Chapter One:  January

 

   The Red-bellied Philosopher

Oh lucky bird! High in a Sycamore,

How do you find so many things to eat?

A nut perhaps is so exquisite – or

A juicy ant would be a yummy treat.

 

You’ve got rhythm, but you don’t have a tune.

You don’t use words, so you don’t need to rhyme.

You keep on tapping through the afternoon.

It seems a pleasant way to pass the time.

 

A man looks up, his boots stuck on the ground.

He looks for meaning in your winter sound.

And if you had a wish to be profound,

You’d tell him, he can’t find what can’t be found.

 

If you could talk to him, you just might say

Don’t think so hard on such a sunny day.

 

 

 Red Bellied Woodpecker, Cape May, NJ, 2013

 

 

 

 

Marsh Creek State Park- Jan 1, 2013

The park is open from dawn to dusk, but on New Year’s Day the ranger was sleeping in.  While we were waiting for him to open the gate, we parked and walked around the shoreline near the entrance.  Right away we saw a Blue Bird, then some Brown Creepers climbing up the trunks and under the branches of several trees.  In the bay that the park access road parallels, about 200 geese mixed with a few ducks were honking softly.  Two Cardinals were singing from the woods across the road.   A few hunters at the far end of the lake launched a little boat and the flock of geese moved into open water.  Then a couple shotgun blasts from the far end of the lake disturbed the flock of gulls that we had seen the previous evening.  They took off across the lake and disappeared over the hills.  Shortly after that, the geese started to honk louder as they geared up for their explosive take off.  And the lake was awake.

      Except the gate was still locked, so Chris and I just got our stuff from the car and hiked in to our spot.  We walked up the hill past the public pool area and into the woods to get back to the end of the bay where we had been the previous night.  I managed to fall on my backside into a little stream, but only my ego was damaged.  It was an incredibly slow-motion, slithering down a muddy bank kind of fall, leaving my butt in the water and my arms and legs in the air, trying to stay dry.  So now it is time for a pop quiz.  After this kind of fall what is the correct response?  You should:

A.      Deflect blame - you could say, “I told you this wasn’t the best trail to take.”

B.      Make a joke at your own expense - for this situation I like, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

C.      Make a joke at your partner’s expense - “You know, it is faults like this that kept me from getting a better wife!”

D.      Pretend you did it on purpose - Still lying in the stream, get your binoculars out and stare up in the trees.

      I like answer (b) the best, but (a) and (d) are also good.  I absolutely do not recommend (c) while you are lying on the ground defenseless and in a remote location.  Besides I have field tested this joke numerous times in a variety of situations and so far have gotten no laughs and considerable hostility.  I got it from a speech made by the former Notre Dame Football coach, Lou Holtz.  I’m sure the joke is good and my delivery is faulty.  But use this joke at your own risk!

      On the way in we saw the Great Blue Heron again and scared off a little water bird that we think was a loon.  Also we saw a large black bird with a fat body and relatively small tail, much bigger than a crow.  Also, we scared off a bunch of cottontail rabbits.  Because we waited so long at the entrance, it was about 9 AM when we set up our chairs on the edge of the mud flat.  If there had been a big show earlier, we missed it.  Instead a small acting troupe of eight Killdeers put on a little performance for us.  Chris identified which ones were females and thought they were getting the best spots in the mud, as was only right, she asserted.  We saw a Northern Flicker at the top of a high tree.  We left around 10:30 and watched a Common Loon (Remember, I’m underlining the bird the first time that I positively identify it – that’s a life bird – at least for this time period) diving out in the lake.  The walk was fun, the lake was beautiful, and it was a very pleasant start to the New Year.  Also, the first person that we saw outside today was a young man, which according to Chris’ dad is an omen of good luck.  When I was a young man, I used to sneak outside early on New Year’s Day so that Chris and her parents would see a young man outside to start the year.  They agreed that this wasn’t cheating and that it would bring them luck.  As far as I can tell, it worked.

Comment:  Marsh Creek is a great birding site and has a lot of interesting birds year round. On previous walks we’ve seen a Green Heron and flocks of Cedar Waxwings.  Even if you don’t see unusual birds it is a very nice place to hike.  It is crowded on summer weekends.  When you drive past the entrance, be sure to obey the 15 MPH speed limit.  Dogs are allowed on leashes.

 

 

Bear Meadows:  Jan 4, 2013

Today I drove Kathryn back to school after her Christmas break.  After I dropped her off at State College, I absolved myself from one of my crimes as a wannabee naturalist.  This crime was driving by Bear Meadows over and over without stopping.  It was 20 degrees, middle of the day, with 8 inches of snow on the ground, so I didn’t expect to see much.  I was both completely right about that, and completely wrong.

      Going south/east from State College on 322 E, a few miles past Boalsburg, you turn right onto Bear Meadows Road.  But if you look for a sign for Bear Meadows Road, you won’t see one, at least you won’t in Jan 2013.  The road to the left is marked as Elks Road.  Turn right and go a mile to the Tussey Mountain Ski Area.  If there is snow on the ground and you don’t have four-wheel drive, park there and put on your hiking boots.  The road from that point on is unplowed and untreated.  When I visited, it was one lane of hard packed snow and ice.  If I make an equipment list for birders, I will have to put a four-wheel drive SUV on it.  On Jan 4 in northern PA, it came in handy.  I crept along the road to go the 4.1 miles to Bear Meadows.  On the right side of the road, there is a big rock with a plaque on it and also a billboard with a site map.  If you walk a little past that, you will find the trailhead for Bear Meadows Loop.  This is important!  The loop does not end near the start.  It is more like a U than a loop.  When you get back to the road, you should “GO RIGHT”.  The four mile trail goes completely around a bog full of evergreens, reptiles, unusual plants, and birds.

      Stepping off the road and onto the trail I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only crazy person to have tramped out here after the pre-Christmas snow storm.  The narrow trail was hard-packed with a good number of boot prints.  In just a few hundred feet, the trail entered a thick Rhododendron forest, the leaves all drooping down on the branches and colored a dusky green.  At first I didn’t pay much attention to the trees, as I was looking past them for birds.  I saw a few woodpeckers flitting quietly away to land deeper into the forest.  “As I expected, in the winter, nothing much here”, I said quietly to the trees.  But then I stood still for a few moments and just looked into the swamp.  The light sparked off the snow; the air was clear and smelled clean; each tree trunk stood out in a startling clear line against the sky.  And it was so quiet that I could hear the silence.  Up in the high branches, I caught a flicker of movement.  I trained my nice new Nikon binoculars on a flat Red Bellied Woodpecker rustling up a meal.  What a tough little guy he must be to survive a winter in this cold bog, when so many other animals had to leave to find food.  After I had watched the woodpecker for a while, I looked around the forest floor and was surprised at how extensive the rhododendron forest was.  My internal dialog popped up the term “Rhododendron Hell”, which refers to thickets of rhododendron so vast in colonial America that hunters pushing their way in after an animal sometimes could not find their way out.  (F6).  “But this isn’t hell, this is heaven - a place where everything is perfect, so nothing changes.”  Of course that’s my cynical brain trying to point out the illogic of naming the unknowable.  Does it matter when we go out into nature that we can put names on things?  In some respects, it does.  It’s a fun game to see something unusual in nature and be able to know its human name.  But standing alone in the bog, not knowing which trees are Blue Spruce and which trees are Hemlocks, I remembered that I’m a creature too.  I think for a little while the constant stream of words in my mind stopped and my senses just let the light and quiet and cold of the winter bog flow in.  So I was actually very wrong about there being nothing in the bog in the winter.  Everything that matters is there.  I backtracked out of the forest, leaving the complete hike of the loop until the spring.  Just as I pushed out of the last bit of forest, a puff of wind rattled a branch full of dry leaves.  It sounded like the bog was saying, “See you again soon”.  But I’m not positive. I don’t speak bog too good.

 

Bombay Hook NWR - Jan 6, 2013

      “Anyone who lives in this region and doesn’t go to Bombay Hook needs to be slapped,” I told Rachel in the car on the way down to Delaware to pick up Mike.  They were joining Chris and me for a morning of birding in what has to be one of the premier birding spots in the Middle Atlantic region, or maybe even in the world.  Mike’s dog, Eddie, was coming along as well.

      We had been to Bombay Hook in November and had bought a Duck Stamp, which is good for 12 months and gets you into any National Wildlife Refuge.  From here on, I’m just going to say NWR for National Wildlife Refuge and WMA for Wildlife Management Area, okay?   We were able to blow past the Visitors Center and the honor system collection booth and also past the first few observation points.  We went directly to the first big impoundment to try out my new birding scope on the thousands of birds that I expected to find there.  Stopping on the road at the edge of the impoundment, I was shocked to see a wide expanse of water with not many birds, and most of those that I could see looking to be Canada Geese.  This might suck, I thought.  We saw a couple of fat unusually colored birds, with long curved bills in the grass at the water’s edge.  Those were interesting.  They scooted back into the grass before we could get a good look at them.  Mike wandered up the road to see if he could get a better angle on the mystery birds, while I set up the tripod and birding scope.  Rachel, Chris, and Eddie went the other way down the road and saw some Bluebirds.  They seem to be everywhere we go this winter, which is great.  I was trying to focus on some geese when the other members of the crew came back.  Both Mike and Chris had been using the binoculars to follow a big raptor that had been dipping and soaring and flapping across the road and over the marsh on the other side of the road.  They saw it land in a tree, a very small, black blob, far in the distance, perhaps a thousand yards.  Then we began to “bird”.

      We got the scope and tripod set on the distant blob, and when I focused on it with max power, a bulky dark bird appeared.  Mike and I took turns watching it until it turned its head sideways and the distinctive head and beak of a Bald Eagle appeared.  So it was a juvenile Bald Eagle, dark head, when it flew it had a white patch behind, but not really a white tail.  Typing this up later, I think that another possibility is that it was a Harrier, which is resident in the marsh and has a white patch on its lower back.  

      Then we moved the scope back to the water side and found ducks among the geese that we couldn’t identify.  They had a white slash up their necks onto their heads.  Part of the face was dark, with a small bill, big body-mostly dark brown with white or gray on its back.  It didn’t fit exactly any of the duck pictures in the field guide.  While looking at the ducks, we saw some small fat birds with incredibly long bills, at least three times the length of heads.  Those turned out to be Long-billed Dowitchers.  While we were scoping the dowitchers, several American Avocets walked into the scope’s view.  Since we had seen them last November as fuzzy black and white horizontally striped birds, looking a lot like stones on a beach, I knew exactly what these were right away.  But I was not ready for how beautiful these birds are when seen up close, foraging in the shallow water.  Then Rachel picked out the picture of a Long-Tailed Duck from the guide and said “That’s it”.  We found the ducks again and saw that Rachel was right.  The males had long thin black tails about the same length as their bodies. Nice job, Rachel.  The guide says that these are sea ducks that winter along the coast on shallow open ocean water, but it appears that a few of them took a holiday a little bit inland.  From this spot you can actually see some Ocean Liners on the Delaware Bay, so these birds were not too far from their expected habitat.

      Then we decided to drive up to the observation platform at Bear Swamp Pool.  Before we got very far, I saw a little diving duck with a big white patch on its head swimming in the canal along the road.  “Look!” I called out to Mike,” a Bufflehead!”  For some reason, Rachel thought that was funny.  We stopped and saw lots of them and also a lot of American Coots.  These little birds put on a nice display of darting around quickly, and the Buffleheads did some fancy diving.  Mike saw some birds with big white patches on their heads that obviously were something different.  They had wide, flat looking heads.  The experienced birders already know that these were male Hooded Mergansers.  Before we got to Bear Swamp Pool we stopped again and again to see four or five Great Egrets and then the much smaller look-alike, the Snowy Egret.  We had a long look at some ducks with green heads that we thought might be Northern Shovelers, but finally we got a look at the small yellow bills and agreed that they  were Mallards.

      At Bear Swamp Pool, there were lots of Canada Geese making a refreshing and very sociable racket.  Among them were a number of non-geese birds.  Mike got the birding scope fixed on three interesting birds, one of which was a male Hooded Merganser.  One of the other birds was reddish brown with a big bushy crown of feathers on the back of its head, a little like a Kingfisher.  This completely different looking bird was a female Hooded Merganser.  And the third bird, with a very bright orange bill, dark head and white body with a dark edge along its back and tail, was an adult male breeding Common Merganser.  Also in this pool were some beautiful black-beaked, pure white, Tundra Swans, some of them with their heads tucked in and trying to sleep despite the noisy geese.  Our previous research on the Northern Shoveler was rewarded when several of these floated by showing off their pretty green heads and flashing their grey, wide-mouthed bills.

      We had to leave at about one-thirty and we were surprised at how quickly our four hours of looking at birds flew by.  On the way out, Chris spotted a big raptor that might have been an Osprey.  That’s a possibility since these birds are year round in the narrow belt along the coast.  Chris also spotted a red fox on the road up ahead.  It didn’t run as we drove slowly past and maybe was sick or hungry.  Mike and Rachel got pictures with their phones.  Just before we left the water on the far edge of the pool, we saw two Green Herons fishing in the shallows.  We had a good meal at the nearby Smyrna Diner.  As we walked out of the diner, I asked Rachel, if I was right about people in the area who never went to Bombay Hook needing to be slapped.  She agreed.

 

The Frozen North- 1/19 to 1/21

Chris and I took a long weekend to visit my mother in Upstate New York.  She is ninety-one and lives in a retirement community near Utica, NY, just about right in the center of the state.  Before we left, I looked up the Montezuma Wild Refuge, which is 35 miles west of Syracuse.  I thought we could leave early in the morning and visit the refuge in the winter.  No such luck.  The refuge is closed during the winter, but their website suggests you could park outside and snowshoe or cross-country ski in.  Maybe we will check back in the summer.

      On route 12, ten miles north of Binghamton, NY, going through a small village called Chenango Forks, I glanced out the window and was delighted to see a mature Bald Eagle.  He was flying along the Delaware River, which runs along route 12.  This far north it’s about 30 feet across and shallow.  The eagle had a clean white head and tail and was very black everywhere else.  I was glad to see an interesting bird here so I can suggest the river north of Binghamton as a good birding site and in keeping with my pattern also suggest a good nearby diner.  “The Spot Diner” is so good that it is absurd.  The Greek specialties are especially tasty.  The address is 1062 Front Street, Binghamton, NY and the phone is 607-723-8149.

      In the late afternoon, we stopped at a large multi-use park near my mother’s home.  It’s in New Hartford, NY and called Sherrill Brook Park.  It has soccer fields, a baseball field, a fenced in dog park, picnic areas, volleyball, and a large woodland with hiking/ cross country ski trails.  There was not much snow on the ground, so we did a little hiking in the woods and were delighted by sparkling streams and miniature grand canyons with barren maple trunks sharing space with hemlocks and other evergreens.  We saw a nice little flock of Black-capped Chickadees.  They may have been larger than the Carolina Chickadees that we get at our feeder.  I definitely could notice the more raggedy edge of their black collar, but forgot to look for the “L” pattern on their wings.  This tiny bird is one of the more admired birds in upstate New York and shows up frequently in paintings of winter scenes.  Upstate New Yorkers respect creatures who can stick out the long winters with them.

      On Sunday night, it got colder, eventually dropping to 13 degrees F.  The 20 to 30 mph winds made it feel even colder.  When we went to sleep, we left the blinds open so we could watch a gently falling snow storm, the kind of snow that my dad called “sugar snow” because it looks like powdered sugar falling off a cookie when you try to eat it.  In the morning we had a foot of powder on the ground.  We stopped back at Sherrill Brook Park again just to see it and we were greeted by another hardy winter bird.  A Cardinal was perched high in a tree and chirping.  Against the white snow, his brilliant red was an ornament in the tree.  We started back home and only twenty miles south found that there was no new snow.  Chris and I noted for the hundredth time how unfortunate it was that our relatives came from Europe and managed to pick a spot with such harsh weather.  There is a thirty- mile wide band across central NY called the Snow Belt.  Along the stretch from Buffalo to just past Utica, water from the Great Lakes drops in amazing quantities.  It is not uncommon for this narrow stretch to get 200 inches of snow in a season.  

      “Just think, we lived our entire youth thinking everybody was getting snow and rain dumped on them”, one of us said.

      The other said, “Dumb us, twenty miles away and no snow.”

      “What about the Cardinal. Twenty miles and no snow for him too.  Stupid Cardinal!”

      But probably he had food and shelter.  So why move.   That is also why Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo still have people.  As Scott Weidensaul describes in “Living on the Wind”, migration is all about food.  (F7).  So there is probably more food in the Snow Belt than in the areas just north or just south and that makes it an okay place to wait out the winter.  Or it could be that the Cardinal just doesn’t know any better.

      Less than a mile north of Binghamton, we stopped to look at some ducks swimming in the river.  There were two distinct species swimming together and bobbing for food.  The very large ducks were all dark brown/ black, while the comparatively much smaller ducks had dark heads, white bodies, black tails, and greyish beaks.  The large ducks were obviously American Black Ducks.  I thought the smaller ducks were Mallards, but found in the guide that Mallards and Black Ducks are the same size.  At first I questioned my ID of the Black Ducks, but soon realized that the smaller ducks were Lesser Scaups.  The scaups were at least a third smaller than the Black Ducks.  Their bills were definitely not yellow.  The heads were dark and the breast the same kind of dark.  Also their bodies were pure white, where the Mallards would be a buff color.  The ducks that were bobbing for food were the Black Ducks.  Scaups are divers but these were just tipping up for food in the shallows.  The location is well within the winter ranges of both species, but not within the range of the Greater Scaup.

      So that’s the end of our NY trip.  Except Chris saw what may have been a Raven.  She also saw a duck-like bird perching on a wire.  Also we saw a lot of hawks that we still don’t know how to ID.

 

The Passenger Pigeon – 1/26

Anyone who has grown up in the North knows what cabin fever is.  That’s what you get when you’ve been shut up indoors during the long winter and it finally starts to really get to you.  You start acting crazy and sometimes extremely irrationally.  The movie “The Shining” is your classic cabin fever story.  You prevent it by doing winter sports, like skiing or snow shoeing or ice skating, and finding something to do somewhere that isn’t the inside of your own house.  We don’t get cabin fever in southeast Pennsylvania.  The winters are shorter by a month on either side than the winters in central New York.  Also there are a lot more activities to get you out of the house.  We got an unusually cold week and decided to put off a planned weekend day at Prime Hook until next week’s predicted warmer weather.  Instead we went to downtown Philly and visited the Academy of Natural Sciences.

      The draw for me was an exhibit of passenger Pigeons in a diorama.  Dioramas are exhibits of real animals displayed in a realistic natural setting.  The animals are preserved by taxidermy in lifelike poses, but most of the plant life and other aspects of the setting are artificial.  The curved back drop is a painting that completes the natural scene.  At the Academy, eighteen Passenger Pigeons are displayed in a beech forest.  The pigeons are displayed foraging on the ground, fluttering above the ground, and perched in the branches of the trees.  Even after over a hundred years, the feathers are fresh, the birds are lifelike and the scene looks surprisingly normal and underwhelming.  The birds are a little bigger than robins with rosy breasts and mostly grey bodies.  They were pretty birds, but not remarkable until you consider that for a time they were one of the most successful creatures on our planet, existing in unimaginable multitudes, and killed off completely in a biological nanosecond.

      I expected to find a lot of info on the natural history and demise of these birds at the museum, but there is just the display and a brief summary next to the diorama.  In another display in the same hall there is a display with an Eskimo Curlew, a Great Auk, and a Labrador Duck, other birds killed off by humans.  The Eskimo Curlews also existed in abundance at the level of the Passenger Pigeon, although living further north.  I expect that the Academy scientists and administrators are horrified by the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, but chose to put up a deliberately ‘apolitical’ and ‘uncontroversial’ write up.  But there is a line on the web-site that strikes me as extremely odd.  It is “the reason for the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon is not known for the certain.”  That strikes me as completely disingenuous, even though it might be technically precise.  It is similar to noting at the Holocaust Museum, next to the display of shoes of the victims, that the reasons for their deaths are not known for certain.  Technically that is true.  We don’t know all the names and motivations of the killers, or the exact circumstance of the deaths of individual victims, but we know the core fact.  Humans butchered other humans.  We don’t soft peddle that.  I’m not implying that when humans kill animals for food or engage in hunting or fishing that they are doing something barbaric.  They definitely are not.  They are engaged in natural activities that are innate to humans as a species and that are part of the natural world.  But what happened to the Passenger Pigeon and the forests of Pennsylvania and the American Bison has nothing to do with the natural world and are crimes of barbaric proportions, even though they weren’t crimes at all in a legal sense.

      James Audubon, a passable birder by anyone’s opinion, reported seeing a flock of Passenger Pigeon that took 3 days to pass which he estimated contained 300 million birds per hour.  Doing the math on that comes to a flock of 20 billion birds.  So let’s say that Audubon was extremely bad at math and estimating birds.  Let’s guess that he was much worse at this than your routine average rookie birder and that the flock had only a tenth of what he reported.  That’s still a single flock with 2 billion birds.  How did Audubon get his number?  He counted and recounted the birds in a single area passing by to get an estimate of their density.  Then he multiplied that by the width of the entire flock and then by the time interval.  I suspect he was actually at least decent at estimating numbers and when his calculation came out to be so unbelievably large, he rechecked it many times before reporting it.  But whether the flock was 2 billion or 20 billion, it is still a lot of birds.

      The Passenger Pigeon was one of the draws to the new world during colonial times.  The presence of an abundance of food and land was irresistible in advertisements to come to America.  There are many reports of the inclusion of birds in the colonial and early American diet that current Americans would not consider.  We don’t eat robins anymore, but we used to.  Even after eating pigeons frequently and aggressively for hundreds or years (thousands if you include the American Indians, but let’s not get side-tracked on that epic in our history), there were still billions of Passenger Pigeons in America in 1865.  Within twenty years they were gone.  What happens?  This is not just a normal by product of an expanding nation.  It is not due to just “over hunting”.

      To get a feeling about how much this event differs from the behavior called hunting,  I’d like you to consider that the hunter-prey relationship is one of the most stable and successful constructs in the natural world.  By contrast, the symbiotic relationship in which species coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship is less stable and less beneficial for both symbiotes.  Populations of prey animals will boom and bust depending mostly on the swings of available food.  The carnivores that eat them increase following an upsurge in the prey animal numbers.  This increase in the predators provides a beneficial effect for the environment in providing some check on the population explosion by the herbivores, which could easily strip the environment of plants. The important point is what happens when the inevitable and cyclical population crashes occur for the prey animals -- either through decreased food, disease, or natural calamity.  When their numbers decrease, the predator numbers also decrease, removing that check on the prey animals.  When conditions improve for the prey, with few predators, the prey animals can increase rapidly, followed by an increase in the predators.

      Now look what happens in a mutually beneficial relationship.  The success of one organism increases the number of the other, in a positive feedback loop.  For example, more Monarch butterflies means more Milkweed plants get pollinated, which means more food for Monarchs, which means more Monarchs, and more Milkweed, and more Monarchs, and more Milkweed… Until something bad happens to one of the species.  Both populations will crash, just like in the predator-prey relationship. The difference is that when the condition that caused the crash improves, the absence of the partner species helps the prey species to increase quickly, but it hurts the symbiote.  It takes the symbiotes longer to recover from a crash.  Let’s guess that the problem for Monarchs is habitat destruction in the winter habitat.  Or perhaps the Milkweed developed a disease.  Removal of the problem for the Monarchs will help, but their recovery will be slow because their food supply took a hit.  Likewise once the Milkweed epidemic has passed, the Milkweed will be slow to recover because their pollinators are in short supply.

      So let us go back to people hunting Pigeons for food.  For at least the last ten thousand years and up to the early 1800s, large populations of Indians in North America ate the wildlife and for thousands of years their prey animals continued to live in huge abundance.  Even when the U. S. populations jumped to about thirty-five million people around 1865, the Atlantic fisheries were full, vast herds of bison roamed the plains, and billions of Passenger Pigeons lived on the continent.  The numbers imply that a successful hunter prey relationship existed and that large numbers of humans and pigeons can co-exist in North America.  So it isn’t credible that “hunting” caused the demise of this abundant bird in just twenty years. The term “market hunting” is thrown about, which implies a reasonable activity requiring a little more control.  My opinion is that this is like calling rape “market love-making”.  When human activity causes wide-spread destruction in the natural environment by mistake -- the Gypsy Math and the Chestnut Blight are sad examples -- these are tragedies that tug at our guts.  But when willful human abuse causes the destruction of our eco-system or a species that is as much God’s creature as we are, then it sickens us at a deeply visceral level.  Or it should.

      What happened in post-Civil War America that made it seem okay to fill railroad cars full of dead birds and ship them to cities for food or for feathers on hats.  Why did it seem okay to chop down the birds’ homes, clear cutting entire states, taking the wood that had taken hundreds of years to grow (more in some cases) and leaving the land empty and spoiled?  Why did it seem okay to kill off herds of Buffalo and take only the valuable tongues, leaving the rest to rot in the fields?  Or why did it seem like lots of fun to go to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and shoot migrating hawks, one after the other, until thousands upon thousands were dead?  I’ve read accusations that the destruction of the Bison was encouraged as a way to win the war against the western Indians by destroying their food supply.  If true, that might be good tactics, but it would constitute a war crime on civilian populations.  So that would be even more barbaric, not less.  I think the horror of war may have desensitized many post-Civil War Americans to mass-killing, especially when the killing was to dumb animals.  Also new weaponry and transportation made mass killing easier.  There was the euphoria of the completion of Manifest Destiny and linking the coast with a trans-continental railroad.  Maybe that made clear–cutting our ancient forests seem patriotic to the nineteenth century lumberjacks and the rest of the Americans who allowed them to do it.  A misunderstanding of freedom, capitalism, and property rights made it seem that a few people with pieces of paper saying that they owned vast areas could do anything they wanted on the land and to the land and to the plants, animals, and people on the land, even destroy its long term value to seek out a short term gain.  That’s not capitalism.  And even when it is legal, it is never moral to destroy the land or the creatures that live on it.

      Trading services is uniquely human.  We trade things to people who provide food, and give them more things if they provide more food.  It isn’t reasonable for us to tell them to stop “harvesting” animals or trees when they have taken enough to provide for their own needs.  They will keep “harvesting” and trading for stuff until there is nothing left to harvest.  They will take everything they can get even when they see that the natural resource is disappearing.  Right now our commercial fishermen are continuing in the previously noble traditions of their fathers, even though the fisheries are cleaned out.  They work really hard for low pay and continue to prevent the fish from recovering.  Even when the fish are far more valuable for recreational fishing, we hear how the sport fisherman find schools of fish and the commercial fisherman follow up on their tails and scoop up all the fish.  That’s stupid and awful and legal.

      Although I do believe that many people are so morally bankrupt that they will drain wetlands for vacation homes and kill horseshoe crabs to use for bait to catch eels to send to Asia to get some money (Yes-the guys filling up their pickups with horseshoe crabs know that they are killing the crabs and the eels and thousands of birds and they don’t care - so they are morally bankrupt), I believe most people are really trying to do the right things.  We need laws to regulate the people who don’t care or who are just stupid.  We also need to promote the smart use of our natural resources which includes the realization that our wild life and natural places are more valuable as wild life and natural places than they are as a source of commodities.  Here I mean commercially valuable.

      There is another reason that I feel optimistic for humans.  It goes back to a first year Biology experiment that we did in college.  It is simply to take a beaker of clean, distilled water and observe the organisms in it over time.  Surprisingly (to a first year biology student, but probably not to a more experienced scientist), there is a predictable and repeatable progression of rise and decline of different microorganisms.  What is happening in the closed environment of the beaker is that populations of microbes are increasing until they poison themselves on their own excretions.  Then another species of microbes that can eat those excretions grows.  But the second group of microbes eventually poisons itself and is replaced by a different organism that can eat what is toxic for the second organism.  This can continue for a long time and is what will happen to any population in a closed environment.  The implication for humans is that as we get more numerous, we will fill up our planet and poison ourselves on our own waste products.  Although the planet is large, it is a closed system, and given enough time we could fill it up with enough toxins to make it uninhabitable for our species.  The difference between this experiment and human experience is that we are the first species to not only recognize the impact of environment destruction, but we are also the first species to attempt to do something about it.  Lake Erie was so polluted in the 1960’s that it caught on fire.  Now it is a good fishing lake again.  Even though the Chinese are busily polluting the air in their cities in order to catch up to the Western economies, they will eventually realize the lunacy of this activity and figure out how to grow without killing themselves with pollutants.  You can see how quickly nature can come back by itself if you just give it a chance.  A stream near my boyhood home stank so bad from the pollution dumped by the township that the creek was locally known as “Shit Creek”.  The state sued the town and stopped the dumping.  Ten years later, with no cleanup efforts the stream was listed as one of central NY’s top trout streams. Now we call it Saquoit Creek.  Similarly in the 1850’s when horseshoe crabs were dredged from the Delaware Bay for use as fertilizer, the Red Knot, a shore bird that depends on Horseshoe Crabs eggs for food was uncommon.  When the Horseshoe Crab catching became unprofitable and stopped, the Red Knot came back impressively.  But now we’re fighting the same battle again and the Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knots are threatened.  Luckily we are smarter now and eventually will get our human activities in balance with the world we live in.

      So as much as I am disheartened by what happened to the Passenger Pigeon over 100 years ago, I am encouraged by all the Bald Eagles and Eastern Bluebirds that I have seen this winter.  I’m encouraged by the many birds that I know are hawks that I see all the time that I didn’t see ten years ago.

      It was a good trip for me today to go this museum, but I can’t recommend it as a day trip for birders.  You’ll get more info from just reading about the birds from books or web sites.  I did enjoy seeing an Eskimo Curlew, which looks a lot like a lot of other shore birds, but I wasn’t that interested in the other dioramas.  I thought Cabelas’ display was pretty good too, in some ways better.  I have wanted to see the Hadrosaurus bones that made this museum internationally popular.  Also there is an almost complete real Corythosaurus skeleton and several full-sized casts of dinosaur skeletons, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  It’s easy to see how birds evolved from dinosaurs and realize the evolutional advantage of smaller size and flight.  No doubt.  The dinosaurs at the Academy of Natural History are cool.  A surprise treat was a large room with lots of live butterflies flying around.

      I can still do one of my favorite tasks, which is to recommend a nearby great diner.  Even though Philadelphia is a big city with lots of restaurants, this was an easy choice for me.  It’s the South Street Diner, which has the best Greek food on the Delaware River.  I am going to put the Spot Diner in Binghamton as a close second for the best for the Delaware River.  That’s not too shabby.  At the South Street Diner, Chris and I shared a combo Greek platter and still took home some leftovers for dinner.  It’s not just large.  It’s also delicious.

      Address / phone of the diner is:  140 South Street, Philadelphia, PA / 215-627-5258

      Address of the museum is:  1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA

 

Optics and other Equipment

Every field guide has very good advice on optics.  Also, if you Google birding scopes or binoculars or SLR cameras, you will get so many hits that it would take forever to read even a small part of it.  The experts in the field post remarks about their top of the line equipment and recommend it.  They will warn you about equipment that isn’t as good.  So the info is out there, and it is constantly changing.  So before you buy stuff, you need to check out articles on the internet from birders about equipment.  Also ask questions.  And check the sales on the internet.  Also the websites that sell binoculars and telescopes have “ask the experts” phone numbers for you to call.  If you call them, you will get to talk to a very knowledgeable and nice person who will be happy to teach you stuff.  That’s what I found.  When I called and freely admitted how much I didn’t know about optics, they filled me with enough info to make some intelligent guesses at what I should get.  But as far as what is the best equipment to get, check out the section “Advice about Advice”.  I am happy to share some of what the experts advised and what I got, and why.

      First, the experts recommended really, really good stuff.  I read an excellent article on birding scopes describing the relative advantage of the Nikon 65 mm Fieldscope and the Swarovski.  (F8).   I have no doubt that if these two scopes are not the gold standard, then they are in the top group of just a few excellent pieces of equipment.  When making decisions, I go by the principle that the goal is to get one of the right answers and to avoid the wrong answers.  Say there are 50 right answers and 5000 wrong answers.  It will take a lot of work to make sure you got one of the 50 good results, but the effort will be worth it.  However, to make sure you get the absolute best right answer, you will be required to  identify all 50 right answers and compare each of the 50 right answers to each other, an enormous task that will get you comparatively less bang for your buck.  So when I am convinced that I have a correct answer, I usually stop evaluating and spend my energy on the next step.  So knowing that the Nikon and the Swarovski were two of the correct answers and why, I moved on.  I researched cost.  On this particular day near the end of 2012, these scopes both cost over $2000.  That was a lot more than I expected to pay, but I didn’t automatically reject it.  After all, if eventually I was going to wind up buying one of these scopes, buying a lesser scope now seemed like wasting money.

      Another recommendation that I got from an expert photographer was on cameras and lenses (verified to be accurate by researching this on the internet) was to skip birding scopes completely and go directly to an SLR camera with a good telephoto lens.  He suggested a Canon 400 5.6 L which he owned, but thought I might start with a Canon 70 which can be bought on Amazon or the Fred Miranda website for $1000  (used) plus another $1000 for the lens.  And to take pictures of really far away birds would require another even more expensive lens.

      Then there are the binoculars. David Sibley in his field guide binoculars of no more than 8X and to get the most expensive ones that your budget can afford.  (F9).  At Cabelas in Hammond, PA, I found an extensive selection of binoculars.  The top of the range was well over $1000.  I didn’t have the time to really shop for binoculars when I was in this amazing store, but I’m sure that if I knew what I wanted to buy, I could have gotten it there.

      So what did I do?  My first binoculars were a present from Chris bought during the Lost Years. They are Bushmasters, cost about $85, and we used them at concerts and baseball games.  Then in the spring of 2012, I bought a $13 pair of TASCO binoculars to take with us in our canoe, thinking that if they fell in, so what.  I could just get another pair.  At Conowingo Dam, I found that the little $13 pair was outperforming my big ole binoculars, but that neither was good enough to see any of the details on the gulls in the marsh down below the dam.  So when we were doing our Thanksgiving grocery shopping at the Shady Maple Grocery store in Blueball, PA (if you haven’t been there, go. And eat at the buffet!), I went across the parking lot to Good’s Store.  That’s a huge general purpose store that has all kind of useful and practical stuff.  At the sporting goods counter, two really smart Amish girls and the manager helped me pick out better binoculars.  When I found a pair that allowed me to see tiny little print on the packages at the end of the store I fell in love with them. They were also small and light weight, the bigger binoculars providing an unneeded wider field scope, but not any greater magnification, clarity, or light.  I spent $130 on Nikon.

      I broke Mr. Sibley’s rule on not going higher than 8X.  Mine are 10X, but so far, they are working really well and I’m not having problems with wind or shaking.  In fact, the details on little birds and far away birds are really good.

      I decided not to go to the expensive camera equipment. I want to learn about birds, and if I get some souvenir pictures through digiscoping, that’s cool.  But it is not essential right now.  Digiscoping is where you take pictures with your digital camera through the eye piece of your birding scope.  My middle daughter, Kathryn, gave me some good advice on how much to spend on the birding scope.  She said that I might want to learn on cheaper equipment.  “You might break it!”  And then, if I still want to get the top of the line scope after a few years, the price will have dropped.  Or something even better might be available.  Smart girl.  So I shopped on the internet for something under $500.  I found a lot to choose from and settled on what I think is a really good choice for the money that I paid.  For $320, I got a Zhumel 90 mm 20X 65X, a tripod, a holder for an SLR camera, and carrying bags for the scope and the tripod.  I set it up right away and pointed it at the bird feeder which is about 50 feet from the window I was doing the observation from.  It worked great and I could see the detail real well on the sparrows that have been eating for free in my yard.  I expect that I will be happy with both pieces of equipment.  For under $500, I am in the game.  Even though I didn’t get the most expensive gear, I got stuff that I can use right now.  I’m thinking that a new birder needs to give the obsession time to grow and not skip directly to full-throttled mania.  I don’t want to skip any steps.  The binoculars have already performed well on walks.  I can’t wait to try the birding scope on far away eagles or gulls.  I tried digiscoping using Chris’ iPhone.  Considering it was a really grey day and it was my first attempt, the picture came out surprisingly good.  It wouldn’t win any awards, but you could definitely tell that it was a picture of a bird.  So what about other equipment?  I’ll list some items that the birding books missed:

·         A good pair of water proof boots

·         Polarized sun glasses

·         A vest with big pockets

·         A notebook and pen

·         A four wheel drive SUV

·         A canoe

·         Sun screen

·         Different kinds of unusual hats

·         GPS

·         Portable beach chairs

·         Gloves

·         Under armor heat gear

 

1/27 - Conowingo Dam

Mike is getting a new computer, so I’m buying his old one.  It has a huge disk drive, which I need to upload Chris’ photos and clear up room on her camera.  If the camera works with my birding scope, I’ll probably buy another memory card for it, but if it doesn’t I’ll get a new camera.  Mike’s computer also has a full suite of Microsoft Office Tools and Word, which I need to type this manuscript.

      On the way to Delaware to see Mike, I detoured over to the Conowingo Dam in Maryland to try out the birding scope on the eagles.  Since in December I saw a lot of eagles there, I thought that they hung around the dam in large numbers for the entire winter.  As soon as I pulled into the parking lot below the dam, I saw a major difference.  The three huge electric towers that had been P.R.O. (perching room only) with Bald Eagles were completely empty.  The row of birders with scopes and cameras was also missing.  What the heck!!  As I walked down the lot towards the dam, I saw an eagle high tailing away through the trees behind the lot.  Then a big heron drifted in, landed, and then decided to fly peacefully away over the dam.  Probably anywhere else, if I had seen two impressive birds in my first minute of a birding trip, I would have been elated.  But here, I was actually disappointed.  Where was my city of eagles?

      There were ducks diving in the river below the dam, so I set up the scope to look at them.  No problem.  I like ducks.  These had white heads, black backs, blue-grey beaks, mostly white bodies, black faces.  I’m going to be honest here and admit that I didn’t know what they were.  Yes.  I can actually hear some of you calling out - “They’re Buffleheads!”  I should know them by now, but I thought the males had a big white spot on the side of their heads, not white hoods.  “The white spot on the face are non-breeding,” you just said.  “And the white back of the head is breeding.”  Thank you.  I got it.   A really nice young guy walked by and looked in my scope and made the ID for me.  We talked for a little while.  He was looking forward to the Warblers coming back.  He also told me that the best month for the eagles is December and that I must have hit one the days when they were releasing water, which puts a lot of fish in the sluices and draws in the eagles.  The biggest day he had heard about previously was a count of 58, so my count of over a hundred was a great day. Or maybe my count was wrong.  With only binoculars, I suspect that I was counting all the birds on the towers as eagles, when some were Black Vultures.  Warblers may be a challenge that I’m not ready for yet.  After he strolled on, I whipped out the guide again and saw that Mr. Sibley had carefully pointed to the back of the male breeding Bufflehead and added the label “white back of head”.  You are probably thinking, “He drew an arrow. He used one syllable words. He can’t make it any simpler.”  But I want to remind you that for most of my life, right up to a few months ago, I have been classifying ducks into two groups: “Mallards” and “not Mallards”.  So this may take a little retraining.

      There were about 20 Buffleheads and two schools of Common Goldeneye of about the same numbers.  The Goldeneyes didn’t give me any trouble.  They had white spot behind the beak on an otherwise dark head, which is pretty distinctive.  Their mostly white bodies are similar to the male Buffleheads, but the tail feathers seem to have a lot more black on them.  The Goldeneyes are longer, but since the flocks stayed separate, you couldn’t judge that at all.  The female Goldeneyes were also easy to pick out with their pretty reddish brown heads and buff colored bodies.

      While I was looking at the ducks, a Bald Eagle flew right over my head and landed in the tree above where my car was parked.  He had a fish and spent five minutes eating it.  Then he shifted around a little on his branch and settled in for a long sit.  I saw another big bird land on the top of the most remote tower.  When I got it in the scope, I could see it was an immature Bald Eagle, all brown.  I went back to looking at ducks and after a short while, a man about my age came up and asked if I had seen any eagles. I pointed to the tree above my car where now there were two fully mature eagles.  “There’s two,” I said, and felt a bit like Scott Weidensaul pointing out the unusual blue warbler in “Living on the Wind.”

      There were about fifteen Great Blue Herons sunning themselves on the far bank and a lot of gulls that were mostly just sitting.  I was surprised to find that a family group and also several couples with binoculars asked to have a look through the scope.  It was fun sharing.  I need to practice more with the tripod, though, to get faster on finding and focusing on far away birds.

      When I got home, I looked up my note on the December Trip.  It was December 8 and I had written, “at least a hundred” Bald Eagles, “thousands of Ring-Necked Gulls, Herring Gulls, and a few greater Black Backed Gulls”, also “about 15 Great Blue Herons and 50 Black Vultures”, like it was no big deal.  I bet that even if my eagle count was high, on that day Conowingo Dam was still one of the best spots in the lower 48 states to see Bald Eagles.

      Directions to Conowingo Dam:  from the north, take Route 1 South right to the Dam.  Cross over the dam and take the first left onto Shuresville Road.  Take the next Sharp left onto Shores Landing Road which dead ends on a good sized parking lot.  It is an attractive spot to view the river and the birds.

      A good diner is about three miles north of the dam on Route 1 in Rising Sun, MD.  It’s the Spready Oak County Café, 1643 Conowingo Rd, Rising Sun, MD.  Phone is 410-658-5252.  Outside the diner is a plaque remembering a 500 year old oak that stood there until 1965.  Lafayette’s army camped under it in 1781 during the Revolutionary War.  It was 85 feet tall, 24 feet in girth, and had a 115 feet spread.

 

My New Awesome Bird Feeding Station

The chronologically astute will have noticed that my 2012 notes jump from a single entry in the winter of 2011/2012 to sporadic entries starting in July.  If you concluded that I actually didn’t start taking notes until the middle of the summer in 2012, you would be correct.  Every time I added a bird to my life list, including the really common ones, I underlined the bird name the first time I was reasonably sure that I had identified it correctly.  If you looked back you could see that a fair number of first time sightings took place in my yard and occurred in late summer and the fall.  So what is up with that?  It’s my feeding stations.

      In the spring, looking for a new hobby now that I have stopped coaching, I found my old feeder leaning against a corner fence post where it had been languishing for more than fifteen years.  The wooden perch and wooden counterweight on the back had rotted away, but all the metal parts, including the post and its attached squirrel guard, were intact.  So I replaced the missing wooden parts and stuck it back in the ground in its previous spot.  I filled it with seed and waited for the birds to come back.  Nothing happened.  As I described a while back, the nice deck and all the nearby trees were gone.  Even the giant old Catalpa tree from the middle of the yard was gone.  The feeder was now too far from any safe hiding spots to be enticing to small birds.

      So I decided to try something else.  For Father’s Day, my kids got me a bird feeder.  Thanks kids.  I picked out a really nice one that had lots of perches with a cylinder that would drop down to cover the openings when a heavy squirrel landed on it.  It was relatively expensive, but really nice looking with three different sections to provide different kinds of seeds.  It had a fatal flaw however.  It was made out of plastic, heavy duty plastic, but still the “not-metal” kind of plastic.  I put it on a post near the row of maple trees and pine trees lining one edge of the property.  Birds came.  Also squirrels came, by jumping from the trees onto the feeder, and they chewed big holes through the plastic cylinder and the rest of the feeder. The nice people at the hardware store did not refund my money, but they did replace the broken feeder, a generous compromise.

      Having been trained by my father to be a determined squirrel and crow fighter, I set out to beat my furry adversaries.  I put the new post close enough to the trees so that birds would be okay with the separation, but for enough away that only a flying squirrel would dare to make the leap.  I have heard that there are Kamikaze Squirrels that live in Japan and possibly Florida that drop onto feeders from great heights.  Also Carpenter Squirrels that use sticks to build ramps up to the feeder.  I have never seen either of these kinds of squirrels and suspect Chris made them up just to torment me.  (But there really are Carpenter Bees.)  The post is about ten or fifteen feet from the nearest branch.   I also made sure to put the post in a good spot for viewing it from the new picture window in the sitting area of the kitchen.  The new post is a twelve foot long piece of two inch diameter PVC pipe.  I drove two four foot high metal fence stakes into the ground right near each other.  These are the kind that you would use to put up chicken wire fences.  Then I jammed the PVC pipe down over the fence stake and the post stood there firmly.  Halfway up the post I attached a squirrel guard and at the top of the post, I attached rods to hang feeders from.  I needed to attach the squirrel guard and rods first, because once I jammed the pole onto the supporting stakes, it would be impossible to add them.  I left the top and bottom of the pole uncapped so that water would just run thru it.  The first rod is about 18 inches long, a ½ inch thick, and threaded along its entire length.  I found it in my dad’s basement.  I bought a similar rod from a hardware store that is 24 inches long and 3/8 inch thick.  I also bought rubber caps for the end of each rod and 2 nuts to thread onto each rod.  I drilled 4 holes at the top of the pole so that I could twist the rods completely thru the pole.  I made the holes just big enough so that the rods fit snuggly.  On one end, I only left about an inch of the rod end poking thru.  I used the 4 nuts to hold the rods firmly on the pole.  On the longer, thinner rod I attached an S hook with wire.  I hung a Nyjer seed feeder from the S hook.  It’s a clear plastic tube with 10 perches on it.  On the thicker rod, I hung the not-really-squirrel proof replacement feeder.  That feeder had a metal loop at the top that make it easy to push the feeder on and off the rod.  The plastic cap on the end keeps the feeder on the rod, even when it tips a little.  To refill the feeders I use a step ladder to take them off the post and fill them on the ground.  My dad had a feeder on a tall metal pole and he hooked up a kind of hinge to the rod on the top of the bowl.  He had a rope on the lid of his feeder which he could use to pull the feeder down to refill it.  I think my dad used a metal pole for the same reason that I used a PVC pipe.  He found it lying around in his yard left over from another project.

      I put this feeder up in early July, and made a minor addition in the fall.  I loosened one of the nuts next to the pole and hung a hook and chain there to support a suet feeder.  Another step that brought in the ground feeding birds was to dig up the grass under the seed feeder and lay down pieces of slate to catch the spillage.  Before that the seeds dropped by fussy and messy eaters built up in a soggy, gooey, and very unhealthy layer.  Seeds landing on the slate stayed dry long enough to get eaten.  In the bigger seed feeder I put black oil sunflower seeds in one tube and a song bird mix in another tube.  In the third chamber I tried safflower seeds, but found most of them on the ground.  So now I leave that chamber empty and hang the feeder so the empty chamber is away from the house.

      In May and June, I got very few birds to come to my yard.  With my new feeder setup, near a row of big trees, twelve feet off the ground, with three kinds of seeds, birds started to eat free in large numbers at my place.  A pleasant surprise was that when birds started to show up at the new feeders, they also started to feel safe enough to use the old feeder which is closer to the house.  So I added a bird bath there and planted a butterfly bush.  When butterflies started flying around the back of our house, Chris started planting more plants designed to attract butterflies.  Before long we had a nice batch of flowering plants that the finches and juncos would forage around in and sit in to wait for turns at the feeder.  I thought that I was pulling out the weeds, but some of the plants that I didn’t pull out turned out to be sunflowers that had germinated from the spillage.  The Goldfinches has a ball in the fall, hanging from the stems upside down to pick the seeds out of the flowers.

 

Finches, Exton, PA, 2013   

 

 

 

 

Sunflower that escaped squirrels, jays, and Mourning Doves – Exton, PA, 2013