Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Slowing down

Today, as I was working in my garden, I heard the "squeaky brake" call of the blackpoll warbler. I've been hearing Old Blackpoll alot this week, singing high in the trees near my office and around the yard.

If you can find it you would see a bird that looks a lot like a chickadee but does not flit about as the 'dee does. This is the male blackpoll and he is a slow and steady gleaner of bugs in the upper tree canopy. So is the female but she is alot plainer, as most female birds are so they can blend in while on the nest.

Blackpolls have always impressed me because they have one of the longest migration routes of any bird, including other warblers.

But here is the significance of the blackpoll for me: It is one of the last of the warblers to pass through my area northbound. That means from now on, migration is slowing down.

Oh, there will still be birds passing through for a few more weeks. Also, places like the Great Swamp and Delaware Water Gap will host numbers of breeding birds through the summer.

But for me it isn't the same as spring, when you hear your first black-throated green of the season.

This year has been different.

This year, I haven't heard a black-throated green. When I read the bird reports I learn northern New England and southern Canada are seeing influxes of birds weeks earlier than usual. Were they pushed up by the wacky weather we had this spring, strong winds from the west and south or the unexpected warm days making them think they'd better get a move on?

This year seems different for me, too.

Maybe I'M the one slowing down. I am getting older. My neck hurts more and longer when I look up at treetops for too long, my legs tire from what seems like endless stops and starts and it gets harder to wake at dawn on a Saturday after a busy, busy work week.

Are you working harder than ever to keep your family fed and bills paid nowadays? Me, too. The pressures never end.

Intense work-week pressures used to send me into the woods on weekends. But I am at another job now and, while busy, things are not as intense.

Or perhaps I am even getting a bit bored with the eastern birds I find each year. I surprised myself to realize that with the exception of the Wilson's warbler in spring and the Connecticut warbler that tends to pass through my area in fall I've seen and/or heard every Eastern warbler, including the Swainson's that I saw a year ago on a Florida barrier island.

That trip might've been the highlight of my birding life thus far. Lovely sunrises, as you can see above. Great food on the Panhandle. You could stand still and within 30 minutes see 30 birds, some at eye level. It was my first time seeing (rather than hearing) a worm-eating warbler, for instance.

After that, trying to see a flitting shape high in the leafed-out trees on a cold spring morning through binoculars you can't get focused fast enough seems very old indeed.

MH told me he is relieved I am slowing down, that I am less obsessed by birding and can "take it or leave it" and do more resting on the weekends.

My husband sees that as a good thing, but as I listened to the blackpoll today for some reason the thought left me rather sad.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

In the dark

For about five years I would have to get up at 3:45 a.m. to catch a 5:20 a.m. train and be at the office in Jersey City by 7 a.m. I always woke in the dark and most of the time I walked in the dark, too. The short period of a month before and after Memorial Day would allow me to walk at dawn and listen to the singing of warblers, finches and the Big 4 of robin, cardinal, song sparrow and catbird. (The most I have heard at one time those dawn mornings over the years was 23 different types of bird.)

Since changing to more normal hours I've come to appreciate what I had while walking in the dark. I learned the constellations and traveled with a moon shadow. Most house lights were off and except for adults delivering newspapers from their cars (no more the boy or girl on the bicycle), I was usually alone in my travels. Unlike life in New York City, the only thing I feared most during these trips was spooking a skunk. I was never sprayed, thankfully, even when I practically kicked a young one sitting at the edge of a dark road.

Seeing deer was a given, although the 15 that ran out of a yard in a freight train-like line stopped me in my tracks. I've also seen racoon, possum and red fox, including one that sat literally in the intersection of two roads until I walked close to it.

If you go out at night when the sky is clear and the moon is full during migration season you can see the birds cross the moon and - listen carefully - hear the flight calls. I'm not experienced enough to be able to tell you what I am hearing, but just hearing them is a thrill.

But what I miss most, however, is the calling owls.

I heard what you would expect - the hoo-hoo-hoo of the great horned owl, the whinny of the screech owl.

But I have heard the screech owl actually screech (it isn't pretty) and once I heard the "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" of the barred owl.

And then there was the time I heard the most unearthly screaming, sounds that were not of this world. I have since learned they came from a barn owl that must have been passing through and decided to sit in a tree over our town's brook.

Nowadays I come home in daylight and once in the house I stay put. When it gets dark I am usually getting ready for bed. But there are times I get up in the night and stand by an open window, hoping to hear one of the owls.

I was lucky once - a brood of noisy great horned owls yowling in my backyard. I threw on a robe and ran out and listened. Momma Owl saw me, of course, and I could hear the yowling move off when I tried to see them. I never did.

Maybe it's the degree of difficulty that makes night owls so special. MH and I once saw a snowy owl on a pier in Piermont, NY, where it had been for some weeks drawing a crowd. It looked bored when we saw it. Snowys hunt by day so seeing this was easy. So was the short-earred owl we saw at a grasslands in upstate New York.

More difficult, and thus more satisfying, was seeing long-earred owl. I wrote last time about the ones at Great Swamp but the first one I saw was in Central Park, and I had come in just to see it. Marie Winn was kind enough to let me know where in the Pinetum it was but it was still hard to see.

But there was a woman on a bench with her small dog and she painstakingly guided my eyes to the dark shape in the pine. I thanked her profusely. She said she and several other park regulars were being very protective of the owl, and I can understand why.

It might be time to start taking night walks again...