Held Captive

Red-breasted Goose

Red-breasted Goose

I’ve been a birder for as long as I can remember. My ability to get out sometimes comes in fits and starts, but birding has always been an integral part of me—like my lungs or heart, an essential piece of who I am, the birds as necessary to my survival. Nothing moves me like grabbing the binoculars and getting into the field, seeing birds living wild within their natural environments. Of course, I also love aviaries and zoos, provided the birds have ample room to move—to wander, swim, fly, to live in a manner that allows them to express, at least in part, the true nature of their being. When I’ve encountered birds held in facilities designed with respect and concern for their welfare, they’ve always been active, healthy, and given the highest level of care. And captive settings can play a vital role in education and conservation: they’re the only venue for many people to see and learn about some of the world’s exotic birds, and in times of need, they can be critical resources for breeding and reintroduction programs—sometimes serving as the last line of defense for species on the edge.

But I’d always drawn a line between wild and captive birds: in my mind, seeing captives didn’t count, they weren’t real sightings. And from a certain point of view, they’re not: you can’t add captive birds to your life list (listing isn’t the only measure by any means, but that’s a discussion for another time), and so they take on second-class status, as if they’re less important and somehow less real. I never spent much time photographing them, and if I did, I didn’t often share them with others. With so many photos of wild birds, what was the point?

Baikal Teal

Baikal Teal

It sounds trite to say that I’ve grown wiser with the passing of the years, but it’s a fitting truism in this case. Viewing the world through such a narrow perspective closed me off to really appreciating the full diversity of magnificent creatures that share the planet with us. More significantly—and quite distressingly, once I recognized it—it’s utterly disrespectful, and cheapens the lives of the birds who, through no fault of their own, find themselves living outside their wild homes. The birds are no less beautiful, fascinating, or valid for being captive, and they’re equally deserving of our respect and our care. They are, after all, living, breathing creatures, wonderful to behold.

It was in this spirit that my son and I recently traveled to a small town west of Hartford to visit the birds of the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy. Based in Litchfield, Connecticut, the Conservancy reached its current incarnation in 2007, when the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Sanctuary changed its name to the one it bears today. Prior to that, it was known as the Kilvarock Foundation, a non-profit organization launched in 1985 and dedicated to the conservation of captive waterfowl. Kilvarock, in turn, evolved out of the private waterfowl collection of Dr. Dillon Ripley and his wife, Mary Livingston Ripley—a collection Ripley started himself in the 1920s.

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Hawaiian Goose (Nene)

Though the Conservancy’s changed its name over the years, it’s been steadfast and unwavering in its mission to conserve waterfowl and wetlands habitat through research, education, and direct action. Consider Hawaii’s native goose, the Nene. By the early ‘60s, the Nene was in real trouble, staring into extinction’s gaping maw. At the time, the number of North Americans raising these birds was exactly two: Dr. and Mrs. Ripley. They sent a small flock to Hawaii to join another group of birds raised in England by Peter Scott’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Both groups were released in Maui and they, along with Hawaii’s few remaining wild Nenes, began to rebuild the population. By the late 1960s, the population had increased tenfold. Reintroduction was a success—thanks in no small part to the birds raised by the Ripleys half a world away.

There is perhaps no better testament to Ripley’s founding vision, and it’s a credit to the current Board and staff that they uphold the tradition of conservation begun by Dr. Ripley and are supremely dedicated to carrying his vision forward. You don’t need to speak to anyone to realize this, all you have to do is look around. The grounds are beautiful, the aviaries and enclosures are spacious, spotless, and well maintained, and most importantly, the birds are healthy, active, and extremely well cared for.

Mandarin Duck

Mandarin Duck

And they’re captivating. Initially, I was most excited about seeing the Red-breasted Geese, absolutely beautiful and charming birds found in extreme northern Europe and Asia. They’re one of my favorite geese, but I’d only ever seen them in photos, and don’t have any travel plans that would take me anywhere near their wild homes, so this was a special treat. I quickly fell in love with them, and could easily have spent the balance of my time in their company. The Conservancy had much to offer, though, and as my son and I set about exploring the grounds, we found ourselves awed by the spectacle of waterfowl around us. Its collection is extraordinary: Mandarin Ducks from Asia, Hawaiian Nenes, the New Zealand Scaup, Alaskan Spectacled Eiders, Magpie Geese, Screamers, Cuban Whistling Ducks, Baikal and Silver Teals, Smew, Whooper Swans and more besides—an overwhelming display of avian splendor decked in their seasonal finery, a stunning array of colors and patterns laid out before us in a visual banquet, each encounter a new opportunity for love at first sight.

We spent almost four hours at the Conservancy and could easily have stayed longer, but the light was fading and it was near closing time. Reluctantly, we bid farewell to the geese, ducks, teals, and all the multitude of birds who call the Conservancy home. And we took our leave of the staff and volunteers who had been on-hand all day answering questions, leading small tours, and taking care of their charges, the marvelous birds. We’d watched them work and spoken to them on and off throughout our visit, and it was clear that they considered this far more than a job: It was a responsibility, but one they took on willingly, gladly, and joyfully. It wasn’t just that they loved their work (which, to a person, they did), it was that they truly cared for the birds, and approached them with respect, with humility, and with great love. When we’re confronted with stories of environmental destruction almost daily, being in the presence of such genuine affection and concern for the health of these birds and the wild lands in which they live was profoundly moving, and provided a much-needed glimmer of light in the darkness. Those few precious hours we spent at the LRWC left me with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. All is not yet lost, there are people doing good, important wok. There are people who care. As for the birds themselves—those spectacular, captivating birds—I will never forget the time I shared with them, the spiritual nourishment they provided, or the lesson they taught me, that sometimes the deepest connection to wildest Nature can be found in the gaze of a captive bird.

To learn more about the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy, you can visit its website here.

Spectacled Eider

Spectacled Eider

The Cape Of Good Birds

Osprey, Cape May

Osprey, Cape May

I grew up in New York—Tarrytown, to be exact, about 30 miles north of the city, along the Hudson River—and as a New Yorker, I shared the long-held belief that New Jersey, just across the river to the south, was a dump. Outside of grave necessity, no self-respecting New Yorker would ever set foot there: It was the pits, and had nothing to offer the rest of the nation except industrial waste and a means of access to points south. This was received knowledge to all who lived in the Empire State, handed down from one generation to the next. We didn’t even question it: that was the story, and we stuck to it.

Well, we were wrong. In the years since my youth, as I’ve grown more aware and observant, New Jersey has become one of my favorite places in the world. This may sound crazy to anyone who’s only experienced the state from inside a moving vehicle on his or her way somewhere else, but get off the Turnpike or Garden State, and a different world begins to emerge. It’s here, in the salt marshes and shorelines, on the waterways and refuges, where the Garden State comes to life. When you really begin paying attention, you’ll discover that, far from an industrial wasteland, New Jersey is a treasure-trove of natural beauty, offering its rewards up to those willing to step off the road more traveled and explore. And if you happen to be a birder, the rewards are considerable.

In a state rich in birding hotspots, Cape May is New Jersey’s crown jewel. Its status among birders is legendary, regularly filling the top slot on lists of the best places to bird—and it’s easy to see why. Cape May sits squarely along the Atlantic Americas flyway—which spans the East Coast from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego—and every year it serves as a critical stopover for countless numbers of migrants, representing hundreds of bird species. Warblers, raptors, ducks, geese, waders, shorebirds, songbirds, swallows, all descend on the area to rest and feed—a frenzied, feathered flood. With them come the birders, flocking here by the tens of thousands to take in the splendor of the regular avian cast, and with luck encounter something rare, a vagrant carried from distant lands on the winds of a storm and dropped fortuitously, if unceremoniously, onto Cape May. Like the birders themselves, they hail from across the globe: Fulvous Whistling Ducks and Zone-tailed Hawks from the southwestern US; from Europe, a Northern Lapwing; a White-tailed Tropicbird from Bermuda and Black-capped Petrel from the Caribbean; Puffins from the icy North Atlantic; Barnacle Geese from Greenland and a South Polar Skua from Antarctica; from the western US, a Black-throated Gray Warbler; and in the span of seven months in 2014, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Europe), Fork-tailed Flycatcher (South America), Western Tanager and Vermillion Flycatcher (western US), and contending for the record for most far-flung visitor, a Whiskered Tern from the African coast.

Brown Booby

Brown Booby

Along with Cape May’s customary procession of bird life, magnificent in its own right, every trip holds the promise of the unexpected. And as anyone who’s been there more than once knows, the unexpected shows up in Cape May with astonishing regularity. We’ve been venturing down from western Massachusetts every year since 2009 (though I first visited some 35 years ago, during which time a Northern Wheatear dropped in out of nowhere), and every year Cape May’s held true to its reputation as a magnet for the unusual. That first year—at nine years old, my son’s inaugural excursion—we watched a quartet of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, far from their southwestern home, enjoying the bounty of the bird observatory’s duck pond. The following fall, it was a Eurasian Wigeon on the duck pond, a European Lesser Black-backed Gull on the beach, and a Brown Booby from the Caribbean cruising the bay for fish. The year after that found a highly secretive Connecticut Warbler skulking in the understory. And so on, each year offering encounters with the wondrous and rare.

But Cape May is more than just a haven for the seldom-seen. Common birds abound here as well, in numbers that often stagger the imagination. During a typical migration season, raptors and songbirds come through by the tens of thousands (this year, a single October morning saw a flight of more than 56,000 warblers). Seawatching can be even more astounding: by mid November, observers logged more than half a million birds—most of them gulls, terns, and mixed waterfowl—streaming past the Avalon seawatch site. And during our most recent visit this fall, flocks of Tree Swallows, each several thousand strong, swarmed over us in waves, a press of life unlike anything I’d yet seen, a primal avian flame fueled by a bounty of bayberry and bugs. We usually time our visits to take in the fall raptor migration—something for which Cape May is justifiably renowned—but this year we arrived at the peak movement of these incredible swallows. They’re amazing birds, the paragon of aerial agility, and we always delight in their return to our northeastern skies. But this was a sight beyond measure, the familiar in a context decidedly not so: acrobatic clouds catching dinner on the wing or descending en masse to pick meals from the bushes. We even managed to catch a few in rare moments of repose, sitting motionless on the paths before us.

Black Swan

Black Swan

Waterfowl also arrive with the turning of the leaves, and alongside the usual crew of dabblers and divers, there are always a few surprises. The late-September appearance of a Black Swan caused more than a little stir, and even though it was almost certainly not a wild bird (native to Australia, Black Swans are also staples of zoos and private waterfowl collections; this one likely escaped or was intentionally released), it was still thrilling to see this beautiful bird in a natural setting. Joining the swan was a drake Eurasian Wigeon, his striking red head standing out from the green crowns of his American cousins. Though this Old World duck has become a fall fixture in Cape May, they never show up in large numbers and are always a special treat. Somewhat more surprising was the female Redhead we encountered swimming with the Blue-winged Teals and American Black Ducks at the Meadows. Typically found along the Gulf Coast in fall and winter, this one strayed a bit and ended up in birding Mecca—to the delight of the throngs of birders who happened upon her.

But the biggest surprise for us came in the form of an unassuming little songbird from the southwest. Jacob Drucker, a good friend, recent Hampshire College grad, and CMBO volunteer, brought it to our attention as we were about to stake out space on the hawkwatch platform and scan the skies for a long-shot Golden Eagle. He didn’t even return my greeting—there was no time for that (when presented with a rarity, an excited birder’s priority is to share it with others; the usual pleasantries of friendly reconnection can come later)—he simply said, “Did you chase the Bell’s Vireo?” and then gave me directions to find it (essentially, “go here and look for the other birders”—also typical). And so we chased.

Bell's Vireo

Bell’s Vireo

Now to be fair, in the long and storied history of tracking down rare birds, this wasn’t much of a chase. The first lucky birders spotted it along the edge of a meadow not 15 minutes from where we were. We burned another five minutes walking from the car to the meadow—and directly into a knot of people festooned with binoculars and cameras, all gazing expectantly in the same direction. Short of hanging a sign that read “rare bird this way,” there was no clearer indication that something extraordinary was about. We planted ourselves in the crowd; the vireo returned less than 10 minutes later and spent the next half hour feeding in the thicket a dozen feet from where we stood. It was spellbinding, and we remarked upon it in reverent tones, careful not to disturb the bird. And then, as suddenly as it began, it was over. Obeying some signal discernable to it alone, the vireo disappeared deep into the woods. The crowd slowly dispersed and we all went our separate ways, taking with us the memory of our collective experience. I felt refreshed and inspired, my appreciation for the boundlessness of the possible restored by the serendipitous appearance of this little bird.

Cape May does that to you. It presents you with a panoply of the sublime and then dares you to not be moved by it. Trips here take on the flavor of religious pilgrimages, wanderers coming from near and far to stand in the presence of the mystical and holy. We receive spiritual renewal and salvation through the grace and beauty of these spectacular, wondrous creatures, the feathered heralds of Nature herself—and we are reminded that even humanity’s greatest accomplishments are nothing compared to the simple perfection of a tiny bird.