Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Life and life lists

There are times I want to drop everything - job, home, even husband - and go off somewhere to do nothing but look for birds. Then reality hits and I face whatever the problem is and go on with my life.

A lot of birders, however, seem to have the financial wherewithal or the time or the pliable boss to be able to just drop everything and go wherever a rare or unusual bird is reported.

Some travel very great distances indeed. Some of them even become the subject of books.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a lot of comment on various birding lists about a trailer for the movie “The Big Year.” It is based on the book by Mark Obmascik about three men of very different means who for very different reasons decide they want to see the most birds in a year.

The concept of the “big year” was popularized by, among others, Roger Tory Peterson, author of the famous Peterson guides that allowed anyone to be able to identify a bird through field markings (and binoculars) rather than shooting them down.

A lot of people like doing “big years” or “big days” or even “big sits” (you sit in one place for 24 hours and record what you see within a set radius). Many do it for charity, raising money for each bird they see. The World Series of Birding is one of the best-known examples, at least in New Jersey where I live.

I admit I’ve been known to take the car (with or without husband) every so often and drive to an area in the hopes of seeing something new.

But there are those who MUST see every bird on earth. In fact, there is a book, “To See Every Bird On Earth,” on that subject by Dan Koeppel. It was published in 2006, two years after “The Big Year.“ The two have a lot in common - each features a man so obsessed that birding becomes his life to the exclusion of everything else. In the Koeppel book, the author joins his father - the obsessed - on some of his travels as a way of trying to get close to him after years of estrangement. He is sympathetic to his father, even if he doesn’t exactly understand his obsession.

In the Obmascik book, there is one character so obsessed and so nasty about it you really, really hope he fails. In the movie, I discovered from the trailer, he will be played by Owen Wilson. I would’ve picked Dustin Hoffman, who reportedly was going to be in the film in a different role but left. He was replaced by Steve Martin, who will play the millionaire westerner who gets involved in the “Big Year” after he retires. (The third birder, a perpetual loser, will be played to type by Jack Black. There will be a lot of pratfalls in the film as a result.)

The obsessed character in “The Big Year” has the money and time to literally go great distances just for a few seconds to sight a bird. (It is a shock to realize you can no longer hop a plane, zip around and be back in a day in the world since Sept. 11, 2001.) His license plate reads “Skua,” apt because this is a nasty sea bird that lives by stealing fish from other birds.

These people in the book are real, I must emphasize. The character played by Owen Wilson was a featured speaker at the New Jersey Meadowlands Festival of Birding a few weekends ago, which shows he still knows how to make a buck.

He was described in the brochure I was sent as “bird chaser extraordinaire.” I call him a loser. I don’t plan on seeing the movie although I’ll be interested to read the thoughts of birders who do. (Birders will talk about anything on the bird lists until the list masters step in. The movie opens in mid-October.)

This man could’ve lost his life any number of times to break the “birds seen” record. His life must’ve meant very little to him compared to winning at any cost. This will be played to comedic effect in the movie, unfortunately.

But compare him to the person staring death in the face, such as one of my best friends. Her cancer has returned after 10 years of remission. It is the same type of cancer that killed my mother over 30 years ago. My friend has the advantage of better technology in fighting cancer, and the better attitude of “I went through it once, I can do it again” than my mother.

This is literally a matter of life and death and my friend values her life because she knows it's most important. The people who proudly boast how they travel halfway across the state - or the country, or the world - to record a bird on a "life list" doesn't know this and it shows the spirit of “The Big Year” is still very much with us.

These birders may have a big life list but, really, they have no life. I hope they get one before it’s too late.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A change of scenery

Nothing like a sudden autumnal chill to remind you how much there is left to do in the garden before winter.

I had a lot left to do.

The back, shade garden needed major plant trimming, the fence posts needed resetting and the deer netting had to be replaced. The posts holding up the compost fencing were falling every which way. The top of the pear tree would allow an enterprising squirrel access to the screened-porch roof. A scotch broom in the grass garden had to be pulled up, providing I got something to put in its place, which I hadn‘t done.

I looked at what I had to do and took my husband as far as I could from the house Saturday.

We went to central New Jersey, the town of Allentown, which has a lot of preserved sod farms on which American golden plover and a variety of sandpipers that prefer uplands to beaches had been reported.

When we were on vacation in Maryland the other week we had heard of sightings on a sod farm in the town where we stayed and met a couple there who said this is the time of year to seek out these plovers and “peeps” on sod farms as they head south. The couple, with spotting scopes, not only gave us fine views of the unfamiliar birds but identified them for us.

So, eager to improve our sod farm birding, on Saturday we headed south and at our first stop we found three killdeer - a more common land plover - and seven of its cousins, the American goldens.

We spent the rest of the day birding and going to bookstores and enjoyed ourselves. It was nice to have a change of scene.

Now it’s Sunday. I sit on my screened porch, watching the birds at the feeder, thinking of those autumn chores. I look at the joe-pyes, bent over, flowers spent. The sorry scotch broom. The compost pile. I get depressed.

As my neighbors ride their bikes with their kids or mow their lawns, I feel overwhelmed, unable to keep up with the little I do. MH doesn’t have this problem - despite the many things he is supposed to be doing in the yard his attitude is more relaxed, perhaps because he works at home and has more opportunity to do it when he feels like it than I.

I sit a long time. But after finally going in for coffee and breakfast I get dressed and get at it.

Pulling out netting is much easier than trying to carefully work around it. Once it was off and the posts pulled out, I could easily cut back the yews, joe-pyes and dead matter on the other plants, put compost down, weed and even help out MH by getting rid of the mildew on side of the house behind the plants.

It was nice being able to move freely and do away with over 15 years of experiments in putting up netting to hinder the deer. It was calming to cut back, neaten, rearrange, even dig up a plant - a bleeding heart - I realized would sit very well where the scotch broom sat and put it in the ground, pruning the broom and putting it in another area to see if it would thrive again.

It was even good putting the deer netting back. It may be a pain but it protects my plants.

I pruned the pear tree but the compost pile will have to await another day. So will all the other pre-winter chores. I may not be able to keep up but I can at least pace myself.

It is therapeutic to tackle problems rather than run from them and change the scenery for the better.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I was relieved to wake up Sunday morning, Sept. 11, 2011, to find a gloomy, cold day to go with my mood.

Even the birds, including a migrating Philadelphia vireo - a very uncommon backyard visitor - haven’t been able to lift my spirits. On the back porch I heard the first siren at 8:46 a.m. and the second at 9:03 a.m. and I remembered.

Ten years ago, on a cool, cloudless, sunny day, my husband and I were on our way to visit friends in the Boston area and then, a few days later, go on to join another friend who had taken a house on Cape Cod to celebrate her 40th birthday.

We were in the car after getting the mail from our PO box in town, at 9:03 a.m., when we heard the report of a plane hitting the second of the World Trade Center towers. “This was no accident,“ MH said. On the road, me driving and trying to comprehend it all, MH got a glimpse of the towers burning. Both would be down within an hour.

We arrived at our friends’ to find phone and email messages already coming in from people who feared I might have perished. I reassured them I had not.

I worked for many years in lower Manhattan, almost 10 of them at 2 World Trade Center, 27th floor. I went to lunch with a co-worker to a place across the street 18 minutes before the first bombing took place in February 1993.

I was lucky that day, and lucky in 2001 because I, that office and my remaining co-workers were long gone - the office to Newark, me to another job in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. Many of my new co-workers, especially those with window seats, were traumatized by what they saw.

Life has changed over the past 10 years, not always for the better.

You can’t walk into most buildings without going through a metal detector or using a “keycard” or other form of picture identification to get where you‘re going. I stopped flying because of the cumbersome, invasive security procedures. The economy has tanked. We’ve lost thousands of men and women fighting one war in Iraq and then another in Afghanistan to finally “get” the villain of 9/11, Osama bin Laden.

Unlike others, I felt no thrill at his death. We are still feeling the effects of the damage he caused 10 years ago. We can never go back.

MH and I did not go to the dedication of our town's new 9/11 memorial Sunday. We have been to many memorials in New York and New Jersey over the decade - Staten Island’s near the ferry terminal, the Morris County one on West Hanover Ave., the lookout at Eagle Rock Preserve in Essex County.

We will go to this new one soon, too, but not today. Today, remembering how luck played its part, we are trying to have a “normal” day while feeling anything but.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Gone hawking

Let's face it, August was lousy. New Jersey was hit with heat, humidity and then, for good measure, an earthquake and a major hurricane.

Put it behind us. September is here and things are looking up.

Literally: It’s hawk watching season.

From the largest Canada geese to the smallest hummingbirds, birds are moving south. If the wind is strong and out of the north they will fly as far as they can before having to stop and refuel.

With luck, the small landbirds will be in your backyard in the early morning, particularly in trees full of seeds or fruits and getting the first rays of sun. But they can be hard to see in the leaves because they don't need to wear gaudy mating colors and don't sing to protect territory.

Not so the larger daytime raptors: eagles, vultures, buteos, accipiters and falcons.

Wait for a warm, sunny day, preferably with some clouds and a strong wind out of the north. Go to a ridge or mountain top and look north. You’ll need your binoculars, lots of patience and maybe a camp stool. At some point you will see some specks that, with a lot of practice, you will be able to identify as one or more of those daytime raptors.

There is a wonderful website,, a compendium of data on hawk watches across the country. It allows you to see how many raptors are seen at a particular hawk watch in a given month (you can also check daily totals).

Not all the sites are kept current but here are two that started the 2011 season on Sept. 1: New Jersey’s Montclair Hawk Lookout in Montclair and Scott’s Mountain at Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, Warren County. One of the oldest hawk watches, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa., began fall migration counts in mid-August.

Montclair, built on a quarry on First Mountain, doesn’t have much parking and you have to walk up a long staircase and then pull yourself up a metal ladder screwed into the rock. But once you ascend the final slope you are on a flat platform that has chairs and several watchers. For sheer numbers, try here in mid-September when the broadwing hawks are flying in.

If you can follow directions to Merrill Creek Reservoir you can find the Tower parking lot and drive to the Scott’s Mountain hawk watch. Plenty of parking, a view over the reservoir and eagles, among others. A lot of friendly watchers here will offer you help in identifying the specks (and also offer whatever snacks they have).

Hawk Mountain is such an important place for birders because it offers a unique perspective - bird‘s-eye viewing. You park and then you start to climb. There is a lookout relatively low down and near the parking lot, and if you don’t like exerting yourself this is where you stop.

My husband and I went last September and there was no way I was going to stop on the lower level. Luckily, MH has many years of putting up with me on bird trips. We are not regular climbers but we went slowly and I am glad we did. We found many types of warblers and other landbirds in the early morning cool that were so concerned about eating they didn’t mind our presence. They were also lower in the trees or on the ground, which was a relief to our necks.

We continued the climb (there are several places to stop and look out) and it can be very rocky. No sneakers here! This is for birders like me on a mission. I was hoping for warblers - hence our early start - but as the day wears on the warming air rising off the cliffs provide the wind beneath a raptor’s wings. That is when many birders come up.

Be warned: No seats up here. The website - which you MUST read before visiting here - suggests what to bring to make yourself comfortable for a few hours and we had it - layers of clothing we could remove and sit on, backpacks with food and water, sun screen and, of course, our cameras and binoculars. (Bathrooms are a short way down from the summit.)

Raptors fly south at different times in autumn. September seems to be the preferred month for broadwings, the smallest of the eastern buteos. Later in the season you will get more diversity as the red-shouldered and redtailed hawks, the osprey, the bald and golden eagles, accipiters and other, nonraptor, birds head south.

We were there on a weekday morning and the place quickly got filled with people. I am told that in mid-October, especially on the weekends, the crowds are huge.

Some make the pilgrimage every year. I was glad to do it last year and will go again someday, legs willing.

But this is September, so I will continue to look up wherever I am and continue to be amazed by what I find.