arrival in Portland spreads beyond Maine’s borders like wildfire, drawing people from across the country—Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California. It spends the next several weeks in the park, feasting on a near-endless supply of squirrels, rats, and pigeons, and tussling with the resident Red-tails. Thousands of birders come to this unlikely spot to bear witness to an event the likes of which, in a lifetime of birding, may happen once.

And thus, on the morning of December 20, did we find ourselves in the hawk’s company—the faithful, as it were, undertaking a holy pilgrimage to offer our respects and simply be in the presence of this glorious bird. We spent nearly three hours there, among a small crowd of kindred spirits celebrating the occasion and our collective good fortune to be a part of it, each of us subsuming a piece of history and in turn being subsumed by it, awed by the mysterious spectacle. Questions fell like rain. How had this hawk gotten here? How long would it stay? How was it surviving, and how long would it last? The bird, naturally, was silent to our queries, and simply went about the business of being a bird—in this case, roosting, hunting the copious and corpulent urban squirrels, and for the most part ignoring us. And that was the wonder of it. In an entirely alien environment, in the midst of its celebrity, this hawk found a way to survive, and did so with grace and relative ease. It appeared to all the world as if it belonged there—despite being 3000 miles from the familiar, from home.

And then, as difficult as it was to break away, it was time to begin our southward trip home. We parted ways with the group—these former strangers to whom we were now, through this encounter, permanently connected—silently thanked the hawk, and wished it well. For now, at least, it was healthy and it was safe. But its future, like its past, was uncertain.

The Great Black Hawk continued to delight new and repeat visitors to the park for some time. Prey was bountiful, and thus far the weather had been mild, sparing the bird the full fury of December in Maine. In the back of everyone’s mind, though, was the “What if?”. This was, after all, a bird of the tropics, not adapted to the brutal cold and punishing reality of a true New England winter. If conditions changed, if the mercury plummeted and snow and ice took hold of Deering Oaks Park, would the hawk survive?

Like everyone, I hoped for the best, but was subconsciously steeling myself against an outcome I hadn’t the courage to voice. Nature plays by her own rules though, with no regard for our feelings or desires: On January 20, winter’s hammer struck on the winds of a bitter storm that would ultimately claim the hawk’s life.

That was the scenario everyone had been watching for. Everyone knew what it might mean, and people were ready for it. The morning after the storm, someone went looking for the hawk and found it lying on the ground, unable to stand, and virtually unresponsive… yet somehow alive. That same morning, Terra Fletcher, a recent transplant to the state who we’d met on our visit and who had experience with raptors, happened to be in the park as well. She took the bird home, got it warm and safe, and then made contact with Avian Haven, a dedicated bird rehab facility in Freedom, Maine, who arranged transport for the hawk. Road conditions could hardly have been worse: the usually 90-minute trip was a harrowing four-hour ordeal, but the hawk’s condition seemed to improve along the way. When it arrived at Avian Haven, the bird was alert and active. After emergency care for frostbite to both feet and general debilitation, the staff at Avian Haven settled the Great Black Hawk into intensive care for the night.

The next morning, the hawk was standing and very hungry. A full exam revealed that the bird was stable and in good overall body condition, but the frostbite was a bit worrying. Though it didn’t appear excessive at that point, frostbite is notoriously insidious. It would be at least a few days before they’d know the full extent of the damage. In the meantime, the hawk was still eating ravenously and seemed to be gaining strength.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. Wild animals hide their injuries well; by the time something is obviously wrong, it’s often too late. Though the hawk’s appetite continued unabated and it grew feistier, the full effects of frostbite began to show: it had progressed from the bird’s feet to its lower legs. By January 29, the situation looked grim: the vets at Avian Haven were faced with the probability that the bird would lose at least two toes from each foot to frostbite. In all likelihood, it would be worse.

The next morning, the hawk’s appetite fell precipitously and it was unable to stand. Diagnostic tests showed no circulation in the feet or lower legs; when the vets removed the bandages, both feet were discolored and beginning to decompose. Avian Haven had done all they could; despite heroic efforts to save the hawk, the damage was too great. This wayward stranger’s journey had reached its end.

I, like all who’d come to know this bird, was heartbroken. It all seemed so futile—all the effort, and for what? If it was just going to die anyway, what was the point? Why? The answer, of course, is simple: because. Because to do nothing, to let the bird suffer, cold and alone, would have been morally wrong. In its need for protection, for kindness, and for care, the hawk was no different from any of us. Though the outcome was ultimately the same, in its last days, the hawk knew peace, safety, and comfort. It was shown great compassion, and in its final moments it was attended by people whose hearts had grown to encompass this incredible, bird. On some level, I’m certain it understood that people cared for it. That it was loved.

During its life, the Great Black Hawk brought joy to all who spent time with it. People who had never watched a bird before became captivated by this beautiful hawk and the story of its epic journey; many found themselves caring. For some, it awakened a sense of awe and wonder in the face of Nature, and a desire to protect Her. And there were those of us who fell in love.

Chasing birds is about the allure of the possible, the embrace of wonder. But it’s also about accepting the beauty and fragility of life, and the reality of its inevitable and sometimes tragic end. The idea of a tropical raptor finding safe haven in northern New England was ludicrous, until the Great Black Hawk found its way to a city park in Portland, Maine and changed everything. Should this have been possible? No, not really. Yet somehow, there it was. And though this hawk met its fate too early, while it lived it was magnificent. Power, beauty, grace, dignity, all given exquisite form in feather, muscle, and bone—a winged embodiment of living fire, defying all expectations of what should be, and by its presence challenging us to rethink what we know. This is how I choose to remember it.

Birds don’t exist for our benefit, but we benefit from their existence—ephemeral though it may be. Had I not spent time with the Great Black Hawk, would I have been spared the pain of its death? Of course. But I would have been robbed of something much greater: the chance to witness something spectacular and to know, even a little, the magical, the wondrous, and the beautiful life it was.

By their nature, birds are creatures of mystery, capable of things the likes of which we humans can only dream. Spend time with them—any of them—and I dare you not to become captivated, and perhaps even fall in love. But spend time with something this rare, and I dare you not to reevaluate your knowledge of what can be, not to question your idea of the possible. And I dare you to remain unchanged.

This, this is what the Great Black Hawk was. For me, the experience was worth a broken heart.

 

 

Canvasback Connection

The end of 2018 brought a rather unusual visitor to our corner of Western Massachusetts—a belated Christmas present for the local birders in the form of a beautiful male Canvasback. The duck first appeared with little fanfare on an oxbow lake off the Connecticut River in Northampton and set to feeding, unaware of the excitement he was about to generate.

In the northeast at least, Canvasbacks are cold-weather birds. They make their first appearances in late fall—on rivers, lakes, and along the coast—and stay into early spring, following the vernal winds to their breeding grounds in the north and west. These large, attractive ducks show up with some regularity in our area, but they typically bypass my Hampshire County environs for Franklin, Berkshire, and Hampden Counties to the north, west, and south—within relatively easy reach (and I have made trips to see them), but not just around the corner. And though I’m happy to go birding anywhere, there’s something satisfying about seeing birds in your own county—a feeling akin to welcoming a friend into your home.

In the case of a Canvasback, the trick was finding one. Since 1970, there have been just over a dozen reports of these ducks within the county—not a common occurrence by any means. In my 16 years of birding within Hampshire County, I’d never managed to get time, place, and Canvasback to coincide. When I heard about this one, I felt I had my chance.

First, though, I had to call Mary. Mary McKitrick’s a newfound friend and frequent birding partner, and she’d be thrilled about our uncommon guest. When I reached her, she was already en route to Northampton, but she hadn’t heard about the Canvasback, so she took a side trip to find him.

No luck. In the half-hour between when I saw the initial report and when Mary made it to the oxbow, the bird had flown. But all was not yet lost. Just to north of the oxbow lies Paradise Pond, an aquatic haven on the Smith College campus that’s frequented by a variety of waterfowl (and connected to the oxbow by the Mill River). If the bird was anywhere, we thought, that’s where he’d be. Mary made a beeline for Paradise Pond.

And that’s where she found him.

Half an hour later, my family and I were there ourselves, watching the Canvasback at turns swimming, resting, and feeding among the pond’s resident waterfowl—Canada Geese, Common Mergansers, Mallards, and American Black Ducks. A small group of birders gathered while we were there, and we all shared in the spectacle of this wonderful bird, out of place yet carrying on as if nothing was out of the ordinary. We spent about an hour with him, enjoying both his company and that of the kindred spirits—friends all—who’d assembled on the shore to watch him. Of the myriad ways to close out the year, it’s hard to top a rare bird sighting in the company of family and friends. As we left, I silently thanked the bird and wished him Godspeed, not expecting to see him again but knowing full well that I’d try.

The next day—January first—I was back. For some time now, I’ve marked the turning of the calendar with an excursion among birds. Even if it’s just a walk in the neighborhood, I find it very soul-satisfying to see each new year in on feathered wings. Given the relative rarity of the Canvasback (and my love of ducks), a visit with him felt like a perfect way to open 2019. Of course, there was no guarantee he’d be there, but I thought it was pretty likely—the weather hadn’t changed and he was finding food. Absent some other external influence, there was no reason for him to leave.

I parked the car and started down the path overlooking Paradise Pond, glancing down at the water as I walked. As hoped, there among the usual suspects was the Canvasback. He’d drawn a small crowd of very happy birders and was leisurely swimming back and forth in front of them, looking like nothing so much as a model strutting down the catwalk. I reached the edge of the water in time for a couple of passes, and then he slowly drifted away from us, settling in with a large flock of Canada Geese. The scene was serene, the Canvasback captivating. We were enthralled.

Bald Eagle © Joe Oliverio

And then everything changed. With no warning, the Canvasback exploded into motion. From a slow swim he broke into a frantic, running takeoff, webbed feet smacking against the surface of the pond, sending loud thwacks! and plumes of water into the air. It took a moment for us to identify the cause of this sudden shift in demeanor: We’d been so focused on him that we didn’t see the Bald Eagle closing in from above.

But he did.

He was airborne in no time, flying in a wide circle across our field of view, reaching full speed in seconds and racing away from his taloned assassin. The Eagle dropped in behind, huge and menacing, the duck just out of reach. The Canvasback’s timing had been impeccable: He’d known how long he’d need to get into the air and gain enough speed to outfly his pursuer; had he waited a fraction of a moment more, the Eagle would have taken him on the water. Advantage: Canvasback. The Eagle was too late.

Then we noticed the second Eagle, taking a line to cut off the fleeing duck. The first Eagle wasn’t looking for the kill, it was driving its prey into the talons of its partner—the hound to the hunter. It looked like it was all over.

But the duck picked up on this before we did, changing his own line and veering sharply away from the second bird. He had avoided the trap—but now both Eagles were in pursuit. The drama played out in virtual silence, no sound emanating from the three actors save the frenetic whistling of the duck’s wings cutting the air as he made his bid to escape.

The three birds flew out over the pond toward a distant line of trees, the Canvasback still holding his lead—barely—as they slipped out of sight. The duck’s speed gave him the edge, but it was an open question whether it would hold out against the stamina of the much larger birds. We waited through the tension, and hoped.

The question is: why? In a contest like this, the prey is in immediate danger: if it’s caught, that’s the end. However, there’s risk to the predator as well: if it misses, it goes hungry; too many misses and it falls to starvation. Intellectually, we know this: If a predator doesn’t eat, it will eventually die. So why root for the prey?

Two words: connection and transference. Consider the Canvasback again: I’d been watching him languidly cruise the pond, apparently without care or concern. All was peace and tranquility—until the first Eagle dropped out of the sky. And just like that, in a fraction of time indivisible in its brevity, what had been a relaxed encounter shifted into a life-or-death drama. In that moment, the duck was transformed. From a life one step removed, he’d become an individual to whom I was now intimately connected, obeying the instinct that undergirds all of our journeys upon this Earth, bird and human alike: survival. And through that connection I could feel, for the briefest of spans, what I imagined he felt: the fear, the desperation, and the desire, above all else, to live. Emotionally, how could I not want him to escape?

Though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, for all of us gathered there the wait stretched into interminability. We began to fear the worst for the Canvasback, that he’d met his match and contributed his life force to the Eagles, his death ensuring, for a time, their continued survival.

Bald Eagles © Chuck Stern

Then we caught motion over the distant trees—and there he was! The Canvasback flew towards us, high up and now well ahead of the two birds of prey. As the duck passed over our heads and away, the Eagles, at last, gave up, circling down to the trees and out of sight once more. For today, at least, the duck had triumphed. I congratulated him on his victory and wished him well. And I congratulated the Eagles on a valiant effort, comforting myself that they would find future meals among the pond’s waterfowl, as they had done on other days. On those days, I would be thankful for the lives that the birds sacrificed for the good of the Eagles, while also quietly mourning their passing. Such is the way of things. If you love Nature, you must love all of Her, and recognize that some days go to the prey and others to the predators—exactly as it should, it must, be. In such transactions, there is no good or bad, there simply is—an exchange of one life for another, neither one better or worse, but both equal.

In witnessing such encounters, we are reminded of the beauty and heartbreak of life, and of its sublime ephemerality. If we open ourselves to the full experience, put aside our egos, we might see ourselves as part of the life equation, like all who walk, swim, crawl, or fly upon this Earth—our home, yes, but not ours alone. We may recognize ourselves in the Canvasback’s desperate flight, or in the Eagle’s hunger. Looking deeper, we may learn to embrace life’s gorgeous transience and live, not in fear of the end, but in celebration of the now. If we let these threads entwine, we may awaken to the connectedness of all things, to the interdependence of each upon the other, and to the simultaneous inseparability and exquisite uniqueness of each individual existence. For at the source, we all, regardless of form, are lives full of vibrancy, potential, and promise.

But Can You Count It?

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Central Park © Agatha Kadar

New York’s Central Park is an extraordinary place for birds. Over the years, this 843-acre island in the heart of Manhattan’s sprawling urban expanse has hosted a dazzling avian extravaganza—more than 260 species running the gamut from waterfowl to warblers. Most of the birds you’ll find are more or less expected for the park’s location—in the Northeast and along the Atlantic flyway—and the particular season you might be birding there. Some visitors are less common than others, and some seasons are more productive. Migration, as you might imagine, is particularly good. It’s the sheer number and variety of birds that makes Central Park so special, though. Hemmed in on all sides by concrete and steel and the constant press of urban humanity, Central Park is the largest expanse of green for miles—and it beckons like a seductress, promising food, shelter, and rest to these weary winged wayfarers.

However, Olmstead’s creation is also justifiably famous for attracting vagrants from all over North America—Barnacle Goose, Painted Bunting, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Pine Grosbeak, and Black-throated Gray Warbler have all put in appearances. Occasionally, circumstances will conspire to bring in a wanderer from Europe—birders finding themselves at the happy confluence of time and place have been rewarded with Tufted Ducks, Eurasian Wigeons, and European Goldfinches. Rare enough, but it does happen.

Mandarin Duck, Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy

This fall, though, a traveler from way out of town found his way here: a drake Mandarin Duck, native of East Asia and one of the showiest waterfowl anywhere, materialized out of nowhere and settled in among the park’s workaday waterfowl. How, one might ask, did this happen? How is it possible that a duck common in eastern China and Japan journeyed some 6500 miles to Central Park?

The answer is, it didn’t.

Probably.

When speaking of birds, I avoid the words “always,” “never,” and “impossible.” They invariably cause trouble, as the minute anyone utters one of them—often in a voice replete with assurance—some bird shows up to present an opposing view. As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, “birds have wings and they like to use them”—and I’ve witnessed enough and heard of even more to realize that, as far as birds are concerned, almost anything is possible. Still, in the case of the Central Park Mandarin, this would be extreme: Mandarin Ducks are short-distance migrants, and East Asia is a long way from New York.

So where did it come from? There are two probable sources: a nearby zoo/wildlife center or a private waterfowl collection (these ducks are very popular among collectors). Even under the most carefully controlled conditions, escapes still happen and formerly captive birds find their way into the wild. And sometimes people intentionally let birds go, because they either can’t or won’t care for them any longer.

Regardless of the bird’s origin, birders from all over have been flocking to Central Park for a glimpse of New York’s newest winged celebrity. This raises what, for many, is a question of paramount importance: can it be counted?

A brief digression for my readers not intimately familiar with the language of birding: A “countable” bird is one that can legitimately be added to your life list (a list of birds you’ve seen over your lifetime). Though the rules vary in their details from region to region, generally for a bird to be countable it has to be two things: 1) wild, and 2) a full species (not a subspecies or a hybrid). Each major birding region has its own arbiter that sets the rules (in North America, it’s the American Birding Association, or ABA), following the most recent science and research; birders then use these rules to determine which birds can be listed (a note to my experienced birders: yes, I know this is a gross oversimplification, but for the purposes of this discussion, it’ll do).

Black Swan, Cape May

That’s if you want to keep your list “official.” In practice, you can list anything you want, and many birders do. Some maintain multiple lists, keeping records of everything they’ve seen as well as the agency-approved list of countable species. Birders make life lists, year lists, country lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists, lists of birds seen while running, walking the dog, using the bathroom… there’s an endless variety. Myself, I keep track of anything I see in the wild—including hybrids and escapees. If it’s out there, I make a note of it, provenance be damned.

To be sure, there are valid and extremely important scientific reasons to determine the origin of an out-of-town arrival. Foremost is conservation—of the bird’s native habitat (has it been displaced due to loss of its former home?), the new habitat it’s chosen to reside in, the bird itself, and the native birds upon which it may have an impact (think European Starlings or House Sparrows in the United States). There’s also the issue of disease—is the bird harboring some foreign pathogen that could gain a foothold in a new area? And there’s another, more sobering, reason: as our climate continues to heat up, a bird that shows up well beyond its typical range might be warning of disruption on a massive scale, a rumble of distant thunder signaling the coming storm.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

Asking whether or not Central Park’s Mandarin Duck is countable misses the point. The real question is this: Does it matter? If you go out birding simply to keep score, if you care more about your life list than the birds that are on it, then there’s something wrong. I once heard someone say, rather loudly, that a hybrid Clapper x King Rail was worthless because he couldn’t count it. Unable to appreciate this spectacular bird or the life it represented, he angrily moved on. To him, birds existed solely for his benefit; a bird he couldn’t list had no reason for being. He’d reduced birding to a competition devoid of joy or any remnant of the spirit of wonder that drives those of us who are truly passionate about birds. I felt sorry for him.

Yes, I keep a life list. Listing is, after all, fun. But for me, a list is greater than just marks on paper. It represents a collection of experiences; reviewing it is a trip into the past, a reminder of places I’ve been, what I’ve seen there, and the times I’ve spent with friends and family among the birds that I love.

Brewster’s Warbler, Sweet Alice Conservation Area, Amherst

But there’s something larger, something far beyond the tangled threads of my own experience. For me, listing a species of uncertain provenance is a way of showing it respect, of celebrating it and acknowledging its value as an individual. Central Park’s magical Mandarin is, after all, a life—full and complete and existing on its own terms—and whether it’s an escapee or a wild vagrant, it has found a way to make a living on alien shores. It is, in every sense that matters, wild.

How did it get here? Where did it come from? And where is it going? These questions are at the heart of all of birding’s great mysteries, and exploring them leads down the paths of discovery, revelation, and wonder. Once you set out upon them, you’ll begin to ask other questions: How do these creatures live? What do they need to survive? And how can we safeguard their future? These are the questions that truly matter, the ones whose answers lead to a greater appreciation of the lives that surround us, an awakening to the connection of all things, and a realization that we, like they, have our part to play in the survival of all.

Ultimately, the question of a bird’s countability is insignificant. Worse, it distracts from a fundamental truth: There is dignity in these uncountable birds, as there is in all life. And regardless of origin, they are entitled to the same level of respect, appreciation, and love that we all deserve. By listing the birds we encounter—wild or otherwise—we acknowledge their existence and make a record of their passing, and remind ourselves that for a moment, our paths crossed and we shared a brief slice of time with something beautiful and extraordinary. If you let it, it will change your life.

That’s why we bird.

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Mandarin among the Mallards, Central Park

 

In The Company Of Birds

Tufted Titmouse

If you’ve been following along at all, you’ve discovered that I spend a lot of time with birds. I get out with them whenever I can, even if that means just sitting on the patio and seeing who’s hanging out in the yard. You can learn a lot by watching these yard birds. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees are notorious skulkers, staying at the edges and kick-feeding in the underbrush, leaving the feeders to the more adventurous Chickadees, Titmice, and Goldfinches. Of the woodpeckers, Downies are the boldest, often landing on the feeder pole and watching as I set out the morning’s repast. Red-bellieds are regular visitors, but will flush at the mere suggestion of the drop of a hat. However, if left to their own devices, they’ll aggressively defend the suet, chasing off others who might dare try for a bite. Flickers—the largest of our regular woodpecker visitors—show up sporadically, and are even more skittish: breathe in their direction and they’ll beat a hasty retreat.

You also start to notice differences between individual birds. If I should need to step into the back yard (God forbid!), most of the Chipping Sparrows will flee to the safety of the trees, but one or two will stay on the feeders and watch as I pass. The female of our Rose-breasted Grosbeak pair is similarly inclined, holding her post while the male heads for the hills; so too with the Hairy Woodpeckers, the female largely undaunted by my intrusions—putting paid to the notion of the weaker sex.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Though I love our yard birds, and have spent many hours in their company, I’ll also take any opportunity I can to visit one of my favorite local haunts—Quabbin Park’s gate five or the Fort River refuge, perhaps—or travel farther afield (New York’s Central Park, the Connecticut shore, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, and Cape May, New Jersey are regular birding fixtures). No matter where I’m headed, though—even if it’s just out to the supermarket—I always bring two items with me: a pair of binoculars and a camera. You never know what’s out there waiting to be found, and I believe in being prepared. More often than not, it’s paid off. And more importantly, on the few instances when I’ve left one or both behind, I’ve regretted it (ask me about the Great Gray Owl sometime).

Now I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, and I consider myself fortunate if I come away with any good images at all. It’s far more important to me to get a good look at a bird than a photo of one. Still, I enjoy the challenge of photography and the joy in success. When you’re trying to photograph a bird, you also have to look at it differently. Light and shadow come into play a bit more, you have to pay special attention to behavior to anticipate its next move (it’s often too late to photograph a bird where you first see it), and you have to try to position yourself in just the right spot—clear of obstructions (as much as possible anyway), and a respectful distance from the bird so that you can keep your impact to an absolute minimum while still capturing a good image. This last is paramount, and any ethical photographer—professional or otherwise—will always place the needs of the bird first.

American Goldfinch

There’s something more, though. It’s not just the self-satisfaction of taking a good photograph. As someone who loves nature—and birds in particular—I feel a responsibility to share what I’ve seen, give others a window into the wonders of the world around us, and, with luck, inspire at least some of them to care. It’s the same reason I write about them—to bring people with me as I explore the lives of the birds, and to hopefully illuminate a bit of the magic that lies just outside our doors.

Over the last few years, I’ve been introduced to many wonderful photographers—some who’ve become good friends—and they all share this same desire, to open a bit more of our world to us, and inspire us with its pageantry, its mystery, and its splendor. People like Melissa Groo, Keith Carver, Joe Oliverio, Ann Pacheco, Shawn Carey, Ashleigh Scully, Mia McPherson, Eric Curtis Cummings, Christopher Ciccone, Marina Scarr, Dorian Anderson, Denise Ippolito—artists all, and far more accomplished than I—produce images of stunning beauty, capturing moments of transcendent glory, heartbreaking intimacy, deep sorrow, and profound tenderness among our non-human brethren, revealing aspects of their world that many of us may never see yet are critically important for us to understand. I am consistently awed by their work, and often moved beyond words.

Or maybe there’s a darker side to this drive. Perhaps we’re documenting a great decline, recording these creatures for history before they slide into oblivion. Perhaps, like those who kept account of the last days of the Great Auk, Giant Moa, and Passenger Pigeon, we’re bearing witness to catastrophe and chronicling these lives that they may not be lost to time and confined to the realm of myth and legend.

Perhaps.

Myself, I hold to hope, and I suspect that many of my peers would as well—the hope that my work has an impact, that it drives people to care, to take action, to not remain on the sidelines and watch the great tragedy unfold. That I, through images and words, can help others understand the vision I have for our Earth, reach others who will be moved to make a difference, and awaken in others an appreciation for the grandeur and majesty of our world, the inherent value in all life, great and small, and the urgent need to protect and nurture all creatures whose lives fall, for better or for worse, into our hands. We are the only species that regularly drives others into extinction, but we are also the only species that can keep them from it.

Chipping Sparrow

Why do I do what I do? Why do I spend so much time in the company of birds? Because I must. Because it is right and proper that I do so. Because to be human is to care for more than just the human. Because for all the ugliness and destruction in the world, I can find beauty in the simplicity and grace of a sparrow. Because I cannot envision a world empty of the birds that surround us. And because I refuse to accept that as our inevitable course.

But for that to be true, it’s up to each of us as individuals to do what we can, however we can. It’s up to me, and it’s up to you. Start in your back yard, see what’s there. Go for a walk in your neighborhood, visit a state park or national wildlife refuge. Take that first step out your door, then take the next, and the next. Who knows where you’ll end up, and who knows what you might find? There’s life there waiting to be discovered, so get out and find it. Learn about it. Care.

And then inspire others.

At the end of it all, that’s what I work for.

 

You can find links to the photographers who inspire me below:

Melissa Groo

Keith Carver

Ann Pacheco

Joe Oliverio

Ashleigh Scully

Shawn Carey

Dorian Anderson

Mia McPherson

Eric Curtis Cummings

Christopher Ciccone

Marina Scarr

Denise Ippolito

The National Wildlife Refuge System Turns 114

Barred Owl, Parker River NWR

On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt gave the wildlife—and citizens—of the United States a grand gift by founding the National Wildlife Refuge System. More than a century later, the system is still going strong: it protects more than 150 million acres of habitat—land and water—for the benefit of an incredible variety of wildlife, and remains one of our best resources for wildlife conservation and enjoyment. Today, on its 114th birthday, I’d like to share some images of birds I’ve taken over the years throughout our nation’s wonderful wildlife refuges, parks, sanctuaries, and recreation areas. I post these both in celebration of our National Wildlife Refuges, and as a reminder of just how critical they are to the future of wildlife conservation.

Tri-colored Heron, Merritt Island NWR, Florida

 

Hermit Thrush, Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, New Jersey

 

American Coots, Great Meadows NWR, Massachusetts

 

Red-tailed Hawk, Parker River NWR, Massachusetts

 

Great & Snowy Egrets, Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Palm Warbler, Silvio O. Conte NWR, Fort River Division, Massachusetts

 

Semipalmated Sandpiper, Prime Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Snow Geese, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, New Jersey

 

American Bittern, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, Texas

 

Greater Shearwater, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts

 

Sandwich, Royal & Forster’s Terns and Laughing Gull, Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

 

Roseate Spoonbill, Merritt Island NWR, Florida

 

Red-eyed Vireo, Trustom Pond NWR, Rhode Island

 

Marsh Wren, Great Meadows NWR, Massachusetts

 

Shorebirds, Bombay Hook NWR, Delaware

 

Wild Turkey, Parker River NWR, Massachusetts

 

Cory’s Shearwater, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts

 

Northern Pintails, Edwin B. Forsythe NWR, New Jersey

 

Dickcissel, Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR, Texas

With attacks on our federal lands coming almost daily, we would do well to consider how much poorer our nation would be without them. These lands exist for the benefit of all wildlife, and for the enjoyment of all citizens of—and visitors to—this country. We must not allow the greed of the few to supersede the rights and needs of everyone else—human and non-human animal alike. The value of this national heritage is incalculable, and its loss would be devastating beyond measure. Our national refuges, parks, monuments, sanctuaries, and recreation areas are a safe haven for countless species, and a vital resource for our well-being as much as theirs. If you care about the animals who look to our federal protected lands for sanctuary, if you appreciate the value of being able to spend time in wild spaces, if you understand the need to make room for the incredible creatures that share our home, or if you simply uphold the commitment to leaving this world a better place for future generations, then raise your voice in support of the voices that risk being silenced by those who refuse to hear them.

 

For more information about our National Wildlife Refuge System, check this link

… and this one.

Life On The Margins

Verdin, Phoenix, AZ

A friend of mine was recently traveling through Arizona, and while waiting out a flight delay at the Tucson airport, she wandered over to a tiny park jammed in between the rental car office and pickup garage. It had picnic tables, benches, small arbors, and even a water feature—so she did what any self-respecting birder would: looked for birds. If anything, she expected those most ubiquitous of urban birds: House Sparrows (the park was, after all, surrounded by concrete and jet noise). What she found was something else entirely: two Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging in a flowering bush, and, much to her surprise, a pair of Verdins busily constructing a nest in one of this mini-park’s little trees. She spent a fair bit of time enjoying their company, amazed at their ability to find succor in this rather depleted habitat.

It’s a story I’ve heard (and experienced) many times. Different species and different locations to be sure, but the theme is always the same: birds making a living in the unlikeliest of places, on the margins between the natural and constructed worlds. Peregrine Falcons are prime examples, able to thrive in the heart of the urban jungle, substituting skyscrapers for cliff ledges and making off with whatever prey presents itself (pigeons are favorite targets, and the falcons’ preference for these birds makes them very popular with city dwellers). Red-tailed Hawks have likewise found a place among humans—in some cases, attaining celebrity status (New York City’s Pale Male being perhaps the most famous). Ducks and geese are exceptionally good at making the most of the smallest of ponds. And gulls, pigeons, House Sparrows, Crows, and Starlings have all discovered the bounty offered by the detritus of our daily lives. But there are other, less obvious stories: Yellow-breasted Chats—Cardinal-sized warblers, highly secretive—show up in postage-stamp city parks; the flowered walkways outside New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted a Rufous Hummingbird through one winter; and I know of an Ovenbird—a shy warbler of the forest floor—that spent part of the year in and around a city convenience store’s meager lawn.

Peregrine Falcon

These are somewhat extreme examples, but they are no means the only ones. Far from natural, many places we think of as ideal for birds are islands of habitat surrounded by harsh and inhospitable terrain. Arguably the most famous of these is Central Park, 843 acres of green set in Manhattan’s concrete core. To say that the park is good for birds is a gross understatement: on a normal day, it’s fantastic; during migration, it’s extraordinary. Warblers, orioles, blackbirds, tanagers, vireos—a host of species descend upon the park to feast on its bounty and shelter in its sylvan grounds. Birding here, it’s easy to get caught up in the extravaganza without questioning why it takes place. Take a look at a map of the city, though, and the reason is obvious: it’s one of the last, best naturescapes left in this vast metropolis. To birds exhausted by the trials of migration, Central Park offers sustenance and safety, a verdant oasis in an otherwise alien land—a margin, but on a grander scale.

Sanderlings

Grandest of all margins, though, is the one that marks the boundary between earth and ocean. Here along the coast, where the land slips into the surf, are birds who push the notion of survival to the extreme. As a group, shorebirds undergo some of the longest migratory journeys—and longest non-stop flights—in the world. Most travel tens of thousands of miles each way, and sometimes stay aloft for days at a stretch—a feat that pushes endurance far beyond the reasonable; in addition to nearly doubling their weight before setting out, some birds, like Red Knots, Bar-tailed Godwits, and Sanderlings, digest muscle tissue and internal organs to carry them the distance. Those who break their journeys to rest and refuel (and some don’t) do so on beaches up and down the coast. For other birds, the beach represents migration’s end: American Oystercatchers, Least Terns, and Piping Plovers are among those who make their homes on the shore, nesting in depressions they dig out of the sand. But whether they pass through or settle down, these birds share something crucial: Beachfront property isn’t a luxury for them, it’s a necessity. And yet this narrow, vital edge is under constant siege, imperiling all who rely on it. The birds who survive here exist at a confluence of conflicts: the shifting balance between land and sea; development against conservation; political will versus ecological reality; and human want versus avian need. For now, they still persist—but they’re forced to do so on an ever-shrinking landscape, each vanishing piece taking with it another chance for the birds.

The capacity to exist on the margins, to find food and shelter on the edges of our lives, is a testament to birds’ knack for survival. But they can be pushed only so far. Every species has a breaking point past which it can no longer recover, a threshold that, once crossed, leads to a finality frightening to contemplate. Without care, sooner or later these margins may become too small to support the birds that depend on them, leading them down the path traveled by the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Eskimo Curlew, Labrador Duck, and many others. Still, all is not yet lost. Birds can adapt, given adequate time to do so and enough open space to call home. But ultimately it’s up to us. Their fate is in our hands, and we must ask ourselves if we can find it in our hearts to make room for them, encourage their recovery, and champion their survival. A world rich with birds awaits us, if we only have the courage to create it and the wisdom to understand why.

Piping Plover

A Wild Goose Chase

Geese on the UMass campus pond

Wednesday, December 7, 2:00 PM. Shoes: check. Jacket: check. Keys: check. Grab the binoculars. Grab the cameras. Go.

I flew out of the house like I’d been shot from a gun—a man on a mission: get my son from school and race 15 miles to the UMass campus pond, a half-hour trip that I planned to shave by about a third. There, with a little luck, we’d meet up with the rarest bird to ever grace the University’s lettered grounds. Out of nowhere, a Pink-footed Goose had appeared, and we were setting out to find it.

I’d been alerted to the bird the day before. The call had come in at 9:26 AM. I was in the kitchen, and my cell phone rang—an occurrence infrequent enough to be noteworthy, as I use it mostly for emergencies and eBird, and very few people have the number. One of those who does is Larry Therrien, a good friend and the most accomplished and committed birder I know. He calls the cell for only two reasons: to suggest an ice cream run or report an unusual sighting. It was Larry; I picked up. With no preamble, he launched in. “I’m looking at a Pink-footed Goose in the fields off Stockbridge Road right now.”

Half an hour later, I was on the bird. It had settled in with a group of about 600 Canada Geese, and was working the edge of a farm field, foraging here and there. I got wonderful looks, but the combination of distance and lighting didn’t lend itself to photography—and while I don’t have to photograph every bird I see, I’ve been trying to capture an image of a Pink-footed Goose for years. Also, I didn’t have my son Aidan with me, and I knew he’d want to see it as well. I’d be visiting this bird again, and I had a hunch about where to look. We’d been waiting for a Pink-footed Goose to discover the pond at the University of Massachusetts, and something told me this bird was it.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose, UMass campus pond

That evening, my suspicion was confirmed. Someone reported a large group of geese leaving the field and flying east to UMass; the Pink-footed Goose was with them. Aidan and I made our plan: after school the next day, we’d try for the bird. I prayed it would stick around for that long.

Wednesday afternoon we hit campus, not sure what we’d find. As we made our way across the horseshoe drive in front of the University’s Fine Arts Center, a lone goose flew out over the building towards us—more slender than a Canada Goose, with pointed wings and a faster, stiffer wing beat. Something told me to give it a better look, but I continued on, anxious to get to the pond where, I hoped, the Pink-footed Goose awaited. My son, however—who, at 16 is a far better birder than I (or, in fact, most birders I’ve met) and often exhibits more patience than any teenage boy reasonably should—stopped and put his binoculars on it. “Dad,” he said, “that’s it.”

We stopped and stared, watching it circle around and back towards the pond, away from us. This was not good; there was a very real chance that we’d missed it, that it had been and gone. I held my breath, watching it, hoping for a sign that we weren’t too late. A moment later, I got it. The goose headed directly over the pond, circled back, and drooped its wings, descending below the Fine Arts Center, out of sight. Its target could only be the pond. From a dead standstill, we broke into a run. We’d waited years for this moment. This was our chance, and we weren’t going to miss it.

If you’ve never visited the University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus and seen the pond yourself, you’re probably wondering what the big deal is. After all, it’s in the middle of a bustling university, passed by thousands of students a day. How good can it be?

Gadwall

Gadwall,

Very. In fact, if you’re looking for an uncommon water bird, it’s arguably the best place in western Mass to be. At 800 feet long and around 200 feet across at its widest point (considerably narrower at most others), over the years this little pond has hosted a dizzying array: Snow and Ross’ Geese, Northern Pintails, Gadwall, Cackling Geese, Wood Ducks, American Coots, Brant, Greater White-fronted Geese, Horned and Red-necked Grebes, Hooded and Common Mergansers, Green-winged Teal… the list goes on. It’s protected from hunting, so the birds can rest and eat in safety. And it’s ideal for photography: The views are incredible; there isn’t a bad seat in the house. If I was going to break my drought of Pink-footed Goose photographs, it would happen here. But I’d have to find it first.

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

When searching for a rare bird on the campus pond, the typical procedure is this: take up position at one end of the pond, scan through anywhere from several hundred to perhaps a thousand Canada Geese, and try to find the one that stands out. Repeat as necessary until you locate the target bird. The amount of time this takes varies with the number of Canada Geese present and, more importantly, the identity of the bird you’re looking for. An adult Snow Goose stands out like a Cardinal in snow; pulling a Cackling Goose out from a mass of Canadas, however, brings to mind needles and haystacks. The Pink-footed falls somewhere in the middle: Smaller than the Canada Geese with a chocolate-brown head and neck, it should be fairly obvious; as long as there weren’t too many Canadas, it shouldn’t take us too long.

As we rounded the corner of the Fine Arts Center, the pond came into view, and my heart sank. Aside from a scattering of Mallards on the water and three Canada Geese along the bank, it was entirely empty. This was a very bad sign: In all my years of birding the campus pond, rare waterfowl have always been attended by healthy numbers of Canada Geese. I’ve never seen one on its own. Ever. Somehow, even though we saw the goose drop towards the water, it must’ve taken back to the air. Somehow, we missed it.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Or so I thought. Aidan, though, was undaunted, and in short order—once again displaying superior skill, patience, and attention to detail—he located the bird swimming alone on the pond. And it was beautiful.

In an area renowned for producing uncommon waterfowl, this was the rarest of the rare. Pink-footed Geese breed in the far north—Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard (north of the European mainland)—and winter in northwest Europe and western Denmark, only appearing casually in the United States. For one to show up anywhere is an event. For one to show up at the campus pond was a miracle. Aidan and I spent the next hour watching the goose paddle about and wander along the bank, foraging and displaying its namesake feet—alternately jubilant and transfixed. We were witnessing something truly special, and we were well aware of our good fortune.

But then we were hit with the completely unexpected. The goose had returned to the water and was swimming about when a flock of 14 Canada Geese flew in, circling the pond and calling. The Pink-footed Goose made three loud honks in response and then, as the Canadas left, it took off from the water and followed them away. It seemed for all the world like the Canadas had been looking for their lost cousin and, finding the Pink-footed, came to collect it. And in joining them, the Pink-footed seemed happy. It was once again with its companions—still a stranger in a strange land, but no longer alone.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

As humans, we’re constantly cautioned not to anthropomorphize, told that it’s a mistake to endow other animals with thoughts and emotions. I believe this philosophy is wrong. The real mistake, I feel, is in assuming that other animals have none. If we were speaking of human beings, the narrative of a lost individual being found by a group and then happily rejoining them wouldn’t even be questioned. It would be obvious, accepted: Of course that’s what was going on. What else could it have been? But other animals don’t do this, we think. They can’t show this level of emotion, connection. We tell ourselves this again and again, and believing it allows us to visit unspeakable horrors on them. Why care what we destroy, what we kill, if they don’t? Animals don’t feel the pain of loss when we reduce their homes to ash, don’t grieve or mourn when another of their kind dies or falls victim to mankind’s callous hand. They are, after all, only animals.

But so are we. At its root, the mistake we make is not in assuming that other animals aren’t like us, but that we are somehow fundamentally different from them—that we, with our advanced capacity for thought and emotion, are elevated above them, and that in our lofty position, we are insulated from the destruction we sow upon them and their world. The realization that we aren’t may, I fear, come too late, after we’ve carried the world beyond the breaking point and have lost the means to save ourselves from the consequences of our arrogance.

Maybe all is not lost, though. Maybe my son’s generation will get it right, will tread more gently upon the Earth than those who’ve come before, will embrace the reality that we are kin to all life on Earth, not just to those who walk on two legs. Maybe they’ll teach us all to do the same. And perhaps we’ll be wise enough to listen.

Myself, I hold fast to hope. After all, if a Pink-footed Goose can show up on this little pond, anything’s possible.

Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose