Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Birds of War

In my last post, I noted my thoughts on war, inspired by our vacation visiting the battle sites at Gettysburg (plus a day trip to Antietam and the preserved town of Harpers Ferry).

I noted that it was humbling to stand and look at a wide open field and hear absolutely nothing, while seeing monuments that look like they were placed haphazardly but in reality connote where a regiment - cavalry, battery, infantry - was placed in readiness for battle.

However, there was something else I discovered. Bluebirds like battlefields.
Bluebird on monument. (Margo D. Beller)

Ok, maybe not battlefields per se, but farm fields where there are lots of insects. I saw more bluebirds at the various areas of the three-day Pennsylvania battle than I have at my local Great Swamp.

And it wasn't just bluebirds. At the edges, in the brush near battle monuments, were white-throated sparrows and juncos. At the edges of forests were cardinals and tufted titmouse. In the trees over the tourists climbing over Little Round Top and looking down on the Devil's Den and the Slaughter Pen were white-breasted nuthatch and song sparrow. In the long shadows of late afternoon, two pairs of Carolina wrens had their own civil war in the trees near a monument to Gen. Slocum on Culp's Hill. A northern harrier flew over the Peach Orchard. In the pine trees of the military cemetery, where Lincoln made his famous address, Carolina chickadees chittered and fed. In a tree near another field, a Cooper's hawk allowed me to take its picture.

Most fittingly, squadrons of black and turkey vultures used the warm air rising off the field where Pickett's forces charged the Union position on the ridge on the other side. The Confederacy was repulsed on this, the final day of battle, July 3, 1863. Gen. Lee and his forces slipped away down the Hagerstown Road on July 4 - Independence Day - not followed by his opposite number, Gen. Meade. The war would last until April 1865.
Wooly bear (photo by Margo D. Beller)
The birds have adapted to the conditions of the farm field thanks to its preservation by the U.S. government. The town of Gettysburg, just beyond the battlefield, by comparison, is rife with house sparrows, starlings and pigeons.

There were more than birds. There was the whir of insects, the wooly bear in the road and, at the base of the statue to the 11th Pennsylvania regiment, its mascot Sallie. This dog protected the dead for several days until the bodies could be retrieved. I visualize the dog charging the vultures no doubt drawn by the blood and stench of human and horse bodies decaying in the July heat.

Sallie (photo by Margo D. Beller)
It is ironic that this bronze statue of Sallie - who was killed in the later battle of The Wilderness - placed at the bottom of a granite monument and facing the battlefield rather than the road should somehow humanize the battle, and the sacrifice of soldiers in this pivotal battle of the war to save the union. (My thanks to "Hallowed Ground" by James McPherson, who mentions Sallie and where to find her in his tour of Gettysburg.)

The birds and insects I'm hearing and seeing around me also send a message: Life goes on.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How I Spent My Vacation Thinking About War

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell. -- Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

We spent our vacation at Gettysburg this year. It wasn’t timed to the date of the 1863 battle that helped turn the tide for the Union during the Civil War - that would be July 1-3, when the crowds descend on this part of southern Pennsylvania for battle re-enactments such as last year’s 150th anniversary events. It wasn’t even timed to the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s address at the opening of the military cemetery - that would be a week after our visit, on Nov. 19.
One of the many regimental statues on the field where Pickett charged. (Margo D. Beller)
We came to see history, and left thinking about war.

We followed the auto tour road to the woods where a Confederate cavalry unit, heading south to rejoin Lee’s forces, ran into a northbound Union battalion near the McPherson farm. The battle was joined and expanded, spreading to Oak Ridge. At this place, on the 75th battle anniversary, Franklin Roosevelt came to light an eternal flame for peace. Some of the last surviving fighters from both sides shook hands across a low stone wall where once men died.

(photo: Margo D. Beller)
The tour takes you to all the scenes of the three days of battle - Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill, the Peach Orchard, Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Hill and the large field where Pickett’s men charged on the final day and were repulsed.

You stand outside your car and, despite the presence of other drivers, school groups and tour buses, you are overwhelmed by two things - the silence of the huge, open field and the statuary put up to mark where individual state battalions fought. Men from Pennsylvania, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alabama, Maryland, Texas, Mississippi, Florida. The stones and statues are meant to tell a story of pride and remembrance, of battles fought and the men who died.

I tried to imagine the thunder of cannon, the screams of horses and men, many wounded and dying, littering the battlefield with their bodies and blood. But there is nothing around me but markers and silence.

As I said, it is overwhelming.

War is overwhelming. We don’t use hand to hand combat much anymore, not in in this age of bomber jets, Agent Orange and drones. We have antiseptic wars with surgical strikes. “Boots on the ground” is only used as the very last resort, and for good reason. The military “embeds” journalists to keep them under control. No pictures of blood and body bags and screaming wounded civilians that so fired up the American public during Vietnam.

In today’s age of media saturation we are less concerned by pictures of foreign civilians being taken away in ambulances or stacked like cords of wood as we are about Kim Kardashian’s butt. Unless the field of battle is your backyard, it is easy to say destruction of villages and mass movements of refugees are not your problem.

After Gettysburg, the Civil War turned into a war of attrition. It was just a matter of when the south would accept the inevitable. The problem was, the south didn’t want to accept it.
Sallie, the 11th Pennsylvania mascot (Margo D. Beller)

To speed that acceptance, Lincoln - the same statesman we remember for his simple address at the consecration of the military cemetery  - ordered mass southern destruction. William Tecumseh Sherman’s “march to the sea,” from Nov. 15 until Dec. 21, 1864, sent over 60,000 Union soldiers 285 miles from Atlanta to Savannah, destroying everything in their path to destroy the economy and frighten Georgia's civilian population into abandoning the cause. Even then it took another four months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

At Gettysburg, only 1 civilian died, a woman in her kitchen in town, not far from the battlefield. Soldier casualties totalled over 23,000 for the Union and over 28,000 for the Confederates. The military cemetery contains graves with names and as many graves with numbers because the names are not known.

Soldier monument, Gettysburg military cemetery (Margo D. Beller)

The cemetery is the last stop on the auto tour for a reason - it is a reminder that no matter how righteous or glorious the cause, men are going to die. But the two times we visited we found no school groups and few adult visitors. No one wants to be reminded of the ultimate cost.

After all, you don’t see cemeteries in video war games.

The Civil War saved this country. I can’t say what we are saving nowadays aside from our own economic interests. Did the U.S. have to drop Little Boy and usher in the nuclear age to end World War II? What did we “win” after all those years in Vietnam? Are we “winning” with “surgical strikes” against insurgent groups fired by religious fanaticism?

My trip to Gettysburg prompted questions but I have no answers. I do know Sherman was right. War is still all hell. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Birding Without Trying

I admit it, I am getting to the age where I have stopped caring about a lot of things. For the purpose of this post I will restrict those things to birding.

There was a point when I didn't think twice - ok, maybe I thought once or twice - about getting up before dawn, eating just enough to keep the stomach growling down and then taking my gear and myself out to one of my favorite spots to look for migrant birds. Usually this was in the spring when the gaily colored warblers and others would be flitting around in trees starting to bud or leaf out and singing territorial songs that would make them a bit easier to find.

In autumn, when the birds are in duller colors and flying south, my bird watching would be less in the forests than at a hawk platform, where you don't have to get up as early and, if you are lucky, you can get to a good spot with a minimum of hard climbing.

Atop rocky Hawk Mtn. (RE Berg-Andersson)
This autumn was the first when I did not have a great desire to go to Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain, one of the best places in the east to watch migrating raptors, but one of the harder places to climb to the top. Our first time there was magical - warblers in the forests lower in elevation, almost no crowds for a long time once we joined the counters at the top of the North lookout. Even the trip down the mountain allowed us to find a new bird for us, a Bicknell's thrush.

The second time, a few years later, was harder. No birds of note in the woods on the way up or down, but even if there were the rocky path was treacherous, and I nearly fell several times. I fear falling. People my age who fall break bones and mentally go into a tailspin, as my vibrant 90+ year old friend did after falling and breaking his ankle.

So this year I've restricted my hawk watching to New Jersey's Scott's Mountain, where one drives to the top of the mountain, pulls out her lawn chair and sits with a convivial group of people who have a fine view to the north.

I've also had no desire to rise early and go to the woods. My wood walking has been in the afternoons. Sometimes you get lucky late in the day and the birds are flying about trying to get a last meal before dark, when they will either bed down or take off to the south.

Still, for me to not go outside on the weekend after a week indoors working is anathema. So this past Saturday, MH and I went down the Jersey Shore.

We specifically timed the trip to avoid the "season," when the traffic is horrendous on the highways and on the beach. Unlike a lot of coastal areas in other states, almost all of New Jersey's beaches are regulated to make the towns money, and you can't sit on a beach and look at the water unless you pay for a beach pass, or are staying in a motel. That doesn't include the cost of parking.

We also specifically looked for an area not made famous, or infamous, by Snooki and her cohorts.

There was one more requirement: It had to be close enough to an area where we could do some birding later in the day or if we got restless. But our primary purpose was to sit on the beach and just relax for at least as many hours as it took to drive down.
My chair awaits. Strathmere beach, Sept. 21, 2014 (Margo D. Beller)
It has been a long time since MH and I just sat on a beach -- it was the year after we got married, when we stayed on Cape Cod and discovered the hard way the lotion we'd brought was old and useless. We've sat for short periods on town benches looking at beaches - Mexico Beach on the Florida panhandle comes immediately to mind, as do many areas along the coast of North Carolina - but not in NJ. We either bird or avoid.

I won't keep you in suspense any longer - we found that place in the northern part of Cape May County, about 20 miles from Cape May itself and all its birding temptations. The town is Strathmere, the beach requires no pass and the parking is free. The town is just north of the busier Sea Isle City, which that day was having a huge Irish heritage festival (who knew?), the kind of noisy, booze-fueled thing shore towns throw to draw visitors and just what we wanted to avoid.

We sat on the beach for over three hours. While the rest of the area beyond the dunes was warming to the upper 70s, we sat with a strong wind in our faces and clouds overhead keeping us cool enough where a fleece jacket was not out of place.

We were nearly alone. We had parked along the road, near the temporary toilet - another consideration for when I go birding now - and walked on the stairs up and over the dune to sit just at the high tide line. We had just passed the low tide point and ahead of us was a large flock of sanderlings running to and from the surf, feeding. I put my binoculars in my lap and every so often would pick them up to look at these shorebirds. At one point I looked more closely and realized there were other, smaller birds mixed in with them - semipalmated plovers, semipalmated sandpipers and one least sandpiper.There may have been others but, as I said, I wasn't there to look for birds.

Around us flew herring and Franklin gulls, several types of terns and two ospreys hovering over the same area as human surfcasters and for the same reason - fishing for supper.
After leaving for a late lunch we drove down to Stone Harbor's Wetlands Institute and found tricolored and little blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, great and snowy egrets and a variety of shorebirds in the impoundments. We were looking for birds and were not disappointed.

But sitting on the beach was for me. The birds came without my seeking them. I had a day of few people and the aggravations they cause (aside from having to drive on New Jersey's notorious highways for a few hours each way), with little noise aside from the roar of the wind and surf in my ears.

Is this anti-social behavior a good thing? Maybe not. But for one day I got as close to heaven as I am likely to get while maintaining a pulse.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Goodbye to Summer

I was recently re-reading one of my favorite books as a child, "The Wind in the Willows." In it, Kenneth Graham writes a conversation between one of the main characters, Rat, and several swallows getting ready to fly south for the winter. He wants them to stay.

'No, you don't understand, naturally,' said the second swallow. 'First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places come gradually back and beckon to us.'

If I was a bird that saw the signs of summer's end, this is how I'd be thinking.

It has been unusually cool for mid-August, a "taste of autumn," as the weather people say on TV. I like this cooler, dryer weather and so do birds when the winds from the north can give them a boost on the trip south to the warmth of the Gulf coast and central and South America.

Tree swallow (Margo D. Beller)
I would love to pick up and move north or south to endless summer but unlike the swallows I can't. I am anchored where I am by house, spouse and job to pay the bills.

So I watch the birds as I work in the garden at this time of year deadheading the daisies, removing the grow-through rings and pulling weeds. As I work the bird families are actively feeding after weeks when the young were quiet and hidden until they could get around outside the nest. Those that don't leave New Jersey (or whose southbound travels bring them here for the winter) will visit my feeders when it starts getting cold in earnest.

So I can understand how the swallows and other birds feel. But I also know how Rat feels.

Considering the Alternative

Robin Williams' recent suicide had me thinking about my father.
My father, a doctor who died over 20 years ago, had Parkinson's for the last 20 or so years of his life. Every day he got up in the morning and left the modest, middle-class home he lived in and went to his medical office in the lower level of the modest, middle-class home where his parents lived a block away.
Unintentional sepia, at Shea Stadium (Margo D. Beller)
A child of immigrants and a striver. As far as I know, he never thought of killing himself.
Then again, my father was the type of man who would not let feelings like that be known to anyone in his family. He defined himself by being a respectable man in an honored profession.
But I am sure he felt terrified at what would be coming because soon after his diagnosis he contacted one of medical school classmates who was running the Parkinson's program at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NY and allowed himself to be used as a guinea pig to test what was then new and untested treatments. I'd have done the same thing.
There is no cure for Parkinson's, and while the drugs helped a lot, he got worse. Along the way his doctor-wife died, his children moved out, his parents died. He kept going to work until he was finally forced to retire. A few years later he died of complications from a stroke. He was 73.
Robin Williams was 63, a few years older than me. Like my father, Williams was, by all reports, comfortable financially and had people around him to care for him, family and those he could hire.
But I know he was terrified, too. Battling depression and addiction, a man known for manic, sometimes physical comedy, the thought of becoming rigid and debilitated must have put him over the edge.
A lot of us know that feeling. One of my friends, about Williams' age, told me if she ever gets too sick to take care of herself she wants to go out on a "sunset cruise" where she is sailed beyond U.S. waters, drinks poisoned champagne and her body tossed to the fishes. 

Some people just soldier on, like my father, until the end. Those who go to church trust in a happy hereafter for their souls. One of my friends smoked himself into an early grave and when he went it was sudden and he never saw it coming.
I'm not a church-goer and MH and I don't smoke or have children to care for us. At some point, one or the other of us won't be around to care for the other or this house and its considerable amount of stuff. I fear that day.
So do most Baby Boomers I know, the ones who believe the advertisers who tell us we can keep going (using their products) as though we are still 20-year-olds despite the increasing stiffness in the morning, the misplaced glasses, the names and dates we can't remember without notes.
Williams wasn't aging well, according to one news report. Neither am I.  As the joke goes, consider the alternative.
Many do.
I find it no coincidence that there is an increasing movement in many states for doctor-assisted suicide. After living a life of doing what we want and setting trends for generations to come (or so magazines like AARP's tell me), my generation is terrified of coming face to face with the inevitable.
"Hope I die before I get old," sang Roger Daltrey in 1965. Does he feel the same way now at 70? (Or does Pete Townsend, now 69, who wrote the song?)
When we didn't "die young and leave a beautiful corpse," we thought we'd live forever. Advertisers abet this -- like the guy in the vitamin ad I've seen who is told by the voiceover to "do what you've always done" and not let "age get in the way" of surfing that 50-foot wave despite being over 60.
But it's coming, whether you like it or not. I can't ignore the decay as I get closer to the age my mother was when she died, which is why I and others were shaken by Robin Williams' suicide. I own my comfortable, middle-class home thanks to my father, but I would not say I am financially secure. What is "secure" nowadays at our age when we are one medical catastrophe from financial disaster?
There are times when the dreariness of everyday life -- making the bed, folding the laundry, the prospect of shoveling the snow again and paying the bills on declining income - makes me want to end it. Like the man in the old song, "I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin'."
But Ole Man River just keeps rollin' along.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

City Birding

Most city people are not birders. They run from one place to another, ear buds providing a soundtrack to their world. If they notice them, "birds" are sparrows and pigeons. That the sparrows might be song sparrows or white-throated sparrows and the pigeons mourning doves is lost on them. They are just birds you barely notice.
High Line (R.E. Berg-Andersson)

I grew up in New York, and until I moved to New Jersey and was given a feeder as a housewarming present I didn't notice the birds either.

I've learned that if you unplug, you will find birds. The key is to be alert and be in an area where there aren't a lot of people. That can be hard in many urban areas.

Until a few years ago I was commuting by train to jobs in Jersey City and midtown Manhattan. The train took me through New Jersey's Meadowlands -- once a dumping ground but now a marvel of shorebirds, ducks and the occasional hawk -- and Hoboken, on the west side of the Hudson River where in its harbor the cormorants would mass before heading south and the ruddy ducks would spend the winter.

Jersey City hadn't filled in all its open space when I worked there. The vacant, weedy lots drew parula, goldfinch and winter wren. The waterfront drew mergansers and ducks. Around the time my company moved a light rail line was completed and the vacant lots were being converted into large apartment buildings. A good hunk of one of my favorite birding spots was turned into a dog park. The birds were harder to find.

Gansevoort end (R.E. Berg-Andersson)
I guess this is the challenge of urban birding. The more people you have, the fewer birds you will find unless you are in an area of many trees. Central Park is where MH and I usually go when we want to see birds, especially in migration. That huge, green space in the middle of the concrete jungle is big enough to accommodate tired, hungry birds as well as people.

I've been working for over two years from my home in the New Jersey suburbs so going to New York City is more of a special occasion now. On this particular trip we decided to visit the High Line, the linear park that runs from Gansevoort Street to the south to 30th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues) to the north (for now; the line is being extended to the north and west).

The High Line is the former freight line built in 1933 to connect the old Penn Yards at 30th with the St. John's terminal on Clarkson St. and literally raise train traffic off the streets. New York was a city of elevated trains -- there were elevated lines on Third and Second avenues (it has taken generations but a Second Ave. subway is being built) and there is are still elevated "subway" lines in Brooklyn and Queens -- so this west side line just added to the noise.

Trains ran until 1980 and for the next 19 years the line stood silent, a home for wildflowers and birds. In 1999 a group was formed to protect and renovate the line into a lineal park rather than tear it down.

MH and I found the lower part of the line (it does not run to Clarkson St. but farther north at Ganesvoort, around which is the old meatpacking area, now very trendy, chic and expensive and a historic district) more interesting, in part because it incorporates the old Nabisco factory, now the "Chelsea market," an urban food court similar to Boston's Faneuil Hall. Farther north the line narrows while Manhattan island widens and you lose sight of the Hudson River.

We started at the northern end, and after a few blocks we detoured to the river, which was far more interesting and where we found a flock of herring gulls aloft, reminding me of growing up along the southern coast of Brooklyn where the resident gulls were herrings.

It is nice that city officials have realized the importance of connecting people with waterfronts. They provide space and light. This was the "beach" area for the city dwellers we passed sunning themselves as we looked at the piers with open restaurants and the old piers where the railroad companies -- Pennsylvania, Erie, Lehigh Valley -- would bring their goods from New Jersey by barge across the Hudson.
(R.E. Berg-Andersson)

Back on the High Line, we felt as tho' we were in a human highway, there were so many people in the sunshine. But around us, buildings are going up. Luxury buildings where once were warehouses and factories. I wonder -- if enough of these buildings go up will they blot out the sun from the ornamental grasses, coneflowers, sedums and other flowers (which I have in my yard)?

This "park," this tourist walkway, this elevated sidewalk, seems a poor excuse for "nature" when I compare it to my backyard. Would there be more birds than the barn swallow I saw around if there had been fewer people?

The barn swallow and the herring gulls were the best birds I saw. But sometimes you can see something common from an unusual perspective.

At Chelsea Market we were resting in the shade when I pointed out to MH a female house sparrow that had flown to the open part of  a pole holding street signs. Young were calling and she was feeding them. When done she flew off. Soon her mate came up and he fed the young. I have seen this many times in my travels, but not from above. 

When my mother was sick towards the end, she said she enjoyed hearing the birds "sing" in the open space that was created when the old air conditioner was removed from the bedroom wall and a smaller one put in. The birds she heard were house sparrows, which will make a nest in human-created cavities.

House sparrows don't sing - they aren't even really sparrows but weaver birds that stowed away on ships from Europe centuries ago -- but their cheeping cheered her.

What a pity the common house sparrow may be the best bird the people who will move to the luxury residences going up around this "park" will see, presuming they even notice.

The Concrete Jungle 4/4/11

Back on May 27, 2012, I rather stupidly deleted the links of many of my older posts -- not understanding why the headlines of the posts were hyperlinked. I've learned a lot since then, such as linking and spacing and captions. 

But when I was trying to find an older post for a newer one, I realized it was time to start republishing the lost posts, and restore the links.  I will be doing this over the next few days, but I am starting with some of the oldest ones.

I worked in Jersey City, NJ's third-largest city (some would say second-largest), from 1999 until my office moved to midtown New York in 2009. The office building was on the Hudson River and had once been a freight building for goods brought east by railroad. It was surrounded at one time by other freight buildings and railroad tracks. When it became an office building the tracks were paved over and taller buildings started going up.

The area continued to change in the 10 years I worked there. Tracks were put IN, this time for a light rail system. Larger office (and, later, residential) buildings went up. But for a time, within walking distance, you could still find large vacant lots and large plantings in residential yards and along commercial sidewalks. That's where the birds were.

I knew things were going to be interesting the first spring I walked along the Hudson and found a red-eyed vireo in a tree. It looked as surprised to be where it was as I was to find it.

At other times, in another weedy field a block from my office, I found more than just the usual sparrows, starlings and pigeons. In winter there were white-throated sparrows. In spring there were black-capped chickadees and American redstart. One summer I found a kestrel. In fall, a northern parula hung around for three days and I found four winter wrens. (I've seen more winter wrens in Jersey City than I've seen in the woods.)

Farther away I found a weedy field full of hungry American goldfinches. Van Vorst Park has had a lot of birds over the years I visited, including rubycrowned kinglet, Tennessee warbler, Blackburnian warbler, eastern peewee (calling from a tall tree) and, during a hot summer when sprinklers watered the gardens, a pair of mallards.

What was once New Jersey's tallest building, 101 Hudson, has hosted a nesting box for peregrine falcons, which have raised several generations thanks to Jersey City's generous pigeon supply. The screen shot below is from

Along the Hudson I'd find brant and canada geese, redbreasted merganser and other ducks. Landscaping at a waterfront apartment complex at the end of Warren Street during spring migration was very good for warblers - I had black-throated blue, yellow and common yellow-throat on one visit - and herons, including a little blue heron.

But it all changed after Sept. 11, 2001. Businesses displaced by the destruction of the World Trade Center started moving to Jersey City (temporarily, as it turned out). The high rents of New York drove people to the factory lofts and new apartment towers. The weedy fields, including the one a block from the office and those along the light rail tracks, were filled in. No fields, no birds. Even Van Vorst park lost half its garden space to a dog park. Those living closer to the canal park used that for a dog run, their unleashed mutts scaring the birds out of view.
Birding became impossible.
So I was not that upset when we learned the office would be moving to another concrete jungle, midtown Manhattan. Without the birds, Jersey City was just another big, ugly city.

The only thing I have missed is the mighty Hudson River out my window.