Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Seven-Woodpecker Day

During what was literally the darkest hours after Hurricane Sandy blacked out my neighborhood, my husband and I wondered if we would be traveling on our planned vacation to North Carolina.

Sandy was only about a month ago but it seems like yesterday. We had power in two days. Our neighbors just a block away were out over a week. The power grid works in mysterious ways.

Even after the power came back on, MH and I were paranoid. We feared losing power again after the nor’easter blew through. We bought few groceries that week because, we hoped, we’d be traveling and didn’t want to stock a freezer only to lose the goods in the next storm. Even though my neighbors without power were running generators (I don’t have one - yet) I was afraid someone would plug into my outside outlet. People without power could be capable of anything, we thought.

We would look hard at people walking along our quiet side street if we didn't recognize them, wondering if they were looking for an uninhabited house to rob. Even tho’ we could put our alarm on, I am ashamed to admit we were ready to cancel our vacation - the only week I could afford to take off this year - if the rest of the area was still in the dark. We would stay and protect our home.

Luckily, it never came to that. The neighbors got their power back, the noisy generators were shut off, the mowers and blowers and chainsaws did their jobs and we went off to a barrier island of North Carolina that, unlike the barrier islands of the Jersey Shore, was not damaged a bit by Sandy.

We’d never been in Atlantic Beach before. We wanted to try a different place than the Outer Banks, where we’ve been twice. Besides the ocean and the sound, what made me choose this area were the natural areas close to where we’d be staying.

The barrier island Atlantic Beach is on is very much built up. A Sandy hitting it would do the same damage seen in Holgate, N.J. But unlike New Jersey there was plenty of public beach access areas where we could walk (and, more important, use the bathroom) unimpeded and without paying a fee.

Each time we stopped at one we saw something different and surprising. Surfers. Surf casters. On the bird end we had pelicans, willets, sanderlings and ruddy turnstones plus terns, different gulls and skeins of black scoters and cormorants.

We went to a road near the aquarium to find the Theodore Roosevelt natural area but while we found parking there were no trails. It was literally a “wildlife viewing area." What you viewed was from the road. We saw a grand variety of birds including the brown thrasher pictured here that didn’t care we had parked next to it.

We were also told by our waitress at a diner one morning about a little trail she’d seen next to the Food Lion supermarket. It turned out to be a trail running next to a creek on which the Union Army traveled down to lay siege to nearby Fort Macon. We’d never have known had we not told her we were there to bird, not fish and she had seen the sign when she parked to get groceries.

But the best part of the four days we spent there was hiking Croatan National Forest. It is a huge chunk of land, many big pieces of which are given over to hunting. (There was a lot of hunting going on. We could hear the rifle shots at many of the places we stopped in our travels). Thanks to the Internet I had found a trail that was on a part of the mainland not far from us that was said to be good for birding.

I almost lost MH when he saw a sign at the entrance warning people to wear orange if they were going in.

I was not going to be stopped from going into this forest because I heard this was prime habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker.

This is a bird found only in the south. It builds nests in living pine trees, particularly mature long-leaf pine trees. You will not find this bird in suburban housing developments. In our two visits to the Outer Banks I had sought this bird in every pine forest. The red on this woodpecker, despite its name, is quite small (if it is there at all) but the bird has a large white cheek patch that distinguishes it from its more common cousin, the downy. I always admonished MH to “look for the white cheek!” if he saw a woodpecker in those North Carolina woods. We found none.

Now I was on the doorstep and I was going in, orange or no orange. He reluctantly followed.

It helped we were on a trail that led to several loop trails and we took the inner one, figuring any hunting would be in the forest at large and thus affect the outer loop. As it turned out, we heard no shots at all. In fact, two guys and their small hound came bounding onto the trail and walked on the outer loop without a care or an orange vest.

On our loop trail we saw a lot that we expected - brown-headed nuthatch (a southern cousin of the white-breasted nuthatch seen in NJ) and many myrtle warblers - and that we did not, including a solitary vireo, a pine warbler (pictured) and an osprey, all of which left my part of NJ long ago.

But at one point I heard a rattling that sounded vaguely familiar, and that is when I looked up and found a redheaded woodpecker.

This is a very striking bird, and I have seen it in New Jersey, in Great Swamp and, one spectacular February day after a heavy snow had melted, along the linear county park near me known as Patriots Path. But MH had never seen one and each time one was sighted in NJ or NY I would rush him out on a wild bird chase. We never found it. He didn’t care but I very much wanted him to see one.

Now he had, and he understood why I had bothered.

As you can see it has a deep red head and a body of solid black and white. I had forgotten this is a southern bird, only rarely sighted in the north, usually a juvenile and usually in winter. MH must’ve shot over 100 pictures of this adult bird from various angles while I took my own pictures, including this one. We later found others.

In the meantime, we had found a pileated woodpecker, flickers, redbelly, several yellow-bellied sapsuckers and a downy. So that’s a six-woodpecker day, something I hadn’t had since last December.

But it got better. Something caught my eye and I looked to my right and there, climbing a tree, was a little black and white woodpecker with a bright white cheek.

Somehow I managed to get MH’s attention without startling the bird. I think I just called out its name. MH came running and we started snapping pictures, one of which is this one.

A seven-woodpecker day. Our 335th new bird. By the time we’d finished the loop trail we’d seen four or five more of these woodpeckers.

Most people travel to refresh themselves. If they are smart they keep their eyes and ears open and their mouths shut and learn something about the area where they are traveling instead of trying to recreate or impose on it the culture of where they’ve come from. If you’re a birder, you also go to different areas where you can see new (to you) birds.

On this trip MH and I saw a lot that was good and lot of not so good. Too many people, too many chain restaurants you can find anywhere, little respect for wildlife beyond what you could kill, not as much regional flavor (in food and behavior) as we’d hoped. But we did see a new bird in a new (to us) area.

More important, besides spending time together away from work, MH and I were able to rid ourselves of our post-Sandy paranoia. We came back to a neighborhood that was back to “normal” (with both the good and the bad that implies). While saddened that many devastated areas of coastal New Jersey continue to suffer, we were glad to be back to normal, too.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Today is Thanksgiving. For the first time in six years my husband and I are not traveling to New Hampshire to visit his family. We will be visiting our friend in Bernardsville, NJ, instead.

There are many things for which we are thankful.

We are thankful our friend got power and heat back after Hurricane Sandy, albeit after nine days. We got ours back after two days but she refused to come to us or other friends and leave her animals behind. The day she thought she'd have to give in and go elsewhere the power came back.

We are thankful all our friends in the New York/New Jersey area who lost power for so long and had their lives disrupted are fine, and our hearts go out to those who still have no homes and/or no power nearly a month later.

MH's picure from North Carolina, November 2012. We are thankful we could get here.

We are thankful for today's sunshine, the lack of wind, the relatively warm temperature. We've had far colder Thanksgivings. We are thankful for the music of Teddy Wilson played over WKCR today. We are thankful to have a job, even if it is far from perfect, to pay the bills at a time when so many do not.

On a purely personal level, I am thankful to have MH, who among other things is a wonderful traveling companion. After a long marriage we know when to talk and when to stay silent, most of the time anyway. We make a good team in the field - he prefers his camera to the binoculars and I am the opposite, so I sight birds, call them out and he snaps pictures. Between the two of us we have lots of memories.

We are thankful we got to see many "good" birds on a week-long vacation in North Carolina we thought we'd have to cancel if the lack of power and the north Jersey gas lines continued for much longer. We are thankful we got away because in our darkest moment, literally, we weren't so sure.

On this trip MH finally saw a redheaded woodpecker, we both saw the rare red-cocaded woodpecker (I'll write more on this another time) and, most important, we had time together away from New Jersey and the trauma of the hurricane. We needed the break.

I have had a good life with a lot of good luck in it and I thank God for that. I hope it can continue for a long time.

I am also thankful I can put words together in a way that people enjoy reading, so thank you Readers.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Aftermath

I admit to feeling survivor’s guilt right now.

I’m lucky. Sandy’s damage to my house was one shutter that blew off, struck my office window (while I was working!) without breaking it and flew to the other side of my property.

Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012
No major tree damage. No holes in the roof, water in the basement or electric wires on the driveway. My husband (MH) even found the shutter in one piece. I put out my feeders and the birds returned, hungry as ever. Maybe hungrier.

My street lost power for about 44 hours. I don‘t play videogames or watch a lot of TV but I found it increasingly impossible during these cloudy, chilly days to function in continual darkness. Even when the power came back, thanks to the complexities of the grid system the corner house next door still has no power; nor does the next street.

But we got off easy. Compare that with Moonachie, where a levee broke and water deluged areas that have never had water after nor’easters and other hurricanes.

Or the Jersey shore. MH is very upset to see areas where his family summered now almost completely destroyed. Long Beach Island. Island Beach.

Or Breezy Point, Queens, just across the channel from where I grew up in Brooklyn. Breezy Point, a fine place to enjoy the beach and the birds, not only was submerged, 100 homes were destroyed by fire - fire in the middle of all that water - because fire fighters couldn’t get in to put the fire out.

Or lower Manhattan, where I worked for so many years, without power from 42nd Street south. A friend who lives in the East 20s says besides the loss of power she has no water and groceries are in short supply. The stock exchange is open and running on generators but it’s only a symbol since nothing else is open. Even the subways shut down for days.

I have read about the gas lines and the fights breaking out. It is why our filled car has not been used in this crisis except to act as my power source for my laptop and cellphone. There is no train service. It was a triumph when Quik-Chek reopened and we could buy a newspaper but there is no milk or sandwich meat to replenish our storm provisions.

If we’re lucky there will be deliveries of food and gasoline to area markets this weekend, which is around the time lower Manhattan and my friends there should - Con Ed willing - get their power back. They have no car. I offer them shelter but without trains running they can‘t easily get across the Hudson.

Another friend, in Bernardsville, is staying in her dark, cold house because she won’t leave without her many pets.

At times like these, what do you say? What do you do to cope? Yes, I am relieved to get the power back because I was able to turn the heat on in an increasingly cold house. I don’t have to sit in my car to work tonight. When things calm down I will do as many of my neighbors did after the freak Halloween 2011 snowstorm and buy a generator.

These “freak” storms are happening far too frequently, if you ask me.

How did Sandy become such a monster? Why didn’t it go out to sea as hurricanes usually do? What made it turn left and hit the Jersey shore?

These storms remind us that when everyone wants to live on the water they get the bad as well as the good. You get the view, you get the floods. I’ve complained before about building where no home should be, particularly on unprotected barrier islands.

Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012

But then you realize the devastation was as bad inland as it was at the shore. As you can see in MH’s photo, even towns like mine that are far from major waterways weren’t immune. 

Sandy was an equal opportunity destroyer.

When the only hope people have is to rebuild, I can only hope their next homes withstand the next monster storm.

Better yet, I hope there is no next monster storm.