Montezuma

I need a break; an escape, I daresay. Bard College has bought Montgomery Place, and I am going to be out of a job in a week. I decide to visit my brother at Cornell- and do some intense birding. 

The weather is terrible. Rain and gusts. The rain does calm down for a bit, so that when I finally get to Montezuma the weather is decent enough for me to get out of the car. There are so many geese. Hundreds and hundreds. They are all braced against the winds, many with their heads tucked. I meander along the wildlife drive, flabbergasted at the sheer number of ducks finding shelter amongst the reeds. Hundreds and hundreds of ducks. Blue-winged Teals, Green-winged Teals, Northern Shovelers and Pintails, American Wigeons, and even an Eurasian Wigeon. It is always strange to see them in their basic plumage- I learned them in alternate plumage. That is how I will always see them. Yet because of this drabness, the colorful windows on their wings are even more pronounced amidst the grayness of the day. I am sure that there is a storm just waiting to erupt from the dark clouds. The whole drive is strangely eerie, desolate, and gloomy. I feel as though my mood is enveloped by this inescapable aura- but my heart still leaps when the ducks take off. They swirl like a tornado, gather like clouds, and suddenly the ducks have become the embodiment of the storm. It is awing.

The next morning is better. The weather has done a complete 180: it is beautiful, sunny, cheerful. I head over to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for my yearly pilgrimage. It is so beautiful, dripping with nostalgia (and warblers.) I can see myself going to school here. From there, I head back to Montezuma. Today, the ducks are calm. Everything is calm. And to my delight, there are two new birds: an American Golden-Plover (333) and two Hudsonian Godwits (334).

Birds make my heart better, lighter. But I cannot stay at Cornell forever. I need to go home and figure out what I am going to do. I wish so much that I could just work with birds. 

Hawk Festival!

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

Eurasian Eagle Owl

What an awesome weekend! The first day had terrible weather. But Sunday was beautiful, with cool winds and sun and HAWKS! I moved my booth outside despite the wind- it is against my morals to spend time inside if I can be out, especially with raptors on the horizon. My friend Ryan MacLean, fellow Bard grad and captain of the Quaker Ridge Hawk Watch, helped me get a spot right in the thick of the hawk watchers so that I could turn my binoculars towards the sky in between sales. And, to top it off, I was also right next to the Falconer: I got to watch a Eurasian Eagle Owl, Saker Falcon, Barn Owl, and Harris Hawk all day long. It was sublime. 

Lookin good! Despite all of the wind...

Lookin good! Despite all of the wind...

I met a lot of great people and got to watch Bald Eagles/Sharp-shinned Hawks/Cooper's Hawks/Red-tailed Hawks all day long. Next up: Cape May! 

Hawk watchers Ryan and Shawn celebrate another successful day with their new "Quick, Three Beers!" beer cozies! 

Hawk watchers Ryan and Shawn celebrate another successful day with their new "Quick, Three Beers!" beer cozies! 

Aaaaaaah!!!

Festival overboard! To my delight, I've gotten myself into three Bird Festivals this October. This weekend, I'll be heading down to Greenwich Audubon in Connecticut to participate in the Fall Festival and Hawk Watch. I'm stoked- who doesn't love the chance to see live raptors up close, their gleaming eyes visibly acknowledging you taking in how sharp their talons are? It's awesome. Hopefully, my booth space will be one next to this event!

I'm going all-out gearing up for these festivals. Inventory, PR, cutting greeting cards, making new paintings, making some more cards while everything dries, adding some more paint, realizing I've lost my scissors, running around looking for it to cut more cards while that darn paint is still drying...I've developed a well-oiled machine. 

This is what a lot of my paintings look like mid-production. 

For this hawk festival, it was obvious to me what kind of painting I should make: a Red-tailed Hawk. It's in production. While I take a break from the machine, I've been taking the advice that my friend Raymond from Leica gave to me: do more field sketching. So I've been doing little doodles of the pigeons that loiter in the street outside my house. But when it's dark, which it usually is by the time I start working on art stuff, I have been focusing on really looking at a particular bird's anatomy by drawing it in pen. I cannot reverse mistakes, so I really have to think about the correlation between each body part in terms of placement and size. This is a fantastic exercise- I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. 

These little guys are about to shrink! But see the differences in the shape of their heads, the width of their tails? Ooops. As I got better at looking at the warbler shape, I realized I could not just draw the outline based on what I thought it looked like. Very humbling!

.....That Yellow Warbler is mine! 

A few days ago, I switched to Sharpie (the ultimate unforgiving drawing utensil) and started drawing on that shrinky-dink plastic paper. Now, not only am I practicing bird anatomy, I've made a whole bunch of endearing bird necklaces to send out into the world. For myself, there is now a Yellow Warbler that I will carry around my neck wherever I go; an albatross that lifts me up instead of pulling me down! 

 

For information on the Greenwich Audubon Hawk Festival, follow this link here! 

http://greenwich.audubon.org/fall-festival-hawk-watch-weekend

 

Friday Fall Birding

I wake up in the darkness on Friday morning to meet up with my birding partner, Susan, and find some fall birds. We head off to Southlands, a boarding a training space for horses. It is open to the public to walk the trails- and the trails carry us past Savannah Sparrows, Phoebes, and American Kestrel, and a Gray Ghost male harrier. Still, for a morning during fall migration, it is quiet.

Of course, Susan and I are going to bird until life obligations pull us away from the field. So we head south to Hopeland Sanctuary, the place where the famed Dutchess County Yellow-breasted Chats delighted dozens of birders earlier in June. Today, the green field of early summer has given way to purple asters, yellow goldenrod, and fuschia leaves. It truly feels like fall. 

After a short while, Susan and I arrive at the head of a field with a bench. We clamber onto it, and can practically see into the shrubs and weeds-that are bursting with birds. To our delight, the first White-throated Sparrows sit up for us in a bare tree. Chickadees fearlessly eat berries from the juniper right above us. They are soon joined by a flock of juvenile Cedar Waxwings. It is hard to decide where to look next, until Susan grabs my attention with her sighting of an unusual sparrow. Unbelievably, it hops out onto a bare branch and we can see it unobstructed: it is a beautiful smoky gray, but with a soft orange chest. A Lincoln's Sparrow! I have never gotten such a good view of this uncommon bird. 

A beautiful Lincoln's Sparrow

A plethora of warblers rounds out the rest of the day, many dressed in fall plumage that makes them so difficult to identify. I am actually still working on it! 

An excellent day!

Friday, September 25, 2015 

 

Bird Banding on Wing Island

While I was in Cape Cod, I took advantage of the opportunity to do some Bird Banding with Sue Finnegan, Cape Cod Bander extraordinaire. She has been banding birds longer than I have been alive, and it shows. She processes birds so fast it is mind blowing.

The weather was surprisingly humid, so unfortunately, the bird activity was not as much as it had been earlier in the week. Still, for me, any amount of birds was heavenly. I headed off after Ron, a volunteer who stumbled upon banding by accident and has since banded over 1,000 birds. Together, we collected dozens of Gray Catbirds, American Goldfinch, and a handful of less common birds. My favorite was the Yellow-breasted Chat. Although they are apparently a usual sight in Cape Cod, they are rare in the Hudson Valley. My friend Ryan and I waited hours for the one that showed up unexpectedly in Dutchess County this June to make an appearance for us. 

I'm always amazed at the limitless intricacy of bird design. I marveled at the orange-gold color that splashed across the scapulars of hatch-year American Goldfinch and the seemingly weightlessness of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This is definitely something I could do everyday! 

The Cape Cod Bird Festival

Last year, I went to the Cape Cod Bird Festival to meet David Sibley. This year, I went with a carload of artwork to really spread Drawing 10,000 Birds. But even though I was there to be a vendor, I was also there to be a birder. My extraordinary and inspiring friend Raymond VanBuskirk became my birding companion as we struck out into the early morning fog at Race Point Beach in Provincetown. We rocked out to bird tunes during the drive. I highly recommend the album "A Guide to the Birdsong of South America" by Rhythm and Roots, an effort to weave the sounds of endangered birds with native music. The song of the Hooded Grebe is riveting. 

I was vying to catch a glimpse of the Brown Booby that had been patrolling the shores of Race Point beach for the past few days- but no such luck. Instead, we strained out eyes trying to pick out a strange gull or tern. Eventually, Raymond picked out his first Cory's Shearwater, and as we were walking back towards the car a seagull that darted like a bat exploded in front of us. A Parasitic Jaeger! It was incredible how fast it moved. It chased down a tern with relentless gusto. 

Jaegers practice "Kleptoparisitism," a form of feeding in which one animal steals food from another. 

Raymond had the habit of whipping out his small red field notebook whenever he had the chance. He took field sketched of birds, with a pen. This is so hard for me- I always feel like I need to get the drawing to be something well done. But at Raymond's encouragement, I tried drawing a sketch of the Parasitic Jaeger with a pen. Every anatomical mistake made me realize my own presuppositions of the bird's anatomy. I no have embedded in my brain just how small a jaeger's head is compared to its enormous, shear wingspan. 

Juvenile Black-bellied Plover

As for the rest of the festival- I was thrilled to get a chance to meet Richard Crossley, author of the "Crossley ID Guides," and Miyoko Chu, author of "Songbird Journeys." I loved talking to Crossley- he is a really personable guy who speaks his mind. Chu gave a thought-provoking presentation on the ways that humans have affected bird migration. 

All in all, a really awesome weekend. I spent time with some great people, got to see stunning birdlife, and my 332 bird: a Pomarine Jaeger. 


Another year

I'm supposed to be blogging. One of my friends told me that I should post something at least once a week. I haven't posted anything in almost a year. Ooops. 

I didn't mean for it to turn out this way. I did a whole bunch of cool stuff last year. I saw 100 new birds, and went to some of the most beautiful places. I guess there was just so much to write about that once I fell behind, I just was too overwhelmed to catch up! 

So, my pseudo-Watson year is over. I am no longer living as a nomad. I have a place to live! And I am  going to try to actually do something resembling a blog. I always forget that I'm not writing for college anymore, and I can just spit out whatever!

-------------------

Today I started to explore my new home of Hudson, NY. It is very different from Annandale. It's a city. There are a LOT of Pigeons. And a lot of buildings. 

But in a little corner of Greenport, just seven minutes from my little apartment, is the Greenport Conservancy. It's a beautiful little place. There are fields of Goldenrod, Milkweed, and Purple Asters. The sky is piercingly blue. Monarch butterflies float through the sky like wisps, dancing across the flowers. I love these kind of days. When I pluck some of the fluff from a Milkweed pod and let them go, they flutter away just like the butterflies. It is incredibly beautiful, almost achingly so, and the proximity of this late summer day to fall makes me ache with nostalgia. 

A small flock of Cedar Waxwings descends into the Goldenrod in the field in front of me. In the late afternoon sun, their creamy, waxy bodies look as though they are sunburned. Each one lands on an individual stalk of yellow, and their weight makes the flowers bob up and down. Sometimes the bobbing is so extreme that the Waxy has to leap off the plant and hover in place like a hummingbird. I have never seen Waxies behave this way. It is endearing, even as I see one alight close to me and swallow an enormous spider. It occurs to me that Waxwings are actually riding the stalks down into the thick of the plants to pick out insects that would be hard to reach otherwise. Brilliant. 


The North Atlantic

September 21, 2014

I frantically try to study the differences between shearwaters in the thin light available at five-thirty in the morning. Cory's is brown with a white stomach, the Sooty is brown all over...and they all look so similar to the storm-petrels and jaegers. "Trying to brush up?" the man sitting behind me asks. "This is my first pelagic trip so it will be the first time I really get to see these seabirds. Thankfully, I just finished school. I'm still really good at studying at the last minute" I tell him. He chuckles, and launches into an explanation on how you can tell a shearwater from a jaeger when they are all at a distance. "Shearwaters have really stiff wingbeats. It's almost as if their wings are made of cardboard. Jaegers, meanwhile, are real acrobats and can do all sorts of quick, fancy maneuvers." "I really want to see a phalarope," I tell him. He immediately launches into an explanation about the tiny birds, and then continues with "during my Big Year..."

Greg Miller signed my Cape Cod book!

Greg Miller signed my Cape Cod book!

That's all I hear. "Omygoodness you're Greg Miller!" I sound like some teenage fangirl, and I can feel myself turn red. I try to regain some of my dignity, but Greg Miller does not seem to mind; he is laughing at my outburst. I can imagine that the real-life equivalent of Jack Black's character in the birding movie "The Big Year" must get this a lot. I cannot help it; before we get off the bus I have to sheepishly ask him to sign my bird book. He obliges, again with a laugh. 

Double-crested Cormorant seeing us off

The Chatham harbor is quiet in the early morning. It is still dark and cold. But that does not stop the fierce activity around us. Cormorants patrol the slick, wooden docks. Tree swallows stream above us. The vivacity dispels the sleepiness of the pre-dawn, and as the gray clouds dissipates we board the Yankee II. I clamber up onto the top deck of the fishing vessel and watch gleefully as the water begins to churn beneath us. The spray rises as our pelagic trip finally embarks from the dock, forging past the cormorants and the tree swallows and out into the world of pirates, leviathans and seabirds.

That humans can cross beyond our realm of sturdy ground onto the ocean is mind-blowing. The wind is fierce, and the fishing boat pitches and tosses. Somehow, someone managed to figure out how to engineer a vessel that allows humans to move beyond the boundaries of land. Although the pitching is unnerving, it is also enthralling to feel so vulnerable. Yet all of this is engulfed by the wonder of watching the seabirds soar around us. Flocks of Laughing Gulls look as though they are playing as they dive into the spray and maneuver the air currents that whip my hair into my face and make me so poignantly aware of how tiny I am in the scope of the enormous ocean.   

The trip leaders, Blair Nikula and Peter Trull, are incredible sea birders. Like David Sibley, they can identify seabirds before I even see them. They begin "chumming"- throwing greasy popcorn behind the boat to attract seabirds. Nothing comes in. But Peter Trull does not seem worried. He leans over the edge of the boat, looking out over the horizon.

And then, suddenly, chaos breaks loose. Greg Miller had been eating a bag of Cape Cod potato chips when he suddenly jumps up. "Red-necked Phalaropes!" he yells out, potato chips in one hand as he gestures emphatically with the other. I race to the opposite side of the boat in time to see a flock of six tiny shorebirds with long bills and frantic wingbeats careen across the surf and vanish into waves. How he identified them while focusing on potato chips, I'll never know. But I got to see my first phalaropes, now matter how brief the view. 

No one is sitting down anymore. Cameras are clicking like mad and people rush back and forth from one side of the boat to the other as one by one, all four Atlantic shearwaters are identified. Cory's, Greater, Manx, and Sooty Shearwaters run across the water as they take to the air. Small pools form on impact with the shearwaters' webbed feet as they carve temporary trails through the water. It is as though a boundary has been crossed, and there are now birds all around us. Laughing Gulls and Common Terns wing about the deck while swooping down to take advantage of the chum bouncing in our wake. The air is filled with their toy-like calls. Whales are sighted in the distance and add to the bedlam. "Where there are whales, there will be birds" Peter Trull explains. As a high school science teacher, he cannot help but teach the broader ecology of the ocean as he points out birds. He has an alluring teaching voice, the kind that makes me want him to keep talking because he teaches things so well. I cannot believe how simple and brilliant his logic is- if the whales are feeding, they will be disturbing fish and pushing them close to the surface. From there, the seabirds have a vantage point to feast.

And feast they do. Terns, gulls, and shearwaters are all around us, diving towards the water and then careening away with the expertise of the seasoned mariners that they are. There must be hundreds of birds. The back of a whale breaks the water and moves smoothly through the surf until its pointed fin is erect. With perfect grace, the whale pulls it downward. It is so close that despite myself, I feel fear crawl up my neck at the thought of the behemoth swimming alongside our tiny vessel. Which it does. The displacement caused by the movement of the whale causes the fishing boat to sway back and forth. As its tail breaks the surface, it is so close that I can see the barnacles encrusted on its edges. That old emotion- fear, or whatever it was that made the hair on my arms rise as the whale swam by- dives into the depths with that whale. It is replaced by something that feels ancient, as though the whale had aroused some primordial recollection of an ancestor that had lived in those depths long before it evolved into me. 

"This is incredible" I murmur. Peter Trull is standing next to me and overhears. "How so?" He asks. "I..." I struggle to find the words. I want to blurt out that it is magical, amazing, epic. That I have never seen anything like this. But it is more than such simple utterances. It is so much more than that! How am I supposed to explain the storm in my chest, the desire, the wonder, the awe. There is freedom in this water; there is freedom in watching these birds that live in a kingdom of endless oceans that I cannot possibly understand. These birds live with the ocean. For the shearwaters, it is home. Why am I so jealous of them? Is it because they are utterly unbounded, able to effortlessly cross the boundary between land and sea? That their domain is enormous compared to the tiny civilizations of humanity? I watch a Sooty Shearwater pull in its chocolatey wings and alight on the water. The waves toss it around like a toy boat in a river, but it is unperturbed. This is home. Anywhere it alights, it can rest. 

"I feel like an alien here" I blurt to Peter. We watch the onslaught of birds. "This is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I feel as though I am in another world. And it is so unfamiliar, yet so intoxicatingly wonderful. I want to be here as much as I do not belong." Peter looks out at the horizon. The seabirds, the whales, the wind, the waves fuse together into a beautiful storm in which we are the eye. His eyes seem to be made of steel as he gestures with his hand. "People don't really know what it's like out here until they're out here. No one can know what this is like without seeing it. And we're lucky. This is everything, really. We get to see it all at once. This..." His voice trails off. I can barely breathe. "This is the North Atlantic." 

He does not need to say anything more. I remember the Ancient Mariner lost at sea, the wretched man whom the albatross followed. And as that albatross "made the breezes blow...brought the fog and mist" these birds bring the tempest that is the North Atlantic. The desire to understand this world, to master it, defy it-to return to it, even- runs in my blood as surely as it did in the soul of the Ancient Mariner. Perhaps it is the water that is blood itself that yearns to return to its own. But I will not shoot the albatross. Never. Instead, I will gaze at the Cory's Shearwater that dances above me and feel the chasm that connects us in the strangest form of love there ever could be. 

Cory's Shearwater running on water

Cory's Shearwater running on water



New Birds: 240

Red-necked Phalarope

To Draw Every Bird in the World

September 20, 2014

David Sibley birding. Hard to get a good photo while not being too creepy.

David Sibley birding. Hard to get a good photo while not being too creepy.

"Excuse me, but how did you know that that was a Parasitic Jaeger?" I can barely believe that I am asking David Allen Sibley a question about birds. THE Sibley. The same one whose field guide is in my car. I can only hope that he takes my question as one of curiosity, as I had intended, and not as one of incredulity. (Far be it for me to ever question David Sibley.) The bird in question had been a mere speck on the horizon that I would have dismissed as some dirt on my binoculars if Sibley had not pointed it out to us as a Parasitic Jaeger. I really, really want to know how he had been able to turn a mere SPECK into a jaeger. To my delight, he explains to me that jaegers arc back and forth above the horizon. He could deduce that it was a Parasitic over a Pomarine or Long-tailed Jaeger by the simple fact that Parasitics are often able to be seen from land while the other two are almost always far out at sea. Finally, the flight of the Parasitic is buoyant and tern-like- all three points together had helped him give an identity to the speck. Amazing. And what is also amazing-I had just gotten a lesson in birding from David Sibley. 

IMG_1047.JPG

My birding group heads down towards the water's edge. The trip leaders have chosen to bring us to the Cape Cod National Seashore in Wellfleet. Aesthetically, it is astounding: the vivid green dune grass whistles as it is buffeted by boisterous wind. The ocean seems to go on forever. And the birds! Tree swallows dance over our heads in a never-ending migratory stream. There are gulls everywhere, chasing each other or sleeping in the sand, floating on the wind, drifting amongst droves of Common Eiders at sea. Every few minutes, a scoter or cormorant blasts across the horizon. I feel as though I can barely take a step without setting off a frantic group of tiny shorebirds. I stare with disbelief as one of the rocks on a sandy outcropping in the distance rolls over-seals! I stretch my arms out beside me, grinning gleefully, and face the wind head-on. Now this is what I dream of when I think of Cape Cod birding. 


I could just walk along this beach for hours, watching the birds and taking photographs. In just a few hours, I have met four new birds. I marvel at the manner in which Sibley and the other trip leader can decipher shorebirds just by the way they act. I envy this ability- but am beginning to realize that the reason these birders are so talented is, in part, because they are so knowledgable of the birds' behavior. I am such a visual person that I jump to colors and physical appearance to identify a bird. It is only after I see them repeatedly that I can tell what they are by the way they act; I suppose that I have been taking behavior into account, just subconsciously. As I watch the trip leader again produce a Parasitic Jaeger on the horizon (I can actually see it arcing this time) and then a Northern Gannet (at this point I am just flabbergasted) I resolve that from now on, I will not look at a bird without noting at least one thing about its behavior. Will I remember to do this every time? Nope. But at least I will try. 

Even the seals could not stop smiling! 

Birding with good birders is inspiring. I can feel myself burning with ambition as I pick through the shorebirds on our way back, trying so hard to see something that will help me determine what species it is. Ambition or not, it is still so hard. I wish that we could just stay and keep birding; that I could just keep learning from these veterans. 

As we all get off of the bus when we return to the festival headquarters, I wait behind while everyone takes a turn talking to David Sibley. I can still barely believe that I got to go birding with the man who draws birds so incredibly. He figured out how to live the dream: he watched birds and drew them, and became famous for both his skill as a naturalist and his artwork. And this is why I need to talk to him; why I made sure I got to go on this field trip; the main thing that drew me towards the Cape Cod Bird Festival in the first place. I want his advice. And more than that- I know that deep down, I am looking for some kind of gratification. Not everyone thinks that 10,000 birds is a good idea. Many people I know are twiddling their thumbs, waiting for me to get a "real job." But how could I? These people do not understand that seeing and drawing birds is more than a hobby. It is a part of me. It has become a compass to live by. And to draw every bird in the world is about so much more than just numbers- I do not know what it will fully be, yet. But I know that it is very much about finding myself as much as it is about finding birds. And I want to hear that this is okay.

With a deep breath, I approach Sibley. He has such a shy personality that I almost feel badly for bothering him as I ask him how he did it, how he lived the dream. To my delight, he takes the time to explain to me some of the things that he did and some of the directions I could go in. I then tell him about 10,000 birds: "I am going to see and draw every bird in the world." He continues to listen. I confide in him that some people think that I am crazy; that even today many of the people I had talked to during the trips looked disappointed when I explained to them what I wanted to do now that I had graduated college. "But I am going to make it work!" I tell him as I hand him a set of my postcards with my best images. I thank him for his field guides and for being an inspiration. Sibely looks through them right then and there. "I really like the bitterns!" he tells me. When he finishes, he looks at me and says, "I think your idea is fantastic."

I manage to hold it together as I shake his hand. But even before I have made it back to my car, my vision is growing blurry as I hear Sibley's voice in my head, over and over.

"I think your idea is fantastic."  



New Birds: 236-239

Parasitic Jaeger, White-rumped Sandpiper, Red Knot, Lesser Black-backed Gull




Looking at Song Sparrows

September 20, 2014

I can barely believe my eyes when I drive into the parking lot at the Cape Cod Bird festival headquarters in Barnstable. I have parked next to a car with a bumper sticker that reads, “Do you eBird?” When I walk inside, I am overwhelmed by the multitudes of people who are dressed just like me-a rare occurrence in my everyday life. Everyone is wearing rugged clothing; many are wearing vests with more pockets than I can count. Binoculars are worn like pants- you have them, or in this world you are deemed socially unacceptable. Scopes, field guides, and various pieces of expensive photography equipment are everywhere. Snatches of conversation about phalaropes and jaegers float across the room. Yep, I have reached the motherland.


My first trip is the next morning. I get up at 5:30 AM to be ready to hop on the bus for “3 gardens birding” at 6:30. I am practically bursting with the possibilities of Dicksissels, Connecticut Warblers, and Blue Grosbeaks. By the time we reach the first of the three community gardens in Dennis, I have become a bit concerned. Though everyone is dressed in the kind of appropriate garb that designates one a birder, the conversation that floats through the bus reveals a degree of unfamiliarity with the practice. As we walk through the garden, my concern deepens. The only birds around are Song Sparrows. Most people in the group do not even know that they are Song Sparrows. At least a third do not know how to get them in their binoculars. By the time everyone has seen the Song Sparrow (this one must surely be the most patient of all birds) I have watched grackles, Mourning Doves, Blue Jays and American Robins pass overhead unnoticed. No grosbeaks or Dicksissels to be found. It is with exasperation that I realize I will be spending the next three hours in this manner- essentially, looking at Song Sparrows.


I love looking at all birds, no matter how common or rare. There is something wonderful about getting to know a bird that can be seen over and over again. But as I look at these Song Sparrows, I realize that I have allowed myself to become wrapped up in the exhilaration of finding new species and have been willing to blow by the more common ones. Never have I spent so much time looking at a Song Sparrow-but never have I noticed so much about them. The trip leader tells us to look for characteristic behaviors: they fly up and perch; they are not skulkers like many other sparrows. They pump their tails when they land. They have a fluttery flight trajectory, and a jerkiness to their movements. It is amazing, really. By the time the trip is over, I can tell a Song Sparrow without having to check for field marks. I do anyway, just to be sure. But what would it be like to be able to do this for every bird? 


In the end, we do see other kinds of birds. But the Pine Warbler, kingfisher, and a high-flying Northern Harrier do not stick out nearly as much to me as do those humbling Song Sparrows.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow





Barn Owls and Pinkletinks

September 19, 2014

“You can hitch a ride on the freight ferry if you want. It’s faster.”  The lady behind the ticket counter gestures towards a ship with a flat top and an enormous deck. To my disbelief, large trucks roll onto the ferry that miraculously stays afloat. “Sounds good to me,” I reply. A double-crested cormorant zips only a few yards above my head as I hand over my ticket and walk aboard.

            I immediately walk to the front of the boat. I perch against the rail as I sweep the horizon with my binoculars. Gulls, cormorants, and even an osprey fill the golden-blue sky that hangs over the silhouette of Martha’s Vineyard in the distance. I have never been to the Vineyard before. The island is home to the third and final MassAudubon Sanctuary I have yet to visit on Cape Cod. The Felix Neck sanctuary is famous for its pinkletinks- spring peepers. There is a yearly contest to try to be the first to hear these wonderfully nicknamed creatures singing come springtime. 

But also, Felix Neck is home to a new bird for me to meet: Barn Owls, the terrifying nocturnal raptors with haunting screams and alien-like face discs. This is a chance for me to get a glimpse at a bird that is extremely difficult to find otherwise. Susan and I have played the screams of this sole member of the family tytonidae in front of every silo and barn we pass by as we bird our way through Dutchess County, but to no avail. In fact, there has not been a Barn Owl reported in Dutchess County to eBird since 2009. So imagine my delight when I learned that an Owl cam hung above a nest box on the island has kept track of four Owlets that grew up at the sanctuary all through the summer. Barn owls actually live there. Surely I will be able to find one! 

photo 1 (3).JPG

  The wind is fierce as the ferry surges onward. I can feel spray in my face as I squint against the sunrise, and I feel as though I have fallen into some bygone age of sailors. I stretch out my arms and feel the wind roar around me as it tries to knock me down, but it cannot. All on my own, I made it to Cape Cod and figured out how to get on this ferry. There is no force in the world that can knock me over as I face this day of true freedom!

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

  I can barely contain myself as the ferry finally pulls into the harbor. If the other passengers were to stand close to me, I am sure that I would infect them with excitement. A bus ride later and I find myself standing in front of Felix Neck, binoculars and camera at the ready. I am practically bursting with adrenaline. Ears pricked, I walk the mile trail into the sanctuary. The trail here has a different feel than those in the Hudson Valley. Pine needles cover the ground beneath my feet that is, at times, sand instead of dirt. The plants are coniferous, and the leafy shrubs are low to the ground. To my shock, a flock of eight snow geese suddenly flies overhead. If they had not been honking, I would not have even bothered to look up that high to see them.

There should have been a Barn Owl poking out here...

There should have been a Barn Owl poking out here...

            When I reach the visitor’s center, I can feel my heartbeat increase. Where are the Barn Owls? I look around for a large nest box, but see none. When I ask the attendant inside the center about the location of the Owls, my heart sinks at her response. The nest box is in the attic of the visitor center- and the Owls are fast asleep, totally inaccessible. Unless by some sheer miracle a Barn Owl decides to stick its head out of the hole while I happen to be looking at it, I will not be seeing one today. Still, I came way too far to allow myself to feel deflated for long, and by the time I am a little ways up the trail through a field towards the marshy shoreline there is again a spring in my step.

            Sometimes, I like to think that the Cape Cod air is different from that of air anywhere else. When I inhale deeply, I can feel calm swell within my lungs. There is a sense of eternity here where the waves crash and recede and the dunes ripple and sing. No matter how much time passes, when my feet feel the sand shift beneath my feet I do not feel as though I have left the Cape at all.

photo 2 (3).JPG

         Before long, I have forgotten about the Barn Owls. I hear Eastern Towhees tell me to “Drink my tea!” as I walk through the woods. Great Egrets and Greater Yellowlegs greet me out in the marsh around Sengekontacket Pond. It is the “neck” that juts out into this pond that gives the preserve half of its name. It gets the other half from Felix Kuttashamaquat, a Wampanoag who lived in the area in the early 1600’s. He and the other Wampanoags that lived here gathered shellfish and finfish from the waters around the island.

I gather my own bounty as I walk along the shoreline picking up scallop shells. I feel wonderfully lost in adventure. As I loop around towards the visitor’s center on a new trail, the trees suddenly disperse to reveal a pond- and a family of Mute Swans. There are three of them- two adults and a juvenile. I sit down on the boardwalk to watch them feed, smiling to myself as they plunge their long necks into the water. They emerge with small water droplets dripping from the tips of their bills. The dusky brown juvenile looks rather drab compared to its magnificent, elegant parents. But in the harsh sunlight, the edges of its feathers gleam in such a way that they foretell the metamorphosis that the juvenile will undergo as it molts into its adult form.

            I finally leave the swans as they swim towards the other side of the pond. I make my way back to the bus, across the island, and back onto the ferry. Even though many twitchers who target birds might consider my Barn Owl-less trip a failure, I could not disagree more. I wave to the island receding into the distance before turning around to face the wind and spray- and the next three days of insane birding at the Cape Cod Bird Festival.

            

Holding Wonder

Today I held a white-breasted nuthatch. It flew into the greenhouse and could not find its way out. I tried to wave it towards the door, but it instinctually flew towards the freedom it could see through the glass skylight. Its fluttering body ricocheted backwards at the impact once, twice; until the third time when the battered creature fell from the air and landed on the wooden table. My hand snapped out to grab it; my fingers gently wrapped themselves around its tiny body. I placed it in my left hand and could feel its claws clamp around my finger. Its beak was open, as though gasping for air, and its eyes were blinking. As I stroked its soft gray feathers, I noticed that its head was much lighter than the black heads of males-it must be a female.

            Everything that happened next felt like an eternity, though it really was only a few minutes. The little nuthatch was fighting to come to. She kept blinking and looking around. I was relieved that she could hold her head up and move it with ease; her neck must surely be fine. “Come on little guy. Come on. It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.” I whispered to her over and over as I cupped her close to my body, trying to warm her up, caressing the blissfully soft feathers to try to rub her back to life. She is so light it is unbelievable. I am sure that if I made a fist and squeezed, I could actually pop the body that feels as though it is filled with nothing but air. I could feel the rough edges of her claws that clasped my finger so tightly I felt as though we were fused together. They were so light and so fragile; I could easily have pried her off and snapped them. Yet despite this, I was awed at their strength. Her entire body was so soft I could imagine that the tips of my fingers would just sink right into her every time they made a pass. I could see just how intricate those feathers were: each tip had a zillion little notches and a zillion little lines. My heart leaped as she finally closed her bill and her eyes began to stay open. They were beautiful eyes, a deep gray, ringed with small jewel-like circles.

I felt like I too was flying as it finally spread its wings, launched itself from my finger, and cleared the lawn to alight in the juniper tree with the other nuthatches and chickadees. I will always remember the slight pressure and wind against my skin as it took off. I will always remember the wondrous sound of its cackle as it went back to its nuthatch business.

I do not know whether my efforts were actually helpful to this little bird.  All I did was stroke her over and over, whisper to her, and watch as she slowly became alert. I could not believe that the kin of this tiny creature, just as small, light, and fragile, could travel thousands of miles and survive. It is truly miraculous. And here I was, privileged enough to hold one of these marvels in my hand. For this incredible moment, I could believe that I mattered to it, that I was playing a role in the miracle that is its life. It certainly played a role in mine. 

-Thursday, September 18, 2014

In the Sheep Pasture

Soft eyes

Soft hides

Hard hooves create a soothing rustle as they move through the dirty hay

The rounded, mucky rumps and sloping necks make the flock of sheep, huddled together

In the corner of the barn,

look like a mountain range

With peaks that every so often turn and blink, exhale through velvety pink noses.

The slopes of these mountains are wrinkled

And I can sink my fingers into these wrinkles and feel the depth of the thick, fleecy wool

The hides are like oceans with no perspective, just endless ripples in cream-colored water

One bold sheep-number 1304, recently sheared-

Shoves its white face into my armpit as I sit at the edge of the fence that corrals her

Her breath is warm, and leaves a wetness on my arm

Her eyes are manic, with black rectangles, (not circles), for pupils.

On a whim, I press my own forehead into her bony one, and I feel tenderness in our touch.

These are the fleece sheep, white-faced and bred for their wool

The male stands in the center of the throng

His curled horns are worn smooth, and deeply grooved

With a protruding ridge along the curve that is practically skeletal

A primal spine.


House sparrows fly about  the eaves of the barn

Flies buzz in my ear, on my skin

That is comfortably warmed in the mid-September sun,

The same sun that lights up the black faces

Of the meat sheep out in the pasture

Which is yet another ocean, this one of rolling green

With a pond off to the right.

I walk towards the sheep destined for slaughter, and they look up inquisitively

A golden cat slinks out of the grasses, and upon seeing me, stands on guard, alert

And a great white egret takes to the sky with alarm as the flock begins to run.

Great Egret

I can hear their hooves stamping

For a moment, the frightened sheep are awing

Their feet fly forward like deer; their heavy bulk becomes power

As they move as one mass.

When I sit, they calm down

Are consumed by grazing

But every now and then, one will lift its head and look in my direction

And soft eyes watch me again

In the sheep pasture.



Listening to the Conversations of Sparrows

I love the Thursday afternoons I spend working at Montgomery Place. Volunteers come to help maintain the historic gardens that I am in charge of, and my hours of solitude are broken up by lighthearted conversation. This Thursday, Amanda and I are pulling up myrtle and getting it ready for transplant as Peter races around trying to water the plants on the verge of dying from dehydration. The dirt that I kneel in is a fantastic, otherworldly realm. Earthworms longer than my fingers and almost as fat as my pinky nail pop up from the spaces vacated by the myrtle roots. I pull up bulbs that look like prehistoric teeth and brains. To my delight, I find a wooly bear to lace its way through my fingers. Such simple pleasures, and I love them.

Wooly bear!

Wooly bear!

Everything in this garden is so simple, in a way. It grows, it lives, and it dies. It occurs to me that despite the intricacies of an ecosystem, animals are so good at just living. In the simplicity of my tasks here-weeding, pruning, mulching, watching that the plants under my care are alright-, the stress of the complicated human world melts away. There is very little to worry about if I do not allow myself to spend time worrying. Spending time purposefully, knowing that I am doing what I am meant to be doing- I feel whole, here.

The leaves are beginning to change. I can smell autumn in the dark earth. Amanda tells me a story about growing up. She says that when she was a child, winter was always magical. But as she got older, something happened- and gradually, the snow lost its power. “There is a part in the literary version of Mary Poppins,” she recalls, “in which the children can hear the conversations of sparrows. They wonder why the adults stop listening, and promise that they will never, ever do such a thing. But sure enough, when they grow up, they too do not listen. I suppose that this is what happened to winter.”

It must be hard to lose the snow, to navigate the world between child and adult. I know that there is surely much to gain. But then surely there is something to be lost. I ask Amanda what she thinks she might have gained from the loss of winter magic. She cannot think of anything right away.

The next morning, I go to Grieg Farm at sunrise. Fog rolls across the fields as though the morning is laying out blankets. But the sun cuts through the trees to meet the fog, transforming it into mist that dissipates into nothingness.  

There are fields of reeds that stand in the middle of the farm. They rustle and quiver. Tentative chirps reach my ears from within the stalks. A tiny bird pops out of the reeds and perches on the top end of one of the fluffy grasses. Its brown body is just heavy enough to make the tip bend, yet still so light that the reed dances in the light breeze. 

The savannah sparrows are everywhere. The sun paints yellow streaks above their eyes. Slightly larger birds, completely covered in gold, burst out of the grasses like meerkats. One, two, three heads pop up, looking about inquisitively. The juvenile bobolinks watch me lurk closer, aware of my presence, but unlike the savannah sparrows they do not freak out right away. I can get close enough to see their bright pink beaks. Eventually, though, the proximity becomes too much, and the entire group scatters. As they merge into a flock, it looks as though some sort of cannon has shot a bunch of corn-on-the cobs into the air.

With the bobolinks gone, it is just the sparrows and myself standing there, watching one of them bob back and forth on its reed. Chirp, chirp. I remember Mary Poppins. What are they saying with those little calls? Chirp, chirp. If only I could truly understand what they say. Right now, all I can hear from their distinct call is their identity. If I venture a guess, perhaps they are alerting each other to a potential threat (me). I want to always listen to the conversations of birds. Listening to them and being able to know who they are is a familiarity that brings comfort. Though it may be a conceit, it makes me feel as though the natural world is speaking to me. It is magic. Simple magic.

Maybe it is not so much that people stop listening to the conversations of sparrows, or that we cannot understand what they are saying. Perhaps it is that as we grow older, it just cannot occur to us that those simple utterances- a chirp of alarm or recognition, a song to defend territory or attract a mate- are the things that really matter and are worth talking about. The things that are, after all of the thrills and frills of human society are boiled away, what really matters. Human conversation is complicated. I feel as though the more I learn and the older I get, the more this complication is expected. And then the day comes that the talk of a sparrow is just too simple to comprehend…

But not for me. I want to always listen to the conversations of sparrows. No matter what it takes, I will not let myself lose the ability to be wrapped within its wonderful magic.

Savannah Sparrow, "Passerculus sandwichensis"

Savannah Sparrow, "Passerculus sandwichensis"

Itching to Twitch

One of the heart-pumping moments of birding is opening up my alerts from eBird and learning that a new or rare bird has been sighted within striking distance. There is a thrill involved with opening up google maps and figuring out how I am going to get to wherever it is to find it. Actually reaching the bird is more than often an an epic quest. I will never forget biking over forty miles on a ninety degree summer day looking for a Sandhill Crane that had flown into Ulster County or planning an entire day of bus-hopping to travel from Bard College to Poughkeepsie and then to Beacon looking for Peregrine Falcons and Black-crowned Night Herons. These adventures, among others, taught me that with a little money in my pocket to feed myself and the ability to read a map, I can go anywhere. It is an awesome feeling.

Sandhill Crane, "Grus canadensis"

Sandhill Crane, "Grus canadensis"

 

Objectively, without the romantic aspects associated with adventure, "twitching" (targeting a specific bird) can seem like a fool's errand. In reality, finding the bird can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. It is a single bird among hundreds. More importantly, it can fly, and there is no guarantee that it is going to be where it was reported even if directions are followed exactly. By the time I get there, it could be gone, and all of my efforts for naught. I do not know what I would have done if I arrived on Churchill Lane, sweaty, exhausted, and with only a few sips of water left, to find that the Sandhill Crane was gone. Initially, I thought it was- it was only the sound of its trumpeting call that assured me it was somewhere along the road. It was the image of its gleaming red cap burning against the green horse fields that kept me going on my return home; without it, I do not know if I would have had the energy to keep pushing myself forward. If I had not been able to watch the Peregrine Falcon rip the sky apart as it stooped from the clouds above me while I stood on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, I would have spent an entire day with no tangible show for my efforts.  

People think that I am crazy for going off on such adventures. But to me, there is never an option of not going. I do not care if I do not find it; I have to at least try. I could not live with myself if I did not. Although there is nothing like taking a walk and waiting for the unexpected, twitching forces me to push the limits of what I believe I can do and is incredibly rewarding no matter what the result. The places I go are always exciting, and though the target is expected, what happens along the way is always a surprise. And I see some pretty amazing things along the way. 

This week, I was lucky enough to have two opportunities to twitch. An incredibly rare Lark Sparrow was reported along the Salt Point Turnpike at the intersection with Market Lane. I cringed at the idea of trying to find a single sparrow. Sparrows all look remarkably similar and are difficult enough to identify when they are easily found. As my friend Margaux and I drive along Market Lane, I cannot help but notice that every single little bird that hops out into view (only for a split second, of course) is a sparrow. I am looking for a needle in a very, very large haystack indeed. 

The directions that have been provided to the location of the Lark Sparrow are superb. This does not make them any easier to follow. It takes Margaux and I about ten minutes just to figure out where to park the car and another fifteen to figure out which way we are supposed to start walking. There are farm fields on either side of us, with swallows winging about everywhere and chirps coming from all directions. How am I supposed to pick out a single bird from all of this? On top of it all, I have to make sure I pay attention to oncoming cars that seem to have no desire to slow down as they whizz by. Needless to say, I am rather exasperated by the time I finally arrive where the sparrow is supposed to be. And needless to say, my jaw drops almost to the ground when the Lark Sparrow flies down into the street no more than twenty feet in front of me and hops around with no regard to my presence. I have no idea why the universe loves me so much. All I know is that I am practically skipping as I take its picture and absorb the complexity of its face pattern. I shake my fist in frustration at the two motorcyclists that scare the bird off into a tree, but it is really just for show; I am way too happy to feel any sort of derogatory sentiment. I feel as though I am being hugged by this tiny little corner of the universe as I sit atop my haystack with the Lark Sparrow and the swallows and the Turkey Vultures winging around me. 

Lark Sparrow, " Chondestes grammacus." The white tips on its tail made it distinct even when in flight. 

Lark Sparrow, "Chondestes grammacus." The white tips on its tail made it distinct even when in flight. 

A few days later, the Waterman Bird Club begins to post photos of another rare bird, a Merlin, claiming that it has been frequenting the exact same roost multiple days in a row. The photographs that have been taken are beautiful: they show an aerodynamic falcon covered in black stripes, its face hooded with a black mask that rings golden eyes,  glowing auburn in the evening light. In all of the pictures, it is perched atop a snag located behind the pizza parlor in Stanfordville. I am enraptured by it. I have an idea of the area from when I twitched to find Purple Martins the previous summer, and so I calculate the best time to leave so that I can arrive in Stanfordville with enough light to get a picture as the sun sets.

At 6:05, I am in my car and en route. The fields around me are filled with goldenrod and purple loosestrife. The clouds turn pink, then purple as time elapses. I pull into the pizza parlor at 6:50. I hop out of my car and look up into the snag- and it is empty. I try not to feel too disappointed. Despite its consistency, the odds of it being there at exactly this moment are still not in my favor. It could have left completely, or it could just be hunting. Either way, it was a long shot. Since I have already come this far, I decide to walk along the road to kill time with the desperate hope that it might return to its snag before the sun sets. 

There are almost no birds anywhere. Oh well. As I continue to walk, I am so happy to see any sort of avian life that I am completely absorbed by the pair of mourning doves perched atop a telephone wire. There is one further back, on a dead tree right in the trajectory of the setting sun that is about to completely sink beyond the horizon. It might make a nice picture. But as I raise my camera to compose the shot, I notice that this bird has a thicker head than a mourning dove, and no real visible neck. My prior disappointment erupts into adrenaline as I race forward to get closer to what I know in my heart is the Merlin. It is so much smaller than I expected. When I look at the bird through my binoculars, I can see the sharp points of its wings and tail that classify it as a falcon. There are only three falcons found in Dutchess county-the Peregrine Falcon, the American Kestrel, and the Merlin- and now that I have met this one I have seen them all. 

I lower my binoculars and look through the lens of my camera at the Merlin. This "lady hawk," so nicknamed because Merlins were often used by medieval noblewomen to hunt Sky Larks, is still playing hard to get. Its back is toward me, and I cannot see its face. I feel like I am racing against time as I silently beg it to turn its face and look at me. The shadows lengthen. Please, please... I fire away, stepping this way and that to try to at least get a glimpse of its head. Please...

And then, as though sensing my presence, the lady hawk turns to look at me and I can see, in the sun's final beams, its golden eyes gleaming fiercely. I cannot make out what emotions they hold-contempt? Curiosity? But in the folds of its black mask that glows with sunset, I feel as though I can see it acknowledge me, and my heart leaps. I continue to watch it until the sun goes down. As I walk back to my car, I become aware of the sound of bagpipes (how long have they been playing? I was completely oblivious to them in the hold of the Merlin) and as I walk by the fire station next to the pizza parlor, I see a single man just standing there, blowing at his instrument. He is quite good. A nice touch to a perfect twitch. 

Merlin, "Falco columbianus"

Merlin, "Falco columbianus"


New Birds: 234, 235

Lark Sparrow, Merlin

Let the Watson Begin! Sanderling!

August 1, 2014

There is a single shorebird on Smuggler’s Beach. It is larger than a peep, and its breast and stomach are bright white. It races along the shoreline, stopping suddenly to jerk its beak into the sand and probe for food.

            The sanderling is a wavechaser. When a wave breaks, it seizes its chance to rush forward onto the wet sand left in the ocean’s wake and forage for invertebrates that may have been washed up onto the beach. The hapless bird must be quick because its time is limited. To the dismay of the sanderling, another wave soon hurdles towards the shore with a vengeance and the shorebird is forced to race back towards the safety of higher ground. And then, within moments, it is again engrossed in the debris left by the retreating wave. I am sure that this routine is serious business to the sanderling. After all, it is such a small bird that a good size wave could easily overwhelm it. But in my eyes, the antics of the tiny shorebird are nothing short of a delight.  The manner in which the sanderling runs back and forth, back and forth, over and over again is nothing short of hilarious. I do not understand how anyone could watch one of these wavechasers without laughing. My heart is nothing short of elated from such a whimsical show of naivety.

            Yet even though the antics of the sanderling are hysterical, they are also admirable. When I try to imagine running headlong into a wave over and over again to grab my food I can realize the bravery of this little bird. It is incredibly patient.  And there is a whole other dimension to its life that lies far beyond this tiny stretch of beach: the sanderling is a long- distance migrant. The eight-inch bird can travel over 6,000 miles in a single season. When I try to imagine accomplishing such a feat, on a scale adjusted for a seventy-inch human….truly, the sanderling is nothing short of remarkable. I aspire to travel like that sanderling. If it can do it, so can I.

*The "Watson" is a post-graduate fellowship. Recipients are given $28,000 to pursue their passion internationally the year immediately after graduation,. I made it to the final round of the application process, but ultimately did not receive the fellowship. Had I won, I would have gone to Norway, South Africa, Peru, Australia, Japan, and Canada to see and draw as many birds as I could with the greater goal of one day seeing and drawing all 10,000. Fellowship or not, I am going to do this anyway.

Turtleidae (Turtle-day)

Originally posted June 8, 2014


 The reptile that rests between the rotting planks and metal rails of the train tracks that border the Hudson River is like a living fossil. Its hard shell is smooth and ground down. Heavy wrinkles sag in and around its neck, and it is as if stones are inset into the elephantine skin of its limbs. But what are most seductive about the snapping turtle are its eyes: cold yellow eyes that gleam with the intensity of a fierce monster. They are as alien as they are dinosaurian. And as they watch me approaching with a giant snapping turtle-sized net, I cannot imagine that they are pleased.

             Although it may seem like an odd activity to partake in on an early Sunday morning, Susan, Kate, and I are in the Tivoli Bays with the enormous net on an important mission. Once a year, female snapping turtles will lumber across land to lay their eggs in loamy soil. The egg laying takes place within a span of a few days, and last year, Susan and I had been lucky enough to go birding on a morning when no less than a dozen turtles were hard at work. It was incredible to watch the relentless turtles digging furiously in the dark earth with their hind legs. It was even more awing to watch the white eggs drop from beneath them into the dirt. The next generation of snapping turtles was being spawned before our eyes.

            Yet the harsh reality of what we were experiencing also lay before us. Even as new nests were being dug and filled, we could see many that had already been raided, the eggs ripped apart and the small pieces tossed everywhere. And a dismembered turtle in the middle of the tracks was a painful reminder of how even the snapping turtle-a creature with no predators besides humans once it becomes an adult- even its impenetrable armor is helpless against the trains.

            Last year, Susan and I had set about saving the turtles on the train tracks by prying them upwards with planks. Although we did not lose any fingers, needless to say, it was obvious that we needed more refined equipment. So this year, with the enormous orange net in hand, I was ready to again face the turtles in an attempt to help save them.

            I do not know why I am not afraid to approach the dinosaur. Its jaws could easily wreck me. We eye each other warily as I angle the net behind it. Somewhere in the distance of the rest of reality, willow flycatchers and red-winged blackbirds and yellow warbler are singing. But there is only cold, silent focus between the turtle and I. In the space between this reptilian, primordial creature and my soft, human body, I feel adrenaline and confidence. I know that I am safe because I know that I am trying to help it. As the net scoops up the turtle, it writhes and snaps, its fleshy pink mouth darting forward so fast I jump. It is so heavy that I can barely heft it within the net.

            I feel like a warrior as I walk with a dinosaur at the mercy of my human power. I cross the tracks with the turtle and deposit it on the other side. Its thick claws are entangled in the holes in the net, and I cannot shake it out without carefully pulling the rim of the net back and under its shell. Finally, I can roll it out with a push. It is frozen-with fear, with fury, or with gratitude, I will never know- but I am relieved to know that the gleaming eyes will continue to hold light in them instead of darkening beneath the scream of a thundering train.

City Day

BookCon. Analogously, this yearly convention of prominent authors and trending books could be called the “Starry-eyed TeenagersCon” or the “High-pitched screechingCon.” (For those of you familiar with Friends, think of that episode with the line “Aaahhhh we have elbows!”) Because I had a kid sister to drop off on the line of drooling fangirls, I found myself on the West side of New York City with many, many hours to fill. I took off walking through the concrete jungle.

I am the kind of person that could never live in NYC. If a taxi did not kill me, I would become overwhelmed by the fast-paced life and the endless amount of shops and vendors. And most of all, I would miss the natural world. While I respect the trees planted every few meters to shade the sidewalks and the flower arrangements in front of shops, these efforts are a far cry from the Hudson River environment I am used to.



Despite my prejudices, however, one thing I love about the city is the fearlessness of its birds. Even though there are pretty much only three species to be found, the city is chock full of house sparrows, European starlings, and pigeons. And they could care less if I practically walk on top of them. I get a lot of funny looks as I sneak up behind starlings and run after pigeons with my arms out in front of me, playfully pretending to try to catch one. Although I am told constantly that they are the avian version of rats and are riddled with disease, I cannot help but fantasize how wonderful it would be to stroke their soft, iridescent feathers that glisten with shades of purple, green and navy. Even more striking than their feathers are their eyes: jet-black pupils surrounded by a gleaming ring of orange tinged with yellow bursts towards the center and edges.

I am always floored by how many people live in this giant metropolis. But what I also find remarkable is how many of these people hustle by the pigeons without even acknowledging their existence. I suspect that for many who live here these birds are nothing more than part of the background of city living, hardly worth paying attention to except to shoo them away. Which is unfortunate, because the pigeon is actually a fascinating bird. Like most things that live in NYC, the pigeon, also known as a “rock dove,” is invasive. Though now widespread throughout cities of the world, the pigeon is native to northern African and southern Europe. Fossils have been found in Israel that are over 300,000 years old! The first rock dove was brought to North America in 1606 at Port Royal, Nova Scotia and has since proliferated. There are over 1,000,000 pigeons in New York City alone.


Domestic Pigeon Hybrid

Really, pigeons do get an unfair rap. They are considered the number one pest bird in the United States because of the diseases they spread and the aesthetic damage they cause with their droppings. But it seems unfair to harbor such bitterness against these birds for something they cannot control. Moreover, pigeons have lived alongside humans so closely that they have been domesticated animals for thousands of years. In fact, the color variation that can be found in New York pigeons occurs because of breeding between true wild rock doves and escaped domestic, “feral” pigeons. As a result of domestication, people were able to take advantage of the pigeon’s innate homing ability to have pigeons send messages. Historically, these pigeons have an impressive resume: “carrier” or “messenger pigeons” were used in Ancient Greece to proclaim the winner of the Olympics. In modern times, pigeons with homing abilities were used in war as “war-pigeons.”

We humans went so far as to award thirty-two pigeons with medals for their bravery during World War II. I am not quite sure what those birds did with those medals. But as I watch a man angrily chase off a small flock of pigeons that had landed on his vending cart, I am sure that those heroic pigeons would have preferred instead something a bit more useful. Perhaps some appreciation for their species as a whole would have been nice…