Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Birders and Bullying

A MEW GULL (first state record pending NJBRC acceptance) was photographed at Spruce Run Reservoir Jan 10. The bird was with a few thousand RING-BILLED GULLS coming to roost near the boat launch area. No reports since.

The above was posted on the weekly Rare Bird Alert for New Jersey on Friday, Jan. 18. A mew gull, a bird usually found in the northwest, is a smaller and darker-eyed version of its more common cousin the ring-billed gull.

I saw one of the pictures posted and it was incredible that out of the thousands of gulls hanging around Spruce Run's popular (with birds and birders) boat launch this one gull would be picked out by a couple of dedicated birders. Talk about a needle in a haystack.

However, there is a darker side of this story and it can be seen on the daily New Jersey bird reporting site. It is a story of cyber-bullying.

No, not the type of bullying you hear about on the news that results in death. This involved a man who obviously knows when to say "stuff it" and walk away rather than a more vulnerable child or teenager being harrassed physically at school and emotionally on Facebook.

Here's the back story.

On Jan. 20, a man from Freehold, N.J., made a brief report to the list via his phone that he and two others had seen a 1st year mew gull in the same place as the one seen Jan. 10, which hadn’t been seen since that report.

I am sure the Jan. 18 alert set several hearts a-pounding in the NJ birding community. The Freehold man went out to Spruce Run and managed to find the gull. His report had others rushing to the same area to do the same.

A day later this same Freehold man wrote the list saying he was removing himself (you have to have a subscription to report but you don’t need one to read the posts).

He had gotten a number of inquiries to his personal email (listed on the post) for details of his sighting - this is quite common and I have done this myself with other reports. Most times the exchange is pleasant and people thank you for providing the information.

However, he also received emails, to put it mildly, questioning his ability to identify birds as well as his character!

He said in response that he made the best call identifying the gull that he could based on using multiple field guides and the thinking of other birders who arrived thanks to his report and looked through his scope. He also said that when he left there were no other birders around and he didn't realize he was violating birder etiquette by not hanging around indefinitely to show others the bird.

This would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

As a result of the abuse he has received he said he was not going to make any more reports and would turn over any more threatening emails to the people who run the list for further action.

I found this exchange fascinating because it shows how “bird watching” has changed and how degraded our society has become.

What was once passive “watching” has become the more active “birding,” a competitive sport. You see something of that in the film “The Big Year.”  (I recently saw a car commercial based on the film’s premise where two photographers are driving like maniacs over mountains and fields, no road in sight, to get a picture of a California condor, a majestic and endangered species. Oh, the irony.)

It used to be you went out with your binoculars, a spotting scope for distant ducks, perhaps a camera. That has changed - now everyone thinks he or she is Ansel Adams. Cameras with gun-like lenses swaddled in camoflage are the norm, as are, at the other extreme, the ubiquitous cellphone camera in the hands of people clambering over rocks in sneakers.

But there’s more - there is the Internet and tweeting and Facebook. All are designed to let you broadcast information widely and immediately, whether you’ve thought it through or not.

Even the NJ birding list, taken over last year by the American Birding Association, added a Twitter feed on the main page. Get the word out! Now!

The New Jersey birding list home page. Note the Twitter feed to the right.

There are programs for your smartphone to identify birds and play their calls to fool a bird into showing itself. There are GPS and mapping programs so people can go into the deepest part of the forest - way off the trails - and be able to find his or her way out, eventually, maybe, satellite willing.

These fake bird calls are considered bad birding etiquette because they stress the bird into thinking their territory is being invaded by a rival. The GPS allows people to trespass into areas where they are not supposed to be, affecting the ecosystem and potentially putting themselves in danger.

To these people, birding has become an extension of the X games.

All this is done in the name of finding that rarity, that needle in a haystack. Why? I don’t know. To make yourself look good? To make big bucks selling the picture? To tick off another name on your Peterson life list? To help you think you are young, virile and superhuman?

I don’t know if the Freehold man was thinking any of that but he was looking at hundreds of gulls on a boat launch and somehow happened to see one that didn’t exactly look like the others. Birders do that every day. Not everyone finds a rarity.

His note prompted an avalanche of responses from people who begged him to reconsider. Turns out he is far from alone.

Some said they had also received insulting emails that doubted their ability to identify a bird. One man, who constantly reports to the list and seems to be everywhere in the state at once, said he now never makes a report unless he has photographed the bird so he has proof of his sighting. When he started out his ability and his truthfulness were questioned. That has happened to me, too. That's why I am not a list subscriber although I look at it at least twice a week so I can plan my weekend birding.

One man summed up my feelings: This is supposed to be fun.

When I stopped passively watching birds at my feeders and started going out into the field, it was to get into the woods and get out a lot of the stress I felt from a job in the city that put me under more pressure than an uncorked champagne bottle. I walked and, sticking to the trails, discovered birds in their variety and beauty, high and low, in the air and on the ground and in the water.

Sometimes I even found a rarity. But I quickly learned that it is better to keep rarities to yourself, for the bird's sake and to save on aggravation to me and the environment. For instance, I am glad I didn’t report the sedge wren I found years ago in Somerset County because another one (or the same one?) found later that month in Montgomery, NY, created a birder stampede that trampled a field as they searched for it.

Bad etiquette? Guilty, I guess.

(A more recent example of this is in Somerset County involving a farm that had the luck - or misfortune - to host both a pair of sandhill cranes and several northern lapwings, the latter quite rare in New Jersey. If you go to the list you will see more on how this one sighting triggered a circus, including several reports of trespassing photographers.)

This is the problem the Freehold man had: he is not a recognized pro. The original report on Jan. 10 was made by a couple of “established” birders familiar to the listing world whose sightings are not questioned.

As my husband likes to say, the birds don’t follow the road maps and they are not waiting for you to arrive. So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a mew gull could be found, fly off and then return a week later to be seen by others. That’s part of the fun.

But not this viciousness that, thanks to the anonymity of the Internet, the immediacy of email and texting and Facebook and the general coarsening of human nature, is pervading what was once regarded as a modest outdoor activity.

We’re talking about birds here, people, not politics, war or the economy.

Unfortunately, birding has become a mirror of society. We want everything and we want it now. If you get it and I don’t, I use the Internet or Facebook or tell my 1,000 Twitter followers what an idiot you are and they pass it on. I act before I think because I can and I don‘t care about your feelings because I don‘t know you and don't want to. I want a picture of a rare bird because you don’t have one and I'm better than you and entitled.

Still, I would also like to think there are more good, thinking people out there than idiots. Sadly, the idiots are the ones who get the attention on the evening news and the birding lists.

So I understand why the Freehold man is no longer making his findings public. Life is too short to be dehumanized by small people, even small people who, like you, look for birds. At least this man is emotionally mature enough to walk away from this cyber-bullying.

Also, I understand the importance of people like the Freehold man to those of us in the birding community who have only a limited time during the week to go out and explore, and who want to be able to see as much as possible. I hope he doesn‘t leave birding altogether. People like him do the work and the rest of us get the enjoyment.

Without these people, we have nothing. To subject anyone - high school kid, adult reporting a rare bird - to abuse, in the words of one writer defending the Freehold man, diminishes us all.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

On Record

This morning I bought the Sunday New York Times.

This is common behavior for many people in the New York metropolitan area. You get up on a Sunday morning and you go out for the newspaper. You take it to a sunny spot with your cup of coffee and you spend a few hours learning what happened the previous day and then go to the arts section, the magazine, the week in review.

This is what I used to do every Sunday when my husband and I lived in an apartment in New York City, county of Queens. I’d walk up the block, buy the Times and Newsday. I bought Newsday because it had more local news than the Times, which had a better national and international news section as befitting its advertising as The Paper of Record.

When we moved to an apartment in New Jersey we continued our practice of buying the Times and a local paper, in this case the Star-Ledger.

But a funny thing happened when we moved to our home. Suddenly, it seemed to take a lot of time we didn’t have to get through the two newspapers. I would find myself getting to the morning papers around 5pm Sunday afternoon once I got more important homeowner errands and chores done. Frequently I’d skim most of the paper and leave the arts section, book review and magazine to read more carefully until later in the week.

We gave up both papers when the price spiked and their heft slimmed. I had better things to do on lovely Sundays, and thanks to 24-hour cable channels and the Internet you can always get the news. (We still get the daily Ledger.)

But MH is a man of scientific bent and one of the things he does is collect weather information from New York’s Central Park and from Newark.

As part of that, once a year, usually the first Sunday after Jan. 1, I am asked to pick up The Paper of Record because it contains a chart labeled The Year in Weather. Once a year I shake my head that I am paying $5 for a newspaper. Once a year I will take the time to read every section and get my $5 worth.

Here is what I have learned from this year’s chart:

The average temperature in New York City was 57.4 degrees, or 2.4 degrees above normal, making 2012 the warmest year since 1869. Rainfall was at 38.51 inches, 11.55 inches less than normal, making 2012 the 28th driest year. Total snowfall was 9.6 inches, and that was only because we got a record snowfall in November. February was among the warmest on record and one of the least snowy months of the year.

So it is now official - The Paper of Record says the world is warming. Those people I see in shorts on frigid mornings aren’t the strange ones; I am, for bundling up. That there is no snow to melt and increase the water table or that things bloom and seed before the birds that depend on them arrive north in spring is business as usual now.

Extreme hurricanes, tornados, snowstorms (when we get snow) in the New York metropolitan area - get used to it.

Better to hide yourself in your house or apartment with your Sunday newspaper and not notice what is going on around you.

Ignore those people who, after Sandy, finally started saying aloud what others have thought for years, that the climate is changing and the globe is warming and we‘re going to have to rebuild on our barrier islands and along the shore in a different way because we‘re not going back to how it was.

Stay away from The Year in Weather chart in The Paper of Record.

As long as I can wear my shorts in my overheated house and go to what's left of the Shore in summer and barbeque on weekends and use my gas-spewing snow blower or leaf fan and water my lawn every day, everything’s fine.

We’ll see what The Paper of Record says next year.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Year's Observations


New Year’s Day is the perfect time to walk not far from home into Central Park of Morris County, what used to be the Greystone property. There are no competitive events. There are no earthmovers working where there once were trees. Plus, it had been a while for me.

Did Sandy take down these trees or the county?
First thing I noticed, besides the wind suddenly hitting me in the face on Central Ave. because of the lack of trees, was a fence has been put around the terraced field that has been under construction for months, the kind of fence designed to keep a batted or kicked ball from rolling down the hill and into the road. So things are moving along. There is now curbing in spots, too.

I kept going west on Central Ave. and got better views of what’s behind the fence as I got closer to the old administration building. Quite a lot of ball fields are being fit into this area, and they will create quite a lot of noise and traffic when finally completed.

But on the other side of the street was something that surprised me - more cut-down trees. What could this be? Perhaps this is the county’s dumping ground for many of the trees blown over by Sandy. So many trees lost, they had to go somewhere.

I’d rather that was the reason for the destruction than plans for an auxiliary parking lot.

I also noticed Sandy had blown out several of the upper windows in the administration building. This is sad to see. Those open windows will let in more of the elements - such as birds looking to get out of the cold - and will hasten the decay and destruction of this huge stone hulk. It is on state land, but the state has proved by its inaction that it has other things on its mind besides the building’s preservation.

More blown out windows, more decay for the old Greystone
administration building.

I have no doubt that as I was spending New Year’s Day walking on Central Ave. many birders were racing around tallying their “first of year” birds. Yet another list that means nothing in the general scheme of the world but means a lot when you are a birder and want to announce something - anything - to other birders via the various lists.

FOY cardinal. Whoo-hoo!

I was not expecting a lot of bird activity at Greystone. Cutting down trees isn’t the best way of drawing birds and in winter there‘s not a lot to feed them. Yet, some birds were around.

The huge population of turkey and black vultures were roosting in a copse of trees or flying to these trees as I walked. Vultures will fly in the wind - a bird’s got to eat - but they don’t usually do a lot on a cold, cloudy day since they have to work harder to stay aloft in the absence of warm air currents from the ground.

As I've written before, there is something majestic about a flock of 70 or so of these large, dark birds (with their bare, ugly heads) in several trees - unless it’s your trees. Then it becomes a big mess.

A few years ago I was driving back at dusk from hiking not far from home, in Morris Township. I was stopped at a red light. Ahead of me it seemed a lot of turkey vultures were flying in low. I crossed the intersection and stopped across from a house and was startled to count at least 75 turkey vultures in the backyard spruces. Weeks later I brought my husband to the same area at dusk and there they were - if not more of them.

Late last year I was in the same area and stopped at the house, curious. All the spruces had been cut down. That’s one way of dealing with vulture overpopulation.
Some of Greystone's vulture population, Jan. 1, 2013

As I watch on Central Ave., most people walk or ride under the vulture-laden trees and ignore what’s above them.

The county is also leaving the Greystone population alone, at least for now. Despite the mess they leave on the roofs of the few standing structures the birds have plenty of space (again, for now). Also, they don’t attack living things. They have a useful function most of us would consider pretty disgusting: They are nature’s sanitation crew. Dead deer, bear or fox in the road and you can‘t get a human crew out to dispose of it? No problem.

They are lucky enough to be among the few birds in an increasingly overdeveloped area that not only have a continuous source of road kill but have found enough habitat - in this case Greystone - to support them.


Death was not far from my mind the last week of 2012. First, we found out about the death of an old friend from whom we’d been estranged for five years. He took to the grave whatever it was that had so upset him he refused to speak to us.

Then my husband and I came down with flu. Was the deep, continual coughing the worst or the onset of fever chills? Hard to say, but there comes a time when you start wishing the whole thing was OVER.

But we survived.

The last day of 2012 was the first time I was able to take a morning walk and, coming after the first significant snow we’d had in over a year, the walk gave me much to think about.

I don’t know where I’ve seen more of man’s inhumanity to man - the 13 months I spent driving Interstate 80 to and from work every morning and evening, or the previous 18 years spent walking the streets of my little town to and from the commuter train.

In the car I faced death from drivers who are distracted by the phone, the need for speed, an argument with a passenger, a GPS that says TAKE THIS EXIT (so the driver must then cut across three lanes of traffic).

They cut me off when they don‘t signal a lane change, wouldn’t let me in when I was trying to enter the highway, or used a lane that’s about to end to pass me on the right in order to cut ahead. They think everyone on the road is out to get them and they are the only sane driver present. They believe the commercials for their ultimate driving machines.

But while walking in rain, wind, ice and snow I faced people who got every last bit of snow from their driveways but barely touched their sidewalks. People who used snowblowers on the sidewalks but couldn’t be bothered to do a point where I could step into the street (forcing me over slippery hills of piled-up snow).

I would be walking home in the dark, lit flashlight in hand, past a huge pile of leaves the homeowner had put in the street, with a car going much faster than the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit giving me the barest of clearances as he or she rushed by. Sometimes the car would be coming at me as I was in the middle of what became a one-lane street because of huge leaf piles on both sides.

And in summer were the people who set their sprinklers so high (and ran them so long during the day) the sidewalks would get as wet as their lawns, forcing me into the street. Once, in the middle of a downpour, I got a shot of water in my face UNDER my umbrella from one of these sprinklers. Not pleasant.

Again, I lived. Now, the dark street I no longer have to walk every night has a sidewalk on one side, put in last year. It has been a blessing. If only I had had this luxury when I was walking home in the dark all those autumns!

But on the last day of 2012 I was destined to be disappointed by some of my neighbors yet again. You’d think I’d have learned. While many took their responsibilities seriously, a few homeowners either didn’t bother to clear their new sidewalk of snow or had taken one pass with a small shovel to do the bare minimum. Either way, the result was a slippery mess.

In the Brooklyn of my youth the police would fine you for not clearing the sidewalk, so people did it. But that was Brooklyn, part of nitty-gritty New York City. Out here fining someone for being selfish, lazy or stupid is just not done.